Classic gangster film Brighton Rock is as much Herts as it is south coast
It’s a masterpiece of British cinema but it’s a little-known fact that the coastal crime classic Brighton Rock was largely filmed in Hertfordshire. Richard Luck takes up the story on the film’s 70th anniversary
Films are rarely shot where you’d imagine. Take Casablanca – the nearest Bogie and Bergman got to North Africa was a visit to Los Angeles’ top Moroccan barber. Then there’s St Albans auteur Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the Beckton gas works stood in for war-torn Indochina. Still closer to home, we have the Boulting Brothers’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s
Brighton Rock. Seventy years on from its release, the picture that introduced the world to Richard Attenborough has long been considered a classic. But how much of it was shot on the south coast? Not as much as you’d imagine.
Founded in 1928, Welwyn Studios had played host to all manner of productions before Messrs Boulting and Attenborough came along. Wildlife documentaries, Anthony Asquith’s The Celestial City and A
Cottage On Dartmoor, countless ‘Quota Quickie’ B-pictures – the facility’s output couldn’t have been more eclectic. Come the late 1930s, the studio – located in the heart of the town’s industrial quarter on Broadwater Road – started to attract big productions and major movie names. Ralph Richardson, Margaret Lockwood, Maureen O’Hara, local girl Dinah Sherdian, even Hollywood’s first Dracula Bela Lugosi came to the new garden city.
With Welwyn one of the few studios not to be requisitioned by the government following the outbreak of the Second World War, it continued to thrive throughout the conflict, marking itself out as a genuine threat to its Herts’ movie making neighbour, Elstree. Michael Rennie, Jack Hawkins, James Mason, Michael Wilding – bona fide A-listers were so often seen around Welwyn, they ceased to be remarkable. Quite how they spent their downtime, we don’t know, but it’s rather nice
to think of Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray promenading down Parkway while Rex Harrison and Anna Neagle enjoyed a coffee in the Welwyn Department Stores before heading back to the set of I Live In Grosvenor Square.
With that picture’s director Herbert Wilcox demonstrating how you could recreate Mayfair in the Home Counties, it’s little wonder John and Roy Boulting felt confident they could conjure up any number of Brighton interiors on the Welwyn lot. It would certainly be a lot easier than filming on location. With their picture telling the story of a young hood (Attenborough’s Pinkie Brown) running amok on the south coast, director John and producer Roy had no end of trouble placating the Brighton elders who feared the film would inspire a copycat crime wave. Things became so problematic that the Boultings took to ‘stealing’ shots on the streets of the town using hidden cameras. Similar guerrilla
‘A-listers were so often seen around Welwyn, they ceased to be remarkable’
tactics were employed when the brothers filmed a scene at the local racetrack. Since the course had been targeted by real-life knife gangs in the 1930s, there was no way the authorities would give the filmmakers the run of the place. That the frantic nature of the shoot only added to the excitement of the sequence is one of those happy accidents that great movies seem to enjoy.
In contrast, the Welwyn Studios shoot was positively sedate. Indeed, in the 70 years since the film came out, not a single story has emerged of trouble on the set, of egos clashing or of the filmmakers struggling to capture their vision. Then again, it does help when your cast comprises actors as talented and professional as Hermione Baddeley, Nigel Stock, Harcourt Williams and Dr Who’s William Hartnell, who is all but unrecognisable here as no-good gang member Dallow. And there at the heart of the piece is the utterly delightful Richard Attenborough playing the thoroughly wretched Pinkie Brown. Hired on the strength of his debut performance in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, the moon-faced star doesn’t look terribly threatening but that only makes the character all the more unsettling. Attenborough’s Pinkie mightn’t have been the first babyfaced assassin but that description fits him very well.
Impressive as the cast is, it’s all but eclipsed by the behind-the-camera talent. Besides Nobel nominee Greene adapting his novel in collaboration with future knight Terrence Rattigan, the Boultings are as mighty a film force as has ever come out of
‘The film enraged newspapers and politicians while delighting cinema-goers’
this country. From thrillers like Brighton Rock and Seven Days To Noon to comedies such as I’m All Right Jack and Private’s Progress, the twins were as prolific as they were versatile. Brighton Rock, however, remains their masterpiece, a film so good as to be untarnished by a raft of movie rip-offs and a misfiring modernday remake.
Upon its release in 1948, the film enraged newspapers and politicians while delighting cinema-goers the length and breadth of the nation. When seen today, it’s hard to believe that the relatively tame violence could have made anyone think the country was on the brink of moral collapse. Then again, a lot of things have changed over the last seven decades. Take Welwyn Studios – with Elstree in the ascendant, the decision was made to shut the lot down and sell it off in 1951. Years later, Polycell took over the facility filling the old sound stages with machinery and using the Art Deco entrance building as offices. It was different but it still looked something like a film studio – at least, it did until Polycell left town and the entire site was bulldozed.
Sad as it is that Welwyn Studios is no more, it’s wonderful so many terrific monuments to it remain. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Last Holiday starring Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov’s Private Angelo – all owe something to the garden city film hub. And then there’s Brighton Rock, a picture set on the coast, shot in WGC and loved by everyone.
Everyone, that is, except for Richard Attenborough’s brother. While interviewing Sir David in 2003, I was surprised to hear that he didn’t particularly care for the film or his brother’s later study of a psychopath in 10 Rillington Place. ‘It’s very hard for me,’ he explained. ‘I love my brother very much and I have no desire to see him playing a craven murderer.’
Oh, and in case you’re wondering which of Dickie’s films David does love: ‘Gandhi of course is a work of genius. And who doesn’t love The Great Escape?’ To which the answer is nobody, although it plays even better when seen on a double-bill with Brighton Rock, a film with Welwyn Garden City running all the way through it.
ABOVE:Founded in 1928 by British Instructional Films, the studio hosted all manner of films from wildlife documentaries to B-movies and classics
LEFT:Some sources say the Four Feathers was one of the Brighton Rock sets built at Welwyn Studios
BELOW: Richard Attenborough’s unforgettable baby-faced assassin, Pinkie
LEFT:An impressive cast was all but eclipsed by the behind the camera talent