“£16.50 for a ticket to the Star Wars Exhibition!! Bloody hell” I thought. “George Lucas must be laughing all the way to the bank. ” I suppose anyone who openly complains while they are up there will be directed in the direction of a rather tall gentleman, wearing a black floor length cloak and black, full faced helmet, with a distinct breathing problem and clutching a lightsabre.
“You are displeased with the exhibition? (breath) and you want a refund (breath). I am sorry but (breath) that is not permitted (breath)”
There is a electronic swishing, humming noise and a dull thud as a part of your anatomy makes contact with the floor, followed by a shrill scream of pain as you clutch at the smouldering stump and run out the door in search or the nearest A & E department (well, one that hasn't been closed down to make way for a 'walk-in centre').
Well, it had to happen sooner or later. 2007 marks the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars (A New Hope) movie release and worldwide celebrations, exhibitions and jubilation are in order. George Lucas, already rubbing hands with glee, must be skipping and clicking his heels all the way to the bank as he rakes all the filthy lucre in from the continuing revenue from the films and what we were attending today. . There is also the Star Wars Convention which is taking place (at the time of writing this review) over in London's Docklands at the ExCel Centre. Expect a comprehensive review from one of my esteemed colleagues very soon...
County Hall is a rather imposing edifice on the bank of the Thames and I wonder what it would have been like to walk its echoing corridors and halls when Red Ken Livingstone held sway over his crazy court of the GLC (Greater London Council) when he seemed hell-bent on turning our fair capital city into the Democratic Peoples Republic of London. Just to show what short memories people have, he has been elected Mayor of London for two terms and apart from imposing swingeing congestion charges on innocent motorists and inviting leaders of Islamic extremist groups to stay with all expenses paid (“You are always very welcome...”) he exudes all the charm of a shifty used-car salesman and all the phoney warmth of an abandoned refrigerator. Mind you, I do agree with him in the case of the execrable London 2012 Olympics logo and its tendency to induce epileptic seizures in susceptible people.
Upon entrance to County Hall, you had the ticket booth and information stand in front of you plus the welcoming sight of a man/woman dressed as an Imperial Stormtrooper plodding around. Around him were numerous people waiting for their chance to pose next to him. As you will see, numerous children: (aged 5-15) and Andy: (42 and 3 quarters), had their picture taken with him. It was very hard to decide if he was saying any thing but I suppose he was following the example of all the characters in Disneyland. They don't talk, just gesture expansively but all he could do was wave his blaster around a bit. Up the stairs and into the exhibition. As I have said previously, County Hall was once the domain of Red Ken and all his Loony Left cohorts and this place fitted the bill. Lots of oak paneling on the walls and big wooden doors was very much the style and all too soon, it was into the first hall.
This was filled with all the props and costumes that featured in the Naboo scenes in The Phantom Menace. There were quite a few glass cases filled with the dresses that Queen Amidala and her hand maidens and attendants wore during the filming. Too much looking at the dresses and my wrist started to go limp so I was speedily ushered out before I could start comparing material swatches and the like. Quite a few of the models of the royal palaces of Naboo were featured and one thing I will keep harking back to every once in a while during the review is the sheer complexity and detail that goes into them. As much as I am loathe to say it but I do have to mention the Gungans and a couple of models of their water craft were on display. Small wonder someone released a heavily edited version of The Phantom Menace for viewing on the Internet with all references and scenes depicting the crass and irritating Jar-Jar Binks removed from them.
The strangest sight of the day that I saw, apart from the various men and women dressed up as Jedi knights, was a family wandering around and that me and my girlfriend crossed paths with. The mother and father, let's call them Mr and Mrs Gumby and their brood of offspring was nothing to look at in particular. But their daughter, who must have been about 15 or 16 presented a very strange sight indeed. She was dressed in what could only be described as a gown that you would be ashamed to wear up on stage at any tatty am-dram production and her face had had white make-up applied which covered her entire face and forehead. I know she was supposed to be emulating Queen Amidala but the whole impression I got was of a French mime artist. I almost expected her to launch into the invisible pane of glass routine. If she was younger, I would fully understand but to see this sort of aberrant behaviour in a spotty faced teenager who, according to her peers, should be out vandalising bus-shelters, smoking like a chimney and drinking profusely and getting pregnant with a baby of mixed race and dubious parentage.
After some more plodding down an echoing corridor, it was into one of the main halls and one of the piece de resistances of the exhibition. Dominating the centre of the hall was a full-size model of the Naboo fighter that was used by Anakin Skywalker in his assault on the Trade Federation. One thing that George Lucas is becoming over-reliant upon is the use of CGI in the first three films. It is all very well seeing the ships on the screen in all their pixellated glory but to see a full size model is something else. Just to make sure that a ship has that air of authenticity about it, the fighter had been heavily weathered to simulate heavy use and there were quite a few simulated blaster marks on the surface of the fighter as well. Dotted around the circumference of the hall were a number of pod racers and the cockpits that the pilots sat in to control them. Sebulba's was there and four or five of the other contestants so I went rather snap-happy. However, the Gumbys and Miss-Oh-My-God-I've-Turned-Into-A-Mime-Artist happened to blunder into the frame, cheerfully oblivious to the fact that I was taking a picture.
Heartily cursing Miss-Invisible-Pane-Of-Glass under my breath, we sauntered out and into the series of rooms that held the props from the Tatooine scenes of the movies. One thing I must add is that some props and ships might only feature for a few seconds or minutes at best in the films but the amount of detail that goes into the assembly and ultimate finishing is breath-taking. This was illustrated by the pod racer that was used by Anakin in the pod race on Tatooine. It was meticulous and a credit to the model and prop makers art. The finished article was in excess of 30 feet long and upon close examination of the twin jet nacelles, you could see the amount of pain-staking detail, like in the wiring looms on the casings and the turbo-fans you could see inside. The cockpit followed the same rules and you could see that it was made to look deliberately jury-rigged as though it was made on a shoestring in Watto's workshops.
More model making was displayed in the finish line gantry and a section of the stands where the massed ranks of the population sat. Many models of the non-human cast were featured and Jabba The Hutt was featured prominently. One creature I did not expect to be featured was the Sand Wart. You see it briefly in A New Hope where the scene is outside Jabbas palace and there is a small creature foraging for food which gets seized and devoured by the Sand Wart with its chameleon-like tongue, complete with its happy post-prandial cavernous belch.
No Star Wars exhibition or convention would be complete unless it had a theatre or conference room devoted to a film or slideshow devoted to the various processes in the special effects and making of the films. We accidentally stumbled in on this and the section of film that was being shown was the construction of the 'arena' on Geonosis where Anakin, Amidala and Obi-Wan are thrown into to provide entertainment and gladiatorial-style entertainment for the planets inhabitants. As I have said previously, George does like to take his previous efforts and mould and reshape them with extra scenes and CGI to appeal to later generations. But even without the helping hand of computer-generated imagery, there is still a considerable administering of carpentry and the odd lick of paint still required to make some scenes even more convincing.
To cater for the multi-national clientele that was wandering around the halls, TV screens had been dotted around and were providing a multi-lingual display of relevant facts about the planets of the Empire. When we were in the hall with the movie being shown about Geonosis, the commentary, but to cater to our continental cousins, the subtitles were in Spanish.
One thing we did see in passing was a large green screen in one of the adjoining rooms. Up on the stage in front of the screens were life size replicas of C3-P0 and R2-D2. Lets just say there was a rather large queue of mainly small boys and girls and the occasional eager adult waiting to have their picture taken with these two famous droids. The end result was then superimposed on the desert background of Tatooine and behold!You were standing on the surface of an alien planet, smiling broadly with the aforementioned droids. Doubtless they were being charged an arm and a leg for the pleasure but they did not seem to mind......
How an annoying little brat like Anakin Skywalker could have grown into a stroppy Kevin-like adolescent and teenager before he metamorphosed into the menacing gravitas of Darth Vader, I have never fully understood. However I think they made the right choice in using Dave Prowse for the body shots and used the voice of James Earl Jones for the rich sinister voice of everyones favourite Sith Lord. A Dark master of The Force with a West Country bumpkins accent would not have rung true somehow....
One of the props featured from the original trio of films was a model of the bridge section of an Imperial Star destroyer. We have all seen them on the big screen and they are HUGE! Looking close up and you could see all the intricate work and detailing that goes into them. On the side was various panels with writing to indicate where sections of the superstructure were to be affixed. However, in a moment of levity, some wag at ILM had decided, instead of writing:'Part 125A to be glued here', had written 'SUCK ON THIS' in large bold lettering. Look very closely during the space battle scenes in A New Hope and you might just see them.
As you will be aware, droids feature very heavily in all six of the films and the old favourites; C3-P0 and R2-D2 were on display along with a few droids from the Death Star and some that were in the Jawas sand crawler. The Death Star section of the exhibition had the rather cute mouse-droid (Do-Do-Dee-Do, to quote the noises it made) in a display case but I did not see the 'Gonk' droid on display, that looked for all the world like an ambulatory wheelie bin. On the subject of the Death Star, uniforms were featured and examples that come to mind were the various severe-cut officers uniforms and the Pope Benedict, I mean Emperor Palpatine, guards uniforms. I'm sorry but the latest model of the Pope does remind me of Palpatine and when he administers Benediction from his lofty balcony on St Peters, I fully expect Force Lightning to come shooting out from his fingertips...
A certain heavy breathing was being piped over strategically-placed speakers and there he was, in all his glory , in a case all to himself. There is something iconic about everyones favourite baddie and it just shows how a West Country bumpkin can be transformed into the universes favourite wrong-do-er. Other bits of Darth Vader that were on show were the open sections of his helmet that were revealed when Luke looks upon the face of his father for the first and last time just before he pegs out. His former mentor;Yoda, was treated in the same manner and it looked for all the world like he had been pickled and was about to be served up with a side order of Branston
Out in the corridor, when we were strolling to our next port of call, were the Family Gumby and the offspring of Marcel Marceau. The worrying thing was her appearance would have been understandable if there was a fancy-dress competition and we saw a few similarly clad children wandering around but no, whether she was out to scare people with her outlandish appearance or some other reason will never be divulged.
Kashyyyk was next up and Wookies were in abundance as we say a couple of costumes mounted an displayed. I find it worrying that Peter Mayhew still bears an uncanny resemblance to Chewbacca even out of costume. Some Wookie artifacts were on display including some model bowcasters and a mock-up of one of the all-wood helicopter devices featured in Revenge Of The Sith. Mustaphar was next door and there were some backdrop and scenery pieces from the refinery where Anakin gets sliced and diced courtesy of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
For the purists among you who poo-pooh the new trilogy will be split into two camps. There are those among you who adore Ewoks and think they are cute, cuddly endearing balls of fur and there are those among you who think they should all be obliterated with napalm and the survivors crucified. Warwick Gates Pickett costume was in a case and I felt obliged to take a picture, at my girlfriends prompting and nudges in my side.
Other planets that featured in the Star Wars universe were on display. Coruscant, the capital planet of the Empire was featured by way of a costume of the Senate guard and Amidala's handmaidens and Geonosis, with pre-production/CGI wax models of their graceful humanoid inhabitants. Costumes did take pride of place in many of the areas of the exhibitions and it was interesting to see how Anakins garb evolved and changed throughout the first three films. From the scuffed but practical workwear when he was on Tatooine, through to the pastel-coloured Jedi robes he wore when he was in training through to the predominantly dark and hooded robes he wore when he was lured into the dark side of The Force.
Now all throughout our meanderings around County Hall, we saw various individuals, male and female, dressed as Jedi Knights. One of the attractions that was advertised was Jedi School. We did not actually get the time to go and see this but from various accounts and pictures on the official exhibition website, it gives children of all ages, the change to become adept at using a lightsabre and Force Shoves. All good fun and it gives the kids a chance to beat the stuffing out of each other with a pair of plastic lightsabres. However, if it is anything like the noble art of fencing, then the thrusts, blocks and parries they learn will be something useful.
Time was catching up with us and we had almost finished with our wanderings, one final exhibit that caught our eye was Robot World in two adjoining halls. Okay, it was not really tied in with the Star Wars universe but some of the primitive 'robots', automata and learning machines like the maze-solving 'mice' that are so beloved of manic Japanese university computer science students that were featured, gave a clear indication of where George Lucas got his ideas from where it came to his artificial intelligences.
All too soon, we had soaked up the Force-laden atmosphere of the exhibition and we bade our farewells and made our way out onto the streets outside the hall. A strategically-placed trailer acting as the mechandise stand beckoned me and I could only marvel at some of the prices being charged for merchandise. It is very true that I would like a lightsabreto grace one of my bookcase shelves. I could easily justify the cost to myself, but by the way my girlfriend was looking with me with pursed lips, cutely-raised eyebrow and a 'you-boys-and-your-toys' look on her face, I thought better of it.
Once out into the drizzle-laden air of central London and walking around onto the Embankment overlooking the river Thames, we paused for a while and I had to chuckle at what had been placed on the roof of the London Aquarium, adjoining County Hall. Six life-size models of Imperial Stormtroopers, all clutching blasters, looked menacingly down at the crowd of tourists that forever thronged this section of central London. They seemed to be saying:”We're only here for a short time, but during that time, you are all subjects of the Emperor...”
You can only marvel at the multi-million dollar empire that George Lucas has amassed with the six movies, the cartoon spin-offs and the merchandsing that goes along with it all. As our esteemed colleague on this site and wannabe world dictator; Adam so ominously said in the latest podcast: (Number 2, at the time of writing this article) ”Well, he has to feed that throat of his...”, probably referring to the wobbly mass that has accumulated under his chin and requires extensive upkeep. I think he can rest assured that he has left an enduring legacy that will not go away.