A Journey Through The Ancient Commons of the Bristol Ring Road

PhD researcher Andy Thatcher (Film, University of Bristol) has been journeying through the ancient commons of the Bristol Ring Road over at Unofficial Britain.

Hinton Green (c) Andy Thatcher

Eastern Bristol is speckled with commons. Go way, way back and this whole area was part of the Kingswood Forest, a royal Anglo Saxon hunting forest. This means that all the little verges, scrappy bits of wasteland and neat greens that I am about to find around the Bristol Ring Road are relics of hard-won ancient rights and custom.

The day is getting on and I leave the car in the first car park I come to, promising the all-seeing gods of the Gallagher Retail Park that, when I return, I’ll placate them with something from the M&S food hall. This pilgrimage has been months in the making. Across the arterial road, a public footpath flows innocuously through the loud hulks of DFS and Buildbase. Its old walled hedgerows are still intact, and the blackthorn is exploding in slow motion with blossom, its dainty sparks the brightest objects on this drab afternoon. A few hundred yards on, the track opens out abruptly onto a clearing which is mostly fenced off with fat iron palings. They bristle with spikes ready to rip clothes and flesh.

Read the full post at Unofficial Britain.

Reimagining the Pacific: Images of the Ocean in Chile and Peru, c.1960 to the Present

Dr Paul Merchant, Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture, writes about his new AHRC Leadership fellowship.

Coastal communities around the world are facing significant challenges, both ecological (such as rising sea temperatures) and as a consequence of human activity (for instance through flows of migration). Chile and Peru have been identified as two of the countries likely to be most affected by climate change, with their fishing industries vulnerable to rising sea temperatures, and their coastal regions vulnerable to the El Niño phenomenon, which is intensified by climate change. This project asks how visual and audiovisual creative responses to these and other issues from Chile and Peru can help us to live well in changing coastal environments across the world.

Scholars working in the environmental humanities and the emerging field of oceanic studies have argued that in order to develop a more sustainable relationship to the world’s oceans, we must understand the history and present of our responses to them. This project fills an important gap in this field of enquiry, which has to date paid little attention to the Pacific coast of South America and has remained focused on European and North American contexts. The project’s exploration of creative responses to ports as places of transnational encounter and exchange moreover responds to global concerns over how to adapt to increasing flows of migration. Coasts have long been viewed as spaces of exhibition and performance, where social change is particularly apparent, and while the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America has long been recognised as a hive of counter-culture and creativity, the diverse political traditions and cultures of Pacific ports such as Valparaíso and Callao have received far less attention.

The Port of Callao, Peru. Credit: Paul Merchant

Beginning in 1960, the date of a major earthquake and tsunami on the Chilean coast, this project asks how visual and audiovisual responses to the Pacific Ocean from Chile and Peru can shape a new critical understanding of how coastal communities respond to social and environmental pressures. The project analyses the production, reception and circulation of feature films (Patricio Guzmán, Javier Fuentes-León), video art (Cecilia Vicuña) and installations (Claudia Müller, Ana Teresa Barboza), among other forms of cultural production. It asks what changes are visible across the time period studied (1960 to the present), and shows how coastal cultural production brings to the surface lesser-known local, national and transnational histories.

How can scholars of audiovisual media produce critical work that supports public engagement with ecological issues?

The project also asks a methodological question: how can scholars of audiovisual media produce critical work that supports public engagement with ecological issues? This question is particularly important given the vital role that audiovisual media have played in recent years, whether in the form of television series or online video clips, in furthering public understanding of contemporary ecological challenges. One need only think of the influence of the BBC’s Blue Planet II series on debates around plastic use in the UK.

The project’s findings will be disseminated through several major scholarly publications, including a monograph with a leading university press and a methodological article in a leading peer-reviewed environmental humanities journal. A Post-Doctoral Research Assistant will be recruited, and they will publish an article in a major peer-reviewed Latin American studies journal.

In addition to these academic outputs, I will hold stakeholder workshops with local arts organisations and representatives of environmental NGOs in Chile and Peru. I will work with the Project Partner, the Centre for Cinema and Creation in Santiago de Chile, to develop the format of these workshops and to disseminate outcomes. Discussions at these events, along with a symposium on ecomedia and audiovisual research methods to be held in Bristol, will inform the design of a project website on which to disseminate examples of the material studied, and critical responses to it.


PM AHRC postDr Paul Merchant is lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture in the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on 20th- and 21st-century Latin American film and visual culture, with particular emphasis on the countries of the Southern Cone and, more recently, Peru and Bolivia. He has recently completed his first book, Remaking Home: Domestic Spaces in Argentine and Chilean Film, 2005-2015.

Sargasso Sisters: Celebrating the European Eel

Eel Thoughts – Michael Malay

1. On the birth and death of eels

Eels are tiny when they are born, no bigger than a grain of rice, and completely transparent. If you were to look at them with a microscope, you would see into the world. But as they grow older they begin to absorb light, to bend and to capture it. Their skin darkens, their bodies lengthen, and their translucency is replaced by a brackish brown. Streaks of yellow run down their flanks, like bars of muddy gold, and their eyes grow more pronounced. The grain of rice has become a yellow eel.

But the transformations only continue, change following change. As they grow older, their yellow flanks darken, shade into umber, until, reaching full maturity, they take on the colours of a starry midnight. A slick, glossy black covers their top half, while their underbellies take on a silvery sheen. Glints of brown and green cover their back like flecks of mica. The yellow eel has become a silver eel.

Later, when they are ready to breed, eels will abandon their mud-holes in the river and turn their noses west, to the Sargasso Sea. It’s a place they hardly know, having left it when they were only a few days old. But it’s a region written into their bodies, and to which they return with unerring precision. During the day, they dive down to depths of two hundred metres, before moving upwards again at night. Their voyage thus describes a kind of sinewave, a diurnal dipping followed by a nocturnal surfacing: the arc of their homecoming.

The journey back is determinedly single-minded. Eels do not take a single morsel of food as they swim west, having already prepared for this voyage by storing up rich layers of fat. This is why they are rarely caught at sea. They are not returning for themselves but for the future, which makes itself felt as an itch in their bellies. After breeding, it is thought that adult eels simply perish and fall to the sea floor, where they turn into so much silt. But what survives them is instinct: millions of eggs floating up to the surface of the sea, like sparks from an unseen anvil. Each egg is a tiny plasma of light, each an eel waiting to be born.

And so they return east again, towards the rivers of Europe and North Africa: the Shannon, the Oued Sebaou, the Loire, the Elbe – and other points north, east and south.

2. Springtime

Elvers – the name for juvenile eels – arrive in Britain in the spring. And sometimes, in tidal rivers such as the Severn, they surge upstream on the spring tides of April and May. Part of the magic of elvers, then, part of their elvish charm, is how they unite the various meanings of spring. They leap into our world as the sap begins to rise, on the first spring tides of the year. (Spring: from the Old English springan, meaning an energetic leap or a sudden burst.)

As with the return of swallows, then, elvers help fetch the year to us; their entry into rivers is calendricallly precise. And if one could hover over the rivers of Britain, staying there patiently for days, for weeks, one would see what the kestrel sees: a greenness blooming as the elvers pass, an activating greenness that summons the ramsoms and bluebells of April, the cornflowers and dandelions of May…

3. Stenography

Eels are finding it harder to live here. After arriving in Britain, fresh from their Sargasso voyage, they meet with a series of strange hurdles: dams, sluice gates, tidal fences, barrages, weirs. Today, it is thought that there are more than one million man-made obstructions in rivers and streams across Europe.

The contradiction couldn’t be greater. On one hand, the hardness of concrete and the flushness of steel, and, on the other, this sinuous rope of changing life. Over its lifetime, an eel undergoes no fewer than four metamorphoses, as it transforms from being a leptocephalus to an elver, and then from yellow eel to a silver eel. It is an emissary from a world of alterations and flows, a creature of change and movement.

But what if eels are living letters sent from the Sargasso? If so, what messages might they carry?

What if, after looking into the water for weeks, we found ourselves surrounded by thoughts?

Sargasso Sisters from novadada on Vimeo.

A short meditative video-sonic piece celebrating and highlighting the habitats of the endangered European Eel (Anguilla anguilla).

Released for Fish Migration Day, 2020

Conceived and developed by Antony Lyons and Michael Malay.

Music contribution from The Fantasy Orchestra
(excerpts from ‘Final Moments of the Universe’ by Richard Dawson)
Arranged and conducted by Jesse D Vernon
extra soundtrack audio by Antony Lyons

Filmed at loactions in Portugal, Ireland and the UK.
Recorded and edited by Antony Lyons
Some Ireland footage by Will O’Connor (ECOFACT)

Poem: ‘L’anguilla’ by Eugenio Montale
narrated by:
Manuela Castagna & Francesca Cozzolino
Translation based on a version by Paul Muldoon.

Additional text by Michael Malay

Produced with funding from Leverhulme Trust and University of Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities

Exploring the Wildfilm Archive in University of Bristol Special Collections, by Georgina Lever

Bristol is widely seen as the ‘Hollywood’ of wildlife film-making and is famously home to the BBC’s Natural History Unit, formally established in the city in 1957. The University of Bristol Library’s Special Collections has embarked on a 2 year project to preserve and promote the mixed-media ‘Wildfilm’ archive, supported by funding from the Wellcome Trust. 

An example draft shooting script for the first episode of ‘The Living Planet’ (1984), working title ‘Planet Earth’, later re-used in the 2006 BBC series! [G. Lever] 

I am the Project Archivist working to catalogue and re-package the material, making it available to search online and access in person at the Special Collections reading room. There are treatments, post-production scripts, dubbing cue sheets, filming trip planning, photographs, research and correspondence – documenting a given programme from conception to broadcast – as well as audience research reports, publicity and press packs.  

A Radio Times cover from 1962 featuring Peter Scott for the ‘Look’ series [G. Lever] 

A substantial part of the collection is audio-visual, including several hundred reels of 16mm film footage. Among the cans are films produced by Survival Anglia, the BBC, and ethologist Niko Tinbergen FRS (1907-1988) and naturalist Eric Ashby MBE (1918-2003). The archive also contains sound recordings, radio broadcasts and audio from talks and festivals. In Digi-Beta format there is a selection of the 150 most important wildlife films selected by BBC producer Christopher Parsons (1932-2002) and a VHS library collected by Jeffery Boswall (1931-2012), another BBC producer whose papers are also in the archive.  

An example of 16mm film cans in the collection [G. Lever]

As evidence of method and technique there are two of the home-made sound-proof boxes made by Eric Ashby, enabling him to capture intimate footage of badgers and foxes in their natural state of behaviour. For further interpretation there are some unusual supplementary objects such as the penguin flipper, skulls and skin collected during filming in South America for ‘The Private Life of the Jackass Penguin’ (1973).  

Eric Ashby’s home-made box for insulating sound made by camera equipment [Helen Lindsay] 
A dubbing cue sheet for an episode of the BBC’s ‘The World About Us’ [G. Lever] 

It’s an incredibly exciting project to be involved in. I’m working alongside Peter Bassett, a producer with the BBC Natural History Unit who has acted as guardian and advocate for the collection and is a font of knowledge on the history of wildlife film making. Nigel Bryant, Audiovisual Digitisation Officer will join the project for a year to produce lossless digital preservation copies of selected material, enhancing the accessibility of audio-visual media in the collection and protecting the longevity of these fragile, obsolete formats. We’re confident the archive offers significant research value to a variety of disciplines and interests – from the history of media and television to environmental studies, anthropology, history, philosophy and music.  

Consistently these films bear witness to changes in the natural world leading us towards today’s climate crisis, educating us about the animal kingdom and the landscape we inhabit, reminding us of our responsibility to protect it. 

The artist Jody’s mural of Greta Thunberg on the side of the Tobacco Factory, North Street, Bristol [G. Lever] 

The climate activist Greta Thunberg recently guest edited an episode of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. During a Skype interview with Sir David Attenborough, she said:  

“When I was younger, when I was maybe 9-10 years old, the thing that made me open my eyes for what was happening with the environment was films and documentaries about the natural world, and what was going on, so thank you for that, because that was what made me decide to do something about it.” 

The archive has its foundations in a project led by another Bristol based organisation, Wildscreen, founded in 1982 by Christopher Parsons. Wildscreen hosts an internationally renowned biennial festival on wildlife film (the 20th anniversary festival will be held later this year, 19-23 October 2020) and supports a variety of conservation organisations. It launched ‘WildFilmHistory: 100 years of wildlife film making’ in 2008, a Heritage Lottery funded project that led to a collection of material which now forms part of the ‘Wildfilm’ archive. 

Another compelling aspect of the collection is a series of oral history films made by the WildFilmHistory project, spanning all facets of film-making from producers and cameramen to composers and narrators. The interviews capture both the professional and personal alliance between subject and interviewer, enabling discussion to draw out the working relationships behind the creation of pivotal series such as the BBC’s ‘Life on Earth’ (1979) and ITV’s ‘Survival’ (1961-2001). 

The content of interviews ranges from anecdotal to technical, covering the logistical challenges of filming in remote places, photographic technique, reliability of equipment, battling physical elements, ingenious ways of tackling technological limitations and reflecting on moments of fortune and failure.  

It is a renowned ambition of natural history film-making to capture a rare species or behaviour on camera for the first time; paperwork in the archive documents how this is attempted and achieved, and the role narrative construction may have to play in documentary film.  

In a recent speech at the World Economic Forum, Sir David Attenborough said: 

“When I made my first television programmes most audiences had never even seen a pangolin – indeed few pangolin had ever seen a TV camera!” 

There has been an astonishing level of cultural and technological change since the programme, ‘Zoo Quest for a Dragon’ was broadcast in 1956 on the BBC – then one channel with national coverage only recently extending beyond London and Birmingham. In his published diaries for the Zoo Quest series, ‘Adventures of a Young Naturalist’, Attenborough recollects the obstacles involved in locating species unique to regions of Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay. Through such programmes viewers gained their first glimpse of far flung parts of the world, now increasingly accessible with the growth of air travel and the tourism industry.   

Improvements in technology allow viewers to observe the animal kingdom from new perspectives. The archive spans an era during which television has evolved from black and white to regular colour broadcasting in the late 1960s, and the invention of cinematic IMAX presentation to home based on-demand UHD (Ultra High Definition) 4KTV offered by streaming services today. In the same speech, Attenborough says:  

“The audience for that first series, 60 years ago, was restricted to a few million viewers... My next series will go instantly to hundreds of millions of people in almost every country on Earth via Netflix”.  

As well as the BBC Natural History Unit, the archive contains material for Survival Anglia, Granada, Partridge Films and the RSPB Film Unit, and international networks like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and TVNZ.  

There is a slim body of literature and theory on the history of wildlife film, but within the archive there is a unique collection of studies and published papers by academics tapping into this potential. Two excellent books are ‘Wildlife Films’ by Derek Bousé (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) and ‘BBC Wildlife Documentaries in the Age of Attenborough’ by Jean-Baptiste Gouyon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).   

Some material relating to Granada’s ‘Zoo Time’ series (1956-1968) [G. Lever] 

All this material is being described in a detailed catalogue, capturing key words such as species and filming locations to ensure relevant content can be found by anyone with an interest in the archive. When complete the full catalogue will be launched on the Special Collections webpage in the summer of 2021.