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Friday, 29 December 2017

December 27, 1977: Star Wars is released in London

Star Wars reaches London, December 1977

Forty years ago, the world-conquering release of Star Wars continued with its arrival in London. Episode Nothing considers that milestone in the Star Wars story.

The release of Star Wars wasn’t an event that happened on May 25, 1977. It was a process that began on that date and continued until at least the latter months of 1978.

One of the big milestones in that story was the film’s arrival in the UK, the country that could lay claim to being the home of Star Wars. The film finally reached cinema-goers in the West End of London on December 27, 1977, and that winter, Star Wars tickets were the hottest thing in the nation’s entertainment capital. 

Star Wars gets its first public showings in the UK, December 1977

The cover of Look-In the week Star Wars arrived in London

Back in 1977, it was customary for British cinema-goers to wait a long time for American films. The difference in the case of Star Wars was that the public in Britain had been very well aware of the impact the film was having in the US and many were desperate to see it.

People in the UK had known about Star Wars for months, thanks to news reports, TV features and the press. 

The film’s exposure was stepped up in December, with the youth magazine Look-In featuring the film on its cover. The Times carried an interview with Alec Guinness on December 8. The Guardian carried its review of the film on Tuesday, December 13, with The Times publishing its own positive verdict on the Friday and the Sunday papers following that weekend. Guinness was on the TV chat show Parkinson on Saturday, December 17, with a clip from the movie.

What happened on December 27, 1977 was not the widespread release of Star Wars. It was just the opening at two cinemas in the West End of London – the Leicester Square Theatre and the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road.

In those days, most cinemas didn’t offer the chance to book tickets in advance. These venues did, but some performances were left open to those who wanted to stand in line for tickets on the day.

According to MJ Simpson’s website, ticket touts (“scalpers”, as the US calls them) were re-selling £2.20 tickets for up to £30.

The Times reports
on the queues for
the first London
of Star Wars
The Times of December 28 reported the film’s release under the headline “Deckchairs at dawn for space war film”.

“Some Londoners took deck chairs to the West End yesterday to await the first screenings in Britain of Star Wars, the science fiction film that has broken all box office records in its first six months in the United States,” the report by Kenneth Gosling began.

“Queues began to form at 7.30am at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road, and the Leicester Square Theatre. The special morning showings with unreserved seats were sold out. All the evening performances for the rest of this week are sold out and few tickers are left for next week.”

With ticket prices starting at £1.50, the two venues had already sold advance tickets to the value of £170,000, the paper said.

Despite reduced public transport over the Christmas holiday period, many people were prepared to travel into London with no guarantee of seeing the film, and the paper noted that “many were happy just to get tickets for later dates”.

Star Wars released around the UK

A poster for the London opening of Star Wars.

For a month, those two West End cinemas were the only places in Britain where you could see Star Wars. MJ Simpson notes that the film took £117,690 in its first week, compared with £90,655 for the previous record-holder Jaws, which had been on four screens.

But, seven months after the film’s American debut, most of Britain still faced a substantial wait.

If you were in Greater London or a major UK city, you might see it before January was out.

In other large towns, you would have to wait for the February half-term holidays, and then still battle with the queues. But in other parts of Britain would have to wait even longer, well into the summer in many cases.

If you’re a British reader wondering when the film reached your part of the country, a forthcoming book – The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain by Craig Stevens – almost certainly contains the answer, along with a lot of other fascinating information and anecdotes. There will be more posts about that soon.

But for now, it's worth remembering something important about December 27, 1977. 

For most people, this was not the date when they finally got to see Star WarsIt was just the time when the excitement of waiting for Star Wars became even more unbearable. 


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article (as always)...

There is small thread on rebelscum with some pics of a london movie theatre and Carrie Fisher visiting the premiere. I don't know which theater this is.

Cheers, Jay

Darren Slade said...

Great pictures on that thread, Jay. Thanks very much for sharing.