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Friday, 26 January 2018

Interview: Craig Stevens, author of The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain

The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain by Craig Stevens

There's a great new book coming out about Star Wars mania in the UK. And I don't think you'll even have to be British to like it.

Today, Episode Nothing meets Craig Stevens, the author of The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain.

Over three years ago, I had an email out of the blue from Craig Stevens, a huge Star Wars fan and merchandise collector who was writing a book about the release of the original trilogy in the UK. He had read Episode Nothing and wanted to interview me.

Craig had been trawling all kinds of archives and interviewing some very impressive people, including former UK Marvel chief Dez Skinn and the ex-managing director of 20th Century-Fox in the UK, Peter Beale. So it was a bit of a surprise that he wanted to speak to the likes of me. But the point was to have the recollections of some ordinary fans in the book.

The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain is finally about to be published by McFarland. It's the first full account of how the original trilogy was released in the country where it was made, and all the merchandising and publicity that surrounded it. I turned the tables on Craig and interviewed him about the book. 

Star Wars reaches London's Leicester Square

What made you want to tell the story of Star Wars from a UK perspective? 

The book is entirely different any other that has been published. It is completely focused on the British side of the Star Wars experience, where other books on Star Wars are based on the USA. My book is not the standard “making of” narrative, however, but features instead the story of the people who marketed the films, produced and advertised the merchandise and the fans that soaked it all up. It is the first time many stories have been told, including [UK toy manufacturer] Palitoy’s Star Wars campaign, the weekly comic and the official poster magazine. Also the manner in which the films were slowly distributed across the county and how we fans had an agonising wait for them. 

It was the sheer frustration of encountering only passing references to Star Wars in Britain, apart from how the films were filmed at Elstree. It seemed to me that the only way to discover more about the history of Star Wars in Britain was to write a book on the subject myself. The knowledge I have accrued during my years of research has been worthwhile in itself. The book is something that I barely believed would be possible, certainly from a large publisher such as McFarland Books.

Can you explain a bit about who you were and what you were doing when the title Star Wars first registered with you? 

Author Craig Stevens
I was a seven-year-old living in the sleepy Greater London town of Collier Row when Star Wars began to register as a non-distinct happening in my mind. It was something that was mentioned on television and that began to be discussed at school. When it became clear that Star Wars was a film at the cinema, it was surprising as it seemed to be everywhere. I eventually saw Star Wars at the Gants Hill Odeon (Ilford) with my father and younger brother in February 1978, which was very fortunate as many parts of the country had to wait much longer than that. Like many small children, there was simply too much to take in. I was utterly dazzled. It was the highlights that I remembered such as the cantina and the swing across the chasm. It was the weekly comic though that really sucked me into the Star Wars universe. The film itself was not available to view in any format apart from re-releases at the cinema and it quickly became akin to a distant dream until I saw it again at the double bill of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in 1982.

People might think you can learn just about everything about Star Wars from the internet and previously published books. But your book contains a lot of stories and information that people would never have found online. Tell me a bit about how you researched it and who you interviewed. 

I undertook a great deal of old-fashioned detective work for the book. The only way to get an idea of how the Star Wars films were released throughout the country was to visit archives and flick through hundreds of old newspapers and magazines. I tracked down every person I could find who was connected to the trilogy in the years 1977-83 for an interview and one lead often led to another. I tracked down the people that organised the British merchandise strategy, the Palitoy promotions, the poster magazines, the UK Marvel comic and who manufactured the Palitoy toys. Also some of the main merchandise producers. It took hundreds of emails, phone calls and letters but I think the result is well worth it. 

What surprises did you uncover from your research? Anything you're particularly proud of discovering?

One of my favourite stories that I uncovered was the British sole businessman who created the range of Cliro soap and bubble bath entirely on his own, from the artwork to the marketing, and became a millionaire as a result. He’s one of the most inspirational people I have met and I’m sure that people will love reading his recollections. I was also extremely pleased to get to the bottom of the Darth Vader tour in 1983, by speaking to the woman who actually organised it. 

A UK ad for the Palitoy range of Star Wars toys and games

How do you think the UK experience of Star Wars was different from the American one? 

The British experience of Star Wars was very different to the USA, especially in the way that we had to wait so long for the first film to arrive. There was certain a sense of ownership of the Star Wars trilogy in Britain, especially in the marketing and media coverage. The Star Wars comic from Marvel became much more of a hub for fandom of the film than the comic in America and some exclusive stories were created for Britain. A great deal of merchandise was produced by British companies that has become the envy of collectors world-wide. There was a down side in that toys from Kenner often took over a year to arrive in Britain via Palitoy and a great deal of it didn’t get released at all. One large difference to the USA was the sometimes over-the-top promotions in Britain organised by Palitoy, 20thCentury Fox and individual cinemas. 

Having read the book, I was struck by how free local cinema managers were to create their own Star Wars marketing campaigns and promotions. These days, you'd imagine the film publicists would keep a much tighter control on these things. Were you impressed by some of what went on? 

There were certainly many innovative ideas cooked up by cinema managers to promote the Star Wars trilogy. The entire culture of showing films at the cinema was different then. Before the internet and twenty-four hour news, individual cinema managers used their own initiative to publicise the new films at their cinemas. That often involved sending costume performers out on to the street, constructing carnival floats and many other promotional stunts. Lucasfilm in the USA reportedly attempted prevent the Star Wars campaign 1977-78 from using costumed performers but fortunately they were completely ignored. 20th Century-Fox UK even sent Darth Vader and Stormtroopers with placards to picket BBC television studios to publicise Return of the Jedi

How has Star Wars remained part of your life in the 40 years since it came out?

Star Wars has practically been my entire life since 1978. After being a Star Wars fan throughout my childhood, I turned into world-class collector when I joined the workforce and had some disposable income. I then helped to found and run the main British Star Wars fan club in the 1990s and some of the first conventions. I then ran a number of science fiction collectors' shops, which specialised in Star Wars of course. I have become well known for my Star Wars Lego models and my Lego craft in general. I’ve put on Star Wars talks and presentations in many different places and have had lots of contact with the media. My wife Karen is a science fiction and fantasy fan, so I kind of live it every day. Now I am writing on the subject, so I might have expended all of the Star Wars possibilities, except for being part of the films perhaps. 

People might remember you from news reports as the guy whose Boba Fett figure was sold at auction for £18,000. How big is your collection of merchandise? Which single item would you rush back to save from a house fire? 

The reaction in the media to my auction of my Star Wars figures really took me by surprise. If I knew that the television people were going to be there, I wouldn’t have worn that terrible jumper! My collection still runs into the many thousands of items, most of which I would never consider selling. I’m looking at staging a major exhibition in my town of Whitby in 2018. My most precious item is my self-assembled comic book made from the Star Wars comic strip instalments printed in the Sunday Express supplement magazine 1983-85. Not only is it a cherished item, I doubt if I would ever be able to track down an entire run of the strips again. I don’t know of anyone else who has a set. 

Your book covers the original Star Wars trilogy. Any plans to tell the story of Star Wars in the UK after that, or does it become less distinct from the American experience? 

I do hope to be able to publish a book that covers the years of Star Wars in the UK from 1984 to the Disney era. It would be a story of rapid decline, of fandom clinging on before the bombastic return of Star Wars. It would be all the more personal, because it would partly be the story of me and my friends who attempted to keep the flame burning with our self-run Star Wars fan club. I would need the assistance of long lost former friends and colleagues, or their permission at the very least, so I’m not sure that I could pull it all together. It would be like the Blues Brothers trying to get the band back together. It would be a fascinating project though, because there would be the viewpoint of mature fans like myself attempting to keep going, and younger people who were experiencing Star Wars for the first time. I’ll keep you posted.  

The Star Wars Phenomenon in the UK will be out soon.

More information from publisher McFarland is here

You can order the book from Amazon in the US here.

It's available from Amazon in the UK here.


Taylor Melindea said...
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