When we go to the cinema, we watch the action and, in many cases, enjoy the scenery and setting of the film. Could you therefore imagine seeing Bognor as a back drop, which would ultimately entice people to the town?
This is not such a strange thought, because at one time there were newspaper reports about Bognor becoming the centre of film making. Headlines such as Bognor could be ‘Little Hollywood’ occurred in 1961.
I came across a number of newspaper cuttings with comments like: ‘Bognor Regis could resemble Pinewood, Elstree’ because Sweethill Studios Ltd was ready to develop a 2.5 acre industrial site on the outskirts of the town.
All of this sounds quite interesting and we were very lucky because they were hoping to set up in Brighton but the Ministry of Housing and Local Government turned down their application, hence the possible switch to Bognor Regis.
Bognor Regis Urban District Council approved the initial stages of the application and it is quite interesting to read the suggested benefits to the town which included highly paid staff who would be attracted, helicopters bringing executives to a new heliport and an improved railway service.
A workforce in excess of 300 would be employed and a large number of other ‘extras’.
It is really interesting reading these old press reports, one of the comments was that ‘technicians and staff would want hundreds of the flats that would be built, and local young people would have the opportunity to train as film technicians and craftsmen’. This company seeking permission had advised the Observer that they hoped to start their construction with three 180ft long and 40ft high studios.
The film studio would apparently make Bognor Regis unique and, because of the location with the sea and the town, they believed that they would be able to make many films locally, including westerns.
Apparently, North Bersted residents were ‘overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed erection of a £3 million film studio in North Bersted’. One cartoon in the local press at the time showed people watching a film, purportedly showing Germany with a member of the audience saying ‘Dead man’s Guich be blowed’ – that’s Chalcraft Lane’.
Prior to all this excitement, the town had played host to an important film maker and that was Cecil Hepworth. He worked in film making but, when his studio was destroyed by fire in 1907, he moved his entire company and spent two or possibly three seasons here in Bognor.
Although there is no reference to this in his autobiography it is confirmed in the British Film Catalogue of 1986 that at least 15 films were made in Bognor between August 1907 and October 1908.
Principally, his films were the short chase comedies, a couple of which have been found, and local people have recorded their memories in the press over the years of appearing in these short films.
One of the films called ‘Fire at Sea’ was shown on the pier in 1910 and the wreck of the ship The Foundling, which had been grounded off Barrack Lane, Aldwick in 1906 had been used, with 25 bales of straw being used to fire the wreck.
The Hepworth family stayed at Salisbury House and Lyn Cottage in The Steyne according to articles in the Observer at the time. Another film was A Seaside Girl, which was released in 1907 and included a manhunt on the Bognor to Pagham road, with a number of local residents coerced into being filmed during the chase.
How many films have used Bognor or the villages as their backdrop? We are aware of a number of television programmes that were filmed in the town. Can you remember the programme of Hope it Rains, the story of a small seaside waxworks during a wet season, luckily it is not like that here? One of the famous films is that of the 1987 – Wish You Were Here – in which the story of the late brothel madam, Cynthia Paine, was related.
However, the most famous film that people will recall is that of The Punch & Judy Man, starring Tony Hancock. This film is definitely worth seeing because it shows areas of the town, in the 1960s, which are easily recognisable today, even if slightly altered.
Other films have been produced over the years, but I cannot list them all here. Today we only have one cinema compared to the range we have had in the past and this is because of our ability to be able to watch major films on various television channels and also, we can now purchase films to watch in our homes. However, I don’t think this beats the atmosphere of the cinema experience.
I have recently watched on YouTube a film made by a family in 1954, which gives us a peek at that era and of course here it is possible to view films from the early 1900s from the British Film Industry.
In the 1920s, another town film maker was Henry Guermonprez, who was also known as a taxidermist alongside his filming. Many of these early films give us an indication of what life was like or more importantly provides a view of our town and also the fashions of the day.
we also have the television series of Don’t Forget The Driver, which was filmed in the town during 2018 and has as its back drop the seafront and areas of the town, complete with a coach that we can recognise by ite livery as belonging to Woods Coaches.
I read a report in one of the national newspapers, recently where they surmised whether the town could become famous in the same way that Poldark has made parts of Cornwall major visitor destinations. That could be interesting.