I’m not one for jumping on bandwagons. In truth I’ve been a closet nerd for years now, enjoying the delights of X-Men, Star Wars, et Al in clandestine fashion at home. But as 21 Jump Street (2012) so sweetly pointed out, nerds no longer fear the mainstream, they are the mainstream. And in the last couple of years the public have been embracing this trend for in-vogue genre-fare wholeheartedly.
You can thank three entities for that; Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson and Marvel Studios. The quality of their Lord of the Rings, Batman, and Avengers movies was so undeniable, people no longer worried that wizard worship and caped crusader adulation would draw sniggers from the ‘cool’ crowd. In fact a lot of the Hollywood cool crowd were the ones up on the screen. And if someone as sophisticatedly hip as Robert Downey Jnr was on board, it was ok to like it.
So the masses cast aside their prejudices and joined the party, eager to hoover up all the nerdy goodness that long standing aficionados had already been enjoying for years. And I was one of them, albeit a ‘new’ nerd who somehow came armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of certain franchises and genres; my friends were a touch suspicious that I knew so much already.
As fans will attest, the centre of this world is the convention or ‘con’. An annual coming together of actors, writers, fans, merchandise salesmen and assorted folk who meet to champion their favourite franchises, the con was an American concept from the nineteen seventies that grew over subsequent decades. The Stateside zenith of the con is the San Diego Comic Con (SDCC), which takes over the city’s Convention Centre for a four day celebration of comics, gaming and movie counter culture. A touch behind the curve, the UK has slowly built its own nerdvana, the London Film and Comic Convention (LFCC).
The first LFCC was a relatively modest affair in March 2004, when fans headed to the Wembley Exhibition Centre to meet and get autographs from headline celebs Andy Serkis, Adam West, John Rhys-Davies, Tony Todd and Brent Spiner. Eleven years later LFCC has increased in size considerably, has moved venue from Wembley to Earls Court to London Olympia, and is now pulling in fans from every demographic and every age group from new-born to not-long-for-this-world.
Curious to see what all the fun was about, my first foray was the winter instalment of LFCC in 2014, a smaller version of its summer big brother. Stepping forth into an unknown world of near mint, cos-play, virtual queuing and gold passes, some of our preconceptions were realised, the odd ‘unique’ fan confirming fears about nerdy fanboys. But these prejudgments were swept aside by the fun we had and the friendliness of those in attendance. Both staff and fellow members of the public alike crushed my biased prejudices about the sort of people who inhabit this world.
We enjoyed ourselves so much we decided to try LFCC’s nearest competitor, MCM Comic Con, who take over the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands for a long weekend every May. Again, we had a fantastic day, posing with cos-players, perusing the merchandise, trying out the gaming stands, and taking in the talks. Suitably ‘broken in’, I took aim at the con of all UK cons, LFCC Summer 2015. For moral support I roped in my two brother-in-laws, who were equally eager to take on the big one.
Above: Newt is all grown up. Bill Paxton and Sigourney Weaver are joined on stage by Carrie Henn
One of the most interesting aspects of cons is the accompanying fan-produced literature, the most useful of which are the numerous “how to do/survive a con”. These guides provided valuable pointers on what to take, how to queue, snacks to pack, how much money we’d need, and many other subjects I wasn’t even aware would be issues. One of the first pieces of advice we found for LFCC Summer was Saturday would be the busiest day of the weekend. With other commitments knocking out a Friday or Sunday attendance we girded our loins and headed to London for a Saturday encounter.
The previously mentioned cons had long queues when we arrived in the morning around 8.30, but we soon found these entrance lines moved incredibly quickly. As such we decided to forgo the early morning get-up and arrived at the London Olympia at midday, with a quick pass through Forbidden Planet and Orbital Comics in central London on the way. A sprinkling of costumed con-goers marked our route along Kensington High Street, and the shining beacon of a portly gentleman in a Princess Leia gold bikini outfit signalled our wide-eyed arrival at Olympia.
With no entrance line to negotiate we scanned our e-tickets and stepped once more unto the breach; if outside Olympia was the queue free ying, inside was its wall-to-wall yang. On the LFCC forum post-mortem that followed this past week, many fans bemoaned how hot, packed and uncomfortable the Olympia was. As a veteran of many a concert which often involves 100,000 fans crushing down Wembley Way for an hour or more after a show, 30,000 spread fans across four large floors was a cake walk. It was hot at times, but then the middle of July tends to be. The layout was also a bit tricky with stairwells tucked away and photo/autograph booths inexplicably spread across the entire venue. Dedicated floor for set areas (ie. all the photo areas on one floor) would have made more sense, but with plenty of venue plans dotted around we acquainted ourselves with the layout in no time.
To acclimatise we spent the first hour wandering by the many merchandise stalls. Every piece of franchise memorabilia imaginable was up for grabs, from replica Ironman helmets and pint glass holding Hulk hands, to hand knitted Death Stars and Starship Enterprise pizza cutters. The crowds in the stall aisles seem to come and go in waves; one moment we were at a standstill, shoulder to shoulder with Jokers and Jedis, the next we had all the room we needed to peruse.
Embracing fully the fun of LFCC, for the first time we booked to have our photo taken with a couple of the celebs in attendance. Currently enjoying the new Agent Carter TV series, and being a fellow Brit of the same age as us, we stumped up the very reasonable £20 fee for a picture with Hayley Atwell. Printed e-tickets in hand we made our way to “Photo Area A”. Having never done the meet-and-photo thing before, we had no idea what to expect. The photo area itself was a small space cordoned off with tall partitions surrounded by eager fans waiting their turn. There didn’t seem to be an official queuing system other than some white tape on the floor which was completely lost in the throng of people milling around. The only official person we saw attempting to control the herd was a Seth Rogen look-alike in an official blue LFCC t-shirt.
To be fair to Rogen’s twin, in the face of a ‘we-shall-not-be-moved’ crowd and thirty degree heat he did really well, despite having no way of amplifying his voice; a small white board held up with messages written on helped. With ‘Batch 7’ tickets we realised we had a wait on our hands, as lower batch numbers and VIP pass holders were called up ahead of us. As fans went through and the crowd thinned it became apparent that Atwell’s thirty-five minute slot wouldn’t be long enough. Christopher Lloyd who was due to follow got bumped to another Photo Booth on the ground floor, which prompted an exodus of Marty and Doc cos-players.
Just before we were called forward, a sweaty, harassed looking French man tapped me on the shoulder and hollered “Christopher Lloyd?” in my face. Doing my good deed for the day I redirected him downstairs to the right area. I received a throw of hands in the air and a “For fucks sake, this is ridiculous!” for my troubles. With Le Annoyed still standing in front of us, I turned to my friend Lee and offered “Some people need to get some fucking perspective”.
On that sour note we stepped forward to Ms. Atwell’s photo booth haven. The photo area itself was set out with a U shape of tables. On the right hand side you queued in a group of six or so and handed over any bags you had. At the top of the U was Ms. Atwell in front of a standard backdrop, facing the cameraman and lights. On the left your bags were placed for collecting again and your photo handed to you. In the middle of the U area were three printers going like the clappers chucking out photo after photo to an unlucky crew member whose job it was to identify the right one and hand it to the correct person.
As we were at the end of the session, which was running late, we were rushed through even quicker. Approaching the front of the queue it became apparent that the total time spent with Hayley would be 5 to 10 seconds tops. Like hitting your mark on a film set, the front of the queue itself was marked with a piece of tape on the floor and presided over by another crew member who directed you forward when Ms. Atwell was ready. Not knowing the correct protocol I’d quickly observed that a slight shoulder-to-shoulder hug, hand on each other’s hip, seemed to be the acceptable pose. As I stepped forward I smiled “Hello”, Hayley smiled “Hi” back, we placed an arm around each others waist, turned for our photo, turned back, I said “Lovely to meet you”, received a wink and a “You to” in return, then stepped forward to collect my bag and picture. Bar an unfortunate hand at a Stratosphere blackjack table, the most expensive 5 seconds of my life.
Was it worth it? With the caveat that a mere five seconds was all I had to go on, I surmised that Hayley was thoroughly lovely and certainly just as beautiful in person as she is on the screen, though shorter than you expect, as all celebs in the flesh tend to be. The photo session was all very efficient and the staff involved were helpful and friendly despite the slightly frantic need to get everyone through.
As Lee and I stood comparing photos, we suddenly noticed none other than Bill Paxton wander by with a security lady leading the way. He looked cool as ice in shades and a beige jacket. Just as we stood lamenting our inability to offer a “Love you work Bill!” or a “Get Hudson back for Alien 5!” Michael Gambon wandered past in the other direction. Our heads spinning, we staggered off to further explore the merchandise stalls and the autograph signing areas.
Again unaware of the protocols, we assumed you had to have a ticket booked to get an autograph with a celeb. We were pleasantly surprised to discover you could also buy these on the day for around £15 to £20. The stars were sat at a table with a crew member next to them to take care of the money and you simply wandered up or joined the queue. Some of the celebs, such as Ray Park (Star Wars, X-Men) were even happy to wander out from behind their tables and chat with folks.
Spotting special-effects legend and actor Tom Savini, I stepped forward and offered a handshake. I subsequently heard that Savini can be a bit ‘off’ at these sort of events, but I suspect people have simply mistook his casual demeanour for grumpiness. Tom was happy to have a chat and even posed for an over-the-table photo, something I later learnt was not always the done thing if the star has their own dedicated photo session that weekend, which Tom did.
My second and last photo was the other main reason I decided to tackle LFCC Summer. Having been a fan of Neve Campbell since her Hollywood arrival in Scream (1996) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet. Despite the photo session arriving late in the day at 5.00pm the convention was still packed. However, the queue for Neve’s photo booth seemed to flow better than the Hayley Atwell one, and with a “Batch 2” ticket I knew I’d be nearer the front. The shoot seemed much less frantic this time round, and I got lucky by having a father and his four year old daughter in front of me. As they walked forward for their picture the photographer had to adjust the camera for Neve and Dad to scoot down. When I then walked forward I discovered that the photographer was readjusting the camera and wasn’t ready to take our snap; what to do?
Watching the queue in front pose for their photos, I’d noticed most people weren’t making much conversation aside from the odd hello. From what I could see it came down to shyness, nerves or an eagerness to get in and out brought on by excitement. I’ve only bumped into a couple of celebrities in my time, a chance meeting with Al Murray on Shaftesbury Avenue, Sean Locke in the foyer of a theatre, and a Prince concert where I found myself sat next to Maxi Jazz from Faithless. What quickly became apparent was that these folk are just like you and me. Contrary to preconceptions they aren’t from another planet or built from different stock.
With the cameraman still jiggling with his equipment and with some unexpected spare seconds with Neve I had to think on my feet. My brain let me down though and I pressed the juvenile humour button, “Hiya … that’s lucky, I almost wore that exact top myself”. Now, either I’ve really underestimated Neve’s acting ability or she was genuinely amused by my comment. As Neve laughed I quickly qualified it, “You do look lovely though”. “Thank you. It’s tough to when it’s this hot in here”. Following a quick “I know”, the cameraman signalled he was ready. We smiled, posed and I turned back, “It was lovely to meet you, thank you for coming over to meet the fans”. Neve gave me a wide smile, “No problem. It was lovely to meet you to”. On cloud nine, I skipped forward to collect my photo, pleased that Neve still had a grin on her face in our picture together. It if was a grin of “Who is this crap comedian?”, I didn’t want to know.
We spent the last hour catching up on some of the stalls we missed and enjoying the buzz of the event as fans took some final photos with the mingling cos-players. A particularly impressive Skeletor caught my eye and I stepped in for a snap. Busy though the day had been, we had another great time. With the exception of the angry Frenchman the fans were all friendly, as were the staff who skilfully guided us around on the few occasions we took a wrong turn. The celebs also all looked to be having a great time, waylaying my fears that they would be humpy about having to glad-hand with the sweaty masses. I guess spending a day having strangers tell you how awesome you are must provide a very particular kind of buzz.
The following Monday I tried explaining the appeal of LFCC to a work colleague, but despite offering a rather poetic breakdown of our Saturday he remained steadfast that a weekend fishing was a much better way to spend your spare time. “Well, I guess you’ll have something for your tea at the end of the day”...“Oh, we don’t take the fish home. We catch 'em and throw 'em back”. And they call me weird.