The Dig is 'the best tourism video you could hope for', officials from Screen Suffolk say as film on Sutton Hoo discovery is released on Netflix
The greatest Suffolk story there is.
The excavation of the epic Anglo-Saxon ship at Sutton Hoo in the heart of East Suffolk’s glorious countryside is one of the most significant archaeological digs of the last century, and for people both young and old across Suffolk it is a familiar and cherished piece of the county’s history.
Now, 80 years on, filmmakers have finally committed the famous story to film, released today on Netflix and starring British A-listers Ralph Fiennes, Lily James and Carey Mulligan.
Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, but what most may not appreciate is just how recognisably Suffolk the movie is.
As Screen Suffolk’s operations and business development managers Rachel Aldridge and Jim Horsfield have attested to, the look, the sound and the feel are all there.
“I watched it with my kids and we loved it,” Rachel said.
“We have visited Sutton Hoo quite a few times because it is such a fantastic place to visit, but it really made that story come alive and it is just great to think that is going to happen for so many people, and that people are going to be able to access that and see where it all happened. If you are from Suffolk, the landscapes make you feel like you are going home.”
Jim added: “It is one of the greatest Suffolk stories that there is. The film is fantastic. From the opening scene it is Suffolk.”
Screen Suffolk, the county’s official film office which acts as a one-stop-shop for productions be it location scouting, securing local talent, organising catering and hotels or issuing filming permits, was contacted in spring 2019 by the filmmakers, and work soon began on location scouting.
The longlist was narrowed down to a series of key locations that eagle-eyed viewers may recognise in the finished film, with shooting commencing later in the autumn of 2019 over the course of a week.
“The production was really insistent that Suffolk was the first location they came to because they really wanted to set the tone for the film, gain inspiration from it,” Rachel said.
“Even though a lot of it wasn’t filmed in Suffolk, they came here first so they all had it in their mind so they knew what they were trying to achieve in the look of the whole film.”
It certainly captured the essence of what the filmmakers were looking for.
Director Simon Stone said: “You go to Suffolk once and visit the estuary lands and you see such a unique landscape, like a world that you just don’t recognise as quintessentially English, and so I thought to myself this is a real opportunity to show a side of England that you don’t usually see.
“As you see, it’s constantly through the film. We keep cutting back to shots that were shot in the environment where it took place.”
Screen Suffolk was involved in far more than just recommending locations though.
Other responsibilities included issuing filming permits, closing roads where needed, organising catering and hotels for cast and crew and even securing work for some local location marshals.
But perhaps uniquely, the sound of Suffolk was also an important flavour for the film.
With Ralph Fiennes committed to nailing a Suffolk accent, Screen Suffolk put local author and dialect expert Charlie Haylock in touch with the production, who helped shape Ralph’s performance as Basil Brown and added phonetic touches to the script.
As such, the Suffolk accent is portrayed much more faithfully than some productions have managed over the years.
“Charlie says the Suffolk accent can very quickly turn into pirate, but throughout it was an accent that you hear from family members. All of the accents are absolutely fantastic.
"That is a big difference – it feels like Suffolk, it doesn’t feel like West Country,” Jim said.
As well as celebrating the look, sound and feel of Suffolk and the majesty of the remarkable tale itself, the film is also set to give the county a healthy boost economically.
Film tourism is increasingly big business, and it is anticipated that the story will have visitors flocking to Sutton Hoo itself once lockdown has eased.
Furthermore, Screen Suffolk estimates a single day’s filming from a production like The Dig can generate £11,500 spend in the local economy, meaning those 10 days back in 2019 will have boosted Suffolk’s economy by tens of thousands of pounds already.
That doesn’t include the tourists who may flock to the Suffolk coast in the summer having seen the film – particularly when Covid-enforced staycations look likely to be prominent this year. As Jim said, “It’s the best tourism video you could hope for”.
“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,“ Rachel added.
“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.”
So while the Covid-19 pandemic means the real Sutton Hoo is off limits to visitors for now, The Dig at least means you can enjoy it on the small screen. 2021, it seems, has seen another treasure unearthed from the Sutton Hoo story.
Where in Suffolk did The Dig film?
While The Dig did not exclusively film in Suffolk, the county’s countryside does feature heavily in the film.
One of the most notable locations is Butley Ferry – “As soon as Simon [Stone, director] saw the Butley Ferry he was absolutely set that was where he had to be,” Screen Suffolk’s Rachel Aldridge said.
Elsewhere, the landscapes at RSPB’s Boyton Marshes featured – including the prominent brick structure there which also featured in Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill music video, as well as shooting landscapes around Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh beach and Suffolk Wildlife Trust land.
Indeed, Snape Maltings was a key production base in Suffolk for the film while the surrounding landscape was captured on film, and those in Aldeburgh and Shingle Street at the time of filming may have encountered the road closures which facilitated some of the scenes – particularly those of Ralph on his bicycle in his portrayal of excavator Basil Brown.
“They started off the principal photography in Suffolk, and were here for about a week or 10 days across a mixture of council [owned] and other locations,” said Screen Suffolk’s Jim Horsfield.
“The mound part of the film is actually filmed in Surrey, but all the way through the film is interspersed with shots of Basil Brown going on his bike cycling through the countryside showing the broken nature of the coastline in Suffolk that you can’t get across quickly.”
However, the decision by filmmakers to visit the Suffolk countryside where the famous dig happened first helped inform the aesthetic of the film throughout, regardless of whether shots were filmed in the county or elsewhere.
The Dig is out on Netflix today.