That Space Film: Star Wars in the UK ’77

Star Wars

I can’t honestly say where I first heard the name Star Wars. It was probably from my brother; he was (and still is) 5 years older than me and more in touch with what was going on in the wild, wacky and wonderful world of 1977. Anyone who knew me as a precocious little 7-year old would have known ‘that space film’ was something I would enjoy. I was really into Doctor Who, Space: 1999, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Incredible Hulk, so it was inevitable that a sprawling space opera set a long time ago (surely space was in the future?) in a galaxy far, far away (that’s more like it)  was right up my proverbial alley.

It’s hard to appreciate now, but the arrival of Star Wars in the UK was greeted like the second coming. It had been a massive – and unexpected – hit in the USA and looked set to do the same kind of business here in blighty. Newspapers ran discreet but tantalising features on the film that had taken America by storm with smudgy little black and white pictures of strange alien creatures and armoured space knights. They mentioned that the film starred Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, because nobody had ever heard of Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford. Carrie Fisher might just have got a mention, but only as the Hollywood royalty daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

A tidal wave of stuff preceded the actual movie: badges, T-Shirts, posters, magazines. America had been taken by surprise by the demand for Star Wars stuff, but the UK was prepared, factories were geared out for producing toys and puzzles related to the movie. Marvel UK, the British arm of comic book giant Marvel Comics reprinted Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin’s comic book adaptation of Star Wars in their own inimitable style. Star Wars Weekly stripped the adaptation down into longer-lasting 7 or 8 page chunks and married it up with various other ‘space’ strips from the Marvel archive including, at various times, Monarch Starstalker, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Micronauts. I remember running back from the newsagents with issue one of Star Wars Weekly clenched in my teeth! I never missed an issue from then on.

I went to see Star Wars at the old Odeon Cinema in Sunderland with my friend Martin and his mother. It might have been his birthday, I’m not entirely sure. We were both very excited when that big title STAR WARS crashed up on the screen and the opening scroll started to roll – without Episode IV: A New Hope, of course, as such a concept did not exist until the film was re-released! I’d like to say that I sat glued to the entire film, but I seem to recall that Martin insisted on dragging us both to the toilet at one point and I missed the beginning of the Cantina scene. By the end we were both hooked though, and though I can’t speak for Martin, I was officially a Star Wars fan (alongside everything else I was a fan of) from that point. To keep me entertained while waiting for the film to start, my mother had given me some sweets and a comic. The comic was, somewhat ironically, an issue of the American Logan’s Run comic, Marvel’s previous big movie adaptation before Star Wars, adapting the 1976 film of the same name. There was a stall in the indoor market in Sunderland that sold American comics and I often used to get them from the ‘bargain bin’ of slightly outdated issues. With the excitement of Star Wars, I left the comic behind when we left the cinema, which is deeply symbolic of how Star Wars swiped all other cinematic sci-fi aside.

Palitoy in the UK licensed Kenner’s successful range of Star Wars action figures. They’d previously had a big hit bringing America’s G.I. Joe across the Atlantic and renaming him Action Man, so they had plenty of previous with this kind of thing. Unlike Kenner’s original launch of the range, where they were completely unprepared for the Christmas release of the toys, Palitoy had everything in place for when it was needed. My mother knew exactly what to get me for Christmas and birthday that year. I always remember that for Christmas, along with my other presents, I got the action figures of Han Solo and Chewbacca, then for my birthday, which is only 19 days later, I got the other 10 figures in the original range. The fact that my mother, who has no interest in Star Wars whatsoever, knew that Han and Chewie went together as a pair shows how quickly Star Wars infiltrated itself into popular culture.

My parents weren’t well off in the Seventies; my father had lost his job as a cooper when the local brewery decided that metal barrels were more cost effective than wooden ones, and he’d had to find a new job at a time when the mass unemployment that would burden the Eighties was just starting to kick in, but my brother and I had never been left wanting at Christmas time. My mother was financially shrewd and saved throughout the year for special occasions. She had an account with a local department store called Joplings, where you saved so much a week and got back plastic coins that you could only spend in the store. The Toy Department in the basement of Joplings was a magical place; they had all the Star Wars toys, including the large scale X-Wing Fighter and Death Star Playset that I could only ever dream of being able to afford. Star Wars figures were 99p and in fact remained that price for a very long time; in the run up to the festive season, my mother bought them one at a time, so as to spread the cost. I still remember opening the presents on my birthday, each wrapped with two bubble packs face-to-face so as to disguise their distinctive shape – Luke, Leia, Artoo, Threepio, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, Storm Trooper, ‘Death Squad Commander’, Tusken Raider, Jawa – I had them all! My mother told me much later she’s searched high and low for the Jawa because all the shops in Sunderland were out of them, but she was determined to get me the whole set.

Palitoy Star Wars Advert
Palitoy Star Wars Advert

When the initial furore of Star Wars had died down, of course, a lot of toy retailers assumed that this would just be a flash in the pan and so Star Wars toys started appearing at bargain prices in the type of cut-price toy store that sprung up around Christmas time in the Seventies. Here you could fill the holes in your collection for a fraction their original price. A lot of these toys were imported from the continent where toy sales hadn’t been so hot, so I had Star Wars jigsaws and so on with La Guerre des Ѐtoile emblazoned on the packaging. This kind of toy shop was where I picked up my die-cast Y-Wing Fighter, a portfolio of Ralph McQuarrie prints and many other goodies.

Star Wars was literally everywhere in the 1970s. A local radio station proudly announced that they would be playing the entire soundtrack to Star Wars; my mixed-up memory of that is that they played the entire music and dialogue track from the film, but looking back it’s much more likely to have been just John Williams’ musical score. Later, of course, there was Brian Daley’s Star Wars: An Adaptation for Radio, which was a big deal when it was first broadcast. I seem to remember that the family was driving off somewhere on holiday when the first episode was broadcast and, even though I had asked my uncle to record it for me, I still convinced my parents to tune in the car radio so that I could listen to it. I’m not sure what my parents made of this rather ponderous first episode, but I loved it. I made cassette cases each adorned with the little corner image from the front cover of Star Wars Weekly. In retrospect, I should have just kept my Star Wars Weeklys, ho-hum.

It’s hard to explain to anyone who grew up in a post-Star Wars world what an impact that film had back in 1977. Did it change the world? No. Did it change the face of cinema? Maybe, a little bit, but Steven Spielberg had already laid the groundwork for the era of the blockbuster with Jaws and was planning to do it again with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so it was one of a little cluster of films that changed the face of cinema. Did it change the way films were marketed? Most definitely; Planet of the Apes had skirted around the concept of mass marketing, but Star Wars weaponised it! Every kid-friendly blockbuster after Star Wars came with an avalanche of marketing, sometimes very inappropriately and rarely as successfully, but it was George Lucas’ intent to publicise his film with a few posters and T-shirts that launched the modern concept of film marketing.

As I grow older, I become more nostalgic. I enjoy the new Star Wars movies, but find that the sheer weight of the ‘franchise’ makes any significant impact almost impossible. Fans, with their pedantry, possessiveness and spitefulness, infuriate me. I long of the simplicity of 1977, when Star Wars was just an exciting adventure story with engaging characters and thrilling concepts. I’d happily swap every $500 limited edition collector’s figurine in the world for my Luke Skywalker pencil case; dirty, ink-stained and smelling of 42-year old wood shavings. That’s what Star Wars is to me; my childhood, my memories… and no-one can take those away from me.

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