Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis love The Beatles. Yesterday was described by Boyle as a love letter to their music and to love itself — an ode to knowing what is important in life and cherishing it. For part of the UK, it is probably something else as well, though. Yesterday is also a love letter to East Anglia.
At first glance, East Anglia seems an odd choice of setting for a film like this. Even though it’s not an area directly associated with The Beatles, it is somewhere that makes a whole lot of sense for Yesterday. The movie is set in Suffolk, though a number of key scenes were shot just over the border in Norfolk, including a scene that broke records. More on that story later…
If you aren’t familiar with the area, there are a few things you should know. Most British seaside towns have seen dramatic decline in their fortunes since Brits started vacationing abroad. Local economies and once thriving towns struggled. Some became cute, twee havens for second-home townies, while others limped on, poorer, bleaker, faded. Guest houses, hotels, and visitor attractions were converted into affordable housing. Investments dwindled. Transport links never really got better. As time went on, these places seemed more and more remote. People moved away. Soon, all of those beautiful natural ingredients remained, but they were obscured by despondency and blurred by the biting winds coming off the North Sea. For some, areas like this felt like places where nothing happened.
And so, it makes solid narrative sense to place Jack Malik in Lowestoft, one of those classic seaside towns and, fact fans, the UK’s most easterly point. It is a town that has (with love) seen better days. I’m allowed to say that, because I live here. It is a place where sudden global success in the music industry definitely seems even more unlikely. It’s two hours from a motorway, let alone fame and fortune. There’s an urban legend about a local man who went to London for a day trip, and on his return, spoke of how strange it was that London had a roof — not realising he had spent the day in Liverpool Street Station. The area is the butt of a lot of jokes: unintelligible accents, Small Town Syndrome, Normal For Norfolk… It is a place where ‘six degrees of separation’ doesn’t really apply — it’s more like three. This is stifling for some, but pleasantly familiar for others; it depends how you feel about bumping into someone you were at school with every time you leave the house, or how you feel about talking to someone new and realising after about five minutes that you know half of their friends already, they were taught by your dad when they were little, and their cousin is in your English class. It is a strange mix of a community where everyone knows everybody’s business, but the rest of the world is very far away indeed.
The film doesn’t gloss over any of that, or just make the area the target of relentless mockery. I compare it to a love letter above, but think of it as a love letter in the style of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130; “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…” for the first two acts, but the third act is dedicated to Shakespeare’s final couplet: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”
In an interview with the BBC at the New York premiere of the Beatles-inspired film, the director said he was drawn to towns such as Gorleston and Lowestoft that were a “bit forgotten”.
East Anglia lies at the heart of this film. There are scenes filmed at the Latitude festival, local pubs, even the hospital. Notable cast and crew have strong links with the area. Suffolk’s biggest star and ‘good sport’, Ed Sheeran, features in an important role. Richard Curtis lives a little way down the coast in Suffolk. Himesh Patel is from Cambridgeshire. There are some valiant attempts at the accent, though sadly some actors were aiming for East Anglia and ended up somewhere in the West Country. It happens. We can tell the difference between the two, but for many, it just sounds like ‘generic country bumpkin’. Respect for the correct pronunciation of ‘Latitude’ though. (That first T should basically be a ghost. Go on, give it a try. La’itude. There you go.)
The biggest moment for East Anglia, though, is that record-breaking scene. In the movie, Jack’s album launch takes place at The Pier Hotel in Gorleston, overlooking the beach. Boyle wanted a big crowd of ‘fans’ and ‘music journalists’, so he put out a call for extras, and spoke to local businesses and employers to invite them along. And we didn’t disappoint. The final count was 6428 — the largest crowd scene for a movie in Europe. (Gandhi had the largest crowd in the world. We couldn’t quite beat that.)
Why did he choose Gorleston?
The film’s location supervisor Camilla Stephenson told the BBC that Mr Boyle “didn’t want chocolate box” settings.
She said: “By choosing Gorleston, we’ve got an Edwardian seaside town that’s charming but also has a real edge.
“He wanted it real but didn’t want it gritty.
“Danny wanted to see the beauty, but not the quaint, English-village prettiness,” she said.
Gorleston beach is a bit of a gem. It doesn’t have the neon lights and cheesiness of Great Yarmouth, or the gentrified boutiques of Southwold. Instead, there are some cafes, some little shops selling buckets and spades, a boating lake, and soft golden sand. I spent many a summer’s day on Gorleston beach as a teenager, getting some sunshine, going for a paddle, watching braver kids diving off the sea wall fondly known as the ‘Dangerkeepoff’. Yeah, we could read it. What’s your point?
The backdrop of The Pier Hotel was important too.
“This was all filmed at the Pier Hotel, working port behind, with ships coming and going, giving a fitting industrial landscape to that song.
“The lads did also come from a great industrial port, after all.”
As one of the thousands on set that day, I can assure you that it was a fun and surreal experience. There was a party atmosphere. The sun was shining, a DJ played between takes to keep us all entertained, and somehow we kept the energy up for hours, dancing to ‘Help’ again and again, for every conceivable camera angle. There were cranes. There was a helicopter. The cast and crew came out to chat to people, and the crowd even took a moment to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Meera Syal.
The area’s connection with the movie didn’t stop when filming wrapped. Boyle and Curtis built links with local schools while filming, and came back for a special premiere in the town, with Sheeran and Kate McKinnon in tow. Boyle came to Lowestoft’s First Light Festival in June as well. Some students and teachers who appeared in the film were invited to the London premiere. The filmmakers didn’t just turn up for shooting and then disappear again; bonds were established.
One key scene featured more than 6,000 extras on the seafront, which Boyle said helped “build a relationship with the local community”.
“The film benefits and the local community benefits because you are giving something back,” he said.
Screen Suffolk, which promotes the region to film-makers and champions local talent, has predicted an increase in “film-induced tourism” to all the locations featured.
As well as bringing money to the town during the shoot, Boyle said he hoped the experience of taking part had been one “people will value”.
It takes a while for Jack to appreciate the value in his hometown in the movie — perhaps a relatable journey for many viewers. I’m not saying that it takes seeing your hometown on the big screen to make you appreciate it anew. But we can definitely say that this isn’t a place where nothing ever happens. And that’s why Yesterday will have a special place in the hearts of East Anglians. Well, that and the possibility of pausing the crowd scene and trying to spot yourself dancing in the crowd…