Thursday, 25 May 2017

Each era gets the King Arthur it deserves – and we got Guy Ritchie's


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Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Sylvie Magerstaedt, University of Hertfordshire
With a certain comforting certainty, a new version of the Arthurian legend seems to hit cinemas about once a decade: think of Camelot (1967), Excalibur (1981), First Knight (1995) and King Arthur (2004). This is not to mention the numerous television versions that have appeared in between. Now we have director Guy Ritchie’s take on the subject, with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The Conversation
Each of the previous iterations had a very different focus – and like all good (vaguely) historical fiction, tell us more about the present than the past. This is particularly true for myths because they always have a “built-in ambiguity that makes them applicable to a variety of times and places”, as the US theologian S. Brent notes.


For example, while Excalibur was emphasising the magical elements of the myth with the wizard Merlin at its centre, both First Knight and King Arthur tried hard to “historicise” the legendary king.

Sean Connery as Arthur and Richard Gere as love rival Lancelot in First Knight (1995).

First Knight presents a traditional Arthur as a benign and ageing king (played by Sean Connery) ruling over Camelot as the most advanced and bustling metropolis of its time. In his old age, he marries the much younger Guinevere (Julia Ormond), who will ultimately betray him with the much younger Lancelot (played by Richard Gere at the height of his career).


It is a tale of a great nation being brought down by individual failure. Religion also plays an important role in the film as it is faith rather than magic from which Arthur draws strength, for example when he publicly prays: “May God grant us the wisdom to discover right, the will to choose it, and the strength to make it endure.”


The 2004 version directed by Antoine Fuqua provides a stark contrast to this theme. Not only does it set the story about 1,000 years before the more common medieval period, it also boldly claims that the myth was “based on a real hero, who lived 1,600 years ago”. It promises its audience the “truth behind the myth” – by creating an entirely new version of it.

King Arthur (2004) attempted to ‘historicise’ the Arthur legend.

Sitting neatly alongside other sword-and-sandal blockbusters of the same year, such as Troy and Alexander, King Arthur moves its subject to late Roman Britain. It presents Arthur (Clive Owen) as a Roman soldier, who is on a last mission to free the Pope’s godson from the savage tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall.


What he discovers, however, is the savagery of the Christian church, ultimately siding with the pagan tribes to free Britannia from Saxon invaders as well as from Roman deprivation. Magic is almost completely absent. Instead, it is Arthur’s skill as a seasoned soldier and clever strategist, rather than a magical sword, which makes him successful.

Man, magic (and David Beckham)

What then, can we learn from the most recent instalment of the myth, claimed to be the first in a series of six? First of all, Guy Ritchie’s version sets the story in a fantasy time that is somewhat hard to pin down. While the chainmail armour and lady’s dresses are loosely medieval, the settings of the Royal palace are hard to define, and the CGI skyline of Londinium (which features more prominently than Camelot) is scattered with Roman ruins, including an enormous Colosseum.

It also returns to a focus on the more magical elements of the story, stating in its opening line that “for centuries, man and magic lived in peace…” The first few minutes of the film establish its apparent attempt at offering a new Lord of the Rings, including giant elephants battling a hilltop city. We even get a close-up shot of a fiery magic eye that is reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s visual rendering of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.

It wouldn’t be a Guy Ritchie movie without a bit of knuckle. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

What then about the myth? In this film, Arthur is a streetwise boy rather than a royal knight or an experienced soldier, a rags-to-riches story fit for a time in which class hierarchies are continuously challenged. He is a thief, driven more by personal revenge than the higher motive of freeing his nation.


Moreover, the film revives and expands the magical and fantastic elements of Excalibur to align itself much more closely with epics such as the already mentioned Lord of the Rings (2001-3), The Hobbit (2012-14) and the enormously popular television saga Game of Thrones, rather than its immediate cinematic predecessors. This in itself is not a problem.


The problem is that Ritchie seems to misunderstand what makes those works successful as myths. Ritchie’s iconoclastic style may have worked well in small crime comedies such as Snatch (2000) and maybe to some extent even in his take on Sherlock Holmes (although I’m sceptical, but that’s another story). Here, it simply undermines the epic grandeur suggested by the visuals.


For example, as Robbie Collin notes in the Telegraph: “The sword-pulling scene … is sabotaged from within by a David Beckham cameo that goes on for line after forehead-slapping line, and saps the moment of its mythic excitement.” Whereas you could argue that myths have always been somewhat of a mash-up of various cultural influences, Ritchie’s film is so eclectic that it fails to develop any coherent mythical realm in which the audience can immerse itself.


Apart from the already mentioned cinematic elements, the film also features magical Egyptian pyramids, a powerful sea monster hiding in a cave reminiscent of Beowulf (2008) and a Kung Fu school – to name but a few. All this makes for an entertaining and visually stunning cinematic spectacle, but it fails to provide what myths can do best – namely offer a coherent and inspiring worldview and ethos. Sadly, it may be exactly this lack of this inspiring vision that makes this film so contemporary.


Sylvie Magerstaedt, Principal Lecturer in Media Cultures, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

BAFTAs 2017: BBC sweeps the board as Netflix challenge fails to materialise

BAFTAs 2017: BBC sweeps the board as Netflix challenge fails to materialise

Lyndsay Duthie, University of Hertfordshire
The big question of this year’s BAFTAs was how many awards Netflix would romp home with. Most of the industry attention was focused on the way the various subscription video on-demand services have grown to prominence over the past few years and most people expected Netflix’s much-lauded £100m drama, The Crown, to walk away with a hatful of awards – after all, it dominated with five nominations, including best drama, and for three of its actors. The Conversation
But it wasn’t to be. On the night the spoils went to the BBC’s Happy Valley, which was made on a fraction of The Crown’s budget and which walked away with best drama series, while Sarah Lancashire won best actress. Damilola, Our Loved Boy – the BBC true-crime drama, which retold the story of Damilola Taylor’s tragic murder and his family’s fight for justice – also won two two awards. It was part of a dominant night for the public broadcaster which won awards in 18 categories, putting paid to predictions that this would be a trophy year for Netflix and its subscription stablemates.
But these are new big players in blue-chip content and their time will surely come. Gaining millions of new viewers each year and producing ever more of their own award-winning productions, Netflix, the market leader, is now in nearly a quarter of British households. BAFTA’s decision to remove the rule that 50% of all funding for a series and creative control had to come from the UK meant that dramas such as The Crown could compete on a level playing field whereas previously it could only have featured in the international category.

Not all viewers were happy about these changes. After the nominations were announced, many took to Twitter to argue that The Crown and others should be in a new streaming category. But I think the impact these blockbuster series are having is hard to ignore if a contemporary award programme is to stay relevant. The best must compete with the best.

Keeping it nice

Most of the recent controversy had been got out of the way by the night itself. There had been much comment when Tom Hiddleston, who earlier won a Golden Globe for his starring role in The Night Manager, failed to garner even a nomination at the BAFTAs. Similarly there was a deal of head-scratching that the stand-out hit series Line of Duty – which attracted 8m viewers for its final episode – was only up for one gong.
According to the Guardian, some of the seemingly strange nominations were down to the rule that only one piece of material could be submitted by each contender. This meant that, while a one-off TV drama could be entered in its entirety, judges were only allowed to view and assess a single episode of a multi-part drama. This might shed light on why Benedict Cumberbatch was nominated for his title role in Richard III, while Hiddlestone was not – judges had only seen a sixth of his work on The Night Manager.
Anyone hoping for overtly political speeches in this election year would have been disappointed. One wonders whether the reports that BAFTA had emailed nominees asking them to offer “a short anecdote or an interesting detail about the production in their victory speeches” might have had something to do with that. As it turned out, host Sue Perkins – of Great British Bake-Off fame – had the best line of the night, introducing the best leading actress category: “This award represents what so many actresses aspire to – being paid just under the same amount as the leading actor”.

Meanwhile, James Nesbitt – who presented the award – made an impassioned speech to promote the cause of Equal Representation of Actresses and noted that inequality on screen (there are three male leading roles for every female role) “is an inequality that is absorbed by everyone on their screens every day”. He added: “As the father of two children - two girls - this should change.” Hear hear.

Ed Balls, Gangnam-style

Just over a year after BBC3 went online only, it was feared that the channel’s knack for developing such little gems as Gavin & Stacey might have been lost, but a win for its scripted comedy, People Just Do Nothing, will go some way towards proving the doubters wrong.
The other highlight of what was actually a fairly tame night was Virgin TV’s “must-see moment” gong which gave us, among other highlights, Ed Balls dancing in “Gangnam-style” on Strictly Come Dancing as well as Michelle Obama doing Carpool Karaoke with James Corden and the great snake vs iguana chase from Planet Earth II. Great news for iguana fans everywhere as the thrilling death chase carried off the honours.
So it was actually a pretty life-affirming night for those people who consider that the “entertain” part of the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate, entertain” should remain at the centre of the broadcaster’s core values. We will, of course, continue to see the rise and rise of Netflx and video on-demand, there’s simply too much money involved for this not to happen.


But I went to bed happy in the knowledge that the BBC can still create vivid, powerful and popular programmes. And, of course, with the indelible image of Ed Balls dancing Gangnam-style burned on to my eyelids. And that’s going to be hard to shift.
Lyndsay Duthie, Programme Leader for Film & Television, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The big question of this year’s BAFTAs was how many awards Netflix would romp home with. Most of the industry attention was focused on the way the various subscription video on-demand services have grown to prominence over the past few years and most people expected Netflix’s much-lauded £100m drama, The Crown, to walk away with a hatful of awards – after all, it dominated with five nominations, including best drama, and for three of its actors. The Conversation
But it wasn’t to be. On the night the spoils went to the BBC’s Happy Valley, which was made on a fraction of The Crown’s budget and which walked away with best drama series, while Sarah Lancashire won best actress. Damilola, Our Loved Boy – the BBC true-crime drama, which retold the story of Damilola Taylor’s tragic murder and his family’s fight for justice – also won two two awards. It was part of a dominant night for the public broadcaster which won awards in 18 categories, putting paid to predictions that this would be a trophy year for Netflix and its subscription stablemates.
But these are new big players in blue-chip content and their time will surely come. Gaining millions of new viewers each year and producing ever more of their own award-winning productions, Netflix, the market leader, is now in nearly a quarter of British households. BAFTA’s decision to remove the rule that 50% of all funding for a series and creative control had to come from the UK meant that dramas such as The Crown could compete on a level playing field whereas previously it could only have featured in the international category.

Not all viewers were happy about these changes. After the nominations were announced, many took to Twitter to argue that The Crown and others should be in a new streaming category. But I think the impact these blockbuster series are having is hard to ignore if a contemporary award programme is to stay relevant. The best must compete with the best.

Keeping it nice

Most of the recent controversy had been got out of the way by the night itself. There had been much comment when Tom Hiddleston, who earlier won a Golden Globe for his starring role in The Night Manager, failed to garner even a nomination at the BAFTAs. Similarly there was a deal of head-scratching that the stand-out hit series Line of Duty – which attracted 8m viewers for its final episode – was only up for one gong.
According to the Guardian, some of the seemingly strange nominations were down to the rule that only one piece of material could be submitted by each contender. This meant that, while a one-off TV drama could be entered in its entirety, judges were only allowed to view and assess a single episode of a multi-part drama. This might shed light on why Benedict Cumberbatch was nominated for his title role in Richard III, while Hiddlestone was not – judges had only seen a sixth of his work on The Night Manager.
Anyone hoping for overtly political speeches in this election year would have been disappointed. One wonders whether the reports that BAFTA had emailed nominees asking them to offer “a short anecdote or an interesting detail about the production in their victory speeches” might have had something to do with that. As it turned out, host Sue Perkins – of Great British Bake-Off fame – had the best line of the night, introducing the best leading actress category: “This award represents what so many actresses aspire to – being paid just under the same amount as the leading actor”.

Meanwhile, James Nesbitt – who presented the award – made an impassioned speech to promote the cause of Equal Representation of Actresses and noted that inequality on screen (there are three male leading roles for every female role) “is an inequality that is absorbed by everyone on their screens every day”. He added: “As the father of two children - two girls - this should change.” Hear hear.

Ed Balls, Gangnam-style

Just over a year after BBC3 went online only, it was feared that the channel’s knack for developing such little gems as Gavin & Stacey might have been lost, but a win for its scripted comedy, People Just Do Nothing, will go some way towards proving the doubters wrong.
The other highlight of what was actually a fairly tame night was Virgin TV’s “must-see moment” gong which gave us, among other highlights, Ed Balls dancing in “Gangnam-style” on Strictly Come Dancing as well as Michelle Obama doing Carpool Karaoke with James Corden and the great snake vs iguana chase from Planet Earth II. Great news for iguana fans everywhere as the thrilling death chase carried off the honours.
So it was actually a pretty life-affirming night for those people who consider that the “entertain” part of the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate, entertain” should remain at the centre of the broadcaster’s core values. We will, of course, continue to see the rise and rise of Netflx and video on-demand, there’s simply too much money involved for this not to happen.


But I went to bed happy in the knowledge that the BBC can still create vivid, powerful and popular programmes. And, of course, with the indelible image of Ed Balls dancing Gangnam-style burned on to my eyelids. And that’s going to be hard to shift.
Lyndsay Duthie, Programme Leader for Film & Television, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 22 May 2017

True crime: why the Irish counterfeiting wave of the late 18th century was a myth


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Satirical Bank Note (1820), highlighting how easy it was to be hanged for spending fake money, despite how prevalent it was. George Cruikshank and William Hone
Adam Crymble, University of Hertfordshire http://www.herts.ac.uk/apply/schools-of-study/humanities

The claim that immigrants or minorities are more criminal than the general population is a common trope. From Donald Trump’s claim that Mexicans in the US were “bringing drugs … bringing crime. They’re rapists”, to the frequent portrayal of African-Americans as having a criminal mentality, to how black men are disproportionately stopped by the police under “stop and search” laws in the UK. Other studies have explored how “driving while black” can increase a drivers’ likelihood of being charged with a traffic offence.
The Conversation
People have long blamed those unlike themselves. Are immigrants and minorities more criminal than locals, or just more likely to get caught – or even just more likely to be blamed? An example of Irish living in London at the beginning of the professional police era shows that who ends up in front of the judge is more dependent on how the crime is policed than on who is responsible. If police tactics unduly target minority groups, then this inflation of the criminal statistics can, and has, been used to paint minority groups in a negative light.

Bank notes not worth the paper

London experienced a massive crime wave between 1797 and 1821, linked almost entirely to counterfeiting and forgery. The problem got so bad that people began to worry if the cash in their pocket was real – aware that they could be executed for knowingly spending bad money. Bank notes had only recently been introduced in England and, as historian Randall McGowen has remarked, they were “scarcely more than a printed form with a number, a date and a clerk’s signature”. Forgers even had the gall to produce the fake bank notes in prison, selling them onward for a fraction of their face value to anyone brave enough to attempt to pass them off in the city’s shops.

A George III gold sovereign from 1817, when coins were made of gold – unless they were fakes. Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA
Even coinage, then comprised of actual silver and gold, was at risk. Talented button makers and engravers turned their attention to the technically similar processes of making false coins, which would be made with a cheaper metal and rubbed with aqua fortis (nitric acid) or aqua regis (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids) to make the fake appear either silver or gold respectively.
Soon the city was crawling with fake money, including more than 250,000 forged banknotes. Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate of the era, estimated 120 sellers were each distributing hundreds of false coins onto the city’s streets. He singled out the Irish as one of the problem groups behind the crime wave.

Justice deserved?

Peter King’s previous research on Irish crime claimed the justice system did not show an anti-Irish prejudice and that the Irish criminals got what was coming to them. Certainly there are records from London’s courtrooms to support this.

For example, Irishmen John Fennell and James Gillington were arrested in 1799 after having allegedly forged more than 600 bank notes with a home-made printing press. But at the other end of the spectrum the records are filled with Irish such as John Brown, who tried to pay for his glass of gin at the pub with a false coin. Looking at the numbers alone the Irish do seem to have been a problem – but these numbers hide the extent to which policing strategy affected who got arrested in the first place.

Initially, the authorities relied almost exclusively on tips from shopkeepers who had been offered false money. It fell to them to detain suspects and call for the watchman who would make the arrest. This meant people spending false money had a far greater chance of getting arrested than those involved in the more profitable aspects of manufacture and wholesale.

The Irish were more involved in the petty but very public act of spending the money – those aspects of the crime most associated with poverty. As new arrivals, the Irish were at a further disadvantage, and cunning locals were only too happy to trick their new “friends” into buying a round at the bar with the false coins they supplied. With the system of policing set up to almost exclusively target these minor players, the courtrooms filled with poor Irish which led to their reputation for criminality.


Enter the detectives

Despite these arrests the problem of forgery worsened. So, in 1812, the Bank of England changed its strategy, encouraging specialist detectives to hunt for the real counterfeiters. With generous rewards as incentives, these detectives soon managed to infiltrate the criminal networks. This often involved using accomplices in the crime to trick the counterfeiters and wholesalers into selling to an undercover agent, in exchange for a reduction in their own sentence.

For the first time the Bank was encouraging local criminals to “out” other local criminals and, as they did so, the ethnic makeup of defendants appearing in the court began to change: the number of English defendants rose 27-fold in the years immediately after the change in policing strategy.
This research highlights what gets missed when policing focuses on crime perpetrated by ethnic minorities. No one at the time noticed the dramatic reduction in Irish defendants but, by the 1810s, the claim that the Irish were behind the forged currency crime wave was unsupportable. This wasn’t because the situation had changed for the criminals, but because the police had changed where they were looking for them – and discovered that the real culprits behind the crime wave were the local English, and probably always had been.

Adam Crymble, Lecturer in digital history, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Cyber-attacks and Ransomware

In the wake of the recent cyber-attack on the NHS Dr. Stilianos Vidalis, Director of Training for the Cyber Security Centre at the University of Hertfordshire, takes a look at ransomware and the vulnerabilities it exploits.


It is my understanding that a number of information environments across the world have been affected by a ransomware called WannaCrypt0r 2.0. This specific ransomware, and all of it variants, is not something new. Previous iterations have been classified as low impact. Ransomeware is a type of malware that encrypts the contents of the secondary storage devices of a computer until a payment is made. In some occasions, like in the recent incident, the ransomware will also propagate to other active nodes of the same environment. Malware is a type of software virus that is specifically designed to cause a detrimental effect to a computer or a network of computers. This detrimental effect can be disruption, physical or logical damage, unauthorised access to data, or any of the above combinations. 

In this occasion, it is believed that the ransomware only caused a disruption by encrypting contents of hard disks using the Advanced Encryption Standard with a 128 bit key, asking for $300 to be paid in bitcoin. Unfortunately, this disruption was caused to a number of hospitals in the UK, telecommunication providers in Europe and other companies overseas. The impact to society was significant. Apropos, it is a daily and rather well documented type of attack that has become very prevalent since the days of cryptocurrencies and anonymising technologies were made available to the public.



It is reported that WannaCrypt0r 2.0 takes advantage of the EternalBlue Windows SMB vulnerability to propagate. SMB stands for Server Message Block. SMB is a network file sharing protocol, mainly implemented in Windows domains. According to Microsoft:

"The Microsoft SMB Protocol is a client-server implementation and consists of a set of data packets, each containing a request sent by the client or a response sent by the server. These packets can be broadly classified as follows:

• Session control packets—Establishes and discontinues a connection to shared server resources.
• File access packets—Accesses and manipulates files and directories on the remote server.
• General message packets—Sends data to print queues, mailslots, and named pipes, and provides data about the status of print queues."

The particular vulnerability WannaCrypt0r 2.0 takes advantage of, was discovered at the end of 2016. A proof of concept exploit was made available to the public at the beginning of February 2017.

This leaves the question of how the ransomware managed to infiltrate the information environments. There can be a number of potential sources: spearfishing attacks (spam email campaigns), intrusive ads, pop-ups, notifications that come up in internet browsers… The point being that one way or another, users have to allow (without them realising what it is they are actually doing) for the initial infection.




Microsoft addressed the technical issue at the beginning of March 2017. Unfortunately, companies around the world without appropriate risk and threat assessment processes got affected. Immediate solutions are to inform computer users about this specific malware and malware type, and apply the official patch regardless of the business sector you operate in. The long term solution is the identification of the baseline security and the development of a security culture within the organisation.

This can be broken down to the:

• development and application of a comprehensive vulnerability identification process.
• policy regarding internal and external penetration tests.
• policy regarding a comprehensive risk and threat assessment process
• policy regarding end user training.

The University of Hertfordshire has a number of solutions and products that can assist organisations in developing and establishing a security culture. The School of Computer Science offers technical and non-technical undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of study in cyber security and computer science including a degree apprenticeship. Our Cyber Security Centre can offer advise and consultancy on the aforementioned topics and issues.

Dr. Stilianos Vidalis
Director of Training
Cyber Security Centre
University of Hertfordshire