Eagle-eyed impact: scholarship coming to a cinema near you

Newcastle academic's research informs swords-and-sandals blockbuster. James Titcomb reports

April 7, 2011

Attending premieres, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars and visiting film sets are a far cry from the daily activities of the typical academic.

But for one historian, the worlds of research and show business collided when she was invited to contribute to the making of a big-budget film, The Eagle.

Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies at Newcastle University, served as the academic adviser for the film, which tells the story of a young Roman centurion in northern Britain in the 2nd century AD.

Ms Allason-Jones, an expert in Roman archaeology, said she was confident that the film, which is inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, would bolster popular interest in the history of Roman Britain.

"It's such a good film it cannot fail to engage people," she said.

If she is right, then Ms Allason-Jones' work will be held up as an unusual example of the research "impact" that the UK government is so keen to promote.

The Eagle, now on general release in the UK, was the work of a team led by Scottish director Kevin Macdonald, and Ms Allason-Jones said she was impressed by the crew's willingness to take advice from an academic outsider.

"Some things I just couldn't let through. One was the use of the word "gladiolus" (the flower) instead of gladius (sword) in the publicity," she said.

"I have a lovely image of Romans running into battle waving their flowers every time I think about it."

Ms Allason-Jones added that advising on a film script and scholarly research required very different working methods.

"From an academic perspective, you have to be quite laid back about it and realise it's not a documentary - there were a few details that couldn't be changed, but I can live with that," she said.

"It was fascinating to go from seeing the original script through to sorting out the details, meeting the cast and crew and dealing with the publicity team afterwards."

Mindful of the growing pressure on academics to demonstrate to funders the social and economic impact of their work, Ms Allason-Jones said that her contribution to the film, using knowledge gained from years of research, would have a greater impact on the public than any of her previous work.

"The contribution I have made to the film will reach many more people than any academic tome I have written," she said.

However, she retained some reservations about the impact agenda, and emphasised the importance of the less practical work that underpinned her foray into the celluloid world.

She said: "It is difficult to say how a piece of research will have an impact before you carry it out. My input on The Eagle used knowledge that I have gained from a lifetime of research that had an impact on a small number of people.

"Several years down the line it has contributed to something that will be seen by millions, so it's hard to assess impact on a short-term basis."

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