Conventional Thinking - Part Two

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Marsters of the Universe - Part Two


Arriving back on site on Saturday morning I find that the proceedings have taken on a distinctly Star Trek-ish tinge. This is partly due to the first panel of the morning being another appearance by Alexander Siddig and Andy Robinson, once again recreating the Bashir/Garak double-act, but mainly because every direction I look there is a queue. (There are also members of a strange Kirk-worshipping sect, the Fellowship of the Shat, much in evidence.)

However, once things get underway this proves to be one of the highlight sessions of the weekend. The guests seem to me to fall into two camps, those who go up on the stage and answer questions and are generally very pleasant, and those who actually give a performance. I suppose it's a question of confidence as much as anything else, and also the quality of the material coming from the audience. But Siddig and Robinson have clearly got this down to a fine art, sparking off and riffing with each other to great comic effect (Siddig reveales that, looking on the bright side, recent developments in American foreign policy mean he is much in demand to play Arab terrorists). They even apologise for Friday night's playlet, which they reveal - to no-one's great surprise - was written as intimate theatre for 150 people, not to be performed in an aircraft hangar in front of 2500 restless Buffy fans.

On after them come the editorial team of Europe's best selling SF mag, who've organised this whole event. They look hungover, not mention nervous (bordering on petrified in a couple of cases). Their session soon degenerates into them calling out the names of recent SF films and the crowd cheering or booing according to taste. One audience request, that they try to persuade guests to leave the organised convention areas and mingle with the punters in the bar, is politely sidestepped, although I have to say the guy asking the question has a point. Other than spotting Joe Pantoliano in the dealer's room, the only other celeb I see hanging out all weekend is Robert Rankin (and in this instance it is more a case of trying to persuade him to stop mingling in the bar and go and do some official convention-type business).

The next guest is Victoria Pratt, so I leave the main hall and check out the peripheral bits of the convention. Within a few minutes I have picked up a few CDs and a deleted video and had a chat with Jason Haigh-Ellery, a big wheel in the world of Doctor Who audios. Haigh-Ellery's competitors from BBV are here as well but the rivalry between them is jocular enough. (I notice my old colleague Zoltan Dery has started writing professionally for BBV and am wracked with appropriate jealousy.)

In the next room I bump into none other than my friend Joty from the local wargaming fraternity. Joty has wangled a job teaching little children to paint Lord of the Rings miniatures while tabletop recreations of key battles from the movie rage all around him (in 25mm scale). As this is what I normally spend my weekends doing I decline the chance to have a crack at the Balrog myself and move on.

Down half a mile of windy corridors and up several flights of steps is the suite where a gang of artists from the legendary British comic 2000AD are in residence. Not surprisingly only die-hard fans have managed to find their way in here and it is disappointingly quiet. It is, as ever, fascinating to put faces to brushwork, and a pleasure to chat to such a talented group of people. Most of them have brought stuff to sell, mainly pages of original artwork, and while talking to a small, intense guy who turns out to be the award-winning Frazer Irving, I find the original of a page that knocked my socks off when I first laid eyes on it two months earlier (it's the splash page at the start of 'My name is Death' from Prog 1280, if anyone's interested).

Man, it's a thing of beauty: a portrait of Judge Death, atop a pile of skulls, about to do his thing to another hapless victim. It stunned me the first time I saw it and in hushed tones I ask Irving if it's for sale. It is, but for a buttock-clenchingly hefty sum (it's his favourite page from the story too). However, I'm not going to spend the rest of my life bewailing how this got away from me and bully him into taking a cheque. He looks a rather melancholy little chap as he slides the piece into a padded envelope and hands it over, making me promise to hang it somewhere that people will see it. There was never any doubt. I suddenly realise I have become a collector of fine art. Dash off to show it to Joty, who is appropriately impressed at my taste (if not my sense). The cost of the weekend has suddenly trebled but I don't care at all.

Shiri Appleby from Roswell is the next guest I see in the main hall. This is her convention debut and she is clearly very nervous. Emma Caulfield, Xander's bird out of Buffy, is not much better but neither of them have much to worry about, so cloyingly and appallingly grateful are the audience that they've deigned to show up at all. There is a promising moment near the start of Emma's slot where she shouts 'Oh, f*** off!' at the crowd but it's strictly adoration only from then on (no-one actually asks 'Is it difficult being so wonderful?', but it's a near thing), and both Shiri and Emma are not the performing type of guest.

Feeling rather queasy I go for another wander about and get talking to a couple whose accents hint that they've come from the Midlands. I'm a bit startled to learn that they didn't know this event was happening until she saw Richard and Judy the night before and they rushed here this morning solely to see Mazza in the rather gaunt flesh.

I show them to the main hall where we've just missed the start of what turns out to be Joe Pantoliano's only panel of the weekend. He's a thoughtful, restrained speaker, but an absolute pro and he never misses an opportunity to plug his new book, or his next movie - he's apparently fresh off the set of Daredevil, which promises to be exceptional or execrable (my opinion, not his). The questions are interestingly diverse, as befits a man of Pantoliano's CV, covering everything from The Goonies to The Matrix to The Sopranos. Apparently Matrix Reloaded will hopefully be out in April 2003 with Matrix Revelations released in late Summer of the same year.

There is a brief lull before Mazza's first session up on stage as Guy Haley off the organising mag appears to run the charity auction. I am rather appalled that the first two items between them go for less than I paid for my Judge Death piccie. But there are firm reminders that we are operating under parallel universe rules as a replica K9 ('It doesn't work: the laser won't go off and it can't help you with astrometric calculations') goes for about £500 (were it not for my earlier exertions, I'd've been in the chase for that myself). And then, the star prize: Mazza's electric guitar, signed by the man himself and with the promise of a special photo to go with it. A berserk bidding war breaks out and jaws sag open as the price climbs... and climbs... and climbs. Eventually an off-the-peg electric guitar with some indelible felt tip on it goes for £4750.

Any lingering doubts that we're in pop idol territory are dispelled as Mazza bounds onto the stage a few minutes later. I'm about a hundred feet back and the racket with all the screaming and hysteria is still deafening. It's entirely clear that every woman in the place, and possibly a few guys, is absolutely lolling for Mazza to give them some special attention. Now my old nan always taught me that the only decent response to this sort of thing is embarrassment, and Mazza's yell of 'You have no idea how good that feels!' ominously suggests he's believing in his own legend.

But, damn it, as the session goes on it really seems like Mazza isn't letting himself be fooled. He comes out and says he knows that the crowd are cheering for his writers and directors and costume designers as much as they are him, he seems to have a healthy sense of humour about himself and he speaks extremely respectfully of everyone off the show, especially Sarah Gellar and Joss Whedon. I was all set to be extremely cynical about this man but he's coming across like a genuine sweetheart. What a guy. What a star. (Either that or he's far and away the best actor working in American TV.)

There follows a brief lull as the hall is reset for the evening's award ceremony. A strange creeping entropy seems to take hold as the start of the show is delayed and then delayed again, leading to a huge logjam of people in the main areas of the hotel. I grab something to eat and hear rumours that some of the other guests are rather jealous of the attention Mazza has been getting. As Mazza has spent all day having his photo taken virtually non-stop (Dave the photographer has been taking 380 snaps an hour and still not managed to fit everyone in) I think this is either evidence of deep stupidity amongst the guests, or untrue.

I notice Steve the Spike-a-like is still about. Earlier this afternoon the make-up guys fitted him with a vampire prosthetic forehead, and his resemblence to Mazza now verges on the spooky. People are now having their photos taken with him, which I find oddly amusing. Just then I spot Cornell and his wife en route to the bar with the rest of the magazine team and in the hopes of getting him to sign something I pursue ruthlessly.

My courage deserts me and I'm reduced to lurking ostentatiously near Cornell's table in the hopes of him remembering me. Quite rightly, he doesn't, and I end up talking to a couple in press badges. They are here representing the Huddersfield Engineering News, which is either more interested in SF than I thought, or they've just scammed a couple of really good seats. Whatever the truth, they are very bad at pool.

The main hall finally opens and the massed ranks of SF fans drift in. I spot Cornell and his charming young bride sitting near the back and take the opportunity to pounce. We agree that shaky timekeeping has been the main problem with the event and bewail the lack of British guests. Finally I summon up the courage to get him to sign my wrinkly old copy of Love and War. He has been ridiculously nice to me on both occasions we have talked and in return I resolve to ignore him completely for the rest of the weekend.

Then, the evening's main event kicks off: the annual magazine awards ceremony. Or, more accurately, the awards for films directed by Peter Jackson and TV series created by Joss Whedon. Lord of the Rings wins everything film-wise but best actress (this rightly goes to Nicole Kidman for The Others). The success of Buffy and Angel means that Mazza has to go up and claim no fewer than six awards himself (even, bemusingly, Best TV Actress), with only Farscape getting a look in (as well as the special effects prize, a split vote from the Buffy fans allows Claudia Black to nip through on the rails and steal 'Most Fanciable Lady' or somesuch). Videotaped acceptances from the Farscape crew add a touch of verisimilitude to proceedings, as do a couple from Mr Terry Pratchett - he wins Best Writer for about the sixth year in a row, and also reads out a note from Neil Gaiman (another split vote amongst Pratchett fans lets Gaiman's American Gods in to win Best Novel). Finally, the 2000AD posse storm the stage as, after years of always coming second, they finally win Best Comic. They look quite glad to finally be in the same room as some punters, but as they've beaten the official Buffy comic into second place the audience's applause is rather grudging.

It's been a fun ceremony, even if Joss Whedon did beat Tom Baker in the 'Most God-like Being' category. The rather opinionated (and loud) BBC Books novelist in the next row (his claims regarding Terry Pratchett's writing practices verge on the slanderous) didn't spoil things too much and there was one really profound moment.

The main screen showed illustrative clips of the winning entries and at one point it was displaying a clip from the Buffy episode with all the singing. Mazza was on the stage, watching the screen, while 2500 sat in the hall, watching him. We watch a man in the flesh while he is watching himself on tape. Suddenly it's clear what this whole event is all about: it's a bridge between real life and the worlds we see on TV and in the cinema. We get to shake hands and have our pictures taken with characters who normally inhabit our imaginations. Seeing flesh-Mazza and tape-Mazza together at the same time has made this clear in a new and unexpected way. I am grateful for the insight as Saturday draws to a close, and reflect that to shake the hand of Mazza would be nothing but a pleasure and a privilege. However, as I'm #1902 in the queue, it's perfectly clear that nothing of the sort is going to happen.

In the final, moderately interesting installment: a white-haired gent from Brentford nearly steals the show, and fate leads our roving reporter on a merry dance.


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