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
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.