Electric Pictures – filming in Worthing, Lancing and Shoreham

FEBRUARY 1st 2019

If you know why two giant swastika banners were hanging from the facade of Shoreham airport in 2015 and what a Scottish inventor was doing with an unwieldy camera on the Worthing seafront in 1898, you probably went along to a recent Ferring History Group talk by Ellen Cheshire on “Sussex and Films.”

Ellen’s no mere cineaste when it comes to the part Sussex played in the earliest days of the British film industry. She’s lectured in film and media at the University of Chichester and Chichester College and in 2016 became film historian for Worthing’s WOW (World Of Words) project celebrating 120 years of film in Worthing and Shoreham.

Ellen began her talk in the Ferring Village Hall on February 1st by noting that film was first shown in Worthing in 1896 or, more precisely, on August 31 of that year when Lieutenant Walter Cole, a gifted ventriloquist who used life-size dolls, started a one-week engagement at Worthing’s Pier Pavilion.

One of the highlights of Cole’s variety show was what Ellen called “the latest wonder of the age” and what Cole referred to as “Electric Animated Photos.” Described by the Worthing Gazette as a “series of animated photos, the newest and most striking electric invention” and “the most novel item of the evening’s entertainment,” the “animated photos” were actually short films made by Robert Paul, an electrical engineer and scientific instrument maker from London. A leading pioneer of British film, Paul pictured Brighton beach, the Boat Race, a rough sea at Dover and, most notably, the finish of the 1896 Derby (won by the Prince of Wales’ horse Persimmon) which he rushed into two London music halls the day after.

When Walter Cole died in 1932, his obituary in the Worthing Gazette on February 12th declared that he had “pioneered the English Cinematograph industry.” Indeed, some view him as nothing less than the founder of world cinema.

In Ellen’s view, April 6th and 7th 1898 are red letter days in the history of Worthing and film. That’s when the Scottish inventor William Kennedy Dickson, “one of the world’s first superstar cameramen,” as she described him, spent time in the town capturing “the realities of a British seaside resort on film.”

Dickson, who devised the first commercially successful cinematograph system, made at least seven films over those two days in Worthing using a huge camera on a heavy iron tripod and a cartload of batteries. Three films survive: two of the Worthing lifeboat and one of the Worthing Swimming Club playing a water polo match at West Worthing’s Heene Baths. In 1899 Dickson hauled his camera off to the Boer War and, although he never filmed actual combat, he recorded scenes at the disastrous British defeats of Colenso that same year and Spion Kop in 1900.

Shifting her focus, Ellen noted that the first silent film company to set up in Shoreham was the cheerily-named Sunny South Films. That was in 1914. It was a venture that involved theatrical scenery painter Francis Lyndhurst (grandfather of “Only Fools and Horses” star Nicholas Lyndhurst) and singer, comedian and Drury Lane music hall star Will Evans who both had holiday homes in Shoreham.

Shoreham’s Victorian fort became their studio and its parade ground their stage. Over the next year Sunny South made eight films (or perhaps nine) including its most ambitious, “The Showman’s Dream” and “Moving A Piano.” The latter, as Ellen was at pains to stress, didn’t star Charlie Chaplin manhandling an old joanna in the mud of the River Adur despite imaginative claims to the contrary over the years.

In 1915 Francis Lyndhurst returned to Shoreham on his own to set up Sealight Films just northwest of the Church of the Good Shepherd and build a huge glasshouse studio there the following year. It was fitted with with special glass to magnify the natural light but, as Ellen noted, “it had no ventilation whatsoever” and the “extreme heat would make the studio unbearable” – so much so that the “actors’ make-up would run.” It looked like a giant greenhouse because it was built by a London firm of greenhouse specialists. Having survived World War Two, it was demolished in 1963.

Ellen explained that Lyndhurst only directed one short feature film at Sealight before financial pressures engulfed him. He defaulted on his mortgage and sold the studio. Filming at Shoreham ceased until the summer of 1919 when the Manchester-based Progress Film Company bought the studio complex.

Progress boss Frank Spring brought in writer and director Sidney Morgan and cinematographer Stanley Mumford. It proved to be a winning team. Morgan was delighted by Shoreham’s long hours of sunshine and its pure, clean light unsullied by smoke and fog. Nothing was better for daylight production.

Progress was soon living up to its name. It added a yard for building sets and storage for sets, props and equipment and it soon had an editing suite, preview theatre and a small laboratory for processing film.

With the growth of the studio complex, more and more actors and technicians began living in Shoreham’s famous Bungalow Town that ran along the shingle spit for some two miles
between Lancing’s Widewater Lagoon and the Palmerston fort.

Ellen explained that the inspiration for Bungalow Town appears to have been a Shoreham oyster merchant called John Maple who transformed an old railway carriage into a fishing gear store in 1879 and then into a bungalow called “Sea View.”

The railway carriage idea caught on. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway had a ready supply of redundant carriages and, as Ellen noted, “once stripped of usable parts offered a comparatively quick and affordable means of building a holiday bungalow.” (Worthing historian Freddie Feest claims the carriages were sold off cheaply by Lancing Carriage Works and his website displays a spectacular photograph of one being hauled across the Adur at low tide by a team of horses.)

The advance guard of bungalows seems to have trooped onto Shoreham beach in the 1890s. There were certainly close to 100 there by 1910. According to Ellen, the arrival of music hall star Cecilia Loftus in Shoreham in 1900 “is said to have led the theatrical colonisation of Bungalow Town” and brought many of her theatrical and music hall friends down from London to enjoy its “idyllic setting.” In her book “Electric Pictures,” Ellen reproduces a page from the Daily Express for August 16th 1904 which states that Bungalow Town then consisted of “about two hundred structures.” Most were built of wood and corrugated iron and were particularly vulnerable to fire and autumn gales.

The age of Progress Films had arrived. Most actors and crew lived in a 20-bed railway carriage bungalow called Studio Rest and work on the first film – “Sweet and Twenty” – got underway in 1919.

Sidney Morgan and his actress wife Evelyn Wood had a daughter called Joan and, according to Ellen, she took the lead in eight of the Progress films. A doe-eyed English rose who described herself as a “little soft blonde” and resembled Mary Pickford, Joan Morgan was most proud of playing Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit in 1920 when she was only 14. “Miss Joan Morgan plays Amy Dorrit with a simplicity and naturalness that it would be difficult to improve on,” declared The Era, an influential theatrical newspaper, on September 1st 1920.

As a result, Morgan was offered a lucrative, five-year Hollywood contract but because she was only 15 her father turned down the offer. Over 80 years later she still regretted the decision not to move to the Golden State.

In all, Sidney Morgan directed 17 films for the Progress Film Company between 1919 and 1922 both in the famous glasshouse and on location. Several won critical acclaim. His last film for the company was “The Mayor of Casterbridge” shot in 1921 in the absence of his daughter who had gone out to South Africa to play the lead in “Swallow: A Tale of the Great Trek,” an adaptation of Rider Haggard’s novel about the Voortrekkers.

“The Mayor of Casterbridge” was partly filmed at the Shoreham Beach studio but chiefly in Steyning with other scenes shot in Dorchester, the actual setting of Casterbridge. The 65-minute film of the Thomas Hardy classic with Stanley Mumford as cinematographer was made with the hearty endorsement of its distinguished author (even though he thought films a fad) who genially offered advice on locations. Ellen’s 2017 book “Electric Pictures” includes a delightful photograph of the filming in Steyning’s High Street that bears the imprint: “Kinematographing at Steyning.”

Ellen explained that Mumford had a knack for being at the right place at the right time. While on assignment for Pathé News, he was dispatched to the Derby on June 4th 1913 when suffragette Emily Davison ran onto the course at Tattenham Corner in front of King George V’s horse.

In her book “Electric Pictures,” Ellen quotes Mumford from his memoirs: “I started to crank the camera. All of a sudden from under the rails opposite me a woman dashed out and ran bang slap into the middle of those thundering horses…before you could gasp she was knocked flying.” Four days later Davison died from a fractured skull. Historians think she may have been attempting to pin a suffragette sash onto the King’s horse.

One of the Progress films Stanley Mumford later worked on as a cinematographer was “Fires of Innocence” which made use of Shoreham’s Church of the Good Shepherd and Bramber High Street as locations. Released in 1922, it was also one of the eight films Joan Morgan made for the Shoreham company.

Everybody thought “Fires of Innocence” had been lost until Ellen (with help from film historian Tony Fletcher) rediscovered it in the archives of the British Film Institute. Directed by Sidney Morgan, it was adapted from the novel “A Little World Apart” by female novelist George Stevenson. The Era called it “a vivid picture of life in a rural parish” and, in Ellen’s opinion, the star of the film is the reverend’s daughter played by Joan Morgan and not the mysterious widow.

1922 was an annus horribilis for the Progress Film Company. In December of that year a major fire broke out in Bungalow Town. With a howling gale blowing, the fire soon turned into an inferno. After Mumford (with his brother’s help) had rescued a tin trunk containing the season’s negatives, he managed to set up the camera in one of the bungalows. Recalling it in his memoirs, he explained: “The whole room was ablaze and I was getting some remarkable shots when all of a sudden with a cracking noise the roof…over my head collapsed, knocking both me and the camera flat.”

Struggling outside with the precious camera, Mumford began to film several of the wildly blazing bungalows. The unavailability of the Shoreham Fire Brigade didn’t help matters as Mumford’s memoirs attest. “Owing to the Norfolk Bridge being closed, the fire brigade from Shoreham could not reach the area so it was many hours before Worthing Fire Brigade arrived. We stood spellbound at the sight that met us; the the night was lit up for miles around.”

When it was daylight, Mumford took several shots of the buckled corrugated iron and smouldering timbers. He then contacted Pathé Gazette. The footage was quickly packaged into “Bungalow Town Ablaze” and, as he noted appreciatively in his memoirs, “it was a news scoop for them and [a] fat cheque for us.”

Although the devastating fire spared the main studio it reduced Studio Rest to ashes and put paid to the Progress Film Company, although it wasn’t officially wound up until 1929. By then the talkies had arrived and Sidney Morgan and his daughter were long gone.

Ellen explained that when the silent film era ended Joan Morgan’s “film work dried up.” She made a talkie in 1932 called “Her Reputation” but her star was fading. She had other talents to draw on, however. A voracious reader and gifted writer, she became a scriptwriter for early British talkies using the pseudonyms Iris North and Joan Wentworth Wood. Her most high profile screen-writing success was the 1932 war film “The Flag Lieutenant” starring Anna Neagle and Henry Edwards that was made at Elstree. As Ellen noted, Joan Morgan went on to write 13 novels and several plays, later turning her hand to renovating country houses.

While investigating Morgan’s career, Ellen made an astounding discovery. In the 1930s, the blonde youngster who had played Little Dorrit went on to become a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) and wrote for its publications “Blackshirt” and “Action.” In one article entitled “Who Has Ruined British films?” that appeared in “Action” on January 23, 1937, Morgan accused the jews of ruining the British film industry by only being in it for the money. In Ellen’s view, it was the “most damning” piece she ever wrote.

The BUF was dissolved in May 1940 when hundreds of Mosley’s supporters were interned. But Joan Morgan escaped the net, as Ellen observed. Born in 1905, Morgan died in 2004 at the age of 99. The last surviving British silent screen star to work before the First World War, she never married.

In 1998, Joan Morgan was interviewed about her film life at Shoreham by Alan Readman, Assistant County Archivist at the West Sussex Record Office and the exchange survives on YouTube. As she told Readman: “It was all wooden bungalows, a lot of them on railway carriages and it was the holiday area for all the stars of the music hall [who would] come and sing the songs that made them famous. You had a wonderful life then.”

There was a moment, perhaps, when Shoreham beach might have become Britain’s Hollywood-on-Sea, the Tinseltown of Sussex. But the ancient port with its clear air, old fort and glasshouse studio couldn’t match California’s climate and financial muscle.

As Ellen observed, both towns have provided prime film locations over the years. Shoreham’s art deco airport (the oldest in the Britain and Grade II Listed) made an appearance as Vienna’s swastika-draped airport in the 2015 film “Woman in Gold.”

Earlier, material was shot at the airport for “The Battle of the V1”(1958) and “The Body Stealers”(1969) and it featured fleetingly in “The Da Vinci Code” (2006). “Ghost Ship”(1952) was partially filmed on a yacht in Shoreham Harbour and cinemagoers saw more of the harbour in “Shadow of Fear”(1963).

It was the coming of age drama “Wish You Were Here” starring Emily Lloyd as Lynda Mansell, a rebellious adolescent with a flair for potty-mouthed banter that put Worthing on the map. All sorts of locations appear in the film, including the Southdown bus garage on the seafront; Library Place; Chesswood Road; Splash Point and the Dome Cinema. Directed by David Leland, the 1987 film proved to be a classic of British cinema and, before Lloyd was beset by mental illness in subsequent years, she was the golden girl of the silver screen.

Almost 20 years earlier, in 1968, Worthing’s 7 Eriswell Road starred with Robert Shaw, Patrick Magee and Dandy Nichols in “The Birthday Party” based on the play by Harold Pinter. That same year, the film adaptation of Nell Dunn’s novel “Up The Junction,” starring Suzy Kendall and Dennis Waterman with its Manfred Mann soundtrack, used locations on Worthing’s promenade and both the Beach and Warnes hotels.

In 1970 “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer” was filmed partly on location in Worthing with the pier doubling as Brighton Pier. Despite the presence of Peter Cook, it sank like a stone.

Marine Parade made an appearance in the 1985 film “Dance With A Stranger” starring Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett that told the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Worthing Pier, the Pavilion Theatre and the Dome Cinema got in on the act, if only in the background. Then, in May 2017, Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, arrived at the Worthing Lido to film a bathing beauty contest for the Laurel & Hardy biopic, “Stan and Ollie.” Worthing scored again. As did the film.

Ellen Cheshire’s name may not have been up in lights at the Ferring Village Hall when she discoursed on the parts Worthing and Shoreham have played in the history of British cinema. But it was a talk to remember, nonetheless.