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Friday, 5 January 2018

Review: The Galaxy That Britain Built – a BBC documentary on the making of Star Wars

The BBC's latest contribution to Star Wars documentaries

The BBC has made some pretty good documentaries about Star Wars over the years. I’m thinking in particular of the Omnibus episode George Lucas Flying Solo back in 1997 and its follow-up at the time of The Phantom Menace.

A new show, The Galaxy That Britain Built, was broadcast by BBC4 in the UK on Thursday, December 21, sandwiched between two other Star Wars-related programmes. (Those were a repeat of last summer’s BBC Proms concert devoted to John Williams and Hollywood’s Master of Myth, a documentary about Joseph Campbell.)

Today, Episode Nothing reviews a show that interviewed some of the lesser-known figures in the Star Wars story – including those who really did build that galaxy.

David Whiteley, the producer and presenter of The Galaxy That Britain Built, has been a Star Wars fan since childhood. Yet somehow he grew up not knowing that the original trilogy was shot in Britain. For this documentary, he and director Matt Wildash sought out some of the people who were responsible for bringing the production to Britain and figuring out practical ways to bring George Lucas’s vision to life.

Since this documentary was not a Disney production, there were no visuals from the Lucasfilm archives, aside from some brief movie clips and some still shots from JW Rinzler’s Making of Star Wars book. Neither was Lucas himself interviewed. Instead, the show introduced us to some of the people who laboured on the movie with no idea whether it would be any good.

There was producer Gary Kurtz, 20th Century-Fox’s UK managing director Peter Beale, production supervisor Robert Watts, art director Leslie Dilley, set decorator Roger Christian, special make-up crew member Nick Maley and costume designer John Mollo, who died before the documentary was transmitted. And the story was brought into the 21st century with contributions from Rogue One’s director Gareth Edwards and editor Colin Goudie.

Early on, we heard why Star Wars came to Britain. No Hollywood studio could provide Lucas and Kurtz with all the sound stages they needed in one place. Peter Beale was sure the film could be made in the UK, but Pinewood Studios would not rent all its stages to one production. Robert Watts managed to make a deal to rent Elstree – the entire place, with sound stages, workshops and all.

Beale revealed how he bent the truth to get Star Wars shot in Britain. The actors’ union Equity was keen to protect the jobs of British performers, and advised the British Home Office on whether foreign actors should be given work permits. Beale typed out a cast list with Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness at the top, suggesting to Equity that the American actors would be in smaller roles – and approval was granted.

We heard of the troubled shoot in Tunisia, with the crew’s resilience winning out over bad weather and malfunctioning droids. We were told of the sometimes fractious industrial relations at Elstree, where the crew were unwilling to work beyond 5.30pm (although it has to be said that everybody in the show had the highest respect for the technicians). And we heard about the pressure everyone was under to deliver Lucas’s imaginary universe within the available budget. But we also witnessed the amazing resourcefulness that those limitations inspired.

How the lightsaber was invented (and other achievements of the Star Wars design team)

The original lightsaber seen in The Galaxy That Britain Built

The man most responsible creating the look of Star Wars on screen was the gifted production designer John Barry. He died tragically young. Thankfully, this documentary included him in footage from the BBC archives. We saw Barry explaining how he had spent £15,000 on buying wrecked planes to take apart and use on sets. Some parts were painted gold to be used in the Mos Eisley cantina, for example. And the programme interviewed two of Barry’s key staff, art director Leslie Dilley and set decorator Roger Christian.

If there was a moment to inspire goosebumps, it was probably Roger Christian recalling how he created the lightsaber.

The official documentaries have told us a lot about how the lightsaber’s blade was created, and how sound effects man Ben Burtt gave it the throbbing hum of a movie projector. But Christian told the much more prosaic story of how he made the hilt that Alec Guinness was to remove from a trunk and give to Mark Hamill.

"I knew this lightsaber was the Excalibur of this film. I knew it would be the iconic image,” he recalled.

He went to Brunnings, a photographic equipment shop in London, on the lookout for visually interesting items. He was pointed to some boxes of assorted components – and in the first box, he found the prop he was after.

The handle of a 1940s Graflex press camera became a lightsaber

"Out came a Graflex handle from a 1940s press camera,” he said.

“I just took it and went, 'There it is, this is the Holy Grail', and there was about five or six in there. We bought the lot.”

The distinctive red button was already part of the camera handle. Christian returned to the studios and added a few adornments including a bubble strip that illuminated the numbers on a pocket calculator,

“It just fitted into the clip so I just cut it, stuck that in and i said 'I think I've found the lightsaber, George'.

"He came over, just looked at it and smiled. I mean, that's the biggest approval you can get from George, he just smiled and held it."

Costume designer John Mollo: the final interview

John Mollo interviewed by David Whiteley
for The Galaxy That Britain Built

There’s one distinction that I’m sure David Whiteley would rather his documentary didn’t have. It gives us the final interview with Star Wars’ costume designer, John Mollo.

Mollo had been recommended to Lucas by Peter Beale, of 20th Century-Fox in the UK. The fact that Mollo was a military historian who had worked with David Lean helped him hit it off with the director.

"We used to meet every morning and discuss things things between us. It was a question of who won and who didn't win that particular day,” he said.

Mollo gave the viewer a rare look at his work books form the time, including designs for Chewbacca and notes on how he used part of a radio set for Darth Vader’s breast plate.

"The costumes were pretty simple on the whole, very straightforward,” he said – a pretty modest thing to say while flicking through sketches for some of the most famous movie costumes ever created.

Did anyone realise Star Wars was going to be a hit?

Star Wars reaches London's West End

Did anyone realise they were working on a genre classic?

Les Dilley told the documentary: "I don't think we really understood it. I remember a couple of people on the crew said 'Well, what is it? A load of rubbish.'"

Gary Kurtz said: "I think most of the crew thought it was a silly film. They didn't get to read the whole script and so there were some humorous scenes in it and several of the crew said they thought it was more like a Carry On film than a serious science fiction film."

Peter Beale recalled there was “a certain scepticism” about the enterprise, but also told how he started to cotton onto something.

"I got to the set late one day and noticed there were some children on the set… I think they were one of the grips' children. And I watched them and they were looking at R2-D2 absolutely fascinated. They were scared of the wookiee, they kept a bit back, but C-3PO they were looking at and I thought 'This is interesting'. And a couple of days later there were more children and the crew started bringing two or three children at a time and I started to think, well, if the children are relating at this level, maybe we have something," he said.

The programme went on to show us just how much children – and everyone else – loved the movie. The film opened in the West End of London on December 27 1977, to huge queues, and within a month, 600,000 people had seen it. 

We were treated to contemporary footage of the excited fans – as well as to a contribution from the obligatory party pooper. The critic and director Gavin Millar was seen complaining: “The fact that the adult population of America is still queuing devotedly for this amusing children's film, with its easy answers to real problems, is not the best news of the year." 

The Galaxy That Britain Built: conclusion

Roger Christian shows David Whiteley an
 original lightsaber in The Galaxy That Britain Built

The Galaxy That Britain Built devoted around three-quarters of its running time to Star Wars. After that, there was some contemporary footage of The Empire Strikes Back in production, before the story was brought nearly up to date with anecdotes about Rogue One

You could tell that the documentary was made by enthusiasts. David Whiteley presented it with a fan’s reverence, and he was clearly awed to be looking at the original costume designs or laying eyes on an original lightsaber. His interviewees generally came across as charming gents, who in some cases couldn’t quite believe that they’d been involved in creating a phenomenon.

The whole thing was a reminder that Star Wars was filmed by two talented teams. One was in California, breaking new ground in miniature and optical effects. The other was north of London, cannibalising everyday objects to create props, sets and radio-controlled robots.

Robert Watts summed it up, patriotically. "I'm so proud that our country was able to deliver that,” he said. “Over in the US, they delivered a new form of special effects, so it was an Anglo-American co-production and both sides contributed equally to this wonderful thing that became the Star Wars saga."

The Galaxy That Britain Built is available, at the time of writing, on the BBC iPlayer, where you can watch it if you’re a British TV licence payer (or a foreign viewer who knows how to fool the iPlayer). 

There’s a 30-minute and a 60-minute version, so go for the hour-long, obviously. That version will remain available for another couple of weeks.

At least one YouTuber has also uploaded it, though it remains to be seen how long it'll remain available.


Dec Cart said...

It was great hearing first-hand anecdotes I'd never heard before. Offering a documentary on such well-trodden ground but with a fresh angle isn't easy.

I recommend it too.

John White said...

I loved the programme. Especially when John Mollo was leafing through his sketchbooks!

I remember that Kenny Baker also said that people in the crew were wondering "What's it all about? I dunno. Seems like a load of rubbish."