I came to live in Brighton in 1978 and have been here for just over 36 years. My first visit to the city was in 1970 as press officer for the British Industrial Film Festival. I found myself living in the city as an opportunity arose to rent a house just off Marine Parade. Property in London was too expensive to buy and the move to Brighton gave me time to look around and save up for somewhere of my own.
Some of my earliest memories of Sussex – from over 40 years ago – are of coming to stay at a friend’s mother’s house next to the church in Sutton, near Bignor. I still have a lot of photographs I took while walking in the area around Barlavington, Duncton and Fittleworth. One particular image is of a maze of footprints of hens in the mud between the platforms at the disused Fittleworth train station.
I recall walking down the lane in the pitch black to the pub in Sutton, which I think had a tap-room, rather than a bar, with wooden benches around the walls. For me, this was Starkadder country. After all this time, perhaps my memories are beginning to merge with having read Cold Comfort Farm in my late teens. This was a new experience for someone then living in west London and who had grown up in (post-) industrial Lancashire. The Downs were much gentler than the Pennines, but somehow more alien.
I have always been self-employed as a journalist, editor and researcher. My former principal day job (that I held for 39 years) was as editor of an international media business and technology journal, which had a large number of spin-off business reports and other activities. Among other things, I was executive editor of the Royal Television Society Journal, taught part of an MA course in European Cultural Policy at Warwick University and was a British representative on the European Audiovisual Observatory in Strasbourg.
Since ‘retiring’ nearly four years ago I have written and published Cinema-by-Sea: Film and Cinema in Brighton and Hove since 1897, which is available in all good bookshops. I am now involved in local history research and, time permitting, run a website called brightonhistory.org.uk. I was elected a trustee of the Regency Society in 2014.
I am also heavily involved in the Our Brighton Hippodrome campaign.
I attended a crowded meeting organised by Professor Gavin Henderson one wet Sunday afternoon in October 2013 to draw attention to the proposal being put forward by a developer to convert the Hippodrome into an eight-screen cinema with four restaurants. I set up an e-petition on the Brighton and Hove Council website, urging the council to use its best endeavours to make sure the Hippodrome was restored as a theatre, little realising that a key element in the council was already firmly opposed to the idea. That petition attracted 1,199 signatures.
When my friend Jevon Antoni-Jay arranged another meeting in February 2014 I was one of about 30 people who signed up to work on an active campaign. The aim was to raise public awareness of the Hippodrome’s historical and cultural importance, and to prepare an alternative proposal based on full restoration. I have been responsible for putting together the arguments, the viability study and the business plan. I have also been the principal spokesperson for the campaign.
The Brighton Hippodrome is completely unique, as well as having a stunningly beautiful interior that should be conserved at all costs. It could be the most versatile performance space of the size in the country, capable of configuration as a proscenium theatre, with a thrust stage, for theatre-in-the-round or with a central arena for circus-type performances. It could stage ballroom dancing, conferences, snooker tournaments, exhibitions, dinners and commercial presentations, as well as drama, musicals, opera, ballet and stand-up comedy. The sort of shows that would be presented would attract a huge number of tourists, helping boost the city’s economy.
Our Brighton Hippodrome’s plans also include developing a strong community aspect to the project. Brighton and Hove City Council has approved the plans for retail/restaurant/cinema conversion that will irreversibly lose up to 60% of the heritage asset. This is despite a strong case being made for theatre restoration, which the District Valuer, clearly not a theatre expert, dismissed as not viable.
Our next step is to wait and see what happens. The developer has been granted planning permission but does not have to carry out the plans. Our Brighton Hippodrome is talking to all interested parties about its future. As well as over 14,000 people who have signed the petition wanting the Hippodrome to be restored as a theatre, we have had support from such theatrical luminaries as Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Christopher Biggins, Brian Capron, Julie Christie, Dame Judi Dench, Ken Dodd, Dame Beryl Grey, Roy Hudd, Sir Nicholas Hytner, Dillie Keane, Joe McGann, Sarah Miles, Graham Norton, Dara Ó Briain, Jack Shepherd, Count Arthur Strong, Lalla Ward, Sir Arnold Wesker and Mark Wynter, amongst many others. We have also been supported by senior personnel from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Wakefield Theatre Royal, Hackney Empire, Equity and the Musicians Union, local novelist Peter James, the head of Brighton Fringe and parliamentary candidates of all the main political parties.
Sussex has always been a favoured place for writers, artists and performers of all kinds. Although there are thriving networks of people, the infrastructure, especially for performance arts, should be much better than it is – hence the campaign for the Hippodrome, not only as a major touring theatre but as a strong community base. Membership of Our Brighton Hippodrome is open to all and I urge everyone in Sussex and beyond to get involved in this campaign and save this historically significant building for future generations.
What do I love most about Sussex?
I think it has some of the best gardens in the country, such as Great Dixter, Standen and Sheffield Park. Nymans is the one we visit most often when I have a rare day off. In terms of what I dislike, now that the A23 is fully operational again, my dislikes are confined to Brighton, which seems to lack the energy and drive of a modern, aspiring city. How would I describe Sussex in five words? An English South Coast county.
For further information about the Our Brighton Hippodrome campaign and to sign the online e-petition, please visit ourhippodrome.org.uk.