Monday, 21 August 2017

The Back Garden Play, 1982

Back in November 2013, I blogged about the photo-stories I used to produce (which you can read here).  As well as writing and directing those, I was also one of those annoying "hey, let's put on a play!" kids and, for two summers with friends, I did just that.
The Rasgdale Street Players (from left) - Steven Corton, Claire Gibson, me, Tracy, Caroline Gibson
(from the Kettering Evening Telegraph, August 1982)
The Ragsdale Street Players (we weren't actually called that but, with hindsight and since we lived there, we really should have been) was formed by me and my friend Claire Gibson (who had been in my class during junior school), along with my sister, Tracy and Claire's sister, Caroline.

Our first play, The Evil Of Dr Frankenstein, was performed in the Gibson's back garden during summer 1981.  My friend Nick was going to play the monster but, at the last moment, wasn't able to so he was replaced by a cardboard box robot (as I recall) who thankfully didn't have any lines.  The play was successful with its audience (friends, neighbours and relatives who weren't told what was happening when they were invited over) and I loved it.

After that, I read a book (Graphic Violence On The Screen, by Thomas R. Atkins, which I still have in my library) that included a picture of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie And Clyde (1967).  I was really taken with it, got other books out of the library about the duo and decided that would be the basis for the 1982 play.

Everyone agreed, I did the research and Claire & I began writing the script on 3rd August (I only know this because 1982 was the first year I kept a diary).  Later entries record us rehearsing (though not every day) and the "for one night only" performance was Wednesday 11th August (we rehearsed morning and afternoon that day).  My diary entry reads:
"The play went down quite well and lots of people came.  
We raised £3.40 for the church tower appeal fund"

Smith & Jones, our play, was in two acts and we even had a singalong in the interval - Steve Corton could play the keyboard and knew the tune to We Are The Champions, which helped because Claire had the lyrics in her Smash Hits and we wrote them on boards for the audience to see.

We took the funds to the church the next day and that, I thought, was going to be it - the play had done well, I basked in the glory, that was us done for another year.  Except, on the Friday, I got a phone call from the local Evening Telegraph and dutifully recorded it in my diary:

"This morning, a lady from the Evening Telegraph phoned me up to say that Canon Cox had contacted them to tell them how much we raised etc.  She is sending a photographer at 2.30pm.  He came earlier and took 5 scenes [I presume I meant poses] but 20 shots.  There were two men."

The picture appeared in the Monday 16th August edition, 35 years ago.  I'm wearing my Indiana Jones fedora (bought the previous summer in Great Yarmouth), Steve is wearing my dad's St John's ambulance hat and we're all holding toy guns.  And seriously, how fantastic is that?
My diary says £3.40 and I stand by that...
The Ragsdale Street Players (I really wish I'd thought to tell the reporter from the ET that) bowed out at the top of their game and Smith & Jones proved to be our final show.  I can't remember much at all of the play, or the performance, but looking at that grainy photograph from the paper always makes me smile.  Claire and Caroline are both still doing very well, you'll be pleased to hear and I went on to appear in several Youth Club pantomimes with Claire as we moved into our teens.  I haven't done much acting since then but, on occasion, I've been known to write the odd thing or two...

Monday, 7 August 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 8) - Helix & Letraset

In 1978 the unprecedented success of Star Wars took most people by surprise and demand for merchandising, from fans like me, was huge.  Fairly quickly, we had the Marvel comics (which I wrote about here) and the Topps cards (which I wrote about here) but whilst toys (which I wrote about here) and games took time to design and produce, there were easier items to manufacture, such as posters, iron-on transfers for t-shirts, badges and rub-down transfers.  They really took off and so, for the eighth entry in the Star Wars At 40 thread, I’m taking a look at contributions from Helix and Letraset.
The Universal Woodworking Company Ltd was formed in 1887, making wooden rulers and metal laboratory apparatus.  It patented the drawing compass in 1894 (launching the Helix brand) and created its first mathematics set in 1912.  The brand of Helix Oxford was created in 1935 and Helix International Ltd is now part of the French-owned Maped group.

Helix was thriving in 1977, buying up smaller companies like Dunn & Taylor (who made cash boxes) and Colonel Rubber Ltd (who made rubbers - erasers, for American readers) and consolidating their brand.  Starting in March 1978 they produced a wide range of Star Wars branded stationery, including vinyl and wooden pencil cases, rulers, pencils (and toppers), geometry and maths sets, pencil sets and die-cut rubbers.  They also made the fantastic Death Star pencil sharpener, which was later made famous by its prominent inclusion in Stephen J. Sansweet’s Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible book.

Craig Spivey, a noted Star Wars collector, said, “These products were appealing to kids because they were bright and incorporated their favourite characters. There was even a chance to win a Star Wars school set by collecting tokens from tins of Heinz Beans and sausages.”

I had some pencils, the small ruler and a couple of pencil toppers but they are all long since gone.  Since school stationery was bought to be used, the items either ran out (pencils and rubbers), got thrown away or put in the loft (moving into the eighties and comprehensive school with a Han Solo pencil case perhaps wouldn’t have worked).  As a result, as Craig Spivey says, “the products have become incredibly sought after.”
Pencil toppers (top) and die-cut rubbers (bottom) - I love that Darth has dials on his suit!
The school set, a zipped half-moon that opened, comprised 4 coloured pencils, a compass, a stencil, set squares, protractor and pencil.  The tin maths set, on the other hand, contained pencils, a protractor, a compass, angle rulers, a stencil but also came with a mini Millennium Falcon poster.  I would gladly have either today.
When I started collecting vintage Star Wars merchandising again a few years ago (see my post here), I often had a look at ebay to see what was about and was very surprised at the price some of the items were going for.  Even the Stormtrooper ruler (which I would love) is fetching prices of upwards of £35!
Ad from Star Wars Weekly, issue dated 26th July 1978

I’m in my late forties and if you ask anyone of my generation what Letraset is, most people will quite happily tell you they made transfers.  If you were making a poster, booklet, student magazine or anything else where you needed a professional look, you’d buy one of their sheets of type and painstakingly rub off the letters you wanted, on a pencil line you’d carefully drawn (and would equally carefully rub away, so you didn’t accidentally rub off any of the transfer either).  The result often looked wobbly but generally very good.

Letraset was founded in London in 1959, introducing ‘innovative media’ for commercial artists and designers.  It later moved to Ashford, Kent and is now based in Le Mans, France.  Their original product was the Letraset Type Lettering System but, in 1961, they created a revolutionary dry rub-down method they called Instant Lettering and it became their core product.  In 1964, the company applied the dry rub-down technique to a children’s line called Action Transfers.  Following the birth of home computing (when loads of fonts were suddenly at consumers fingertips), sales declined but since Letraset held the rights to their fonts they entered the digital market and also began to manufacture art marker pens.  They also, fantastically, still make transfer sheets for when designers want to avoid a samey-digital look.  The company was purchased by the ColArt group in 2012.
Escape From The Death Star - pic courtesy of, from the Craig Spivey collection
During the 1970s, Letraset bought licences for its Action Transfer line, including The Wombles, Super Action Heroes (DC comics), Duckhams Grand Prix, Paddington Bear, Captain Scarlet, Dr Who, Space: 1999 and some Disney lines.  They also, smartly, were one of the early Star Wars licencees.  Reacting quickly to the success of the film, the first Letraset transfers (with artwork by David Clark) appeared on the back of Shreddies boxes with four scenes (Capture Of The Rebel Cruiser, Escape From Mos Eisley, Breakout At Prison Block and Escape From The Death Star), each with their own set of transfers.

Transfers were free gifts in Look-In magazine (which I wrote about here) in the w/e 11th March issue and Star Wars Weekly No.9, dated 5th April.  In addition, Wall’s ran a promotion with its sausages and there were blocks of six sheets available in the Star Wars Space Writing Set.

Letraset released three sets (known as L46) - Battle At Mos Eisley, Escape From The Death Star and Rebel Air Attack - which all featured panoramic backdrops with excellent and detailed painted backgrounds.  As with the Topps cards, they were an ideal way to re-live the film, capturing a moment (though one as interpreted by Letraset’s artists) that would then become iconic to us and there’s a lovely sense of nostalgia seeing these images now.  These sets went into a second printing as Letraset were taken by surprise at their popularity and John Hunt, the brand manager at the time, later said “the Star Wars sets were probably the most successful transfer set ever made.”
L46 Escape From The Death Star cover, courtesy of - click the picture to see it bigger
L46 Escape From The Death Star backdrop, courtesy of - click the picture to see it bigger
L46 Escape From The Death Star transfer sheet, courtesy of
More products were required and Letraset responded with a smaller format 10-part series (known as L46) that ran chronologically through the film.  Thankfully, the production rush didn’t result in a lack of quality, as it says on the Action-Tranfers site, “the backgrounds in particular are excellent and very well suited to the requirements of the medium.”  The series comprised Kidnap Of Princess Leia, Sale On Tatooine (the only one I have left in my collection), Action At Mos Eisley, Escape From Stormtroopers, Flight To Alderaan, Inside The Death Star, Prison Break Out, Death Star Escape, Rebel Air Base and Last Battle.  Looking at these images now, it’s interesting to note where artists and designers didn’t have access to information from Lucasfilm (there were no technical manuals or books of blueprints back then) so the Millennium Falcon (in set 5) had a large viewing window with the hold area (scene of the chess set) opening onto the cockpit.
The Millennium Falcon (set 5), pic courtesy of - click the picture to see it bigger
scan of my copy
scan of my copy (filled in by 9-year-old me).  Does anyone else think Uncle Owen looks a bit like Oddbod from "Carry On Screaming"?  Click the picture to see it bigger
And this is what the background looked like without my handiwork...
pic courtesy of - click the picture to see it bigger
The final Star Wars transfer set came as part of a promotion from the Wimpy restaurant chain (which dominated UK fast food in the 70s, when very few people had heard of McDonalds), where you got a set free with every Maxi Quarterpounder or Wimpy Kingsize hamburger.  The set featured Luke, Darth, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, a Stormtrooper, a laser blast and two Wimpy logos but there doesn’t appear to have been any artwork to apply the transfers to.

In the late 70s, Letraset Consumer Products branched out into character-licensed stationery with four main ranges - Star Wars, Super Heroes (DC again), Thelwell (whose wonderful artwork and cartoons now, sadly, seem to have faded from view) and posters (that the kid got to colour in themself).
photo courtesy of, from the collection of Craig Spivey
I had a few of the Star Wars books though, since I was nine at the time, none of them are in pristine condition.  C-3PO’s Exercise Book ('24 page feint ruled exercise book’) and R2-D2’s Memory Bank (’56 page feint ruled notebook’) are both A5 format, Chewbacca’s Space Notes (‘56 page feint ruled pocket book’) is A6 format and the Storm Trooper (sic) Manual (’32 feint ruled pocket book’) is A8 format (and features a flipped version of the iconic image, where Harrison Ford enters the control room - which I wrote about here).  The back of the Chewie and Trooper books are starfields, C-3PO is backed by ‘Intergalactic Translations’ (English, French, German, Italian) and R2-D2 is backed with times-tables (2 to 12).
My collection
C-3PO and his Intergalactic Translations...
Of their time certainly (I haven’t seen transfer sets for a long time and most of the Star Wars related stationery now is all built around one or two images, though I have bought them and put them away) but definitely great fun, the Helix and Letraset lines were big parts of my childhood love for Star Wars and provide a warmly nostalgic nod back to the late 70s.

As a "special edition", Maped Helix have released a whole range of "40th Anniversary" stationery items - repro versions of the pencil cases, maths set, rulers and pencil sharpeners, just in case you missed them the first time around.

Helix website
Action Transfers (with special thanks to Tom Vinelott)

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 31 July 2017

Life Is What You Make It...

Three years ago, on 4th August, I suffered my heart attack, a life-changing event in a lot of ways.  Although I'd already started to lose weight (as I wrote about here), it really focused my attention and my Fall Guy summer (which I wrote about here) was a chance to make some changes as I realised what was important to me.

Three years on, I'm maintaining my weight loss (as of today, I am 69lb - or 31.3kgs - down on my peak weight), still walking at least 15-20 miles a week (and regularly getting in sub-13 minute miles), as fit as ever and definitely embracing life.  Which, although it was a tough way to figure it out, is the lesson I took from the incident.

Life's too short, people, embrace it!

Me & Dude, 9th June 2014 (just before I started my weight-loss program)
Me & Dude, 25th July 2017, out enjoying an early evening walk together

Monday, 24 July 2017

Into The Unknown At The Barbican (and other adventures)

The other week, my friend David & I went to London to see the "Into The Unknown" exhibition at The Barbican.  It was the first time either of us had been to the venue and I, particularly, fell in love with the place - I'm not generally a fan of Brutalism but the Barbican estate looked fantastic (and wouldn't have looked out of place in A Clockwork Orange either).

The exhibition itself was also a lot of fun.  Running until 1st September, it spans "from the 19th century cabinet of curiosities, to the vastness of space. Through future cities, into the inner landscapes of human perception.

Uncover the mysterious lands of Jules Verne and Ray Harryhausen where Science Fiction narratives first took root. Venture on an odyssey into our solar system, with vintage artwork promoting Soviet visions of space alongside immersive work by Soda_Jerk. Visit a gallery of aliens, and stand alongside iconic spacesuits from a galaxy of blockbusters including Star Trek and Interstellar."

From early comics to pulp paperbacks (properly afforded their rightful place in the development of the genre), to film props and iconic imagery (yay for Stormtroopers and Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs!), it was terrific and if you have even a passing interest in sci-fi (film, especially and reading) then it's definitely worth a visit.

More details can be found here - Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction

Ray Harryhausen's dinosaurs!
Ralph McQuarrie's original concept for The Millennium Falcon (which had to be changed, since it too closely resembled the Eagle from Space: 1999)
"Iddi biddi biddi, okay Buck..."
Above and below - Conrad Shawcross' installation 'In Light Of The Machine', located in the Pit
opposite angle, taken from the walkway visible in the first picture
St Giles-without-Cripplegate
On top of London, across from St Paul's
The Globe theatre (centre of pic) from the Millennium Bridge
Debating art in The Tate Modern
David discovers work by someone with a curiously familiar name at the Southbank Book Market

Monday, 17 July 2017

Edge-Lit 6, Derby, 15th July 2017

I was really looking forward to Edge-Lit 6 (organised as ever by Alex Davis) for several reasons - it’s always good to meet up with old friends, I like the event a lot (you can read about Edge-Lit 4 here and 5 here), I like the venue and, this year, my new collection Things We Leave Behind was being launched by Dark Minds Press.
from left - Peter Mark May, Richard Farren Barber, me, James Everington
I picked Sue Moorcroft up and we set off, busy catching up since she’s been away in Italy for a fortnight at Atre Umbria, teaching (for the first week) and writing (23k words!) her new novel (for the second week).  In fact, we were talking so much (and trusting the Sat Nav system, which I hadn’t set up for myself in my new car) that by the time both of us were saying “I don’t remember this bit of road” we were some miles away from our target and heading for Uttoxeter.  Turning around and paying slightly more attention, we got to the Assembly Rooms car park at 11.15 and were crossing the square to the Quad soon after.  Lisa Childs was the first friendly face I saw, looking out of the window and giving us a big wave and then Peter Mark May joined in, so all was well.
me, our publisher Ross Warren and Laura Mauro
Pixie Puddin was on the reception desk and looked fantastic, healthy and happy.  We hugged (both commenting there was so much less of each other), caught up, I bought (lots of) raffle tickets and then got signed in.  In the bar, our gang had taken over the far corner and we quickly joined them.  It was good to see Steve Harris, John Travis, James Everington and Lisa again (we’d last seen them a couple of months back, at Steve’s 50th which we spent in Wolverhampton), along with Ross Warren (publisher of Dark Minds Press), Pete and Richard Farren Barber.  Steve Bacon came along a little while later, as did Dion Winton-Polak and Angeline Trevina who also looked happy and healthy.  Laura Mauro and her husband Rob (from then on called Mr Mauro by just about everyone, including himself) came over to join us and it was good to see her again.  As well as my collection, Dark Minds Press were launching her novella Naming The Bones (which is excellent, I reviewed it here) and Ross got us to sign pre-orders, handed over our advances and also gave us both a gift - Laura got a signed photo of Krycek from The X-Files, I got a carded Stormtrooper in a presentation pack.  Equally thrilled, we decided that a similar deal would now be part of any future publishing agreements - she gets an autograph of her favourite actor, I get a carded Stormtrooper.  We discussed plans for our section of the launch then Sue & I ordered lunch and ate it chatting and catching up with people (and I managed to off-load most of my chips to Steve H and John).
Me, Ross and Steve Bacon
At 12.45 we trooped upstairs to the Box.  The small press launch was split between Dark Minds, Quantum Corsets and The Sinister Horror Company, with Laura & I leading the charge.  I suggested we swap books to read from and, as she’d already told me she loved my story What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking, she agreed.  As we sat down I suddenly realised the Box, usually half full at best for a launch, was packed, with people standing at the sides too.  No pressure then!  I spotted Jay Eales & Selina Lock and had a quick chat with them, saw they were sitting one seat on from Susan Sinclair from my writing group so I introduced them all, said hello to Penny Jones and then saw Kevin Redfearn & Hayley Orgill, always a treat.  Also saw Gary McMahon and Mark Morris, but didn’t get to say too much to them, more’s the pity.

Mr Mauro is in the bottom picture, leaning forward with glasses
At 1pm, we went to the podium and with Ross deciding to stay behind the book table, I introduced the session and then us two.  Laura read first, the car park sequence from my story (it was an interesting experience listening to someone else read it) then I read the opening few pages of her novella, before we got a good round of applause and went to sit down for the others to take their turn.  When they had, we authors and editors sat behind the table and a nice long queue formed - we signed and chatted with buyers until all the copies Ross had brought along were sold!  Laura & I were both well chuffed, taking great delight in calling each other “sellouts!”
The queue for buyers and signings
Back at the bar (I didn’t manage to get to any of the panels at all!), we took over a table and saw and spoke to a whole range of people - Steven Chapman (finally, after a couple of years of not seeing him at all), Daniel Hooley, Martin Roberts & Helen Hopley, Graeme Reynolds, Ben Jones, Ole Andreas Imsen, CC Adams (who flicked his pecs to get me and Steven to his table), Fiona Ní Éalaighthe (and her fabulous ear), Theresa Derwin, Andrew Hook (thanks for the Bond book!) & Sophie Essex, Adele Wearing (got several hugs!), Charlotte Courtney-Bond, Georgina Bruce, Gary Couzens, Steve Shaw and Terry Grimwood.  Conversation was wide, varied and always thoroughly entertaining and I even managed to (kind of) hold my own (very briefly) in a comics chat with Jay & Selina.
Steve, Pixie Puddin and me (and even more raffle tickets)
Having bought even more raffle tickets from Pixie (she’s so hard to resist!), we went up for the raffle where I finally saw and said hello to Kathy Boulton (though in long-standing Con tradition, we didn't get to say much else)!  Ross (who never knowingly under wins) & I sat together on a bench seat, which was fun and while he won (typical), I didn’t get anything.  At all.  Ho hum.
Losing at the raffle but still smiling...
Back to the bar (when it suddenly dawned on me, with horror, that I hadn’t led a delegation to the 2nd hand book stall in Eagle Market and by then it was too late), we got everyone together and trooped over to Ask Italian for dinner.  As always, we picked up extra people on the way and the restaurant couldn’t accommodate all twelve of us on one table so we were spread out, which was a shame but were still fairly close together.  Dinner was fun, the food wasn’t bad but the conversation was excellent and the bill was relatively reasonable too (though, of course, hardly any of us had the correct change).
Look at those lovely books!
All too soon it was time to leave and we hugged and shook hands and chatted, then hugged and shook hands again.  Plans were made to meet up before FCon (there really is something special about spending time with friends who love reading and writing as much as you do) before we headed off our respective ways.  Sue & I walked back to the Assembly Rooms car park with Ross & Lisa and Steve H & John so we all paid, hugged once more and then went to get our cars (whereupon I realised I’d left my Stormtrooper in the bar, so had to drive round to get it).

The journey home (we didn’t trust it to the Sat Nav) was quick (and scary at one point, when an idiot drove onto a roundabout at full speed just in front of us) and filled with conversation, a lovely end to a cracking day.

Edge-Lit 6 was, for me, another resounding success - old friends, talking about books and the pleasure of sharing launch space with Laura.  What more could you ask for?

Roll on FantasyCon!
You write this, you get this...