Friday, 27 April 2018

Book review: The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain by Craig Stevens

The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain by Craig Stevens

You might think that when it comes to the release of the original Star Wars, there are no stories left untold.

Well, author Craig Stevens has found some.

His book The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain chronicles the release, merchandising and promotion of Star Wars in the country where it was made. And whether or not you were around in the UK in 1977-78, I think you're going to like it.

This blog is about all aspects of Star Wars in the 1970s, but it contains quite a lot about the film’s release in Britain, because that’s where I’m from.

The Star Wars experience in the UK was quite different from the US. For most people here, Star Wars was not a film of 1977 – because the vast majority couldn’t see it until 1978.

Our Star Wars comic book was in black and white, called Star Wars Weekly, and didn’t appear until February 1978. The toys and games were not from Kenner but Palitoy, and they differed in some ways from their American prototypes.

And as Star Wars mania continued through the summer of 1978, there was all kinds of merchandising and promotional activity that was unique to the UK.

It’s surprisingly hard to find much information online about the film's UK release, so I was excited that Craig Stevens and his publisher McFarland decided there was scope for a book on the subject. In the name of full disclosure, I should say that Craig interviewed me for the book and sent me a copy of the manuscript for comment. (But I paid for my copy of the completed product.)

The UK release of Star Wars

The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain
 (pictured with the Sphere novel for scale)

All Star Wars fans know the story of the film's release on May 25, 1977, and the amazing reaction it provoked from day one. Fewer people recall that (as we said in this post) it took quite a while for the film to spread across America. And fewer still know that here in the UK, we had to wait a very long time. 

The paperback novel came out in the UK in June 1977. So did the monthly Star Wars comic book, if you knew a shop where you could buy imported American comics. The soundtrack double-LP was released in July. Star Wars received endless free publicity on television and in comics and magazines, all that summer and autumn. But we lacked one key thing: the film.

Although the press saw it in June, general audiences wouldn’t be able to watch Star Wars until it opened in London’s West End on December 27th, 1977. And even after that, most people still had a long wait. Major regional towns had the film in late January or in February 1978, but there were plenty of places that had to wait until summer, and a handful of small venues didn't get their hands on the movie until September.

If you want to know when Star Wars was released in your own part of the UK, the answer is almost certain to be in this book. Craig has researched the subject that thoroughly  and you will feel the frustration of those people in small towns whose wait was truly agonising. 

Early cosplay: how Star Wars was promoted at UK cinemas

The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain by Craig Stevens

In 1978, as Craig Stevens makes clear, your local cinema was usually a lot freer to promote films by whatever means it saw fit. As a result, Star Wars was publicised in all kinds of imaginative, if cheap, ways. Across the country, cinemas found volunteers to dress in Darth Vader or stormtrooper costumes that were often home-made. Local newspapers were very keen to photograph the results. Sometimes, the cinemas used the official Star Wars masks produced by Don Post Studios. More often, they weren't on that kind of budget.

Craig has tracked down a number of people who took part in those early efforts at Star Wars cosplay. Their stories leave you full of admiration for the people who tried to replicate the film's designs, back in the days when there were no handsomely illustrated 'visual guide' books to refer to. As Craig writes: "Considering that the manufacture of some of the Vader and Stormtrooper costumes had been arranged by local cinemas, the results were generally very good. The occasionally dubious nature of the costumes did not seem to matter to adoring fans."

Craig suspects that the UK division of 20th Century-Fox actively encouraged this kind of cheap and cheerful publicity drive. It was clearly much more relaxed about these things than film marketing people are today, with their eagerness to control every detail of branding and messaging.

However, the author suggests that Lucasfilm's merchandising and publicity man Charles Lippincott was unaware of what was going on in the UK, and had made efforts to clamp down on rogue promotional efforts. “Things looked like they were going to get out of hand with the British promotions because I don’t think that Marc Pevers [his fellow merchandising man] and I got it across to UK promotions people that you couldn’t have a whole bunch of people dressing up," he said.

But that "whole bunch of people dressing up" were an important part of the atmosphere of fun that surrounded Star Wars back in 1977-78 and Craig captures that excitement perfectly. 

Not Kenner but Palitoy. Star Wars Action figures and toys in the UK

The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain by Craig Stevens
Craig Stevens knows just about as much about Britain's Star Wars action figures and merchandising as it's possible to know – so it's no surprise that his book is particularly strong on that topic. He's augmented his own knowledge by interviewing people who worked at Palitoy, the UK subsidiary of General Mills that was responsible for bringing the Kenner Star Wars range of action figures and vehicles to Britain. 

It's amusing to note that some people at Palitoy thought they were getting the short end of the stick when they were offered the Star Wars range. Les Cooke, then marketing director at the toy company, tells Craig: “I was made aware that our sister company in the USA, Kenner, had the rights to two properties, a TV show called The Six Million Dollar Man and a film called Star Wars. Kenner had decided that our UK sister company Denys Fisher would have the rights to the TV show and we would get Star Wars. Without having any knowledge about Star Wars whatsoever, I thought Palitoy had drawn the short straw here."

As Craig notes, the action figures that arrived in the UK in 1978 were the American Kenner toys, repackaged with Palitoy's name on them. But when it came to the diecast vehicles, the British versions were produced from moulds made in the UK. He chronicles the small differences between the UK versions and their American prototypes, no doubt settling lots of fan arguments along the way. But he also tells the bigger story of how the toys were commissioned, produced, marketed and retailed – and what young fans made of them. 

The Star Wars merchandise that was exclusive to the UK

Author Craig Stevens
Craig’s account of Star Wars in the UK reveals just how unique a lot of the merchandising was. 

He tells how Marvel’s UK operation produced Star Wars Weekly, augmenting black-and-white reprints of the American comic strip with its own features and competitions, as well as other comic stories.

He relates the story of the Star Wars poster magazine from Bunch Associates, which folded out each month into a giant picture. The features in that magazine seemed like precious glimpses into the official Star Wars back story, but it turns out that the authors were winging it a lot of the time in an effort to fill pages.

Craig tells us how the Kent company Letraset came to recreate the drama of Star Wars in rub-down transfers, as well as producing notebooks and scrapbooks. Meanwhile, Helix complemented that range with its own selection of pencil cases, sharpeners, erasers and maths sets.

And in one of Craig’s own favourite stories, we learn about Robert Beecham, the man who proposed Star Wars soaps and bubble bath – and who did rather well out of them.

Which brings me to perhaps the book’s greatest strength. This is one book where the author has not relied very much on material that’s already been published. Craig examined the archives of companies mentioned in the book, and scoured back copies of local newspapers for his information about the original release of Star Wars. What's more, he conducted a lot of interviews. He spoke to many of the people who made decisions at the top of their companies, as well as to the ordinary fans who seized on anything bearing the Star Wars logo, and the mix of interviews drives the story along.

Summing up: The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain

Unlike this blog, Craig Stevens doesn't just concern himself with the original Star Wars. He takes the story on past the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, chronicling all the hullaballoo that surrounded the biggest film series there had ever been. And the story remains just as compelling. 

This is a terrifically enjoyable book. It's 349 pages long including index, and nicely presented with plenty of black and white photos of contemporary events, advertisements and merchandise. Its recommended price is $39.95 in the US and it retails for over £30 in the UK, which might make some readers think twice. But I enjoyed more fun and nostalgia from this book than I did from many of those lavishly-illustrated coffee table volumes giving us the authorised Lucasfilm history. 

Whether or not you were part of the Star Wars experience in the UK, I suspect you'll enjoy The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain. Through a wise choice of subject and heaps of original research, Craig Stevens has given us that rare thing – a Star Wars book full of things that we didn't already know.

You can order The Star Wars Phenomenon from Amazon (with a small percentage of the sale going to Episode Nothing) by using the links here.

UK orders:  

US orders:


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