The Kickstarter-funded Elstree 1976 looks like it’s going to be about Star Wars, not least because of the packaging and that being the year that the studio to the north of London was booked out by George Lucas to make his epic space adventure. It is, tangentially, but in fact it’s more a meditation on life and the way its rewards are portioned out.
Director/interviewer Jon Spira was born in 1976, which means he’s fanboy generation rather than first-hand participant, but he’s an able interviewer of the ladies and gents who were there. Not the Harrison Fords or Mark Hammils, but the likes of Paul Blake, Laurie Goode, Anthony Forrest and Pam Rose, people who took bit parts, were X Wing pilots, stormtroopers or one of those creatures in the bar scene with a prosthetic head obscuring their features.
There is one semi-name – Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) and one bona fide name – Dave Prowse (Darth Vader), both of whom are happy to speak at length about their involvement, and both of whom seem to be in a state of slight bemusement about it all, the Star Wars phenomenon, I mean.
In a way Bulloch and Prowse muddy the picture, because what Spira has in his other interviewees is people of a very distinct social group – the bright sons and daughters of parents from the higher end of the working class (in the British sense, of blue collar workers). It’s a portrait of what happens when you don’t have the shiny stuff – the connections, whether it’s through birth or education – and you opt not to embed yourself in a steady job offering gradual advancement and instead head out to be a buccaneer actor. In a way they are the true heirs of Han Solo.
What happens is: Blake, Goode, Forrest, Rose et al, people who have scrabbled about, had some good luck, some bad, worked in bit parts, in supporting roles, done voiceovers, worked on TV adverts, touring stage plays and the like, the life of the jobbing actor, in short. None of them is prosperous but they’ve all done just about OK.
Three intermingled themes run through the film – Star Wars lore (“So I said to George Lucas ‘How do you want me to play this creature?’ and George Lucas said to me, ‘Play it like you see in the movies’ ”), the struggles of the jobbing actor, and the convention scene, with just enough of the first to make the last two palatable if you’re really really just here for Obi Wan Kenobi.
Prowse is the most useful in terms of background, having something of a strained relationship with the franchise, exemplified by the standoff over how he signs his name at conventions. “Dave Prowse IS Darth Vader” is what he signs. “Dave Prowse AS Darth Vader” is what the suits want. Prowse continues on his own sweet way, and for his pains is excluded from the biggest conventions, when the name talent shows up.
Past tense. I’m writing this three weeks after Prowse’s death, aged 85. He was 78 when this was shot and comes across as a gentle and generous soul proudest of his work on the British government’s road safety campaigns as the Green Cross Man – child mortality dropped drastically.
And I’ve now just dived back in as I’m posting this because since then Jeremy Bulloch has also gone off to a galaxy far, far away. RIP.
The politics of the conventions are a bit nit-picky but fascinating, with some of the support players a bit sniffy that extras are now turning up and selling their signatures to the great unwashed.
Actually, taking that “great unwashed” instantly back, to a man and woman, the actors are extremely polite about the fans. How nice they are, how knowledgeable, how enthusiastic. And so the actors should be – these fans have provided some of them with a lifeline in the hard times, and a social network that they all seem to enjoy being part of. The Star Wars family.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020