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Suffolk film-makers celebrate Life on the Deben

PUBLISHED: 08:31 03 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:31 03 March 2018

A Thames barge entering the River Deben at Bawdsey-Felixstowe Ferry in Life on the Deben. Photo: Tim Curtis

A Thames barge entering the River Deben at Bawdsey-Felixstowe Ferry in Life on the Deben. Photo: Tim Curtis

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The River Deben has always played a major role in the story of Suffolk. As Arts Editor Andrew Clarke discovers, local film-makers have given the Deben its own bio-pic

Tim Curtis filming John McCarthy delivering a piece to camera in Life on the Deben. Photo: Jemma WattsTim Curtis filming John McCarthy delivering a piece to camera in Life on the Deben. Photo: Jemma Watts

The best films involve stories about intriguing or mysterious characters. These characters are sometimes slipppery customers but they are invariably human. However, the central figure in this new film has a habit of slipping through your fingers.

In the case of the beautifully photographed documentary Life on the Deben, the main character is the River Deben. Made by a team of local professional film-makers linked with the Riverside Trust in Woodbridge, the film has journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy, a former Woodbridge resident, telling the story of the river, tracing its origins as a tiny trickle emerging from the ground in Debenham and following its journey all the way to the sea, until it crashes as a raging torrent into the North Sea at Felixstowe Ferry.

During the 100 minute film John McCarthy not only charts the changing nature of the river but gets to meet the people whose lives and family histories have been shaped by the Deben and explores the history of the river with some choice pieces of newsreel footage and some dramatic re-enactments.

Felixstowe Ferry seen from the air in Life on the Deben. Photo: Tim CurtisFelixstowe Ferry seen from the air in Life on the Deben. Photo: Tim Curtis

The film is the brainchild of Woodbridge-based film-maker and cameraman Tim Curtis along with collaborator and producer Malcolm Hodd, who wanted to make a film which told the story of one of the most beautiful rivers in Suffolk – a river which changes its character as it moves through the Suffolk landscape. The Deben is a river that also mysteriously transforms itself from a calm, freshwater river into a tempestuous, saltwater, tidal river.

One of the tasks that Tim set John McCarthy was the discover the exact spot where this transformation takes place. John also looks to explore the history of the river from the days of the Romans, through the Saxon period of Raedwald, the first King of the Britons, who is thought to be buried at Sutton Hoo, to the medieval era of watermills and the Deben being navigable all the way up to Kettleburgh and Brandeston.

It’s a river which has supported fishing, ship-building, trade and exploration as ships have ventured forth from Suffolk and made contact with communities around the world.

A Thames barge entering the River Deben at Felixstowe Ferry in Life on the Deben. Photo: Jemma WattsA Thames barge entering the River Deben at Felixstowe Ferry in Life on the Deben. Photo: Jemma Watts

Speaking from his Woodbridge home, Tim said that the film took two years to make, which included research, editing and getting John McCarthy back to Woodbridge, tearing him away from his own globe-trotting projects.

“John was incredibly enthusiastic about the project from the start,” says Tim. “Being a keen sailor and a former Woodbridge resident, he loves the Deben and immediately wanted to be involved. After someone moves away from an area, you are never sure whether they want to look back, but John McCarthy was incredibly supportive from the very beginning. He knows the Deben very well and has a great affection for it.”

The film came about through Malcolm Hodd and the Riverside Trust who wanted a promotional film documenting the changes to the area around the former Whistocks boat yard.

John McCarthy, Malcolm Hodd, and Tim Curtis the team behind the film, Life on the Deben. Photo: Jemma WattsJohn McCarthy, Malcolm Hodd, and Tim Curtis the team behind the film, Life on the Deben. Photo: Jemma Watts

“During the making of that film Malcolm and I had a few pints and came up with this idea to do a film about the history of the river, concentrating around the boat yards. We looked into it and we discovered that people were disappearing. So we thought we had to act quickly. I went and recorded the boatyard buildings finally being demolished before we had anything in place, because we needed that footage. As I looked at the rubble I realised that there was the basis of a movie here.

“People are fascinated by rivers – the people who sail on them, live along side them, walk along the paths beside them – and the Deben is almost like two rivers. I didn’t really know much about the Deben once it got past Melton, so it was a learning experience for me too.”

One of the strongest aspects of the film is the spectacular aerial footage which Tim captured using drones armed with lightweight, high-resolution cameras. One of these sequences captures John McCarthy on board a traditional sailing barge as it enters the Deben estuary opposite Bawdsey Manor.

Film-maker Tim Curtis sending one of his camera drones aloft to get sweeping views of the river Deben. Photo: Jemma WattsFilm-maker Tim Curtis sending one of his camera drones aloft to get sweeping views of the river Deben. Photo: Jemma Watts

“We wanted to start the film at the source, so we started driving around Debenham and Mickfield and spoke to people, who introduced us to other people. John was great and immediately put people at their ease. Being a good journalist, he has a way of getting people to talk.

“We wanted to capture the wildlife along the river too, getting footage of animals from camera traps. We also went out and made a point of getting in contact with the Environment Agency and leading archeologists who could add depth and detail to the story of this magnificent river.”

Life on the Deben is available on DVD and you can see it on the big screen tonight at the Stowmarket Regal, The Aldeburgh Cinema, at the Ipswich Film Theatre on March 4, Leiston Cinema on March 11 and at the Abbeygate Cinema, Bury St Edmunds on March 21.

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