10 great films set in East Anglia

Witches, Nazis and Anglo-Saxon curses – on film, East Anglia isn’t the rural idyll you might think… To celebrate the release of 45 Years, let’s look east at other great movies with starring roles for Suffolk, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire.

Samuel Wigley , Alex Davidson , James Rocarols , Nathalie Morris , Jonathan Benaim
Updated:

45 Years (2015)

45 Years (2015)

Like ripples lapping against the sand at Holkham, a kind of Norfolk new wave has been arriving in our cinemas in recent times.

None other than Alan Partridge led the way, when in 2013 Steve Coogan’s beloved Norwich radio DJ got his first big-screen outing, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, filmed in and around Norwich and Cromer. In character on the red carpet, Coogan told fans that the film was his love letter to Norwich, following a successful local petition for the film to premiere there rather than London.

It would be eccentric to point to this ‘Anglia Square Not Leicester Square’ campaign as a line-in-the-sand moment, but since then this cinematically short-shrifted county has had an unusually strong run of starring roles. First was Guy Myhill’s debut feature The Goob, filmed in the Fenlands and described by The Guardian as “Norfolk noir”. The Goob’s production company, iFeatures, are also behind a forthcoming thriller from Martin Radich, simply titled Norfolk, while upcoming too is ChickLit, an Ealing-style comedy about efforts to save a local pub, starring John Hurt and filmed in Holt, Blakeney and Sheringham.

Arriving in cinemas before those is 45 Years, the new film from director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, Looking). With Berlin prize-winning performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, it’s an acutely observed drama about the cracks that appear in an ageing couple’s marriage after a revelation comes out of the past. A wrenchingly emotional experience for anyone, Haigh’s film has a special significance for East Anglians: this is a genuinely great piece of cinema made on home turf – think Journey to Italy (1954) transposed to the lanes, fields, cottages and tea shops of Norfolk.

Before this current harvest of East Anglia movies, the region’s filmography was mainly as flat as a fen. Excepting scenes set at Cambridge University (though even these are outnumbered by scenes at that other university to the west), Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire have been victims of mainstream filmmakers’ wider lack of interest in the mysteries and majesty of the rural British landscape.

Luckily, however, there have been illustrious exceptions to this rule. So below we survey the topography of East Anglia at the movies. With regret, there was no space for Douglas Sirk. It’s little known, but the great director of Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959) was among the very few golden-age filmmakers to set a film in East Anglia, with his stagy, below-par 1951 convent melodrama Thunder on the Hill (that’s right, hill!). But, as an IMDb message-boarder laments: “The setting, so we’re told, is Norfolk County, England, though for all the detail supplied it could just as well be Upper Sandusky or Kokomo.”

Samuel Wigley

Bachelor of Hearts (1958)

Director Wolf Rilla

Bachelor of Hearts (1958)

Bachelor of Hearts (1958)

Cambridge University life is a favourite theme of British cinema, with the institution acting as a backdrop for Chariots of Fire (1981), Maurice (1987) and The Theory of Everything (2014). It took a starring role in this little-seen comedy starring Hardy Krüger as a German student bewildered by the varsity rituals. Rising above easy let’s-laugh-at-the-foreigner gags, the outsider’s eye emphasises the inherent absurdity of ‘rag week’ and the demands made of students wishing to join one of the exclusive clubs.

There are plenty of scenes around the colleges and by the River Cam, and while some of the humour may have dated, its innocent charm is infectious. Krüger, fresh from success in The One That Got Away (1957) is fine as the hero, but despite being relegated to bemused love interest status, it’s Sylvia Sims who steals the film.

Alex Davidson

Witchfinder General (1968)

Director Michael Reeves

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968)

This was not the first film to mine the sepulchral thrills of seeing Vincent Price at large in the East Anglian countryside. One of the highlights of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, was shot at the priory at Castle Acre, Norfolk. Four years later, however, this 17th-century tale of the manipulative exploits of real-life witchhunter Matthew Hopkins (played by Price) remains Suffolk’s most famous bid for cinematic immortality.

Witchfinder General was directed by the 24-year-old Michael Reeves, who grew up in Suffolk himself, but who would die tragically a few months after the film was released. Made for Tigon British and Corman’s AIP studio, it’s a film that cuts deeper than many of the contemporaneous Hammer horrors in its disturbing depiction of the abuse of power and how morality and faith can be twisted for evil purpose. Suffolk’s low-lying expanses seem both beautiful and desolate, an empty terrain where superstition and fear can permeate. Reeves beat Pasolini (The Canterbury Tales, 1972), Kubrick (Barry Lyndon, 1975) and Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows 1 and 2) to the use of Lavenham as a location, but only here does Suffolk’s picture-postcard medieval village play itself.

Samuel Wigley

The Go-between (1971)

Director Joseph Losey

The Go-between (1971)

The Go-between (1971)

A long hot summer in Norfolk forms more than just a backdrop for The Go-between, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel. For Losey the county became the bewitching heart of the film. He insisted that the entire production be made in Norfolk and sent art director Carmen Dillon on an extensive project to scout locations, especially in the countryside around Norwich.

Dillon discovered Melton Constable Hall, a 17th-century manor by then neglected and falling into disrepair (a situation sadly unchanged at the date of writing). The house and estate formed the nucleus of the film, on-screen and off, as it served as both shooting location and production headquarters. Other important scenes were taken in Norwich, Hanworth, Heydon, Hickling and Thornage, all exquisitely shot by cinematographer Gerry Fisher.

Scores of locals were enlisted as extras but one Norfolk talent was sadly overlooked: hearing of the production, a young Stephen Fry eagerly cycled over to Melton Hall to see if he could appear in the adaptation of one of his favourite books. Unfortunately his services were not required.

Nathalie Morris

The Joseph Losey papers, including extensive production documentation on the making of The Go-between, are held in the BFI National Archive’s Special Collections.

A Warning to the Curious (1972)

Director Lawrence Gordon Clark

A Warning to the Curious (1972)

A Warning to the Curious (1972)

After arriving in Norfolk, Paxton (Peter Vaughan), an out-of-work clerk with a passion for archaeology, strikes out in search of an Anglo-Saxon crown. Legend has it that three crowns possessed a strange power that protected the Kingdom of Anglia from invasion. Now only one remains – and something unearthly guards it.

The Norfolk coast depicted in A Warning to the Curious is an eerie place, a low landscape of lonely expanses and washed-out colour. Swathes of beach stretching below a pale sky create a sense of the otherworldly, of remoteness and isolation, and provide a terrifying space for dramatic action. In an echo of a scene from Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) – another television adaptation of an East Anglia-set M.R. James ghost story – Paxton takes flight from his supernatural assailant across a bleak and solitary shore.

This was the second film in the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark used locations in Waxham, Happisburgh and Wells-next-the-Sea for filming, while the fictitious Seaburgh, described in the original story, derives from Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

Jonathan Benaim

Akenfield (1974)

Director Peter Hall

Akenfield (1974)

Akenfield (1974)

One of the few feature films from theatre grandee Peter Hall, Akenfield has been difficult to see since 1975 when, in an innovative forerunner of the modern multiplatform release strategy, it was broadcast on LWT the same night as its London premiere.

But in one particular corner of East Anglia (my corner) this will always be the definitive Suffolk film. Utilising an entire cast of nonprofessionals (who improvised their own dialogue so as not to contravene Equity rules), Hall’s production became intricately woven with the county’s inhabitants, leaving a lasting legacy despite the finished film’s elusiveness. The result is a very Anglo Saxon strain of neorealism, one swelled by the stirring strings of Michael Tippett.

The sparse story involves a young farm worker, Tom, reflecting on the death of his grandfather. Regaled with stories of pre-industrial hardships, Tom is at once fascinated with his family history but also oppressed by its inescapable reverberations. The film’s authenticity lies in a depiction of Suffolk that’s romantic but not romanticised. Hall somehow captures the essence of the local lexicon – not just the accent, but the way people talk without saying much at all; as enveloped by their recurring anecdotes and cod-wisdom as they are by the landscape and its history.

James Rocarols

Requiem for a Village (1975)

Director David Gladwell

Requiem for a Village (1975)

Requiem for a Village (1975)

Cut from the same cloth as Akenfield, David Gladwell’s 1975 film can be seen as a somewhat edgier cousin to Peter Hall’s more elegiac work. Both films were shot around various villages in Suffolk, and both fell into obscurity shortly after release, at least until Requiem for a Village’s resurrection on BFI Blu-ray in 2011.They also adopt a comparable approach to the same theme, taking an idea around the generational evolution of rural life and manifesting it as a living past that impinges upon the consciousness of a contemporary character. Unlike the young Tom of Akenfield, the protagonist here is an older churchyard gardener who literally witnesses the dead rising from the earth.

If Akenfield ultimately takes an ambivalent view of the past, suggesting we can learn from it but must also escape its clutches, Gladwell’s film seems more cynical about the disruptive nature of progress. But while its attitude may seem more conservative, formally it’s a much more daring film, incorporating extensive use of slow motion, often incoherent dialogue and visual motifs borrowed from horror and exploitation cinema. The broad approach befits the career of an intriguing filmmaker who assisted Lindsay Anderson on If…. (1968) and went on to direct Julie Christie in the dystopian sci-fi Memoirs of a Survivor (1981).

James Rocarols

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Director John Sturges

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Nazis in Norfolk – an enticing premise for a Sunday afternoon film if ever there was one. It doesn’t matter overly that the theme of Germans infiltrating a cosy English village was done much more imaginatively in Went the Day Well? (1942). Hell, this WWII caper wasn’t even filmed in Norfolk. Apart from sequences at Holkham beach, the village scenes were shot with Mapledurham, Oxfordshire standing in for the fictional village of Studley Constable (possibly modelled on Cley-next-the-Sea).

But this East Anglian was convinced by the setting; much more so than by Donald Sutherland’s accent as an Irish republican in league with the Nazis who plot to kidnap Churchill during the latter’s brief stay in the Norfolk countryside. It’s an automatically interesting plot, rather slackly paced by director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), but with plenty to compensate from an OTT all-star cast (Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Jean Marsh, Larry Hagman – though Jenny Agutter is sadly wasted as a rather stupid, lovestruck villager). Still, probably the starriest and biggest-budgeted film ever to head north of Norwich for its drama.

Samuel Wigley

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Director Peter Greenaway

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Few films try harder to visually delight their audience as much as Drowning by Numbers, a black comedy about three related women (Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson) all named Cissie Colpitts and cursed with tiresome husbands. When the oldest woman (Plowright) drowns her spouse, the other two women consider doing likewise. Typical of Peter Greenaway, every scene is utterly beautiful and composed like a painting, even when depicting the grotesque.

The films was shot around Southwold in Suffolk, and makes great use of the coast and landmarks such as the lighthouse and the water tower. The performances are top-notch, especially from Plowright. And if that’s not enough, eagle-eyed viewers can spend their time spotting the numbers 1 to 100, which appear throughout the film.

Alex Davidson

The Goob (2014)

Director Guy Myhill

The Goob (2014)

The Goob (2014)

Unless we count the Edwardian era-set The Go-between, East Anglia never really had its own coming-of-age movie until The Goob came along. Guy Myhill’s feature debut charts a long, hot summer in the fields of Norfolk in the company of the eponymous Goob (Liam Walpole). He’s a striking teenager, home from school for the holidays and looking for ways to while away the hours: stock-car racing, finding romance with a fellow fruit-picker, and getting into trouble with his mum’s bullying new boyfriend (Sean Harris).

Bracing and elemental, The Goob belongs with a strain of British social-realist films that are tinged with impressionism (from My Summer to Love to Fish Tank). It perfectly captures the sense of summer days stretching lengthily into the evening, and of magic-hour parties when big skies stretch endlessly into nowhere. The areas around Swaffham and Outwell provided the locations.

Samuel Wigley

London Road (2015)

Director Rufus Norris

London Road (2015)

London Road (2015)

The murder of five sex workers in Ipswich in 2006 became a defining moment for the town. Suddenly a place best known for a moderately successful football team was world famous for the most tragic of reasons. The effect on the local community is explored in London Road (actually filmed in London rather than Ipswich), which tells the stories of locals through the most unlikely of genres – a musical.

It shouldn’t work at all, but miraculously steers clear of tastelessness through using the actual dialogue from interviews taken by screenwriter Alecky Blythe. As well as expressing fear and sorrow, neighbours recount with shocking honesty how they hated living alongside sex workers picking up their clients, while schoolgirls giggle nervously but excitedly about who the serial killer might be. It captures the complex emotions of the terrible weeks when the murderer was at large – and how, post his arrest, the community re-identified itself. Poignantly, it also gives a voice to the surviving sex workers, who reveal how the deaths affected them.

Alex Davidson

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