To the lighthouse

Electronic music pioneer Thomas Dolby pens a love letter to Suffolk's haunted coastline

Arts+Culture Q+A
To The Lighthouse Thomas Dolby

Thomas Dolby was always into technology. At an early age, he became obsessed with synthesisers, which became a major part of his music. The video to his 1982 single, She Blinded Me with Science, had steampunk imagery before the invention of the term, Dr Magnus Pyke – the Brian Cox  of his day - and the musician himself as a mad scientist-like figure.

Technology still fascinates Dolby, and he has now dived into digital film-making with The Invisible Lighthouse: a haunting “tone poem” inspired by the closure this year of the Orford Ness lighthouse in Suffolk, which comforted as a child with its mighty beam at night. Now decommissioned, it will eventually fall into the sea as the coastline is eroded. Dolby's DIY film forms part of a multimedia show that the musician is touring at venues around the UK. Here he talks about childhood memories, MOD warnings, and why experiencing The Invisible Lighthouse is nothing like watching a Hollywood movie. 

DD: Your music has often had a cinematic quality and now you have moved into film-making. Has cinema been a direct influence on your work?

It has often been an influence and I have scraped the edges of the mainstream film world, but never really enjoyed myself there. I think the advent of this new technology that lets you do it all yourself is very exciting. So I want to bring a film element in future work that I do.

When I started making it I got in contact with the MOD, the National Trust, Trinity House who own the land and so on, but got very, very little co-operation from any of them. In fact I was sort of warned off. 

DD:The project draws on a lot of childhood memories, and in your work there’s a sense of nostalgia combined with a futuristic outlook. Don’t you need the anchor of the past to keep pushing forward?

Thomas Dolby: Well, I think that where the past and the cutting edge come together in my work is there is a sort of dystopian alternative reality about it. Often in my lyrics it is kind of, 'Well, things might have turned out differently.'

DD: Where does that come from?

Thomas Dolby: You're very aware on this coast that in the 1940s people expected an invasion at any time. My granny, who lived here, used to poison half the food in her larder because she thought the Germans were coming, and you had to know what you could eat and what you couldn't eat. It might so easily have turned out differently, you know? So there's a sense of this alternative reality in lots of my lyrics. And very often with me playing the part of the sort of dissident resistance fighter.

DD: The Human League has talked about how the industrial landscape of Sheffield informed their early work. Was your work inspired by growing up around the flat fen lands of Suffolk?

Thomas Dolby: My mum's from an old Suffolk family. In 1968, Snape Maltings burned and I had this vivid memory of watching these terrific flames light up the sky. Years later, my mum told me, “I hate to break it to you, but you were never there that night. You were miles away.' So I created this kind of implanted memory. That’s a strong theme of The Invisible Lighthouse: how much my memory evolved over time.

DD: In the trailer you have this brief telephone conversation with someone at the MOD who tells you you cannot go near the lighthouse. Was that a recreation of a real call?

Thomas Dolby: When I started making it I got in contact with the MOD, the National Trust, Trinity House who own the land and so on, but got very, very little co-operation from any of them. In fact I was sort of warned off. But I decided to mount a sort of clandestine commando mission at dawn on the island and film the whole thing with spy cameras.

You were told that the area was riddled with unexploded bombs from the Second World War., weren't you?

Thomas Dolby: When the cameras were rolling I thought, 'If nothing else, this could be a very apt climax to my career. Go and get blown up by a landmine.' I didn't really have a sense of physical danger. It has an eerie atmosphere out there, though. It's like the sensation of being in a desert where all the horizons are low, because it's just this flat piece of shingle.

DD: What can people expect when they come to The Invisible Lighthouse show?

Thomas Dolby: It's a very personal experience to see a film with the author of the film, the composer, the narrator, right there on the stage in front of you, with a small audience. A film he is passionate about, about the country where he grew up. So I think it's very different from seeing a Hollywood blockbuster in a shopping mall.

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