HomeCultureFilm & TV

All at sea: the cinematic history of the seaside

BY James Oliver

20th Aug 2017 Film & TV

All at sea: the cinematic history of the seaside

Grab your bucket and spade: we’re off to the seaside! James Oliver gets in the holiday spirit, looking at just a few of the many and varied movies set in coastal resorts.

The good old days


British holiday habits have been forever altered by affordable foreign travel—why risk being rained out when you can have guaranteed sunshine? Even those domestic resorts that still pull the punters have changed their ways, offering a very different experience to that which our grandparents knew.

If you’re curious to find out what’s been lost, vintage seaside flicks make an excellent resource. You might, for instance, try one of the versions of Hindle Wakes, a play written by Stanley Houghton in 1912 and popular enough to be filmed four times (in 1918, 1927, 1931 and 1952). It was considered daring and risqué back then—understandably so since it showed a young working class woman flirting and (even more shocking) enjoying herself—but now it seems more like a charming curiosity, an artifact from the days when Blackpool was a hedonistic playground; an Edwardian Ayia Napa, if you will.

"If this is what holidays used to be like, we should be glad that things have changed"

You might also look at Double Confession. It’s a crime film starring an unlikely combination of Peter Lorre and William Hartnell, but it’s the background details that are most captivating, showing the British at play post-war. Note both the lack of any sophistication and the acres of unappealing pasty flesh (this is a film shot in black and very, very white).

Then there’s the Carry On films. Appropriately enough for a series that claimed descent from the saucy seaside postcard, these films often decamped to the beach, most notably in Carry on Girls and an extended interlude in Carry On At Your Convenience. But they have not aged well: the sneering and leering make uncomfortable viewing for modern audiences. If this is what holidays used to be like, we should be glad that things have changed.


Sur la plage

It can be disconcerting for British viewers to watch American beach movies. US movies—and just recently we’ve had the Baywatch movie, which serves as a good example—are big on sculpted physiques and deep tans, things utterly alien to the UK holidaymaker. Weirdest of all, there’s almost a complete lack of awkwardness.

French films, though, offer a much more familiar experience, even if they seem to have better weather. New Wave director Eric Rohmer made a couple of the very best vacance movies, Pauline at the Beach (header image) and The Green Ray. Both are broadly about holiday romances (well, they are French, after all) but with far more maturity than their American equivalents.

More famously, there’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, in which Jacques Tati’s comic creation heads to the coast with the proverbial hilarious consequences. It is one of the most beloved of all films, filled with celebrated set pieces (the dining room! the tennis! The pervasive disruption!)—a destination that invites repeated return visits.




Few holidays are without some kind of tribulation, be it bad weather or bad tempers. Sometimes even little things can spoil the fun, from getting lost in the crowds on the beach to dropping your ice cream on the sand.

Film can help put such things in perspective. Dropping your ice cream on the sand might be a nuisance but in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t as bad as getting eaten by a great white shark, such as happens in Jaws.

And even getting lost in the crowds of the beach isn’t as bad as getting swallowed by it, as the unlucky victims of Blood Beach would tell you, had they not been swallowed by a beach.

As for arguments and inclement weather—well, nothing could be as bad as the Australian film Long Weekend, in which a bickering couple find pretty much the entirety of nature turning against them. You don’t get trouble like that in Filey.



For most of us, the seaside is just a place to visit. There are a few films, though, that show it from a different vantage point, from that of the folks who live there all year round.

What they show is that holidaymakers aren’t the only ones looking for an escape—the locals are too, only their escape is usually in the other direction. Federico Fellini knew this first hand, the great director was a native of Rimini. He returned from the big city to make the semi-autobiographical I Vitteloni, which leads up to the flight of one character from small town boredom to the freedom offered by Roma.

"Holidaymakers aren’t the only ones looking for an escape—the locals are too"

But if Fellini lived in the unnamed seaside town depicted in Wish You Were Here, you fancy he’d have run away a lot sooner: filled with faux-genteel pretensions, few places have ever been made to look so stifling. No wonder our young heroine Linda, naturally rebellious and awash with hormones, gets into such trouble there.

Fellini was prone to nostalgia (witness his lovely later film Amarcord, in which he headed home again). Wish You Were Here, by contrast, reminds us to be wary of such things.


The underbelly


Not every film takes the seaside at face value. There are not a few films that show the bits you won’t see on the post cards.

Obviously, there’s Brighton Rock. The Boulting Brothers’ film adaptation doesn’t bite as hard as Graham Green’s original novel but it still shows the sleaze and violence the tourist board would like to pretend doesn’t exist.

Brighton Rock was a long time ago; the reality of modern seaside towns is shown in Last Resort. Its main character Tanyahasn’t come to the decaying town of Stonehaven for her pleasure but because that’s where a sclerotic government department has decided immigrants like her must wait while their cases are processed, one of the ugliest limbos in moviedom.

The absolute best "horrible seaside town" movie is Un Si Jolie Petite Plage, set in a run-down resort in northern France, quite possibly the most unappealing holiday destination ever to be seen in cinema—it’s raining and the residents are all either senile or corrupt. The only reason the main character heads there is… ah, but that would be telling.



As we’ve seen, British movies seldom paint British holiday resorts in the most flattering of lights. But even after all that, maybe you still want to do your bit and support indigenous tourism. Where should you go?

You may be tempted by Brighton, belle of the south coast. It has its admirers and, of course, it is a firm favourite with film makers. Indeed, it’s played itself more than any other town in Britain in Pink String and Sealing Wax, Down Terrace, London to Brighton, Jigsaw, Under Suspicion, Quadrophenia, Villain and more.

However, you would be better recommended to look elsewhere, for on the North East Coast there is somewhere that promises a little slice of heaven: Blackpool.

"Who’d want to go Ibiza, it asks, when you could strut down the Golden Mile?"

No, it’s not quite what it was in the days of the great George Formby but it retains a formidable allure. What’s more, it brings out the best in filmmakers: Gurinda Chada set her much liked Bhaji on the Beach there and it inspired the single greatest British seaside movie of them all.

Unlike too many British holiday movies which seem faintly (and not so faintly) embarrassed by their settings, Funny Bones knows Blackpool is a place of magic and transformation. Who’d want to go Ibiza, it asks, when you could strut down the Golden Mile instead?

No, holidays are not what they were and that’s (probably) for the best. But the seaside remains a place of joy and wonder still, in Britain no less than anywhere else. 


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more film lists

Enjoyed this list? Share it!