Keith Waterhouse once said that Brighton always looked to him like a town that was helping the police with their enquiries. This captures Brighton's raffish image. Sex and crime, and often the two intertwined, symbolise it in the public imagination. Other British seaside resorts may be famous for "Kiss Me Quick" hats and all the fun of the fair, but not Brighton. While Blackpool was dismissed by New Labour as too proletarian a venue for its party conferences, Brighton was somehow OK; the spin doctors missed the town's traditional affiliation with sleaze.
Maybe they don't go to the cinema often enough. An intriguing new exhibition, "Kiss & Kill", at the lavishly revamped Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, showcases filmmakers' successive visions of the town. The message is clear: The Who's Quadrophenia, in 1979, may have relentlessly choreographed the Sixties mod-rocker seafront battles; the 1953 comedy Genevieve, about the London- Brighton veteran car rally, may have brought fame to the late Larry Adler with its irritatingly cheery harmonica theme-tune. But the two heftiest sections of the exhibition are firmly labelled "Sex, Seduction and Separation" and "Crime Town". They neatly capture Brighton's continuing public image. Last year the town decided to merge administratively with its cleaner- than-clean (or duller-than- dull) twin town, Hove, and re-market itself as a city; but who's noticed?
In the British imagination, Brighton is a seductively appealing fiction. It is film noir by the sea. Graham Greene was the progenitor of this public image, with his queasily moralistic novel Brighton Rock, published in 1938. It was filmed 10 years later by the Boulting Brothers f (who grew up in Hove); young Richard Attenborough - now the showbiz Chancellor of the University of Sussex - played the devious gang leader, Pinkie Brown. Because of the novel's air of realism, it is often thought to be telling the truth about interwar Brighton. But Greene's cinematic style of writing should give you due warning. Script-writing is not the same as reporting.
Frank Gray, curator of the exhibition, notes that, in the Thirties, the crime figures for Brighton were below the national average. Greene admitted to "manufacturing this Brighton of mine". In his autobiography, he says: "I had spent only one night in the company of someone who might have belonged to Pinkie's gang - a man from the Wandsworth dog tracks [in south London] whose face had been carved because he was suspected of grassing to the bogies after a killing at the stadium." And if Ida Arnold, the Brighton barmaid with a heart of gold, is based on anyone at all, it is the Hollywood star Mae West.
Yet Brighton became, irrevocably, a central component of "Greeneland", that dubious terrain of seedy actions and failed hopes, where "human nature is not black and white but black and grey". In 1999, the novelist and film director Neil Jordan re-made The End of the Affair (first filmed, very drably, in 1954, with the classic crystal-voiced British actress Deborah Kerr as the doomed heroine). He relocated the novel's closing scenes, where potential happiness turns to despair, to the end of Brighton's Palace Pier. For Jordan, a Greene film without Brighton was as savourless as soup without salt.
But every stereotype must have some foothold in reality; otherwise it wouldn't stick. Brighton, like Bath, was a town invented in the 18th century purely for pleasure. These were a new kind of place, the distant ancestors of today's Orlandos and Lanzarotes. A spurious health fad justified the pleasure: taking the waters at Bath, bathing in the sea at Brighton. But everyone knew what such towns were really about: sex, social climbing, the marriage market, gambling, and yet more sex. Jane Austen mocked it all gently, in her English way. In The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett excoriated it all with distinctly Scottish venom. …