The ExCel centre is big, really big. You won't believe - okay you will believe how big it is but nonetheless the Star Wars 'event' appears to only be taking up about a quarter of the floor space, using South 1 to South 4 (it goes up to 8 and there is a North side that is entirely unused this weekend). You will note the 'event' in inverted commas. That's because the organisers have gone to great pains never to call this a 'convention', it is always an 'event' To us old timers it _is_ a convention, although in my case the most blatantly commercial kind I've ever seen.
There are two main stages - the 'Celebrity Stage', which mainly has interviews that are hosted by Warwick Davis (who's main claim to fame is playing an Ewok and the titular character Willow (no not THAT Willow, the one who appeared half naked in FHM, that's Alyson Hannigan!)). The Celebrity Stage is housed in a large screened off area (with massive drapes) in one corner of the main Celebration Europe hall (namely the S1 to S4 bit). The General Schedule handout says this of the Celebrity Stage - "home to first class entertainment throughout the weekend". Indeed! The secondary stage is the 'Platinum Stage', named after the Platinum Suite, where it is located. This isn't part of the main CE area but instead accessible via a set of escalators in the central corridor (i.e. you have to leave the main CE hall to get to it - have your laminated pass ready). This Platinum Stage does not have a host assigned to it, though it does have a nice large screen, and shows a more eclectic set of entertainments!
Besides the two major stages there is also a third, tiny, stage near the exit of the main CE area - the 'Fan Stage'. According to the General Schedule handout, that we all grabbed as we entered the main hall, this is "located near the front of Hall S8". Is it hell! On Friday afternoon I spent a good half an hour or so walking up and down, and then around the outside, of the conference centre looking for the elusive entrance to the Fan Stage. I eventually gave in and went to the information desk. They gave me some rubbish about going back into the main hall and then taking a lift in one corner up a couple of levels! Needless to say that was far from the truth. It was, however, enough to lead me to the truth - the Fan Stage was actually little more than a cordoned off area, seating no more than about 40, near the exit of the main hall. I must have walked past it several times without realising what it was!
Also in the main hall was a big sectioned off autograph area, a couple of dozen large exhibitors (such as LEGO, LucasArts, the Tunisian tourist office and two branches of the British military (who I really think should be banned from such events - they should not be allowed to try to recruit kids...)) and dozens of smaller dealers stands. Toys R Us had a large plot where they held an interactive show called 'Jedi Training on Dagobah'. From what I could tell it was a little show where they would choose a couple of kids from the audience to take part fighting Darth Maul with the help of a Jedi Master. I didn't actually get to see it, so I'm not totally sure on the details, but I know that Jamie (by far the youngest of the three of us) spent a lot of his time trying to get into that show. I'm told he finally managed it on the last show on the last day! Sadly I wasn't there to see it. The other interactive show on offer, this one for the older codgers amongst us, was a recreation of the opening scenes of Star Wars (A New Hope or Episode IV, if you must). Four or five members of the audience were chosen to become rebel soldiers who attempt to protect the Tantive IV from Imperial boarding - and are, as in the film, cut down by the invading Stormtroopers. I got to see a bit more of this and it was quite fun to watch them recreate such an iconic scene, though it lacked the imploding door, the blaster bolts and the first Stormtrooper dropping in the doorway leaving the rest to step over him!
The main events were really happening on the Celebrity Stage, though. We arrived about fifteen minutes late for the first panel on the first day, the Friday. We just underestimated how long the journey across the Thames would be (it involved several stops on the train from Abbey Wood to Greenwich, then several stops on the DLR from Greenwich to Poplar and then a few more stops, after a change at Poplar, to Custom House). Keith and I rushed to the Celebrity Stage, Jamie immediately rushed off to find the Jedi Training (he was determined from day one!) I don't think the two of us had missed much by that point, Warwick was talking with the 'Mint Imperials'. No, not a popular beat combo but rather the silly name they had given to the panel of 'the original Imperials [that] invade the stage for nostalgia and fun'. Those four being Dave Prowse (the original Vader's body), Barrie Holland (who had 10 seconds of screen time in Return of the Jedi and said 'You Rebel scum!'), Michael Culver (Captain Needa in Empire Strikes Back, who was famously choked to death by Vader "Apology accepted, Captain Needa") and Richard LeParmentier (General Motti - the officer who Vader choked (but not to death, thanks to Tarkin) in the conference room scene in Star Wars). Nothing particularly insightful or memorable from any of them, I'm afraid. That, you will find, is a theme that runs through all these Celebrity Stage interviews, unfortunately. Interesting and entertaining enough at the time, for the most part, but nothing that sticks in the mind. There is, perhaps, one minor exception with this one panel - Richard LeParmentier reenacting his famous choking scene on stage. We found his lack of faith disturbing!
After that I rushed off to find the Platinum Stage. As noted above, that wasn't too hard to find, it was sign posted quite well once I realised it was outside the main hall. After the first set of escalators I accidentally walked into the Vader Project. This was a room full of Darth Vader helmets decorated in various (usually bizarre) ways by more than 60 artists. Unfortunately I was rushing to get to the Platinum stage, realised I'd taken a wrong turn and left pretty much as soon as I entered the room. I had planned to go back later in the weekend. Later in the weekend (on the Saturday and Sunday) there was always a massive queue to get in. I ended up leaving the event without getting a decent look, which I regret. As it turns out I think my time would have been much better spent admiring the Vader Project than attending the 'Original Costume Design, and creating Darth Vader, with John Mollo and Brian Muir' (as the General Schedule called it). For one, Brian Muir wasn't actually able to attend, so any talk of creating Darth Vader was out. For another, the guy they had doing the interview of John Mollo was abysmal. Really, I'm not kidding, he was abysmal. Apparently he was some kind of rapper or something, some kind of celebrity 'fan'. Whatever he was, he was no interviewer. Amazing. When he was struggling to think of another inane question he'd say 'amazing' about whatever John Mollo had said (even when it was John basically repeating something he'd already said, in answer a question he'd basically already been asked). It was getting to the point that the audience were beginning to laugh everytime this interviewer (sorry, I've no idea what he name was) said 'amazing...' Fortunately I never saw him again, he didn't return to do any other panel I saw. The same couldn't be said for John Mollo, though. I saw him in at least two more panels (Star Wars 30th Anniversary Crew Stars on Saturday morning and as a judge on the Costume Pageant on Saturday afternoon). John was a good guest but, as ever, nothing that really stuck in the mind.
I could go on about each and every panel I attended but I won't bore you (or me!) with that. Instead, I'll note a few memorable things, I think. At the end of the Friday, in the final panel of the day, it was the one and only Mark Hamill. Yes, Luke Skywalker. He was greatly entertaining on the Celebrity Stage with Warwick as his interviewer. He really came across as a very personable and down to earth chap, with a great sense of humour. It was interesting, though hardly surprising, to hear that he doesn't keep up on any of the Expanded Universe stories. Apparently someone went up to him in the autograph hall (having paid their £25, I assume) and told him that his character was dead. It was news to Mark (and me, for that matter). He asked the audience if it were true and the general consensus was that it was, from a certain point of view! There's some new stories set some two hundred or so years after the original trilogy that deal's with Luke's descendants (Mark was vaguely aware that Luke was married to someone called Mara Jade but didn't really know anything about her). So, he was dead, but he was okay with that - he made some joke about Luke looking after his health but not enough to live 200 years! In fact he said that he deliberately hadn't read any of the new books or comics as he felt a bit protective of his character. He didn't like the idea of someone else interpreting it, though said that was a slightly silly attitude but there it was! All in all that was a good way to end of the first day of Celebration Europe. It was back to Jean's in Abbey Wood and some good British dinner for us - from the local chippy!
Saturday I managed to roust Keith and Jamie that bit earlier (and we skipped breakfast, too) so we could get there in time for the opening. 'Force of the Fetts' awaited us at 10:30 on the Celebrity Stage and both Keith and myself were interested in seeing that one. Of course things didn't go entirely to plan...
We arrived at ExCel a bit ahead of time, probably around 10:10 to 10:15. Plenty of time to get in and get a seat. Or not. There was a queue to get in. We hadn't seen this on the Friday but we weren't surprised it might be a bit busier on the actually weekend. A bit? A lot. We started to walk alongside the queue, trying to find the end. And we walked. And we walked some more. Before we knew it we were at the far end of the rather long ExCel centre. The queue continued out of the back doors. We followed. It carried on past the large entrance point, down a large set of steps. We followed some more. It then continued down the path and into the car park. Finally we found the end of the queue, as it was then. We got on the end. It continued to grow behind us at an alarming rate. There was a massive queue ahead of us and people were still streaming out of the back of the ExCel centre looking for the end of this ever expanding beast. Naturally it didn't appear to be getting any shorter ahead of us at this point. Jamie began to have a lightsabre fight with a little boy in front of us. It was quite a long fight - we had time to spare. Eventually the queue started to move forward. We were glad the recent rains were holding off as we queued in the elements. Finally we were in the building again. Still a long way up to the other end of ExCel, where the event entrance was. We must have been in the queue at least half an hour before we finally walked past the security guards checking our passes. Very poorly organised indeed. We'd missed about half the first panel by the time we got in.
Original Boba Fett body Jeremy Bulloch (who seemed like an entertaining and humble chap) was on the Celebrity Stage with MC Warwick as we finally got our seats. Quickly the second guest, the whole of young Boba Fett from Attack of the Clones (aka When Clones Attack), Daniel Logan, joined them in chat show style. Daniel was only barely recognisable from the 13 year old who filmed Star Wars some 7 years ago (yes, I know, When Clones Attack only came out 5 years ago - they take a long time in post!) I'm sorry I didn't see more of the first half of this panel, we'd clearly missed some quality teasing between Jeremy and Warwick (no doubt both regulars on the Star Wars circuit). Daniel was a good sport, too. He admitted he'd never seen (or, apparently, even heard of Star Wars) before his Grandmother had put his name forward for an audition. He also didn't seem to realise that he played the young version of Jeremy's character!
Unfortunately, the organisers insisted we all leave the Celebrity Stage between each panel. So out I went and immediately joined the queue for the next one. The queues for these panels were already getting pretty large. By the mid afternoon of Saturday they were trailing around the complete edge of the main hall. Not quite as large as the queue to get into Celebration Europe that morning but it can't have been that far off. Naturally this led to a problem of getting everyone in and seated in time. It didn't happen. Saturday and Sunday saw the schedules slip considerably - the half an hour they'd allowed between panels simply wasn't enough to get every out and back in! Again, poor organisation by the people behind the event. They clearly either didn't realise the problem or couldn't think of a solution as this got no better on the Sunday. Away from the Celebrity Stage queue, in the rest of the main hall, the place was absolutely heaving. It was a serious challenge to get from one side of the hall to the other. Anyone with claustrophobia would have panic attacked to death in that place! They seem to have just sold too many tickets for the available space. I don't believe for a second that it could have been within fire regulations - if there had been an emergency either people would have been crushed to death or people simply wouldn't have made it out in time (probably both). There's a running theme of poor organisation here (and a little greed by selling more tickets than they should have). I would be more forgiving if this were a fan run event of old (non-profit making, charity getting any profit made, as they were) but not an event run by (or at least for) LucasFilm.
Fortunately the organisational issues didn't mar the event too badly. One such example of goodness came from Charlie Ross' One Man Star Wars Trilogy early Saturday afternoon. This show was also held on the Celebrity stage (in fact, looking at the General Schedule, I attended every panel/show on that stage that day (except the Battle of the Bands in the evening, we'd left for the night by that point), that was a lot of leaving the Celebrity Stage and requeuing to return to, in a couple of cases, the exact same seat...) Anyway, Charlie Ross basically did an abbreviated (it was only an hour long) reenactment of the original (and best!) Star Wars trilogy, namely Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, on his own. Yes, he played every part. He added his own sound effects (imagine a grown man leaping around a stage pretending to have a light sabre fight with himself while making light sabre sounds with his mouth!) It was pretty amusing, as you'd expect! He did the show each day, at the same time, on the Celebrity Stage. I'd missed him on the Friday (for the Costume Design panel in the Platinum Stage with the awful DJ Rubbish Interviewer). Charlie had previously taken this show on tour and had been hired by LucasFilm for the recent American Star Wars Celebration. It was very clear he was well practiced and did an amazing Luke Skywalker impression, in particular, - I'd almost have believed it was a young Mark Hamill!
Anthony Daniels. What a pratt. He was next up on the Celebrity Stage. Off stage he did an American accent and acted as his own announcer - something along the lines of 'And now the incredibly talented Anthony Daniels' and which point he runs in to the applause. He then says the enjoyed the welcome so much he'd do it again. And he did. I'd stopped clapping by this point. Twice. Okay, maybe he was trying to be funny. He then asks the audience if they remember how the Ewoks reacted when they first saw C3P0. I can't say I could remember at that second but then it became clear. He wanted us all to worship him like they had! Yes, he was going to leave the stage and come on a third time. This time he wanted the audience to bow down before him. That's when I decided I really didn't like Anthony Daniels. This man, who has done nothing with his life beyond playing a robot in a few films, really appeared to think he was something special. Needless to say I did not join in. Unlike all the other Celebrity Stage events (save the Charlie Ross show, which was taken directly from the stage and was a rather different beast) all the panels were moderated by Warwick Davis. Not so with Anthony Daniels. Apparently he didn't want anyone else on his stage with him. Arrogant, self centered... Anyway... I'm afraid my opinion of him didn't improve as the hour went by. He told a couple of amusing tales of his time on set, though. But now that I think about it, there was not one mention of Kenny Baker - the little chap who played his companion R2-D2. That's a bit odd, isn't it? All in all, I took a serious dislike to Anthony Daniels and his apparently infinite ego.
This is all sounding a bit negative so far, isn't it? Next up was Rick McCallum. I wasn't originally going to go to this panel, as I have grown to hate that smarmy git thanks to his appearances in various DVD extras. In the event, though, I met up with Keith in the main hall and we joined the queue for what we thought was the next thing on that stage - the Costume Pageant. They were running so far behind schedule that we ended up finding ourselves in the Smarmy McCallum panel! Breaking the negativity, for a second, I actually found McCallum to be far more entertaining (and less vomit inducing) than on the DVDs. He actually had some interesting things to say and was even able to accept some of Lucas' short comings - he didn't think Lucas would ever be done fiddling with his films, for example. News from George Lucas' right hand man included the likelihood of a cinematic 3D rerelease of all 6 films in the next few years. There was also the, slightly more alarming, announcement (somewhat tongue in cheek, I think) that the upcoming Star Wars live action TV series might go to 400 episodes rather than the original plan of 100. The thinking is that, if it works, there could be parallel series (not name checked but it made me think of CSI and its parallel offspring). He also appeared very willing (too willing?!) to meet people one on one in the bar of his hotel to discuss things in more detail. I couldn't help but think he was looking for an attractive young female fan to spend a bit of quality time with (such as that sexy woman in the torn Padme Geonosian outfit...) but I'm probably being a little less than charitable there (or just a bit of Freudian Projection)!
I said I wouldn't go panel by panel but Saturday had a slew of interesting (for different reasons) panels. Finally, for us, on Saturday was the aforementioned Costume Pageant. I was really impressed by the people wandering around the event in costume, particularly the Stormtroopers. I'd always wanted a Stormtrooper costume as a kid and these people had their own! The amazing thing is that quite a few people have made their own by hand - sculpting the shapes of the armour and using home built vacuum forming machines! Very, very impressive. I don't think there was actually a single Stormtrooper at the Costume Pageant, though. They all appear to belong to the 501st Legion (a fan group that specialises in Imperial costuming for events - 'trooping' as they call events). Presumably the 501st didn't think it fair to enter their own members. There were two categories - children (under 16) and adults. We had Wookies, Boba Fetts, Darth Vaders, Clone Troopers, a whole bevy of women in intricate Amidala costumes and even a baby as Yoda! I can't remember much of who won, except that one young boy came 2nd or 3rd in the children's category as 'Lego Darth Vader'! He had a particularly good audience reaction as he came on from stage left, with arms and legs and torso as big black cardboard boxes and a regular (presumably shop bought) Darth Vader helmet on top! Naturally he couldn't bend any of his limbs (as the Lego Vader figure can't) and had to be lifted back up the stairs to get his prize! The event was all the more amusing for poor Warwick completely messing up the introductions of the contestants and their costume descriptions - his note's were almost unintelligible (given to him at the last minute by someone else). "No, that's not you, is it!" and "so who has the red silk, then?" ringing out as he laughed in confusion! He handled it well and it really brought a levity to the proceedings that was very welcome.
That brings us to the Sunday, the final day of Celebration Europe. Not wanting to be stuck in another queue to get in to the main hall for half an hour, we leave a good 20 or so minutes earlier than Saturday morning. We may still have to queue but hopefully we'd be nearer the front. We hadn't banked on British public transport... We got to Abbey Wood station nice and early (no peak time on a Sunday morning) only to find we could happily buy tickets but there were no trains running from that station that day. Scheduled engineering works, I presume. Instead we had to walk up the road to get a replacement bus service. Not really knowing what we were doing we ended up taking a regular bus, then having to change bus at some point. It took ages and we certainly doubled back on ourselves at least once (we drove across the road leading directly to Jean's, where we had started, after a good 20 minutes...) It took ages and we finally arrived at about 10:50. No queue today, at least, not by the time we finally arrived. We went our separate ways in the main hall (as we had basically done every day - we ran into each other very rarely thanks to the huge and obscuring crowds). I'd hoped to see "The Two Halves of Darth Maul, with Ray Park" but decided I'd already missed too much so went for an early lunch instead. Knowing we'd be rushing home that evening with no time for dinner I thought it would be a good idea to fuel up early - knowing previous days there is precious little time to do anything between panels and queuing for the next. In fact it was such a problem that I'd foolishly allowed myself to become quite dehydrated over the three days.
Last day, I really had to get some photos for this review. I rushed around in those spare moments I could make, taking pictures of Stormtroopers, the vehicles cordoned off around the main hall, and that woman in the sexy Padme Geonosian outfit. One thing I never managed to get, sadly, was a picture of me with any of these people - with no Keith or Jamie alongside to take the picture I was a bit out of luck on that one (I didn't feel inclined to ask some complete stranger to do it, in case they so easily faded into the throng with my camera!) One thing I rather regret not taking a picture of now, is that chap as Grand Admiral Thrawn (complete with blue skin and white Imperial uniform) having a cigarette outside - completely against what I expect from that great character! A very amusing sight.
Robert Watts was the Sunday recurring guest. I'd already seen him on the Saturday and he appeared as one of the three for the Indiana Jones panel (yes, Indiana Jones - well, it's still Lucas!) and had a panel to himself (with MC Warwick) at the end of the day "Producing the Originial Trilogy". Basically he'd moved up the ranks over the three original films from Production Manager (Star Wars) to Co-Producer (Return of the Jedi). Another interesting fellow but, inevitably, there was some repetition for those of us who had already seen him in a panel. Another thing was was repeated (far too often in this case) was the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi talking to Warwick at the beginning of the panels. I saw the exact same sketch played out between Warwick and this prerecorded voice (doing a passable impression of Alec Guinness but not fantastic) at least once on Friday and Saturday and twice on Sunday! It might be new to those who are only doing the one day but please...! It was so tempting to shout Warwick's lines at him before he said them by Sunday...
The real highlight of the Sunday should have been the Billy Dee Williams panel. For some reason it was being held on the smaller Platinum Stage rather than the more obvious Celebrity Stage. There was a big queue to get into this one and I was a little late getting there. I got lucky as I was in what must have been the final wave of people to go in (there were a lot of people behind me who must have failed to get in). Thanks to all those wasted hours in the queues I actually managed to get into everything I tried to, I'm sure many were not so lucky. Okay, a lot of the panels were quite missable, as it turns out, but I couldn't know that before going in. Billy Dee Williams was just such a panel. Because of the slow filtering in of attendees I actually missed the first 15 or so minutes of this panel (perhaps that was the organisers attempting to get things back on schedule, start even if people are still filing in - though that's the only time I saw that happen). I was quite disappointed with Billy, Lando had such energy (especially in Jedi) and Billy really didn't. He certainly thought of his Star Wars role to be only a small part of his professional life, which is fair enough, but at a Star Wars convention you'd expect him to make more of it. Also something quite odd happened when a member of the audience asked a question about his opinion on Lando as a good vs. bad guy. Somehow (and I'm not quite sure how) Billy misunderstood this to be a question about Lando being a black character! He then went on for a good few minutes about that never playing a part in how he thinks of his characters and leaving such thoughts to other people, etc. etc. Unfortunately the next audience question came from someone who said that Lando being black was a big thing, an inspiration, to him as a kid. Then Billy spent the next five minutes basically reiterating that such thoughts were never a consideration to him, etc. That's certainly a good attitude to have but how did race come into this all of a sudden?! What the heck did that have to do with anything at all? The less than exciting interview just got altogether too worthy by that point. It was a shame, perhaps the beginning of the panel was peppier. I doubt it, though. Billy Dee Williams seemed so laid back as to be virtually catatonic. I think half the audience were about to nod off during his panel!
Up next, on the Celebrity Stage, Warwick hosted a Trivia Challenge for six fans who had won the right to be there (by earlier answering questions posed by Empire Magazine (who were also providing the prizes)). An odd combination of (for me) extremely easy questions and then some very hard ones. Some of those contestants were either very lucky or very unlucky with the questions they got. Some examples: Name the lava planet Ben and Anakin fight on (fairly easy, not the easiest by any means but not too bad - its Mustafar, btw). Name all six of the Bounty Hunters Vader calls on to track down the Millennium Falcon in the Empire Strikes Back! How's that fair? A single piece of knowledge for one person vs six for another! One interesting fact, every single one of the contestants claimed their area of expertise to be the Original Trilogy! Throughout the weekend there was a distinct Original Trilogy bias to the proceedings. That's not surprising to me but does it represent the organisers (including LucasFilm) accepting the fact that few people are true fans of the new trilogy?
I should also mention some of the unexpected attendees that turned up to the event on Sunday. In those few moments between panels and queues I took a quick walk (or shove, as it really was) around the main hall. Then I saw someone I recognised. I looked again. It can't be, can it? At a Star Wars convention? I'm sure it was, though - Paul Darrow, Blake's Seven's Kerr Avon. How odd, I thought. Then a bit later I saw some woman asking a blue baseball capped fellow (flanked by two event security people) if her son could have a photo taken with him. Who's that supposed to be? Then I heard his voice - it was Simon Pegg, from TV's Spaced and Shaun from film's Shaun of the Dead, etc. It is well known that Simon Pegg is a big Star Wars fan, so perhaps his presence wasn't as surprising as Paul Darrow's. Later Keith told me he saw sixth Doctor Colin Baker and (I think he said) Sarah 'Nyssa of Traken' Sutton. What are all these British TV Sci Fi actors doing at a Star Wars convention?! They certainly weren't on any panel. Very odd. There were probably others that neither of us saw, too.
So, that was pretty much it. I fully expect there to be a Celebration Europe 2 about the same time next year. The US had their 4th Star Wars Celebration in May 2007, I expect we'll be up to our 4th in 2010. Will I go to another? Perhaps. If I do, I'll certainly try to do more on the Friday, before the masses arrive to thrawt me on the weekend. The real catalyst for my attendance was my godson, Jamie, who chose this as his first convention. To be honest I have very little idea what he did for most of the three days! As mentioned above I know he spent some time trying to get into the Jedi Training. He also spent some time at the LucasArts booth, playing their various Star Wars games (including Star Wars Galaxies). It probably mainly depends on him - if he wants to go next year (and if I'm invited) I probably will go again. Would I go without such prompting? Probably not.
The real lasting (though I don't know for how long) effect of Celebration Europe has been a desire to get my own costume going. At about 5'8" (according to my makeshift height measurements late last night!) I'm a little short for a Stormtrooper. Having said that, there were a few about my height (and even a couple a bit shorter) but nonetheless that won't be my immediate goal. No, first I want to create a Mk. 1 Tonb Terak costume. Terak is my original Star Wars roleplaying character from a good 15 or 16 years ago. He's a bounty hunter. The original description for his outfit was a Mandalorian style body (like Boba Fett - there was no Jango back then) with a beat up old Biker Scout (Scout Trooper) helmet painted grey. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, thankfully. I look forward to finally having some pictures of Terak - assuming I ever manage to finish it. Would I ever wear it to a future Celebrations Europe? Probably not. Nonetheless, work has already begun...