Several months ago I wrote a blog about my earliest experiences of Cinema and the way it changed my life forever, feel free to read it here. That was a tale about the wonders of seeing a film called Star Wars and its sequel the Empire Strikes Back in this cavernous dark room on a screen the size of a football pitch. It had changed my life and given me the love of cinema that has never left me 37 years later.
I wouldn’t say I became a Cineaste straight away, I was only 5 years old at the time, but the seeds had been sown and the excitement of walking down the plush carpet corridor of any screen room has never left me, the thrill of seeing that giant screen even today is one of my happiest sights, even if the following 2 hours or so don’t always live up to the wondrous promise.
What was certain, I was now obsessed with all things Star Wars. This is a blog post about how Star Wars fuelled my imagination as a kid, made wet School holidays bearable and the indescribable pain of having to wait see the latest installment.
Star Wars was my life growing up, a classic case of good vs evil. In the 1980s, ITV would occasionally show Star Wars on a Sunday night and it was a big event, it was as important as Cup Final day, sure to be talked about at School the following day, not just by pupils but by the teachers as well. I always remember our headmaster at primary school doing an assembly on the diversity of Star Wars and how characters like Chewbacca were generally just accepted for who they were and how Yoda, diminutive in size, was a giant of ability and self belief.
It was everywhere in the 1980s , every little glimpse in a magazine or on a poster was enough to send a tingle of excitement through me. Star Wars figures were all the rage, not just the figure itself but the back of the packaging had an indexed role-call of all the figures available. A handy little Christmas list that could be left in places where Fr Christmas would easily be able to take note.
I used to spend hours pouring over this small piece of card admiring the ones that I owned and dreaming of the ones that would hopefully arrive the next time those reindeers “jingled all the way”. It even made the weekly shopping trips with Mum to ASDA bearable as she would just dump my brother and I in the toy isle where we would just stare at the rows of figures, desperately practicing our puppy dog eyes so that when Mum returned we could convince her that Luke Skywalker in Bespin Fatigues (number 46) was worth £1.99 of anyone’s money.
Of course this was the 1980s, there were no games consoles (not that I’ve personally ever been interested), we did have a ZX Spectrum which would take 3 days just to load up one game, so during wet school holidays there was only one thing for it, it was time to build Star Wars bases. My brother and I would lay all the figures out on the carpet and take it turns to pick one each at a time until all were gone. It was similar to the way you picked players for the School playground football matches. It was sadly always the same ones who got picked last.
Anyway, embracing the diversity of the Star Wars universe we mixed all Rebels and Imperials together, we were not going to let political nonsense get in the way of us building a true battalion. We both had our favourites, I always had to have the AT-AT driver (number 30 on the above card) and the Rebel Commando (number 7) and my brother always had Bib Fortuna (6) and Nien Numb (13). Strangely Ben Obi Wan Kenobi always seemed to be left until last, I blame the annoying and cumbersome plastic cape that meant he couldn’t sit or do anything. Once the “teams” were picked we set off to separate parts of the house to construct our bases, this was the best bit. I always had the stairs and the under stairs area and my brother would have the TV cabinet and lounge window and armchair.
The bannister of the staircase was made with white circular spindles which the gaps between made for excellent sentry posts. My sentry’s would be made up of a diverse collection of characters, there was always a biker scout, possibly an Imperial Royal Guard and for the element of surprise General Madine possibly borrowing Han Solo’s Endor coat as a cunning disguise.
On one occasion I tied a piece of string around one of the spindles and attached the other end around the neck of Rebel Soldier (number 62) and let him swing down to attack enemy troops if they ever breached the defenses I was assembling on the back of the sofa. In fact, and this is actually quite difficult to type, but my Rebel Soldier actually came to a tragic end. I took him outside for a mission one hot sunny day and attached him to a small plastic carrier bag (now 10p at Tesco). The idea was that I would throw the Rebel Soldier up into the air and as Gravity did its worst, as he plummeted towards the Earth the air would inflate the bag creating a parachute that Rebel Soldier could float down to Earth and attack the enemy. Rebso (as I affectionately called him) had completed several successful missions and was about to return to base when out of the corner of his eye, he spied a pesky Gamorreon Guard among the Begonias. He had to attack, that was his job, but we weren’t set up for another mission yet, but Rebso only had the safety of the team in his head, that’s the kind of guy he was. He launched himself before we were set. The parachute was tangled around his legs………..it was twisted………..it wouldn’t inflate. He reached the apex of his flight and hung momentarily in the air before that old git Gravity swept in. Rebso turned in mid air to give me a metaphorical thumbs up but then plummeted. It’s ok, its Rebso he will have a plan, the parachute will unfurl I thought……….no it didn’t. Rebso tumbelled towards the ground, wrapped in this plastic death blanket……worse still he was heading away from the flowerbeds and to the hard concrete. I can still hear the thud of plastic on stone. We found Rebso’s decapitated body lying on the floor next to his own severed head, witnesses say that he had no name, I told everyone…….i know his name. RIP Rebso.
It wasn’t just the figures that we picked at random, the spaceships also went through the ignominy of having to wait to hear their name called out. There was 2 big ones, the Falcon, always mine, or the Rebel Transporter, which my brother was quite happy to have. Then came the smaller short range fighters, there was an X-Wing, a Tie-Fighter (with detachable wings) and a Y-Wing which was the coolest of the toys. My brother got the Y-Wing, small compensation for never having the Falcon and I took the X-Wing. We would take one wing each of the Tie Fighter to create a shield bunker at our bases and leave the circular pilot pod as a neutral ground bunker (usually somewhere near the coffee table).
Once the bases were constructed and each figure had been fully debriefed on what their role was to be in the upcoming battle, we would invite each other for a friendly look round each others bases. I would always be impressed by my brothers ingenuity of hiding a Stormtrooper in the ginger jar on top of the TV and how the fireplace now resembled a fortress of impregnability. He too would note admiringly how the falcon had been submerged by an old car blanket creating the element of surprise if we were pinned back to the edge of our lair. I had come up with unusual subplots for some of my characters and I would run through these with my brother before the battle so he understood. For example, Lando Calrissian (in Skiff guard disguise) would mutate into Chewbacca (Hulk style) if he was cornered. I always loved characters that metamorphosed in stories and always felt Star Wars lacked that, so I made my own.
So after all the pleasantry’s it was time for battle, however, it never really ever was time for battle. We realised that the creation of these bases and finding all these hidden places to hide figures and spaceships was the main fun. The actual battles themselves were rather limp affairs, a couple of laps of the lounge with the Millenium Falcon firing laser cannons at my brothers base, he would counter attack with a stealth Y-Wing mission, but neither of our hearts were really in it as we didn’t want to destroy what each of us had spent most of the afternoon preparing. We were always saved by the intergalactic “tea’s ready” holler from the Empress of the Universe herself, Mum. It is with deep regret that the majority of figures are long gone now, sold at various car boot sales for a pittance when I was a moody “too cool for Star Wars” teenager. One survived, just, my now silver C3PO who lost an arm in battle still makes his annual appearance as an unexpected guest in my Mum’s nativity scene each Christmas. Apparently I thought there didn’t seem enough people witnessing the birth of Jesus so I added him to the throng, and as a result every year since you can find him hanging out with the shepherds and kings.
I have two other Star Wars related childhood memories that will never leave me. The first was Christmas 1984, the height of Star Wars toy mania and one of the happiest times of my childhood. Now we weren’t particularly rich as a family but we certainly weren’t poor and we always did pretty well out of Christmas, but 1984 took it to the max, I still don’t know how Fr Christmas managed to get everything on the sleigh and in my room. Now the tradition in our house was for all mine and my brothers presents to be spread out across our shared room so that when we woke up we would be greeted, hopefully, with a room of wonders. The presents weren’t wrapped which in a way made it all the more magical.
Picture the scene, 3am 25/12/1984, my older brother switches on the big bedroom light, oh Lord have mercy. I was 7 at the time and you cannot comprehend as an adult that pure unadulterated feeling of happiness. To the left of my bed was a brand new sparkling white BMX with blood red tyres and handlebars grips. At the end of my bed, balanced rather precariously was the mighty Lego Castle, my brother had the equally impressive Lego technique car which once built had literally blew the minds of every visiting child for the next 3 years with its moving parts.
Lined up alongside the lego boxes were 5 Star Wars figures each, obviously still in boxes. These were merely the aperitif to the piece de resistance that was sat to the right of my bed – a Millenium Falcon in box with strangely French writing, a lot of kids had these, I guess as Fr Christmas visits England after France he had some left over.
This was it, I never needed anything again, ever, to coin a term used by young folk these days, I was living my best life. I was the luckiest boy in the whole world and I will never forget that feeling. My brother had the Rebel Transporter so he was happy. The room was finished off with a collection of other goodies, some chocolates, NOW that’s what I call Music 3 on vinyl, we’d got NOW 1 the Christmas before and we had kind of already become obsessed with the NOW universe. There was also a selection of books, one in particular stood out from the rest.
As mentioned earlier and in a previous blog, my first real experience of Cinema was a Star Wars / Empire Strikes Back double bill, which had changed my life, simultaneously introducing me to the thrilling world of Star Wars and the even larger world of Cinema. So when in the summer of 1983 Return of the Jedi came out of light speed at the local picture house, my 6 year old self was as giddy as a, well 6 year old schoolboy quite frankly. The snag was that my parents were not major Cinema goers and we didn’t go. Everyone went to see that film………..we didn’t. It wasn’t even mentioned. I perhaps wouldn’t have minded so much but to rub salt into those particular coarse injuries, my dad worked just around the corner from the Cinema and walked past it twice a day on his daily commute, so he must have known about it. Besides he was clearly on the phone to Fr Christmas on a regular basis, ” Yes St Nick, its these space toys, I’ve no idea where they are from”. So I had to wait. The second part of this predicament was that we didn’t have a video player in 1983, or 1984, or 1985 for that matter, in fact we didn’t get a video player until November 1987. That was four and a half years since its release, an absolute lifetime when you are that age and have no concept of time to compare it against. I seemed to be the only one of my friends who hadn’t seen it. They would tease me with mini-spoilers such as Luke does a somersault on a floating boat, Yoda is in it, Lando becomes the coolest dude in all the Galaxy etc. I collected the Topps Return of the Jedi sticker album that gave hints of some of the action, but it was the St Michael book that acted as my visual trailer into the film. I read that book cover to cover several times. It depicted the action of the film in vivid detail, culminating in Vader’s redemption and the victory of the Rebels at the Battle of Endor. It described in detail Luke’s removal of Vaders mask to reveal in the words of the book “eyes filled with love”. Cleverly the book didn’t show a picture of Sebastian Shaw in Vader regalia so I was left to my own imagination to picture what this battle scarred face would look like. It became my main aim in life to see that face with its “eyes filled with love”.
So November 1987 arrived and dad had bought us our first ever video player, a MATSUI from Curry’s. It was amazing, I remember recording Grange Hill, Zammo, Ziggy et al. That Christmas I recorded Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which was the big BBC Christmas Day blockbuster movie, the following day ITV showed Ghostbusters, again recorded, this time with my brother carefully pausing the recording during the adverts, but there was only one film I was interested in committing to VCR that Christmas and that was on ITV on New Years Day 1988, it was Star Wars. I recorded it and as soon as it finished I ripped out the little black square on the corner of the tape that would prevent anyone recording over it. I finally owned Star Wars, I could watch it whenever I wanted, and oh boy, I sure did. At this point I still hadn’t seen Jedi and even the events of Empire were beginning to fade from my young memory.
Then it happened one night in Spring 1988, completely out of the blue. It was a Friday night, my dad came home from work and called me into the kitchen. I remember him distinctly saying “Hey, I wondered if you wanted to watch this tonight”. He pulled from within his coat a yellow Bolton Library video case. Bolton Library never rented videos in their original boxes, they always placed the tapes into their own branded boxes, it was probably to stop people nicking the original video box covers. I reached out for the yellow box, shaking with nervous anticipation, I cracked it open, and there it was in all its glory Return of the Jedi on VHS.
The next half hour was a bit of a blur, I seem to remember running upstairs and putting on my pyjamas, even though it was only 4:30, I put on my dressing gown and Mr T slippers and went and sat in my favourite chair with the video queued up. Tea was no longer required, we had to watch this and right now. The lights were dimmed and the oh so familiar “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…….” appeared on the screen like a reassuring friend. Then BOOM the yellow STAR WARS logo shot across the screen and off into the star filled distance. The rising from the bottom of the screen was the oh so familiar yellow font, but the words were different. It said Episode VI for a start the RETURN OF THE JEDI. From that moment I knew I was in love with a piece of video tape.
The film was everything I hoped for, the first act set in Jabba’s Palace, a suitable upgrade to Episode 4s Mos Eisley cantina, then a brief stop with our old friend Yoda, who brought the audience up to speed with a quick recap of the main events of Empire, before taking a well earned rest. Then the film for me really came into its own. The three way battle, on the ground on Endor with the Ewoks (loved them then, still love them now), in Space, as Super awesome Lando leads the rebel attack, ably assisted by Nien Numb and the imperious trap fearing Admiral Ackbar, and finally in the confines of the Emperor’s throne room as Luke, Vader and the Emperor embarked on the World’s weirdest job interview. I still wonder to this day how the BBFC gave Jedi a U certificate, I still shudder when the Emperor electrocutes Luke. This was a genuinely terrifying moment for a child to watch.
Finally we get to the moment I had waited for ever since I first read the St Michael story book, Luke was to remove Vader’s mask. Up to the very last minute I wondered what it would look like. There was even a slight tease as Luke removed the back of the helmet, delaying the moment for a few more tantalising seconds, then Luke unhooked the face part of the mask and with a low hiss there he was. Despite the deep scars and the top part of his head basically missing, St Michael had got it right, the eyes were filled with love, the characterisation had been described perfectly, it was not a disappointment. There were a few moments for me to take it all in, there he was the man behind the mask. Within seconds I was snapped out of it as Wedge Antilles went for the power regulator and announced to Lando that he was already on his way out. Of all the “punch the air” moments I’ve witnessed in my life, right up there with George McFly knocking out Biff in Back to the Future, is the Millenium Falcon blasting through the fireball at the exhaust port of the Death Star. “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAA” yelled Lando, as did we all.
In those days you could rent videos for the whole weekend for about £3. I think I watched Return of the Jedi about 8 times over that weekend and cried when we had to take it back. It still holds a very special place in my heart and is probably my favourite Star Wars film. My kids continue to be ignored when, everytime we drive past or walk through a forest I speculate loudly “Hey I bet there’s Ewoks in here”, I follow this with an embarassing dad “Be chuahaha” in perfect Ewok tongue.
As a rather bizarre postscript that following summer whilst holidaying in France, I was thrilled to see that the campsite we were staying on in Britanny was showing the Empire Strikes Back. Without any hesitation I took my seat at the front of the games room and it started. It was in French but I didn’t care, I was seeing it practically for the first time, i could follow it well enough. A few weeks later after returning back to England, I rented it from Bolton Video Library and watched it back to back all weekend. Oh Star Wars, what a time to be a kid.
A film fanatic father of three who writes to promote the beauty and wonders of Cinema. I am a huge fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Disney, Marvel and anything that allows you to escape from the pressures of everyday life for a couple of hours. I believe that Cinema is a source of well-being and good for people. I consider it a privilege to witness the gifts and work of the thousands of film makers and collaborators who work tirelessly to provide us with films that main purpose is to entertain.
Huge thanks to Rob and the team at the Bearded Trio http://www.thebeardedtrio.com for all their support with this blog. They kindly published the above at https://www.thebeardedtrio.com/2019/10/the-tragedy-of-rebso-and-wait-for-jedi.html