Saturday 28th November, 10am – 4pm.
It’s been a wet weekend here in Whitby but yesterday, inside the town’s iconic Whitby Spa Pavilion Complex on the West Cliff, the first ever Whitby Sci Fi & Comic Con was well under way, and to say the event was a roaring success would be a bit of an understatement.
Organised by father and son duo Adrian and Jack Booth, along with Alysia and Will Hyde, the event has been a long time passion project for Adrian and his family who moved to Whitby from the Midlands six years ago. When they opened their shop ‘Outpost 31’, an Aladdin’s Cave for geeks, one of their aims was to organise a comic con in the town.
In May of this year Adrian’s wife Sharon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given only months to live. Sadly Sharon passed away only four weeks later in St Catherine’s Hospice at the age of just 44, but in those four weeks Sharon set about making plans for the future. One of those plans was putting the wheels in motion for the Whitby Sci Fi & Comic Con, with a slight twist. Rather than running the convention as simply an extension of the shop, proceeds from the event will be donated to Cancer Research UK, specifically the section of the charity focusing on the early detection of cancer.
And what better way to honour Sharon’s legacy and raise money for charity than to get dressed up and revel in the things she loved?
There was masses of support from the local community; when the event opened at 10am people were queuing out the door and down the street, all joining together in a celebration of all things geek culture. With costumes ranging from Rapunzel (complete with her own Pascal) to Captain Jack Sparrow, and even as far as the Alien Queen from Alien, as well as stalls selling everything from comic books to vampire novels, memorabilia and props, there was something there for everyone to enjoy. Just as importantly, there was something new for everyone to discover.
Some traders had traveled far and wide to get to Whitby this weekend, but for others, such as artist Steve Scott, it was a chance to showcase home-grown talent. Steve cites Sharon Booth as a major help in encouraging him to publish Clown Story: “I knew Sharon and I said I was writing a graphic novel, but I was a bit nervous about it and she said ‘let me read it and I’ll tell you if it’s good.’” So, with Sharon’s encouragement Steve finished Clown Story and is one of the only people from Whitby to ever publish a graphic novel. He said: “the whole thing was inspired to actually get finished in the name of Sharon Booth, and she’s the lady that this whole event is for, and it’s going well. I love it!”
For others such as author Michelle Birbeck, it was a chance to promote her work and support a great cause. Michelle’s latest series The Keepers Chronicles fits in very well with Whitby’s long vampiric history: “I’m here with my latest series The Keepers Chronicles. When Alysia asked me to come to Whitby Sci Fi & Comic Con, I immediately said yes. It’s always nice to come to Whitby and it’s a great opportunity for me, and it’s all for a fantastic cause.”
Of course, any great comic con needs some fantastic guests, and yesterday we were spoilt for choice with Spencer Wilding, Virginia Hey, Phill Martin, Leah Cairns and Chris Bunn all taking part in Q&A sessions, signing autographs, posing for photos and taking the time to talk to everyone.
Hosted by Lee Hunter, from memorabilia shop Hunters Toys in Stockton-on-Tees, the first Q&A session was with Virginia Hey and Leah Cairns, and while Virginia and Lee met some time ago on the convention circuit, Canadian born Leah, on her first trip to North East England, needed Virginia to act as interpreter at times. This only added to the fun.
A fairly standard start talking about breakthrough roles – Leah’s was on The Chris Isaak Show (2002) while Virginia’s was Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) – led to an interesting discussion about female leads in relation to the latest Mad Max film, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Male dominance of the film industry, from actors to directors and writers, has been a much debated topic in the press and in film academia in recent years, and Mad Max: Fury Road was praised for the dominant female roles. When asked if she liked the most recent installment in the Mad Max franchise, Virginia said “yes, I loved it,” and also commented on how Tom Hardy’s role as the titular Max Rockatansky was smaller than Mel Gibson’s in the original three films, giving more weight to Charlize Theron’s character Imperator Furiosa. Leah commented that if the biggest problem with a film is that you see too much of your female lead “it’s a good problem to have”.
While Leah’s breakthrough role was on The Chris Isaak Show in 2002, it is her role as Lieutenant Margaret “Racetrack” Edmondson in the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) that she is best known for. Similar to Virginia’s question about Mad Max, Leah was asked what she thought about the original version of Battlestar Galactica compared to the re-imagined version she starred in. Rather than a detailed explanation of the differences between the two series, Leah admitted that she had never seen the original when she started filming her role as Racetrack, and only after a number of episodes, when she realised her role would be permanent, did she watch the original.
Q&A sessions always yield some fantastic stories, and this one was no exception, with Virginia explaining how she applied for a Green Card in the USA. Virginia’s lawyer had been compiling a dossier proving that she satisfied the requirements for obtaining a Green Card and residing in the USA, and a few weeks later was sent a letter saying she was an ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’. Bearing in mind this was after Virginia played the role of Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan in Farscape. “I didn’t think my lawyer had a sense of humour so I rang him up saying ‘haha thank you very much’, and he said ‘what are you talking about?’ I didn’t realise that it was the official paperwork and that that’s what they put on your Green Card.”
When the session was opened up to questions from the floor, one member of the audience asked about the challenges of acting with inanimate objects such as robots or characters that will be added later using CGI. Both Virginia and Leah had experiences of working with characters who weren’t really there, so to speak, and explained that usually a member of the crew will put a piece of coloured tape on something like a broom handle to represent the other character and where their eye-line should go, “so you are literally reacting to a broom,” says Leah.
Using host Lee to represent a camera, the rest of the session then went on to demonstrate how to shoot over the shoulder shots when there is not enough room on the set for a camera and cameraman to stand behind the actor/actress. Virginia explained: “Say me and Leah are shooting a scene together and we’ve done the wide shot and two camera shots, and now the director wants to do over the shoulder shots, the camera needs to be as close as possible to the actors eye-line. But if you pretend there’s a wall behind Leah, then there isn’t enough room for the cameraman to get behind her, so they’ll get a broom handle again and mark where her face would be so I have to talk to the broom. And say if I get distracted and look at her boobs or something like that I’ve got to judge where I would be looking according to where her face is on this broom.”
Throughout the day, in between Q&A sessions, we were treated to some disco music. As Sharon loved a bit of disco, at various intervals throughout the day Blame It On the Boogie was played with everyone stopping what they were doing to join in the dancing, led by Alysia and Lee, and with as many costumers as possible on stage. The result was quite a treat. After all, how often do you see Deadpool, Pyramid Head, Cinderella, Beth Greene, and some escaped zombies all dancing together around Jabba the Hutt’s throne?
After a look around the stalls, a break for lunch and a bit more dancing, we came to our second Q&A session of the day, this time with Spencer Wilding, Phill Martin and Chris Bunn, again hosted by Lee Hunter. Beginning this time with an interesting fact about each of the three guests, as we already knew, Chris Bunn was the first ever Stormtrooper in the original Star Wars Trilogy, but what we didn’t know was that the Stormtrooper armour was modelled on a plaster cast taken of Chris’s body. Although the armour for the later three Star Wars films and indeed the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been tweaked slightly here and there from the first incarnation, it is still very close to the original version that was modelled on Chris.
Lee’s interesting fact about Phill Martin was that he was an Engineer on Prometheus, sometimes credited as the ‘Elephant Engineer’ as the helmets worn featured a trunk like structure, and other times credited as the ‘Ghost Engineer’ as a lot of Phill’s scenes were turned into holograms which represented the difference between past and present in the film.
Like Virginia, Lee had known Spencer Wilding for a number of years so saved his interesting fact for last. According to the presenter, Spencer once locked himself out of a hotel room in the middle of the night and Lee, in the room next door, gave him a sheet and a pillow for him to sleep in the corridor. Perhaps the less said about that one the better.
At seven feet tall Phill is the perfect height for playing the role of giants and creatures, but before acting Phill worked a number of what he described as “boring office jobs” and it wasn’t until he and his wife were watching a documentary on television that he first took steps towards the acting profession.
“My wife and I were watching a documentary about really tall people, and there was this one guy it followed who was going for an audition with an acting agency, and they showed the audition and I sat there thinking ‘he was crap, I could do better than that,’ so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and here I am.”
Spencer, on the other hand, found his way into acting via the sporting world, becoming the Welsh, British and European Champion in kickboxing, and first signed up with an agency who put sports stars in films. Spencer has also done some work as a stunt man and recalls working on a Monster Munch advert where he played the Monster Munch Yeti. Stunt men and women go through six years of training before they can register as a stuntman or stuntwoman, and after telling the director he wasn’t actually a stunt man Spencer was then told more specifics about requirements of the role such as hanging out of cable cars and falling down mountains. His response was: “I’m up for that”. The advert used to air before children’s show Ministry of Mayhem and featured a Yeti who was scared of his own shadow but also addicted to Monster Munch and who wreaked havoc in his attempts to obtain more of crisps. Due to his lack of stunt training Spencer says: “so when the Yeti fell over and hurt himself, he did actually hurt himself.”
When the session was opened up to questions from the floor, one member of the audience asked Chris Bunn if, with the release of the next installment just weeks away, they’d had any idea at the start that Star Wars would become anything like global phenomenon it is today, to which Chris replied: “no, it was just another day at work for us. A lot of people don’t know this but it was originally meant to be a pilot for a six episode show to rival Battlestar Galactica, but it just grew and then studio came back with more money and it took off. But, none of us could anticipate how big it would become, and how big it would still be nearly 40 years later.”
As well as his roles in Star Wars and four James Bond films, among others, Chris was also once a stunt double for Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers: “we were in the dressing room and one of the crew came in and asked if anyone could fit into a size 7 woman’s boot, and I’m a size 8 so I said I’ll try, two cans of talc later and I got them on. Then I was told to take them off again and put on red tights and a mini skirt. I was going to run through a field of machine gun fire as Joanna Lumley’s double.”
Phill Martin got involved with Whitby Sci Fi & Comic Con through Spencer Wilding having worked together on Pan (2015). On set Spencer couldn’t keep a straight face and was always cracking up during scenes: “Spencer led me astray. I knew he would and he did.”
Throughout the day the basement of the complex had been taken over by zombies (apart from when they escaped to come upstairs and dance) for the Zombie Experience, wherein people were lead through the room being chased by a heard of zombies. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go around due to the fact I tend to hit things that make me jump so it’s not good for me to do anything with live actors, but I was told by some who did go around that it was scary but also a lot of fun, and some even got to high five the zombies which seemed to be a highlight. The zombies were made up of a group of volunteers who were ‘zombiefied’ by Newcastle based special effects make up artists GoreFreak FX.
After the zombies were all rounded up and released back into society and the basement returned to its usual state as a sports hall, Spencer Wilding lead a kickboxing demonstration, the first time he’d ever done a kickboxing demo at a convention. During the 30 minute session Spencer lead a group of 10 volunteers, including Alysia Hyde (one of the event organisers) through a series of introductory techniques.
Following the kickboxing demo it was time for the raffle to be drawn for a large number of collectable items, as well as extra raffles run by individual stallholders, followed by a few words of thanks from Alysia, Adrian and the rest of the team.
The final total is still to be announced but at the time of leaving last night the number was up to £5,000 and still counting; all of which was raised for Cancer Research UK and Sharon’s Place. With what seemed like at least half of the town turning out to support the event, Whitby Sci Fi & Comic Con has got off to a fantastic start. When I asked Adrian if he was aiming for the same again next year he said: “bigger and better”. Watch this space.