Brighton is a civilised place that likes to flirt with rough trade now and then. A new play, ‘On Race Hill’, which opens at the Dome on Friday (January 15), promises to shine a light on the dark side of the city’s history – and to investigate the fact and fiction behind the reputation. The advance blurb quotes Keith Waterhouse’s quip: “Brighton is a town that looks as if it is helping police with their enquires” but a recent report in The Argus suggests that, as in most places, fear of crime is more prevalent than the real thing .
The sleazy underbelly and vicious characters, however, have proved irresistible to authors and film makers. In ‘Kissing and Killing’, Frank Gray sets out the background to such movies as The Brighton Strangler (1945), Brighton Rock (1948), Jigsaw (1962), Mona Lisa (1986), Circus (2000), and London to Brighton (2005).
Gray relates the disturbing story of Ernest Friend-Smith who, in 1928 was kidnapped on Madeira Drive, taken to the Downs, beaten and robbed. He died days later. Most notoriously, in 1934, the torso of a woman was discovered in a trunk at Brighton Station. The legs were later found, also in a trunk, at Kings Cross Station in London. When an unrelated investigation tuned up another Brighton woman’s cadaver in a suitcase, the town’s depraved disposition was sealed.
These sensational events, it has been argued, prompted Graham Greene to write Brighton Rock, the most famous, and still the best, thriller set in the seaside resort. Of course, the location is not Brighton at all – it is Greeneland, where a small-time mobster can be troubled by the prospect of God’s salvific will, where a blowsy bar-fly is an angel of vengeance is disguise, and where no good deed goes unpunished. A remake of the movie is currently in production with Sam Riley as the baby-faced killer and Helen Mirren as his plebeian nemesis. It will be interesting to see how much of Greene’s Catholic imagery is presented to today’s secular audience.
Recently, in both ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘London to Brighton’, the seaside initially provides a place of safety for young women trying to escape a terrible fate in London. But it is a shelter which proves as fleeting as the unreliable climate.
The theme is constant: you never now where you are in Brighton. ‘On Race Hill’ has an alluring selection of appalling stories on which to draw for the launch event in the Brighton Dome and Festival’s Artist Development programme.