Satanism and gardening’ in Norfolk

JON WELCH A film receives its premiere in Norwich next week. Called Norfolk Coast, it stars Susannah York, Nicholas Ball and Jean Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers, and gives a leading role to some of the county’s scenery. JON WELCH reports.

JON WELCH

For a small film, it features some pretty big names. Norfolk Coast is inspired by The Stranglers' 2004 album of the same name, and stars the band's bass player Jean Jacques (“JJ”) Burnel in his first acting role, alongside Susannah York and Footballers' Wives star Nicholas Ball.

The short film, which receives its premiere in Norwich on Monday, March 27, was filmed in Norfolk.

It was written and directed by Robin Bextor, father of pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who explains how the project came to fruition.

“I've always done a lot of work with music and musicians. We were working with UB40, making a DVD, and The Stranglers were on the same bill.

“I was listening to their Norfolk Coast album and it set a few ideas going. JJ and I started talking about a film idea. I came up with a script and away we went.”

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The film stars Burnel as Warner, a man “on the edge” after the break-up of his relationship. Haunted by flashbacks of ritual abuse from his childhood, he returns to North Norfolk to confront some ghosts from his past.

A long-standing Stranglers fan, Bextor reveals how the Norfolk Coast album shaped the film's storyline.

“Some of JJ's lyrics are about a man breaking up with a woman and blaming anyone but himself.

“This guy is so upset about his relationship breaking down he blames it entirely on what his family did when he was young. He tries to take things into his own hands.”

Norfolk Coast was shot last summer, at locations including Cromer, Thorpe Market and Caister.

Bextor, 44, says he was impressed by Norfolk. “I got a very strong sense of location. It's part of England but it's cut off, at least from London. It's a bit like an island - I've seen archive of when the Fens flooded.”

On the finished film, he says: “I'm really pleased with it. It's just been accepted by the Brooklyn International Film Festival and it's going to be shown at Cannes.

“It doesn't feel too much like an experimental work. It's got a filmic look to it, and a lot of that is down to the landscape.”

Bextor acknowledges the influence on Norfolk Coast of cult movies Perfomance, starring Mick Jagger, and The Wicker Man, starring Edward Woodward as a policeman who uncovers terrifying pagan rituals on a remote Scottish island.

Is that the kind of thing he thinks goes on in Norfolk? “No”, he says.

Regarding Warner's flashbacks to scenes of abuse from his childhood, he says: “You never know whether it's real or imagined.

“It's a cliché. It shows how his mind has gone and how he's fallen into the trap of thinking that people in Norfolk have six fingers and sleep with their sisters. I think it adds to the irony of the piece.

“We've got a feature-length script and you'll see just how far off the rails JJ's character is.”

Producer Sanjay Kumar describes the film as: “An everyday tale of Satanism, murder and gardening.”

Bextor wanted Burnel for the lead role because of his dark, enigmatic personality, but the musician initially refused, saying “the last thing the world needs is another rock 'n' roll star who thinks he can act”.

Bextor managed to talk him into it - and was impressed by his efforts.

“These guys say they can't act but their career is for the cameras so often. They're in their element as performers. JJ assumes a role in front of 15,000 people every night - if that's not being a performer, I don't know what is.”

Bextor's daughter Sophie has previously spoken of her support for Norwich City. So are there some family links to Norfolk?

No, says Bextor, who explains that Sophie's enthusiasm for the Canaries came via an ex-boyfriend and has since waned.

Norfolk Coast was made on a tight budget. “About the price of a good house in Norwich,” says Bextor.

When told north city terraces fetch about £120,000 these days, he revises his estimate downwards.

Norfolk Coast will be screened in selected cinemas. “I want it to have a bit of a life of its own,” says Bextor.

Channel 4 has agreed to screen the film, and Bextor hopes to find funding to make a feature-length version.

It's 75pc likely, he says. “The signs are extremely good at the moment.”

He plans to work with a Norfolk writer to enhance the script and ensure an authentic local flavour.

“I don't want to make some very well-meaning British picture that sinks without trace. I hope to make something that people can be proud of and will be seen a lot.”

The Stranglers have strong Norfolk links. Both Burnel and keyboard player Dave Greenfield are keen birdwatchers and walkers and are regular visitors to the coast.

Burnel says: “The Stranglers have always especially enjoyed playing in Norwich. We felt especially inspired by the incredible wide skies of Norfolk: you just look up and it's a third land and two-thirds sky.

“The Norfolk Coast album came out in 2004 and it became our most successful in a long time, so you could say that Norfolk has played a big part in our career so far.

“It was great to come back and actually work within that scenery as an actor in the film and we're lucky that Norwich has Cinema City who invited us to premier the film.”

The part of Warner's cousin, Linda, is played by Susannah York, nominated for an Oscar for her role in 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Another experienced British actor, Nicholas Ball, plays Warner's father, Tucker.

Ball, 59, has a list of acting credits dating back to the 1960s.

Among his best- known parts was the title role in television comedy drama Hazell in 1978.

More recently, he's been playing Garry Ryan, the sleazy, scheming chairman of Earl's Park FC in Footballers' Wives.

“We came up to Norfolk last summer during a break in the filming of Footballers' Wives,” he says.

Ball was particularly impressed by one aspect of Norfolk like. “The area must have some of the best pubs in England.

“I would just wander in. They were extremely friendly. We had a wonderful time - great hospitality. I loved it.”

He enjoyed shooting Norfolk Coast. “I've done a lot of those little, short films.

“You don't get paid much, if at all, but it's a good thing to do.”

He's also a fan of the veteran rock band. “I've always liked The Stranglers. I just liked their music: it was funky and fairly off-beat, which was nice.”

Ball, too, was impressed by Burnel's performance in his first acting role. “He's great - a bit of a hooligan. No, he's just a nice fella.”

And he enjoyed meeting the rest of the band, who appear in the film's flashback scenes wearing masks. “They were a really terrific bunch.”

For the role of Tucker, Ball adopts an accent that perhaps owes more to the West Country than Norfolk.

“It was fun,” he says. “I've never tried to do a really perfect one.”

He plans to return to Norfolk. “I think we're coming back.

“I found the coast absolutely gorgeous.”

t Norfolk Coast (certificate TBC) receives its worldwide cinema premiere at Norwich's Cinema City at Norwich Playhouse on Monday, March 27, 6pm. Stars Jean Jacques Burnel and Nicholas Ball are due to attend, along with director Robin Bextor and producer Sanjay Kumar. Following the screening, Bextor and Kumar will host a film-maker's masterclass and a question-and-answer session. Also shown will be extracts from Bextor's film of French band Air at The Eden Project, Cornwall. The event will end with a rare acoustic live performance from Jean Jacques Burnel. Tickets, £5.50 (concessions £4.30) are available from the box office on 01603 622047.

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