Robert Williamson

  • Robert WilliamsonRobert Williamson is from London. He joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in April 2018 and his thesis title is ‘The Ministry of Information and the British Film Hero during World War 2’.

    How did you hear about Oxford Brookes University?

    I originally attended several courses (including Film Studies) at the Oxford Adult Learning Centre. Several members of staff there suggested approaching Oxford Brookes if I was interested in further study. On an exploratory visit, I found the Brookes staff very friendly and welcoming. 

    What attracted you to Oxford Brookes University to conduct your research?

    I studied an MA degree in Film Studies at Oxford Brookes.  I found my dissertation so interesting that I wanted to continue to explore the subject. And several members of my faculty supported my decision.

    What were you doing before?

    Prior to my retirement in 2010, I worked for over thirty years as a Software Engineer for several international companies such as IBM and Nortel. My main areas of work included communications software such as Intelligent Networks.

    How easy did you find it to settle into the research environment?

    Because I had prior experience of the academics I would be working with, I found the process into the research environment straight forward. The support staff and their courses have been very useful as I move forward with my research.

    Tell us about your research.

    This project intends to offer new understandings of the complex relationship between the Government and the British Film Studios in feature film content and production during the period of the Second World War. It will explore Government policy and institutional organisation and investigate the impact of these processes upon the representation of the hero figure in feature films. This project’s uniqueness lies in its practice of historical enquiry being decentred, explored and exposed, in the consideration of government policies that relate to feature film narratives. It will open a dialogue with archival resources, to give a visibility and voice to an otherwise unarticulated history of the British cinema. 

    I was well prepared academically to undertake this project given my extensive studies with wartime archive material with my MA in Film Studies (my dissertation was on the work of the Films Division within the MoI). What is more, my background working for industry on very large complex communication projects will be useful in untangling the many processes that interlinked government departments and the film studios. As part of my commitment to this project, I have attended the London University MoI Project conference in July 2017, and I am in close contact with their team of researchers for further involvement.

    The MoI was a wartime department, established in 1939, responsible for conducting overseas publicity to neutral and allied countries and for disseminating government propaganda and publicity at home. Its purpose in Britain was not only to keep the public well informed but also to maintain morale of the civilian population. As part of its remit was the area of feature films via the Film Division. Chapman’s The British At War (2000, p5) states that ‘the role of the Film Division has remained largely unwritten’. This project’s central concern is motivated by this gap in knowledge where a film’s full production history has not been traced. There are many academic works which focus on film’s part production, as in Aldgate and Richards (2007) Britain Can Take It and Mackenzie’s (2001) British War Films.  Consequently, the overall picture of government control and influence has not been included in these works. As such, this project will be ground breaking in exploring the overall framework of government influence on feature film making during the war, considering the Film Studios interactions with the various government departments. I shall look at the film roles presented of the Special Overseas Executive (SOE) operations and investigate what government influences impacted on these heroic representations in film.

    Through a combination of primary and secondary sources, this study will examine if there is evidence of institutional causal links between its policies and film, and that indirectly the role(s) of the hero was changed and enhanced.  Sonya Rose Which People's War? (2003) illustrates the idea of a national identity being reframed as war progressed and that a hero-figure was significant in that framework. These findings provide a new contribution to film history and provide information for further studies utilising the state diagrams and processes I will create and describe.

    Instead of one single theoretical methodology, this qualitative project will draw from reception and film studies, but will also benefit from primary research in the various National Archives. The project is inherently interdisciplinary, as it does not look at film as a singular text, but pays attention to questions of who/what was involved in feature film production and what were the processes involved. This marks this work as a contribution to the field of “new cinema history” (Maltby, 2011, p.3) 

    In terms of challenges and difficulties this project might face, one involves the fragmentary and incomplete archive records within Government and the Film Studios. Addressing such challenges will call for a creative approach in methodology, but the gaps in this knowledge are compelling enough to look for new and different clues, and to seek other ways in which connections might be made. Aligned with this approach will be an emphasis on strong time management skills as some archives may be so fragmentary as to be of no use to the project.  As for case studies, I will investigate the inner workings of the Film Studios and analysis the production history of films. This will help form a complete picture of the many political pressures on filmmakers to create the final product. Archive media sources in the UK and the USA, such as fan magazines and newspaper articles involving audience’s reception, will be crucial.

    I will examine and analyse pre-war British war/thriller feature films to determine the types of hero depicted within. With help from Campbell (1993) and Levi Strauss (1978) I shall establish which structures and myths form the framework of heroes within feature film narratives. As to the reshaping of the British hero in war time films, I will use a combination of archival research and close textual analysis of feature length feature films. Quantitative research tools such as the text analysis software Voyant, will be useful in looking for trends in large data sets. One of its most powerful features is to track word usages and it supplies the details of the adjoining words (technically known as KWIC – keyword in context) which will help select words, phrases and narratives that are associated with material in their specific context (an example being feature films reviewed in The Documentary Newsletter digital files). 

    What do you enjoy about being a research student?

    As my research continues, I really appreciate feedback from my three supervisors. They are always available for a formal or informal chat and I value their input. I also enjoy interacting with other PhD students from other areas of research as we often find ways of helping each other. Since my work in on a part-time basis, I have always an aim to complete tasks on a weekly basis to keep me on track.

    What do you think about the research training offered at Oxford Brookes?

    Very good. I like the fact that there are courses for all abilities and desires.

    What are your future plans?

    I want to continue to enjoy the whole experience and maybe publish my finished work as a book. I would like other younger researchers to be influenced by my work and carry it forward.