Ralph Fiennes on why Basil Brown was a remarkable man
- Credit: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX © 2021
For Ralph Fiennes Basil Brown was an amazing man. He said that playing the self-taught archaeologist and excavator in the new Netflix film The Dig made him realise what a remarkable man he was.
Speaking at the ‘virtual’ premiere Ralph Fiennes told his electronic audience that he was looking to play a different sort of character, someone who could connect himself with his roots and someone who was at peace with himself and the world.
Although, Ralph was born in Suffolk and lived at Wrentham, near Southwold, until he was six he admits he didn’t know much about the county. His parents moved away first to the West Country and then to Ireland, so it was not until recently that he had the opportunity to rediscover the county of his birth.
“What spoke to me about Basil, and the Basil in Moira Buffini’s brilliant script, was that he was a very intelligent man and entirely self-taught. He had a love of history – but not only that, he had a passion for history, he had deep connection to the land and to the past. He understood how everything fitted together.
“He was not a treasure hunter. In the film, he is suspicious of Mrs Pretty at first because he is afraid that she is only interested in the grave goods as treasure to be exploited but he sees them as objects that allow the past – our ancestors – to speak directly to us.”
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He said that Basil left school at 12 without recognizable qualifications but his father gave him an unrivalled knowledge of Suffolk soil and could identify locations just from soil samples. This knowledge was also invaluable in the excavation of ancient artefacts – particularly as the Sutton Hoo ship burial was really just stains on the soil.
Over the years Basil taught himself Latin, French and German and was employed by Ipswich Museum as a specialist excavator on local archaeological digs and prior to Sutton Hoo was one of the leading figures in the excavation of the Roman Villa found in the 1930s at Castle Hill in Ipswich.
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“He had such a thirst for knowledge. He had a love of astronomy and wrote a book for the amateur astronomer to make the subject understandable for the ordinary person – and yet, at the same time, for all his knowledge, he remained a very unassuming person.”
Ralph Fiennes said that one of the key aspects of ‘finding’ Basil Brown was getting the accent right and he teamed up with Suffolk vocal coach Charlie Haylock to find Basil’s voice.
The pair bonded straight away and after a few weeks practicing in mirrors, Charlie and Ralph went incognito on a tour of Suffolk pubs to see if Ralph could pass himself off as a Suffolk local.
Ralph said: “"Charlie is a perfectionist and would correct me on anything that felt inaccurate. The challenge being especially to avoid sounding West Country. His pleasure when we (the Suffolk characters) got it right was tangible.
“I loved that it was a matter of pride for Charlie that he wanted us to speak the Suffolk dialect accurately. Charlie’s pleasure in the work made it one of the most fulfilling experiences.” Ralph could also be found talking to himself, perfecting his vowels, as he clocked up miles on his bicycle touring Suffolk’s country lanes as Basil did, getting himself match-fit for the part. On one occasion he cycled from Sudbury to Sutton Hoo to lay on the mounds looking up at the Suffolk skies.
Ralph said that he felt a strong connection with the story and the site which is what made him want to commit to the film. “It moved me very much, this story about an excavation of a burial ship. It has the feeling of a Chekhov play, where there are many characters, all carrying complex interior lives and their interior lives shift as a result of this discovery which is symbolic of the England that has gone before.”
He said that Moira Buffini’s script had managed to capture the time and the people perfectly. “Moira’s screenplay is beautifully judged so even the smaller parts have moments to resonate. There is a moment where we can see each of their dilemmas, their hopes, expectations and disappointments.”
For Fiennes it was important the film didn’t just deal with events as a dry history lesson. He felt the human stories and themes dealing with life and death gave the story an added richness.
“There’s a profound recognition of life and mortality; we’re all faced with the question of what we leave behind,” Fiennes explained. “There’s a scene with Edith Pretty’s son, Robert, who feels like he’s failing to support his sick mother and Basil tells him ‘We all fail. Every day we fail.’
“We’re carried on a current of life and we have to accept our failures,” Fiennes says matter of factly. “It’s less about leaving something behind, and more that by having a relationship with the past, it gives us a better understanding of ourselves and a better context of where we came from. Which in turn gives us an understanding about life.
“The way that Moira wrote this relationship between Basil and Edith is beautifully portrayed and deeply human. It’s a meeting of minds and souls. A human connection that comes together over the discovery of the ship.”
The Dig is released on Netflix on January 29