Monday, 19 September 2016

The Functions of Film in the British Empire

In 1941, William Sellers, the head of the recently formed Colonial Film Unit (CFU), published an article about African audiences, entitled ‘Films for Primitive Peoples’, in which he proposed a model for mobile film shows in Africa. Sellers suggested that a good way to get the crowd’s attention was for the commentator to ‘ask a question to which the obvious answer is “yes”.’ Such a question, Sellers suggested, might be “Are you proud to be British?”. The question would be asked three times, he explained, ‘almost every member of the audience will reply and their answer comes back in a roar.’ A decade later, when Sellers revisited these plans, the suggested question had intriguingly changed from “Are you proud to be British?” to “Are you all well?”

So why begin with this example? First, it provides a neat illustration of the shifting political situation within Africa in the last decade of colonial rule. The initial question (‘Are you proud to be British?’) also hints at the ways in which the CFU saw these film shows as political events, as a way of monitoring, addressing and homogenising disparate groups of colonial subjects. Film shows were imagined here as a microcosm of the empire; a way of organising the colonial space, for example through carefully outlined seating plans that reaffirmed traditional hierarchies. Reports also suggest that some government officials took most pride in discovering that the crowd had learnt to stand to attention at the end of the show and sing the British National Anthem.

Dr Tom Rice of the Department of Film Studies is currently working on a book on the Colonial Film Unit, which produced, distributed and exhibited film across the British colonies from the 1930s until independence in the 1960s, but his interest in this topic began almost a decade ago when Tom worked on a major 3-year AHRC project on colonial film. The project provided the perfect opportunities for a (then relatively) young researcher: working with major archives, part of a great team, multiple academic and public events, and the chance to research, write and publish extensively. However, there were also limitations here. As the project was focused on the individual films held within the British archives, inevitably there were ‘missing’ films and histories. It also became increasingly apparent that the government films told a partial story – they are often most interesting for what they don’t show – and that many of the histories that most intrigued Tom appeared beyond the screen.

The opening example provides a case in point. Sellers’ writing hints at the integral role of the local film commentator, who might set up the screening, provide an introductory lecture, answer questions, and translate and talk over the films. The commentator would offer call and responses, ask questions of the audience, outline the intended message of the film and direct where the audience looked on screen. He might talk over or replace the British voice on the soundtrack and, in this way, represented a new voice within African cinema. Audience responses show how the commentator could completely transform a film, even prompting widespread laughter during a film on venereal disease.

Looking at audience reports and government documents further confirms that audiences did not always respond as the authorities expected. At the height of the Emergency in Malaya (Malaysia), the government cancelled screenings of a propaganda film made by the Malayan Film Unit after reports that cinemagoers had cheered the onscreen appearance of communist leader Chin Peng. In Nyasaland (Malawi), the mobile unit was blocked from reaching its destination, while on other occasions nationalist leaders took to the microphone. In Ghana, a lamp was actually fitted to the screen to prevent unrest amongst the audience, using the cinema screen to light up political dissidence; an example of the film watching the audience.

Tom is now beginning a Leverhulme Fellowship, which will allow him to move further beyond the British archive (with research trips in Ghana and Jamaica) and access additional materials (films, interviews, government files, and has collaborated with the BFI to digitise the CFU’s quarterly magazine). In examining film’s role in administering, controlling and visualising a rapidly changing Empire, the book will provide a new historical perspective on the last decades of the British Empire. It will also offer a fresh take on British cinema – instructional and educational, often run by civil servants and sanitary inspectors – and, as we see the formative moves towards film production and exhibition in a number of countries, new insights into global film history.

You can view a number of the CFU films at

Research: ‘Are You Proud to Be British?’: Mobile Film Shows, Local Voices and the Demise of the British Empire in Africa:

Friday, 19 August 2016

Applied photonics in the Southern Ocean

Dr Tom Brown,
School of Physics & Astronomy
So why did I, a physicist who is most at home in the darkened, well-controlled confines of a laser laboratory, find myself dressed in high-viz clothing climbing aboard a big orange ship in Tasmania in January 2016 about to set off for a three-month trip to one of the most isolated areas of the planet?

The story starts with a technique known as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), an imaging technique developed in the early 1990s that has had real impact – many optometrists now rely on these systems to provide 3 dimensional images of the retina and its underlying structure and it provides a unique method of diagnosing many important visual impairments. The technique has also found application in many other fields including imaging plaques within arteries and mapping the boundaries of cancer tumours. We have used the system we developed at St Andrews in many medical areas however we have also sought to develop its application in other fields, most recently in providing high resolution structural imaging of Antarctic Krill (Euphasia Superba), one of the most important animals within the food chain of the Antarctic that stretches all the way from microscopic algae to the Blue Whale the planet’s largest animal.

Antarctic Krill (Euphasia Superba)
OCT provides imaging of structure by relying on accurate depth measurement of light which is reflected from the boundaries between different tissue types within a sample. The depth can be measured to a thousands of a mm accuracy by relying on the phenomenon of interference, the effects produced when two waves interact with one another either causing cancellation of a large growth in the signal. A typical OCT system can give resolution of a few thousandths of a mm or better in three dimensions to depths of a few mm within living tissue.

Our studies on Krill started from important biological questions on the effects of ocean acidification on the structural development of the animals. We began by examining preserved lab specimens before shipping the system the Australian Antarctic Division aquarium in Tasmania, Australia to produce the first three-dimensional imaging of living animals.

In the last year we have also taken our technology to the Antarctic itself by taking part in the Australian Government’s K-Axis marine science voyage based on the icebreaker Aurora Australis, which brought together around 50 scientists from a range of disciplines including Physics, Biology, Oceanography, Ecology and Chemistry, to study an area of unusual productivity in Eastern Antarctic between the Kerguelen Islands and the Antarctic itself. We showed that our OCT system, which is normally used within a specifically built optics lab, can be deployed and generated high quality data within the marine science environment with measurements taken even as the ship was rolling by more than 12 degrees in each direction. We have also shown that a wide range of interesting species can be imaged using these techniques and look forward to starting a host of new collaborations with partners from a very broad group of interests contributing new knowledge to globally important effects of climate change and ocean acidification.

The work described in this post has been supported from several sources with EU funding enabling the original development of the system, EPSRC providing ongoing support through a Platform Grant and the Australian Antarctic Division, providing major in kind contributions for voyage costs and hosting experiments.

Throughout the marine science programme our photonics technology performed exceptionally and provided an important compliment to the other photonics-systems on board that provided both imaging and advanced experiments on plankton development. The fact that the ship then ran aground and we had to be rescued by a major international mission – well that might be a story for another post!

Dr Tom Brown, School of Physics and Astronomy

M.J. Cox, S. Kawaguchi, R. King, K.Dholakia and C.T.A. Brown, “Internal physiology of live krill revealed using new aquaria techniques and mixed optical microscopy and optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging techniques”, Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology, 48, p. 455 (2015)

N. Bellini, M.J. Cox, D.J. Harper, S.R. Stott, P.C. Ashok, K. Dholakia, S. Kawaguchi, R. King, T. Horton and C.T.A. Brown, “The Application of Optical Coherence Tomography to Image Subsurface Tissue Structure of Antarctic Krill Euphausia superba”, PLOS ONE, 9, Art. No. e110367 (2014)

Monday, 8 August 2016

World politics podcasts: State of the Theory

Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri from the School of English and Dr Hannah Fitzpatrick from the University of Aberdeen run a weekly podcast called “State of the Theory”. Each week, this series tackles a new topic from the world of politics, news or popular culture and try to analyse it using the tools of philosophy and critical theory. The latest episode focuses on the ramifications of Brexit and what we might learn from the EU referendum results. We have previously looked at the Oscars, the UK budget, Islamophobia, and the London mayoral elections.

You can find the episodes on Soundcloud ( or on iTunes ( Please give it a listen, and join in the conversation. We are on Twitter as @DrAnindyaR and @DrHFitz – you can also get in touch through the podcast Twitter account - @TheoryDoctors

The podcast website is 

Monday, 25 July 2016

History of Psychiatry podcast series launched

This is the first of two series of weekly podcasts beginning in July 2016. The podcaster is Professor Rab Houston of the School of History, a social historian of Britain who has published extensively on the history of mental disorders and their cultural, political, legal, and economic context, especially during the period 1500-1850.

The first series of 44 podcasts covers England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland during the last 500 years, looking at continuities and changes in how mental illness was understood and treated, and at the radical shifts in systems of caring for those who were either mad or mentally handicapped during the last two centuries. The analysis aims to be balanced and fair.

The coverage is broad, ranging from how mental problems were identified and described in the past through changing ideas about their causes and developing therapeutic practices to important themes such as the reasons behind the emergence of psychiatry as a profession and the rise and fall of asylums as a location of care.

The series explores:
  • the history of suicide, 
  • madness in the media, 
  • psychiatry and the law, 
  • relations between medical practitioners and patients, 
and it assesses evidence that the incidence of mental illness has changed over time. It begins and ends with discussion of the value of history and the vital lessons that can be learned by studying the past, not only for psychiatrists, but for all healthcare professionals, welfare policy makers, and indeed anyone with an interest in mental health.

Go to:
For research relating to the podcasts, please visit

Twitter: @HistPsychiatry

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Multiple projects funded for Mars exploration research

Dr Claire Cousins from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) was recently awarded four research projects, totalling a value of £422K, funded by the UK Space Agency as part of their ongoing ‘Aurora’ programme and The Leverhulme Trust. All these projects relate to the exploration of Mars, spanning both fundamental research and technology development.

The 3.5 year UK Space Agency PhD Studentship “Chemolithotrophs on Mars: metabolic pathways and biosignatures” will explore the metabolisms and stable isotope fractionation patterns produced by microbial communities in Mars analogue environments, and will be co-supervised by Dr Aubrey Zerkle. This will help us understand what kind of evidence we might expect to be left by any microbial life that existed billions of years ago when Mars was a less hostile planet.

Complementing this studentship is a 3-year postdoctoral project that will explore the habitability of hydrothermal fluids on Mars, Europa and Enceladus (“Frozen but not forgotten: microbial habitability and preservation in planetary fluids”; The Leverhulme Trust). This project will combine natural mineral springs in the Canadian High Arctic and Iceland with experimental studies to investigate how microbial communities survive and are preserved in simulated planetary environments. Dr Gordon Osinksi from the University of Western Ontario who visited DEES during his sabbatical in April 2016 is a Co-Investigator on this project, along with Dr Mark Claire (DEES) and Prof Charles Cockell (University of Edinburgh).

Testing the ExoMars PanCam in Iceland in 2013 

Finally, a 2-year proof-of-concept UK Space Agency project, led by Dr Matthew Gunn at Aberystwyth University, will develop a prototype instrument to conduct “Luminescence age dating for in situ environments” on Mars. Luminescence age dating is widely used in environmental sciences, but has yet to be used in the robotic exploration of Mars. Creating new instrument prototypes means they can be developed into more advanced instruments for missions to the Martian surface in the future. 

Links to related research:

Selecting the geology filter wavelengths for the ExoMars Panoramic Camera Instrument, Cousins, C. R., et al., 2012, In: Planetary and Space Science.

Mars surface context cameras past, present, and future, Cousins, C. R., et al., 27 April 2016, In: Earth and Space Science.

Glaciovolcanic hydrothermal environments in Iceland and implications for their detection on Mars, Cousins, C. R., et al., Cousins, C. R., et al., 15 Apr 2013, In: Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. 256, p. 61-77.

Volcano-Ice Interaction as a Microbial Habitat on Earth and Mars, Claire R. Cousins and Ian A. Crawford. Astrobiology. September 2011, 11(7): 695-710.

Related media stories:

New Scientist: ExoMars rover's Martian-hunting camera takes test run in Iceland
Imperative Space: Aurora and ExoMars Films for UK Space Agency
The Leverhulme Trust:  Looking for life in the UV: fluorescence as a tool for planetary exploration

Monday, 27 June 2016

'New Generation Thinker 2016' winners! Dr Victoria Donovan and Anindya Raychaudhuri

Congratulations to Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri, School of English, and Dr Victoria Donovan, School of Modern Languages two early career researchers from St Andrews (out of 10 total!) who have been chosen as New Generation Thinkers 2016!

BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) have unveiled the 10 academics who will be turning their research into television and radio programmes on the BBC. The New Generation Thinkers scheme 2016 is a nationwide search for the brightest minds who have the potential to share their cutting edge academic ideas through broadcasting. After a four-month selection process involving a series of day-long workshops at the BBC in Salford and London, the final 10 were chosen by a panel of BBC Radio 3 and BBC Arts producers, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The scheme has been a successful first step for many academics, with previous thinkers going on to appear across television and radio.

Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri is working on the way nostalgia is used by diasporic communities to create imaginary and real homes. He has written about the Spanish Civil War and the India/Pakistan partition and the cultural legacies of these wars. He co-hosts a podcast show, State of the Theory, and explores the issues raised by his research in stand-up comedy.
Dr Victoria Donovan is a cultural historian of Russia whose research explores local identities, heritage politics, and the cultural memory of the Soviet past in twenty-first century Russia. Her new project explores patriotic identity in Putin’s Russia. She is also working on a project that looks at the connections between mining communities in South Wales and Eastern Ukraine.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Neil Gaiman brings Beowulf back to St Andrews

Neil Gaiman
(photo credit: Kimberly Butler)
When prize-winning author Neil Gaiman first encountered the Old English epic Beowulf, he did so via the Penguin Classics translation of the poem, made by Michael Alexander, former Berry Professor of English at St Andrews.
This week Gaiman comes to St Andrews to receive an honorary degree and to talk about (among other subjects) his part as writer on the Hollywood film adaptation of Beowulf. Dr Chris Jones of the School of English specializes in the uses that contemporary artists make of Old English literature. You can read his blog about Gaiman’s Beowulf here: School of English blog, or if you have a Reading Group, download discussions questions about Beowulf and the film here: Beowulf Discussion Questions.

Read about the research:   Chris Jones, ‘From Heorot to Hollywood: reading Beowulf in its third millennium’, in David Clark and Nicholas Perkins, eds., Anglo-Saxon and the Modern Imagination (Cambridge: Brewer, 2010), pp. 13-29. Published in Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination, Edited by David Clark &Nicholas Perkins.