Jay Ducker was hand picked to be starring actor Ralph Fiennes’ assistant and helped him with his Suffolk accent

Great British Life: Jay Ducker on set with Ralph Fiennes, filming The DigJay Ducker on set with Ralph Fiennes, filming The Dig (Image: Archant)

The story of Suffolk’s greatest archaeological find at Sutton Hoo is being released on film at the end of January and one Suffolk man will be watching with a keen ear and eye as he relives his own on-set experiences.

Jay Ducker, an aspiring local film maker and musician, landed a job during the making of the film, The Dig – due to be released on Netflix on January 29 – as assistant to starring actor Ralph Fiennes, who plays Basil Brown, the Ipswich Museum archaeologist who uncovered what was to be one of the country’s most important archaeological discoveries of all time.

Screen Suffolk was involved in pre-production of the film, including finding locations such as Thorpeness Beach, Shingle Street, Snape and RSPB Boyton Marsh, and finding an assistant for Ralph Fiennes, who was determined to bring a true Suffolk accent to the part.

Jay saw the shout out on Facebook which simply read ‘An actor requires an on-set assistant from mid-September to mid-November based in Suffolk and then Surrey area. Ideal opportunity for an entry level crew member. Must have a Suffolk accent.’

Great British Life: Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig Picture: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIXRalph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig Picture: LARRY HORRICKS/NETFLIX (Image: © 2021 Netflix, Inc.)

Although Jay had been making short films and promos he had little experience on a film set but a friend encouraged him to apply.

‘I remember being relatively relaxed because I honestly wasn’t expecting to get the job. I don’t have the strongest Suffolk accent and again, I had very little experience in the feature film industry.

‘What really put me at ease was that Ralph was already using the Suffolk accent.’ Indeed, Ralph was already being helped by Suffolk’s resident accent expert, Charlie Haylock.

‘It made me feel as if I was speaking to a local or someone I knew really well,’ says Jay. ‘But what helped me get the job, I think, was that I immediately heard when and where he was going wrong with the dialect and without thinking I started correcting him in the interview.

‘He seemed to respond well to that, and I told him my background, which was in the music industry, so I believe it was my good ear that got me the job.’

Read about how images from the Sutton Hoo dig are being preserved

The Sutton Hoo discovery – the ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon king thought to be Raedwald – was due to the insight and perseverance of two Suffolk people – landowner Mrs Edith Pretty and Basil Brown.

The film, which also stars Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott, tells the story of Mrs Pretty, her ‘ghosts’ and the tenacity of Basil Brown who unearthed the historic finds. Directed by Simon Stone, it’s based on the 2007 novel of the same name and reimagines the events of the 1939 excavation – the race against time to get the site excavated and recorded with World War II looming, and anti-tank and anti-glider traps about to be sunk into the landscape.

Jay’s first day on set was at Snape Maltings where the crew were filming their first landscape scenes of the famous Suffolk sky, reeds and beaches. The crew filmed in and around Suffolk for a week.

‘My role was to assist Ralph in getting the best possible performance. Everything from making sure he was fed and watered to perfecting and correcting his Suffolk dialect.’ Jay would listen to Ralph reading scripts and suggest other ways for him to perfect the Suffolk accent.

‘There was a three-pronged approach when it came to dialect coaching with Jamie Matthewman being the overall guidance for all the actors, Charlie Haylock specifically zooming in on the Suffolk dialects, particularly with Ralph and myself being the everyday reference point. I think all our differing approaches really complemented each other.’

Jay is still in touch with Ralph as well as many other crew members. ‘The camaraderie amongst the crew, was the best thing about being on set, for sure. There’s a real sense of togetherness when you’re cold, tired and in the mud together. You really pull on that to get you through.’

He certainly made the most of the opportunity and gained praise from Ralph himself who said of him. ‘Jay Ducker gave me a lot of support and help during the shoot of The Dig. I requested from Screen Suffolk an assistant on set who was from Suffolk – someone I could practise my Suffolk accent with. Jay adapted very quickly to the gruelling filming hours, and really impressed me with his spirit of commitment and dedication. He worked really hard.’

Since the film wrapped at the end of 2019 Jay has been continuing to make music under the name of Skinny Rodgers and has also had film-making commissions under his Middle Sea Media business. During 2020 Covid-19 has kept Jay away from film sets but he’s been left with a ‘deep appreciation’ of the experience.

‘It was definitely character-building, and I know a lot of people would have killed for my position so I’m very grateful for the opportunity. A friend of mine has written this fantastic script which is based in Suffolk about my great ancestor, John Ducker, who was the last man to be publicly hanged in Ipswich. Our hopes are to turn it into a feature film and help bring more film making to Suffolk.’

Getting the accent right

Suffolk’s resident accent expert Charlie Haylock was contacted by Ralph Fiennes to act as voice coach after he saw Charlie’s In a Manner of Speaking video on YouTube. Charlie was brought onboard fairly late in the day in July 2019 and only had weeks to turn Ralph Fiennes into Basil Brown before filming started in August.

Charlie worked on the script to ‘Suffolkate’ it, as he explained, re-writing lines phonetically in a Suffolk dialect and (subject to director’s approval) slipping in a few Suffolk phrases that everybody would understand.

“Although, Ralph was born in Suffolk and lived in Wrentham for a short while he had no Suffolk accent. As we drove over to Sudbury I told him: ‘I’ve got my work cut out here, you know that don’t you?’ He looked at me and asked: ‘Why?’

“I told him: ‘Because everytime you lot do a film set in this part of the world you turn us into West Country pirates. I hate pirates.’ He laughed and promised me that he was committed to getting it right.

“And as soon as the coaching sessions got underway Ralph committed to use the Suffolk dialect all the time, so it became second nature. It was then I knew it was going to be all right.”

The real test came when Charlie took Ralph round a number of West Suffolk pubs allowing him to practise his Suffolk dialect with the locals. Wearing his Basil Brown tweed suit he was rarely recognised.

“We even spent a Monday afternoon at the Blaxhall Ship joining in with the round-the-room weekly busking session. By doing this, Ralph could not only hear the spoken Suffolk dialect but also listen to the rhythm of the dialect, the intonations, the speed it was spoken (not very fast) and judge those famous Suffolk pauses.

“Ralph was a very good student and wanted to get it right. Basil Brown was a self-educated man and had leant Latin, Greek and other languages and had acquired a more refined Suffolk dialect and not so broad as the other characters portrayed in the film.”

Having got Ralph Fiennes ‘Suffolkating’ his lines, Charlie then arranged for a series of workshops for the rest of the cast in London just before shooting started.

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