I recently attended the London Film and Comic Con; my first convention in a great many years. It was much as I remember the kinds of conventions I’d been to before (I’ve never been to a properly themed one, and this was probably the biggest I’ve ever been to) with stalls of goods ranging from cool, to cute, to actually a bit crap.
Gone from the front of every stall were the X-Files comics, photos and locks of Gillian Anderson’s hair I used to covet so vehemently. Now it was stuff I’d never seen before mixed in with the classics: Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who etc. There were original works by budding artists and writers, and some who were just sat copying (albeit excellently) others’ work and selling it. There were a dozen Stormtroopers, half a dozen Boba Fetts and a handful of Vaders… oh, and some dude dressed as Captain Hammer whom I had never heard of but am now keen to see in action.
There was a whole section dedicated to Anime, Manga and general Japanese craziness (including a stall unabashedly selling plenty of hentai manga and run by a couple of girls) as well as a fairly large cosplay scene which was great fun to see. I was tempted by Totoros, courted by Cat Buses and drawn in by Dust Bunnies… but mostly I was left with a very sour taste in my mouth when I witnessed a spectacle I’d never seen before.
It was the celebrities. As I said, I’ve never been to a big convention before, or one with any star guests (short of a random Ewok) so this was completely new to me, but I have to say if this is how it’s done at all of them, I won’t be desperate to get to another any time soon. Sat behind a long row of tables all around 10ft apart and in front of screens (the wall panel kind, not monitors) bearing their names and a photo of them in their most famous role were stars from a wide range of films and shows. I first noticed Stanislav Ianevski or Viktor Krum from Harry Potter as he is better known. He was smiling and talking to a couple of girls before standing to have his photo taken with one of them. As they walked away he sat back down and slouched, looking a little defeated and probably feeling very bored. There was no one else queuing to see him so he had nothing to do but sit there with his staff helper and wait. I glanced down the row of names and photos most of whom I can’t remember and the owners of which were not present. Whether this was because they were on a break, or they weren’t there any more and no one had bothered to take down the name I don’t know, but the emotional emptiness of the situation struck me as slightly disturbing.
As I walked on I glanced to my right and was excited to see a stall selling Robert Rankin books. I had been avoiding eye contact with most stall vendors thus far as I have had enough of the ‘hard sell’ to last me a lifetime and was in no mood to perform that particular little dance that day, but as I am a fan of Robert Rankin I raised my eyes. I then blinked, raised them further and scurried away round the corner to give my brain time to process the images it had just received. Sat behind the stall selling Robert Rankin books (and a few bits of steam-punk style jewellery) was the man himself, Robert Rankin. What I found more difficult to believe was that no one was gathered round his stall and that he too was sat there looking a little bored. I returned to confirm that it was indeed him and ended up talking to him and buying his latest book which he very kindly spent several minutes personalising for me. I guess that’s one benefit of him not being surrounded by people and in a rush. Indeed he said so himself, that he prefers conventions to book shop signings as he doesn’t have to rush and frankly he sells more stuff at the conventions. So off I went, pleased to have met him albeit slightly bewildered that so few people seemed to notice he was there.
Soon after I was back in front of the row of stars, before noticing that the row I had seen was just the ‘first level’ and that behind the screens sat yet more star guests. I began to wonder who had been relegated to the back of the hall, and when I later found out it was this that inspired me to write this post, but I’ll get to that.
There was a lot of activity in front of one particular individual, which made the fact that in front of so many others there was no activity whatsoever all the more painful to witness. I was closer now and able to see more, including the prices for signatures; scribbled on laminated paper using a marker pen as if it changed regularly, and signs saying ‘no posed photographs’ etc. Prices seemed to range from around £15 to £30, but I didn’t really see who you had to pay or exactly what your money got you, other than the knowledge that an at best b-list celebrity had essentially prostituted themselves out to you. Now I don’t really have an issue with paying for a signed photo of your favourite star, it was just these particular circumstances that made it feel so much more seedy.
The individual so many people were queuing to see was Corey Feldman. Below his name sat a picture of him from The Lost Boys, when he was around 16… which was 24 years ago. Suffice it to say he no longer resembles the fearless vampire hunter from the image, in fact these days he looks more like a cat. That said I have nothing against the guy at all, I was just confused as to why people were queuing to see him over the other people there but I guess it comes down to personal choice. He seemed to be enjoying himself, as did his fans so I let my eyes wander once more.
The next star I spotted was Lea Thompson. As beautiful that day as she was in 1955, I’ll say only that she still makes my heart skip a beat.
Then I went to the back. To where the celebrities not impressive enough to make it to the front row were sitting. It was different back there. It was where people came to rest from the hubbub, to seek quiet and solitude not realising, or worse caring, that professional actors were sat there waiting for recognition, and a quick buck. Back there were actors from Babylon 5, Harry Potter (an unrecognisable Hugh Mitchell, a.k.a. Colin Creevey) and then at the end of the row, David Prowse and Kenny Baker. That’s Darth Vader and R2D2 in case you were unaware. It was passing the latter of these two men that I witnessed something that made me sick to my stomach, and is the main reason for me writing this.
No one was there to see Kenny Baker as I passed. No one was talking to him and I wonder how many people there even knew who he really was. He was sat with his staff helper, and as I walked by I saw him sign a photograph, slide it over to the helper who added it to a small pile, then take a handkerchief and with a slow, shaking hand, wipe his eyes. The man was in a wheelchair, looking as frail, weary and forlorn as any man I’ve ever seen and he was just signing photos. Not for people, but for a pile, to be sold at a later date, whilst behind his screen wall a whole convention was going on. I was struck that anyone could be reduced to such a state and it really made me consider the darker side of this monstrous concept of celebrity. Now maybe I’m being unfair and I just caught him at an off moment, but I genuinely struggle to accept that he was there because he wanted to be, which leads me to consider that he was there because he needed to be. Perhaps these things are a good source of income for him, in which case I can only think how sorry I feel for him that this could be considered his job, or his life.
I have always been verbal with my distaste for celebrity culture and I’m certainly not about to change that, but I can’t say this little experience didn’t get me thinking about the ruthlessness and fragility of that culture. As quickly as you can become a celebrity, you can fall, and when an entire culture (and indeed business) is focussed on building you up as quickly as possible, for some the fall can be a very very long one. Kenny Baker never rose to superstardom and indeed what fame he had was arguably before there was such a thing, but he was part of something huge and it would have been a huge part of his life. But Kenny Baker wasn’t famous for being Kenny Baker. To Star Wars fans, he wasn’t a man, he was a droid. They didn’t care about Kenny Baker, they cared about R2D2, about Star Wars and about what those things could do for them, and I wonder how true that is of a lot of other celebrities.
A friend later told me that a few years ago Kenny had had a health scare and that the next convention he attended had seen people flocking to get his signature. This is possibly the most disgustingly morbid thing I have ever heard in my life.