Caught by the River

A Postcard from Brighton

9th September 2012

by Travis Elborough

The chance to record a BBC radio show by the seaside with the comedian Russell Kane brings me down toBrighton. A parasite of the capital from its earliest times as a fishing port, when the daily catch went up to Billingsgate, Thackerey called it ‘a portion of the West End of London maritimized’.

Today, Shaftesbury Avenue, or possibly given the profusion of jugglers and ‘living’ statues, Covent Garden, seems about right. It is similarly awash with international students, tatooed body culture fanatics and coach loads of pensioners, all flowery dresses and ice cream cone whips of snowy hair.

Standing on the shingle, a hefty south-westerly and a boom microphone in our faces, Russell and I, soon become another local attraction to take in. Though perhaps like the briny air, the hypnotic dull thud of the waves and the spectacle of The West Pier, a decrepit skeleton of gnarled iron since an arsonist fire in 2003, we are no less welcome right now for being free.

Our Punch and Judy double act concludes to no obvious applause, and the crew repair to The Colonnade Bar.

A stone’s throw from a statute of Max Miller beside the Royal Pavilion and gin-palace-in-residence to the neighbouring Theatre Royal, it is the epitome of the lounge bar as thespy salon.

A railcar-shaped boozer of dark wood, red velvet curtaining and bottley glitter whose heavily mirrored walls are festooned with framed actor mug shots. Glancing up from the bar, a drink in your hand, you can look British television sitcom regulars Penelope Keith and George Cole in the eye. Both appear much younger than they are now and wear expressions of mild amusement. They are those uniquely actor-ly sort of expressions of mild amusement, the kind involving a raised eyebrow or a slight smirk on the lips, that seem to convey the seriousness with which they can pretend to be mildly amused. Or they could back then in the 1970s, when there were only three channels and three day weeks.

A front bay window is occupied by a creepy automaton straight out the Olivier-Caine two-hander Sleuth – another end of the pier model to equal the pitiable seaside hoofer Archie Rice. Patrick Hamilton, a native of neighbouring Hove, novelist, an ex-theatrical stage-manager, successful playwright, infatuated pursuer of unsuitable tarts and a raging alcoholic who washed-up on the Norfolk coast, would have been at home here. And so equally might the theatre-loving Prince Regent himself, whose early affair with Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson of Drury Lane frequently drifted into Am-Dram.

But then Brighton – from the Regency to the residencies of Olivier, Dora Byran, Joan Plowright and Terence Rattigan – has always been a luvvie town. A place where repeat fee nest eggs can be invested in decrepit stucco and performances of guest house by gaslight replayed every night. Melodrama comes easy enough in a town where people are paying for fun and a thousand and one rented rooms, commercial hotels, teashops, nightclubs and fug-filled snugs could (once) be your stage.

The theatre, like the seaside resort itself, is arguably a pleasure of an earlier age. One that has had to try ever harder to attract a crowd but possesses some essential tawdry beauty that always hold a special type of appeal to anyone seeking respite from the ebb and flow of ordinary English life.

View Travis’ photoblog here.