I started my trip around Brighton in the footsteps of Colin Crampton in the amusement arcade on Brighton Pier. In 1963, when Stop Press Murder is set, it was called Palace Pier. The book starts when a short film is stolen from one of the arcade’s What the Butler Saw machines. (Americans call them mutoscopes.)
Back in Colin’s day, there were dozens of them on the pier giving cheap thrills at a penny a time. But when Britain moved from pounds, shillings and pence to decimal currency in 1971, the machines were all sold off. The new pennies were much smaller than the old – and wouldn’t work the mechanism. The pier is a much noisier place these days than it was when Colin strolled on it to investigate a murder. But in the 1960s, you had to pay sixpence admission – and at least you can now stroll on free.
After my trip to the pier, I thought it would be interesting to visit Regency Square, where Colin lives in the top-floor suite of rooms in a house owned by the infamous Mrs Gribble – “the Widow” to her tenants, but always behind her back. The square was built in the early nineteenth century. And, on my walk, I discovered that the area had received a distinguished literary mention, even before I used it in Headline Murder.
It turns out that the square was built on a place known as Belle Vue Field which became a military camp for 10,000 men in 1793 – shortly before the wars with Napoleon started. Apparently, many women considered the camp an excellent place to find a suitable husband. And Jane Austen mentioned it in Pride and Prejudice.
Anyway, after viewing Colin’s residence, I moved on to take a look at the Brighton Hippodrome. In the 1960s, this was one of the most popular variety theatres on the south coast of England. I visited it many times to see shows with stars of the sixties such as Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe, Jimmy Edwards, Max Bygrave and Winifred Atwell. In the Swinging Sixties, the Hippodrome played host to both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on their 1964 tours.
There are a couple of key scenes in Stop Press Murder set in the Hippodrome – in one of which Colin encounters a troop of performing poodles. (And there are a few surprises there!)
Anyway, today the Hippodrome has become a sad story. The theatre was turned into a bingo hall long ago. And, now, even that has closed. Since then, there have been various plans to use the place as a live music venue or multi-screen cinema, but so far they have come to nothing. And so the English Heritage Grade II listed building moulders away. Sad.
My final stop in the footsteps of Colin was at the Grand Hotel, the splendid wedding cake of a building on Brighton seafront. I vividly remember the morning of 12 October 1984 when, as a Brighton resident, I awoke to the news that the hotel had been bombed in the night by the IRA. The prime minister and members of the cabinet, staying there for a political conference, had narrowly escaped with their lives. Since then, the hotel has been magnificently rebuilt.
In 1963, the Grand had already been one of Brighton’s leading hotels for 99 years. It was the first hotel outside London to have a lift – or “vertical omnibus” as it was called in those days. The hotel is also the site of the final scene in Stop Press Murder – and I can promise you an ending you won’t be expecting.