Shot over two weekends in the summer of 1951 (including the August Bank Holiday), the film that first brought Anthony Simmons to public attention remains an effervescent, unselfconscious delight. Simmons hailed from the East End of London, and was intimately familiar both with the regular ritual of working-class families taking the train to Southend for a cheap and cheerful holiday, and also with old-time London music-hall songs, married here via a virtuoso display of frame-precise cutting by former UNESCO editor Luisa Krakowska.
Simmons pitched the project in the form of written-out song lyrics, accompanied by notes about the images that might best match them and which could plausibly be captured over a typical summer weekend. He approached various directors, but they all wanted a stronger script. In the end, producer Leon Clore suggested that Simmons make it himself, lent him a 35mm Arriflex camera and introduced him to the film's production team: cameraman Walter Lassally and assistants John Fletcher and Derek York. All were unpaid, and Simmons had to take out a bank loan to pay for film stock.
Simmons had been most directly inspired by Joseph Strick's non-narrative observational documentary Muscle Beach (US, 1948) and Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's Listen to Britain (1942), and Sunday by the Sea can now be seen as a clear link between those films and what would eventually become known as Free Cinema, rare islands of genuinely personal and poeticised documentary-making in seas otherwise dominated by industrial and propaganda concerns.
A more direct comparison can be drawn with Lindsay Anderson's O Dreamland (1953), shot at almost the same time, by the same cameraman, and about a near-identical subject. However, Anderson's portrait of Margate is as sour and despondent as Simmons' film is as cheery and blithe, a reflection of their creators' very different backgrounds and attitudes towards working-class leisure. Through Simmons' and Lassally's eyes, Southend becomes a pleasure-parade of candyfloss and naughty postcards, Punch and Judy shows and narrow-gauge railways, family shenanigans and holiday romances.
Simmons had no plans for the film beyond completion, and only found out that Clore had submitted it to the Venice Film Festival when his wife met him off the train at Waterloo to tell him that it had won the Grand Prix in its category. Simmons' next film, Bow Bells (1954), applied a similar music-hall driven approach to images of his native East End.
*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'. A short extract can be viewed on the BFI's YouTube channel.