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Thursday, 5 September 2013

Britain in space: the UK release of Star Wars

Advance poster for the intensely anticipated
UK release of Star Wars at the end of 1977

The arrival of Star Wars in Britain was very different from its release on an unsuspecting US public in May 1977. The US didn't know what had hit it; the UK, however, had been desperate to see the film for months.

Star Wars was shot in Britain. It had two British stars and was full of familiar British faces. And yet the UK faced an interminable wait to see it.
One of several Look-in
covers featuring
Star Wars. My copy
is missing an inch
or so on the left


In those days, British audiences routinely had to hold on for months to see American films. Star Wars was not due reach the UK’s regional cinemas until way into 1978. But its success in America was so enormous, and the attendant publicity so valuable, that by the Christmas school holidays in 1977, cinema managers from all over Britain were demanding prints of the film with the all the subtle persistence of Darth Vader seeking the return of the stolen Death Star plans.

TV news and magazine shows had been running stories on it for months. I remember seeing a clip of it 
 along with a report on its massive success  on the BBC's lunchtime chat show Pebble Mill at One. The film had also been extensively previewed in magazines like Look-In, the weekly "Junior TV Times", which was pretty the popular culture bible for British children in the 1970s.

Star Wars finally opened in London’s West End on December 27 1977. According to MJ Simpson's excellent account, the film initially opened at two cinemas – the Leicester Square Theatre and the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road – and made £117,690 in its first week, breaking Jaws's record of £90,65. Touts were apparently selling £2.20 tickets for £30.

The film reached 12 other major English cities on January 29 and Scotland on January 30, rolling out around the country in the following weeks. By coincidence, two big events in British science fiction were going on around that time: the broadcast of the first episode of Blake's 7 on TV on January 2, and the recording that month of the first radio series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

A newspaper ad announces the arrival of Star Wars
on both screens of my local twin-screen cinema

In February 1978, just as Star Wars was reaching the British regions, Marvel Comics launched Star Wars Weekly, a reprint of the comic book adaptation that Americans had seen the previous year, only in shorter installments and with the comic strip in black-and-white. See-Threepio appeared on TV ads to promote the fact that issue one would be in the shops shortly, priced 10p and including a free cardboard X-wing fighter.

Around the country, box office records took a predictable tumble. Some twin-screen cinemas (including my local Gaumont in Bournemouth) took the unprecedented step of giving over both screens to the same film. It may have arrived in the depths of a British winter, but Star Wars mania would last until we were happily licking Star Wars ice lollies in the summer or requesting Star Wars related gifts for Christmas 1978.

Did you see Star Wars on its first UK release? Please comment and share your memories.

8 comments:

John White said...

Wonderful journey back to the happiest days of my childhood in Ireland:
"It may have arrived in the depths of [an Irish] winter, but Star Wars mania would last until we were happily licking Star Wars ice lollies in the summer or requesting Star Wars related gifts for Christmas 1978."

Kjond said...

On a pre-foundation art college course in late 1977 a movie buff fellow student was forever telling me excitedly about this new space film he'd read about, coming to the UK that Xmas. My friend's response to a college exercise brief about designing a new campaign for sweets was to have a Luke Skywalker character holding up a tube of Smarties in lightsabre mode, as per the famous poster. I remember our tutor scoffing that a big firm like Nestles wouldn't base an entire marketing campaign on "some film nobody had ever heard of." LOL.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Kjond. I love that story. Sounds like your friend was a few crucial months ahead of his time.

Arbernaut said...

Having seen the trailer for Star Wars at the age of 9 and been blown away, I was desperate to see the film. When the film opened in at the Odeon in Manchester, my dad, my younger brother and me were there for the first night, and queues wrapped around the cinema. This was in the days before you could book tickets, so it was hope for the best. The tickets ran out just before us, but the thought of driving two tearful kids home prompted my dad to ask if they would sell us tickets anyway and we'd just stand at back. Amazingly, the cinema staff agreed, which would never happen in these days of health and safety, and so I watched Star Wars sat on the aisle steps, completely engrossed. It changed my life forever.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Arbernaut and welcome to the site.
What an astonishing story. I've never heard of anyone being allowed to stand in the cinema before. Must have been an incredible evening.
I guess the queues around the block are one of many aspects of the original Star Wars phenomenon that can never really be repeated.

Michael Carroll said...

December 1977... I shall never forget that particular month! Star Wars opened here in Dublin on December 28th, in (I believe) just one cinema... Naturally, I was extremely excited about it. I was already a die-hard science fiction fan, and I first discovered Star Wars through a feature in the very first 2000AD Summer Special (which featured a nice spread of photos, one of which featured Han Solo mistakenly labelled as Luke Skywalker).

By the time December rolled around, I'd seen many clips of the movie, read lots of articles, and pretty much had pieced together the whole story. But, infuriatingly, getting to actually SEE Star Wars that December was not on the cards. Not for me, anyway: but my older sister's friend Angela had a birthday around that time and her parents treated Angela and all of her pals to the movie.

Infuriating as it was for eleven-year-old me to have my sister see the film before I did, that was *nothing* compared to what I had to subsequently endure.

The movie opened on general release three months later, on March 26th, and one-by-one my friends got to see it. Not me, though.

For weeks, I badgered my parents about Star Wars, constantly begging them to take me to see it, but money was tight in those days so trips to the cinema were rare indeed.

Soon, it felt like everyone but me had seen Star Wars, while I had to make do with the Marvel Comics adaptation and the novel, which I finally managed to borrow from the library - after months of being on the waiting list - on March 21st 1978. I remember that date clearly because it was the day I turned twelve years old.

I gave up asking my parents to take me to see it, concluding that it was just not meant to be. I was not happy about that, as you can imagine.

I did, of course, eventually get to see the movie, on Sunday May 28th 1978 (I remember the date because that's my DAD's birthday) when I was allowed to tag along with one of my mates and his family.

However - and this is the real kicker, the one that still hurts - about a month before that my parents went out for the evening, as they did about once every couple of weeks, and when they got home my mother mentioned, "Oh, we went to see Star Wars."

I was GUTTED! I'd been obsessed with Star Wars for almost a year and my parents had gone to see it WITHOUT ME!

But that was nearly forty years ago and time heals all wounds... I've ALMOST forgiven them!

Darren Slade said...

Great story, Michael. Thanks for sharing. Star Wars took so long to cross the Atlantic, and there was so much visual material about it in advance, that I think it's hard for anyone today to comprehend just quite how intensely we craved seeing it.
And for your folks to see it without you ... that's almost tragic!

Maelstromd5 said...

I think Star Wars played in a few Cinemas in Dublin, I'm nearly sure the Adelphi was one, though I remember distinctly seeing it for a third time in the Odeon that used to be on the Liffey, now the Laughter Lounge.