So that makes two idiosyncratically English songwriters that I’ve seen play live in Screen One of the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge in support of their new films in the space of two days, though I think you can safely say that the seasoned producer, session player and electronic games designer Thomas Dolby possesses just a touch more technical competence than the blessed John Otway. He’s not however known as a director and this presentation of his forty minute film The Invisible Lighthouse has more of the ambitious Pink Floyd-style concert-plus-lightshow about it than your typical film festival screening: Dolby provides live narration, soundtracking and inventive visual effects from the side of the auditorium while his movie plays, making this a unique and personal event.
…which is nicely appropriate, given the subject matter and the autobiographical slant Dolby has given it – his roots are in Suffolk and he grew up near the coast among the peculiarly bleak flatlands of Orford Ness, where a lighthouse has stood since the eighteenth century*. This area is gradually being reclaimed by the sea and the lighthouse (which at one point boasted the most powerful lamp of any in the United Kingdom) was finally deemed unsafe and decommissioned in 2013. On hearing the news Dolby, who has in recent years returned to live here again, felt moved to mark the passing of what he remembered as a formative influence on his childhood by shooting what is in effect a home movie, albeit one that’s been shot and assembled using modern digital technology. He weaves his memories of the lighthouse and its landscape together with stories from his family history and he turns out to have had plenty of illustrious forebears including the builder of the barley malting plant of Snape Maltings, now an arts complex, and the first woman to become the mayor of an English town (Aldeburgh). He’s determined to be present when the lighthouse shines out for the last time but receives scant support from the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust, the bodies responsible for the spit of land on which the lighthouse stands, so takes the opportunity to go on a dawn commando-style reconnaissance mission in his speedboat down one of the murky channels that criss-cross the site and thankfully gets out without detonating any of the unexploded warheads supposedly still concealed in the shingle. At one point the film digresses in a slightly Sebald-ish manner into an account of a dubious extra-terrestrial sighting in a local wood and Dolby has rounded up the footage of US army personnel swearing blind that they witnessed something metallic dissolve into liquid and vanish through the trees (if you want to visit the spot in question it seems to be clearly signposted on a woodland UFO trail). If nothing else this film is a lovely look into a highly distinctive part of the country that very rarely gets much exposure outside regional news bulletins.
After the screening the confident and affable Dolby chats about why and how he chose to make his movie and even goes into the detail of how much particular bits of equipment cost him: he reckons the total cost of the project to be of the order of a modest £1,500. It’s unlikely to receive a conventional release, either in cinemas or on DVD, as he prefers to be present when it’s shown and besides he still enjoys tinkering with it – the beauty of it existing only on his laptop is that it’s easy to chop and change elements without inconveniencing anyone but himself. He rounds off the evening with a few of his old songs, the backing tracks of which have been pre-programmed into his keyboards, and even this provides an impressively multimedia experience with footage from his 80s videos and the visual representations of the songs on his computer being seamlessly projected behind him while he sings. He’s clearly fascinated by the possibilities of technology and is something of a master of the software – the only mechanism that lets him down is the mechanical pivot he uses to secure one of his keyboards to his waist which fails rather badly when he attempts a ZZ Top style spin of the instrument, not that it seems to affect the smooth playing of the music at all. I bought my first Thomas Dolby single in 1981 and now I’ve got to see him live, and at a film festival too. This was an unexpected treat.
* Interestingly Brian Eno, Dolby’s chief competitor in the electronic music boffin stakes, hails from nearby Woodbridge. Must be something in the water.