Oh!

Ifty years ago Sus­sex was a bat­tle­ground. Trenches were dug in Sheep­cote Val­ley, gen­er­als planned mil­i­tary tac­tics on Brighton’s West Pier, and thou­sands of wooden crosses cov­ered the hills of Ov­ingdean. Un­like World War I, film­ing for Richard At­ten­bor­oug

Sussex Life - - Front Page - Jac­qui Beal­ing

pro­duc­tion pho­to­graphs and ephemera of the film that was largely shot in Brighton and the sur­round­ing coun­try­side.

Ac­tor John Mills, who with thriller writer Len Deighton had come up with the idea of set­ting the show on a sea­side pier for the cinema, ap­proached Lord At­ten­bor­ough to see if he would be in­ter­ested in di­rect­ing it.

In or­der to raise the £6m needed to make it, Lord At­ten­bor­ough promised Charles Bluh­dorn, the head of Para­mount’s par­ent com­pany Gulf & West­ern, that he would en­list at least five ma­jor stars. This was eas­ier than he had imag­ined. He vis­ited Olivier, then liv­ing in Brighton, who said that he would do it for Eq­uity min­i­mum and that Ralph Richard­son and John Giel­gud would prob­a­bly do the same. In fact, as the ac­counts in the At­ten­bor­ough Ar­chive show, the big names – in­clud­ing Olivier, Giel­gud, Mills and Jack Hawkins – were each paid a flat fee of £500 a day, which was more than Eq­uity min­i­mum but still en­sured an un­prece­dented ensem­ble of tal­ent.

Deighton, who pro­duced the film along­side Lord At­ten­bor­ough (but whose name never ap­peared on the cred­its), did much of the leg­work to source and se­cure lo­ca­tions. Af­ter vis­it­ing Brighton in Septem­ber 1967, he wrote to Lord At­ten­bor­ough: “West Pier is mag­nif­i­cent and ex­actly suit­able for our re­quire­ments. Every­one seem to be very co­op­er­a­tive and there is am­ple space to build the sets we need.”

The sets in­cluded cre­at­ing a new en­trance, with an il­lu­mi­nated sign of “World War One”, and a cricket scoreboard chillingly show­ing the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties and the “yards gained” as the war pro­gressed. The Royal Pavil­ion was an­other key lo­ca­tion. “It’s a mag­nif­i­cent op­por­tu­nity to film in­side this in­cred­i­ble place,” wrote Len in the same memo. “The mu­sic room could be used for the ball­room se­quence with Haig and the other gen­er­als.”

Brighton Cor­po­ra­tion, who owned the Royal Pavil­ion, agreed to al­low film­ing at a cost of £200 a day, which the town clerk, WO Dodd, wrote, was “much less than they charged Co­lum­bia for mak­ing The First Gen­tle­man in 1947. To sup­port home in­dus­tries has al­ways been our aim”.

How­ever, Dodd also re­minded Deighton that a bless­ing would only be given “on the un­der­tak­ing that the film will not show Brighton in an un­favourable light” (a ref­er­ence, no doubt, to the 1947 movie adap­ta­tion of Brighton Rock, star­ring a young Richard At­ten­bor­ough, which por­trayed a town mired in vi­o­lent crime and gang cul­ture).

The West Pier, in all its freshly painted glory ( just six years be­fore be­ing closed to the pub­lic), be­came the main lo­ca­tion for most of the scenes, with at­trac­tions such as the rifle range and What the But­ler Saw machines cre­at­ing the film’s segues be­tween fair­ground fan­tasy and the hor­rors of the trenches. How­ever, one of the film’s most mem­o­rable num­bers, Mag­gie Smith’s rous­ing per­for­mance of the re­cruit­ment song I’ll Make a Man of You, was shot at the the­atre that once stood at the end of the Palace Pier. Brig­den Street in Brighton, who wrote to Lord At­ten­bor­ough af­ter­wards: “You made a lit­tle speech thank­ing every­one for the way they worked for the film.

“I thought some­one would have made a re­sponse of some sort but as I was just one of two women among all these sol­diers I was too shy to say any­thing. I think you de­serve a thank you too. I’m sure that all the ‘crowd work­ers’ agree with me that it has been a plea­sure and an hon­our to help you make this film.”

Lord At­ten­bor­ough also ap­proached the then vicechan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Sus­sex, Asa Briggs, to re­cruit stu­dents for can­non fod­der. Among those who turned up on set was would-be novelist Ian Mcewan, then study­ing English lit­er­a­ture at Sus­sex.

One of the less glam­orous film­ing lo­ca­tions, Brighton’s mu­nic­i­pal tip in Wil­son Av­enue, was turned into the win­try bat­tle­fields of the West­ern Front. In scorch­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures, wear­ing army great­coats and sur­rounded by fake snow, the cast played Ger­man and Scot­tish sol­diers shar­ing a drink on Christ­mas Day. The call sheets for these par­tic­u­lar days re­quested that mo­bile show­ers be sup­plied for the ac­tors.

The film’s fi­nal scene is re­garded as its most poignant. Six­teen thou­sand white wooden crosses were fixed into the Downs for a he­li­copter shot that en­cap­su­lates the enor­mity of the tragic loss of lives.

The film was pre­miered at the Para­mount The­atre in Lon­don in April 1969, fol­lowed by a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner in the of­fi­cers’ mess at Clar­idges. In recog­ni­tion of the as­sis­tance given by the peo­ple of Brighton, a screen­ing was also held in the town, with the pro­ceeds due to be do­nated to the Red Cross.

A guest list in the archives in­cludes Dodd, and dig­ni­taries such as the mayor (Al­der­man FM Baker) and the di­rec­tor of the Royal Pavil­ion Clif­ford Mus­grave. Dozens of oth­ers whom Lord At­ten­bor­ough also wished to thank in­cluded tele­phon­ists and porters at the Metropole and Bed­ford ho­tels (where the crew and cast stayed), po­lice of­fi­cers and Brighton Sta­tion staff.

Oh! What a Lovely War gar­nered ac­co­lades for tack­ling a dif­fi­cult sub­ject with artis­tic brav­ery.

To the peo­ple of Brighton and Sus­sex, it is also a trea­sured visual record of a seafront in its hey­day, and of the beau­ti­ful West Pier now all but lost.

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