Thomas Dolby dazzled by the beam of the Orfordness lighthouse
- Credit: Archant
The Orford lighthouse has long been an iconic feature of the Suffolk coastline, casting a beam across the strange pagodas of the nuclear weapons testing facility on Orfordness. This at once reassuringly familiar and yet strange alien landscape is the subject of a new film by Suffolk musician and techno-whizz Thomas Dolby.
The Invisible Lighthouse is a film celebrating the history of the Orford light and marking the fact that it is about to be decommissioned.
Erosion of the coastline and the development of sat nav has made the work of the lighthouse redundant and local resident Thomas Dolby recognised that this Suffolk landmark would make the ideal subject for his first film.
He being a musician, this isn’t just any film; it’s a movie with a live score provided by Thomas Dolby himself. It’s a film about atmosphere. Orfordness has an otherworldliness that Dolby is seeking to capture in his film, both in images and music.
The film will premiere on the opening night of Aldeburgh Cinema’s Sounds and Silents weekend at the beginning of May. The festival of film and live music has a coastal theme throughout, featuring a documentary about lifeboats, a host of early English comedies and a rare screening of the silent Hollywood classic Beggars of Life, starring Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks. Music for Beggars of Life will be provided by film critic Mark Kermode and his skiffle band The Dodge Brothers. Music for the other silent movies will be provided by silent film specialists Neil Brand and John Sweeney.
Thomas Dolby, who in addition to being a solo musician has played alongside such top acts as David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd on their live The Wall tour, was delighted to unveil his film in Suffolk and at a cinema that is close to the lighthouse itself. “It’s great that the majority of the people who will see the film in the festival will know Orfordness and the lighthouse and how it fits into the Suffolk coastline. They will understand what a strange, magnetic pull the lighthouse has on the area.”
He said that over the years the lighthouse has not only become synonymous with the experimental weapons testing facility located on the Suffolk spit but also became embroiled in the Rendlesham UFO incident.
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“The film evolved over a period of time. I started shooting lots of bits and pieces but all within 10-15 miles of my place at Shingle Street; but I kept coming back to the Orford lighthouse. It was a constant theme. It has always been a part of my life. Ever since I was a kid I have seen it flash on my bedroom wall. I still see it, and in a short while it is going to be gone. So it’s quite an emotional thing. It’s a part of my life disappearing.”
He added that shooting the film prompted thoughts about memory. “I remember thinking that our memories are quite selective. As a child I remember thinking that the Orford lighthouse had quite a sweep across the landscape. Now as an adult it looks quite puny. Also, I started looking into the Rendlesham UFO mystery and I realised that there is no way that those guys at the airbase could have confused Orfordness lighthouse with a UFO.
“I have become fascinated with the stories told by the people who were there. The stories have blossomed over the years and they are fixtures on the lecture tour circuit. But our memories are quite selective. I have become fascinated with notions of memory. Things change over time. They get misremembered. Any criminal court will tell you that a witness to an actual event is probably the least reliable.
“I have a great example of that. My great-great grandfather built the Snape Maltings. The Maltings have always been a big part of our family and I have a very vivid memory of watching the Snape Maltings burn. I was a child and I watched that from across the marshes. However, years later, my mother said: ‘I hate to break it to you but we were nowhere near Suffolk that night at all. Yet I can still see it now in my mind’s eye. It’s a false memory but for years I was convinced I had seen the fire that destroyed the Snape Maltings concert hall.”
He said that led to him asking questions about how much of his childhood he has fabricated. Part of the reason for making the film is to fix the Orford lighthouse into our collective memory and allow us to project our own feelings and memories into the viewing experience.
The film is quite impressionistic, without a great deal of dialogue or narration. It is images that speak to the audience, along with the juxtaposition of the music. This allows audiences to have their own creative input, rather than just being a passive observer.
“The screening in Aldeburgh will be particularly exciting because the audiences know the lighthouse and will bring their own memories of that stretch of coastline. Else-where, audiences will be interpreting the film as something fresh.”
Thomas Dolby is thrilled that Aldeburgh Cinema is launching its festival of film and live music with The Invisible Lighthouse. He said that it gives the film a great platform before he takes it out on tour, which includes a couple of months travelling across the USA in October and November.
“I approached them and they said that they were planning this weekend of films which would be accompanied with live music, and I said that The Invisible Lighthouse would fit in perfectly. They liked the fact that it was local and made it the opening film of the festival – which is great for me.”
He said that completing his first film is the realisation of a longheld ambition. “I have often written and directed my own videos, and as part of my live shows I have always projected videos which I have been involved in editing. So the making of a film is a logical step on from that.”
The idea that a film could be possible came about when he treated himself to a remote control quadrocopter with a camera attached. He controls it from an iPhone and during experimental flights realised that the quality and manoeuvrability meant he could not only make a film for the big screen but could easily gain access to places that other cameras would find difficult.
“It was great that I was able to go out and shoot it myself. The equipment is light and portable. You don’t need vast crews, lighting guys, sound equipment, runners. It was just me with a camera and my quadrocopter and my boat. I was able to then edit the footage back at home and if something wasn’t right, if the lighting was wrong or I didn’t get what I needed, then I could go out again the following day and re-shoot it – without waiting for rushes or re-hiring a dozen technicians.”
He edited the film on commercially-available software and found it offered wonderful control. “In many ways it was very similar to midi-sequencing, which I am very familiar with with my music.”
He said it was during the editing process that it occurred to him that instead of having a standard pre-recorded soundtrack, the film would play better with limited narration and live music.
“As I was editing, I was projecting the footage on my wall and I was playing live and it just occurred to me that this would make a great live show. It was a very individual and personal experience. It’s not like a David Attenborough documentary where everything is explained; it’s more like a tone poem with pictures. I had a whole narration prepared which I have cut right back. I found that a single evocative sentence will work better than spelling it all out. It’s all about atmosphere, and music works very well in that situation.”
Thomas said the live soundtrack was made up of specifically-composed works and material from his back catalogue which fitted the mood and scenes being screened. “It’s a wonderful mix – a chance to dig out appropriate songs I have written, such as The Flat Earth – songs with the right atmosphere.”
The three-day film festival has been programmed by Aldeburgh Cinema’s Thomas Gerstenmeyer in conjunction with BFI archivist Bryony Dixon and musician Neil Brand.
Thomas said that the aim behind the festival was to celebrate the Suffolk coast and to offer audiences a different type of cinema; to provide a live cinema experience that combined classic film – silent film that most people will not have seen before – with live music supplied by some of the greatest live film musicians in the country.
“When I first came to Aldeburgh I was very taken with the cinema. It’s a proper independent cinema which has never been done-up, mistakenly restored and over-decorated. It is a proper town cinema with room for a piano and it feels completely natural to have a pianist in the auditorium, providing live music for a film.”
He said that the idea for the film festival emerged as creative collaboration fuelled by a good bottle of red wine.
“I was talking with my good friend Neil Brand about what we could do that was different, sell a few more tickets, make a virtue of the fact that we are a small independent cinema. I had brought Neil in to provide live music to Hitchcock’s silent film The Lodger and the evening went so well, we had a really good crowd who really enjoyed themselves, that Neil said ‘Why not do an entire weekend of silent films with live music?’
“I wanted to bring in the element of the sea and the coast. Neil suggested getting Mark Kermode along. Thomas Dolby approached us about screening his film at roughly the same time. So within a couple of weeks the whole programme started to come together.
“I went to London to meet Bryony Dixon at the British Film Archive; she came up with a couple of other suggestions which included the Going Coastal series.
“I saw these wonderful films. I really liked them. They are great comedies based on the works by WW Jacobs and have been forgotten for the best part of a century. They are great social comedies and are wonderful for us because they are all set in small English villages and coastal towns.”
There are five films in the WW Jacobs series, plus the BFI archive film celebrating the work of the lifeboat crews, a coast and poetry programme, as well as the closing-night film Beggars of Life with Neil Brand, Mark Kermode and The Dodge Brothers.
n More information on The Invisible Lighthouse and the Sounds and Silents weekend, which runs from May 3-5, can be found at www.aldeburghcinema.co.uk