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How The Dig told one of Suffolk's most important stories, of the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo



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As the year draws to a close, we are taking a look back on the 12 months since a Netflix film brought the story of one of the UK's most exciting archaeological discoveries in Suffolk to a global audience.

The Dig, which reimagines the events of the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, in 1939, was released on the streaming platform in late January.

In the time since audiences were first able to see Ralph Fiennes as archaeologist Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as landowner Edith Pretty earlier this year, the film was nominated for several awards and topped Netflix's most-watched rankings in the UK in the days after its release.

And the effects of The Dig's popularity were felt here in Suffolk, with the National Trust reporting a boost in visitor numbers at Sutton Hoo in the summer.

Here, we take a look back at the impact the film has had over the last 12 months.

Before The Dig had even been released, we heard from residents across the county on how they had helped bring the movie to screens across the world.

One such person was local musician Jay Ducker, who had answered an advert for an on-set actor's assistant, which said a Suffolk accent was essential.

Jay Ducker (left) and Ralph Fiennes on set for The Dig. Picture: Larry Horricks/Netflix
Jay Ducker (left) and Ralph Fiennes on set for The Dig. Picture: Larry Horricks/Netflix

Jay was hired for two months in autumn 2019 as Fiennes' personal and dialect assistant, during which time he was responsible for getting the star to and from set, bringing him his meals and any other tasks needed.

But he was also a reference point for dialogue, as the actor needed to nail a Suffolk accent for the role of excavator Mr Brown.

Another Suffolk resident who was involved in making sure Fiennes' Suffolk voice accurately reflected Mr Brown's was dialect expert Charlie Haylock, who also shed light on training the actor for the film.

Suffolk dialect coach Charlie Haylock
Suffolk dialect coach Charlie Haylock

He told Suffolk News that his work on the film included 'Suffolk-ating' the script, rewriting lines phonetically and slipping in a few well-known phrases, with the director's approval. Mr Haylock also said the research the star did to become the character was 'fantastic'.

"By the time we were finished, I was working with an actor who was Basil Brown," Mr Haylock added.

Coddenham-based Bickers Action, a production company which specialises in filming moving vehicles, shot a key scene in The Dig, as they captured Fiennes as he cycled in some of the early moments of the film.

Max Bickers, who worked part-time at his family's firm and was on his summer break from university at the time, said it was 'great' to be a part of the movie and to work with Fiennes.

Max and Paul Bickers
Max and Paul Bickers

And the county's official film office, Screen Suffolk, helped on The Dig with tasks such as location scouting, closing roads, and organising catering and hotels for cast and crews.

Charlie Ditcham And Stanley Willey, marshals on The Dig. Picture: Screen Suffolk
Charlie Ditcham And Stanley Willey, marshals on The Dig. Picture: Screen Suffolk

“The film is such an amazing advert for Suffolk, it is just going to encourage so many people to the area – the landscape just looks amazing," operations and business development manager Rachel Aldridge said as the film was released.

“The film opens with a shot of Ralph on his bicycle cycling through the Suffolk countryside, getting on Butley Ferry. From the outset it is just an advert for Suffolk, and Sutton Hoo is going to be inundated with visitor numbers going through the roof.”

And it was only a matter of months until those working at the historical site confirmed this had indeed been the case.

Sutton Hoo. Picture by Mark Westley
Sutton Hoo. Picture by Mark Westley

In early July, officials said Sutton Hoo was experiencing a boost in visitors following The Dig.

"We are seeing visitor numbers at capacity or nearly at capacity every day at the moment," Laura Howarth, archaeology and engagement manager said.

"All of the conversations we are having with visitors are people coming off the back of hearing about the film or watching the film which is brilliant."

An aerial view of the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo. Picture: National Trust James Dobson
An aerial view of the Royal Burial Ground at Sutton Hoo. Picture: National Trust James Dobson

"The film has re-inspired local people to take that pride in the history of Sutton Hoo," she added.

That wasn't the only place to have seen a positive response off the back of The Dig, with the British Museum, which has a number of Sutton Hoo artefacts on display, reporting a significant spike in people searching for information relating to the Sutton Hoo treasure in February.

It was only a couple of weeks after the film had been released that the museum saw page views rise by 129 per cent.

A replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet that was discovered in 1939, which is on display in the High Hall Exhibition at Sutton Hoo. Picture: National Trust Images Phil Morley
A replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet that was discovered in 1939, which is on display in the High Hall Exhibition at Sutton Hoo. Picture: National Trust Images Phil Morley

At that point, a video on the famous Sutton Hoo helmet had been seen 800,000 times since it was uploaded to YouTube on January 14 - it has now been viewed more than 1.6million times.

Sue Brunning, curator of the Early Medieval European Collections at the British Museum, said, at the time: "There has been a large increase in discussion on Facebook and Twitter, and large increase in emails, from questions ranging from how much of the film is true, to teachers asking for resources to speak to their class with, to items people have found in their own gardens in Suffolk that they now believe could be related to Sutton Hoo.”

“I knew the film would be popular among fellow archaeologists and people interested in period dramas and that sort of thing, but it seems to have transcended those usual audiences and really touched a nerve with people," she added.

“I mean, I think Sutton Hoo is worthy of trending of course, but to see it actually [doing so] has been surreal in many ways."

While the figures showed hundreds of thousands were viewing online videos about Sutton Hoo, there were also huge numbers of people watching The Dig on Netflix, as just a couple of days after it was released, it topped the streaming platform's 'most-watched' rankings in the UK.

The movie was also widely praised by critics and viewers - with review sites Rotten Tomatoes (88 per cent at current), IMDB (7.1/10) and Metacritic (73 per cent) all rating the film highly.

The Dig: Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. Picture: Larry Horricks/Netflix
The Dig: Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown. Picture: Larry Horricks/Netflix

For the BBC, Will Gompertz gave the film four out of five stars and said it was a 'thoroughly enjoyable film made with subtlety and sensitivity' and applauded the two lead actors, Fiennes and Mulligan, who were 'first class'.

The Guardian's Mark Kermode said the film's 'lush cinematography' had 'beautifully captured the lonely beauty of the open English landscapes'. He awarded The Dig three out of five stars.

And while Leaf Arbuthnot said, in her four-star review for Tatler, that she felt the 'the film doesn’t hang together well', she concluded: "It's a Sunday afternoon film, and a lovely one."

This was all reflected in the award nomination season of 2021, with The Dig garnering five BAFTA nominations, for outstanding British film, best adapted screenplay, production design, costume design and make up and hair.

While The Dig did not win any of those awards, the film did much more for Suffolk by telling one of its most important stories.

To read more on the story of Sutton Hoo and Basil Brown, read our feature here.