A childhood transformed by a trip to the cinema in 1977 to see a new type of science fiction movie
I was 5 years old back in 1976 when I first heard of a small science fiction film called Star Wars.
As a young boy, science fiction was everything to me. I was addicted to classic films like Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes, The Day the Earth Stood Still and other classics of the genre. These were all designed to scare people back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but were feeling slightly tamer as the world entered into the more scary phase of 1970’s real life. The Vietnam War, Watergate, serial killers and death brought reality to our front rooms. The cumulative effect diminished our fears of aliens from another world coming to destroy us or take over the planet. Even the re-runs of classic Star Trek on TV couldn’t take our minds and fears off of what was outside of our front door and close to home.
Science fiction had undergone a transformation. Gone were the aliens landing in Middle America and destroying towns, cities and wiping out the population. Now we were being treated to softer, kinder space stories like Silent Running starring Bruce Dern: an ecological science fiction film that I would strongly recommend you seek out if you haven’t seen. Marvel at an early 1970’s film that shows humanity was destroying its home many years before the subject of climate change was even considered. And I must admit that the film still makes me cry at the end over forty years since I first saw it.
John Carpenter made a small budget, cult film called Dark Star in 1974. This film was a comedy that never quite managed to make up its mind what it was: a social satire, a stoner’s hallucination or just something from a disturbed brain! This coming from the legendary John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (Yes THAT Dan O’Bannon of Alien fame!), the film became a cult classic partly due to the now infamous ‘space surfing’ scene (yes, a surfboard riding spaceman!) and led to John Carpenter being recognised as an up and coming writer/director.
But I digress, Hollywood didn’t see science fiction as big box office business any more after the heyday of the 1950’s and not even the box office success of 1968’s Planet of the Apes could convince the studios that sci-fi was going to do big business. Neither could the success of the MGM produced Logan’s Run do much to convince them. The world had changed and it was gangster movies, war movies and comedy that ruled the box office tills. Enter George Lucas. After trying and failing to secure the rights to Flash Gordon, Lucas decided to write his own space opera. The rest is history.
I heard of the film Star Wars when Thames television in London did a short feature on what was being filmed at Elstree studios for a filler piece on its evening broadcast. My interest was immediate. I wanted to see this film and I wanted to see it NOW!
1977 finally arrived and I was getting excited. Star Wars was close! I couldn’t contain myself and constantly annoyed my parents with my continued asking of “When can I see Star Wars?” I think I drove my father mad with my constant begging to go and see it. In truth, he did let me down gently when it would have been so easy to shout at me. I stopped asking and just waited impatiently for the film to come out. My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief as they could finally get some peace from me asking about “A poxy space film”. Then they made a huge mistake.
In the UK in 1977, the cinema ratings were U, A, AA and X. AA meant you had to be over 14 to go and see the film but cinemas had the authority to let young children in to see them if their parents were with them and they paid the full adult price. As my parents couldn’t get my grandparents to look after me one Sunday afternoon, they were forced to take me to the ABC Cinema in Ewell in Surrey to see A Bridge Too Far which was rated AA. The film was preceded by a trailer for Star Wars. Uh-Oh! Here we go again!
Adverts had started to run in the national press showing the film’s poster and release date. Films used to open at cinemas on Sundays and sometimes had a limited run in London before opening across the country a few weeks to a few months later. This was certainly the case with the James Bond films. I was living in Kingston upon Thames at the time and my mother was pregnant with my little brother, FOTF’s very own Phil Roberts. In fact, I’m the reason he got into Star Wars in such a big way in the first place…
My local cinemas were the Granada three screen cinema and the ABC Two screen cinema in Kingston. Every week, the Granada used to change its boards saying what was showing at the time and had a smaller board just above the door saying what would be opening the following week. One magical week, the sign read: STAR WARS — IT’S HERE — OPENING NEXT WEEK. I nearly dropped to the floor in excitement. I could finally go see it and my life would be complete! Small problem. My mother was heavily pregnant and couldn’t take me. My father was working all week and didn’t get home until 7pm, just before my bedtime. My father tried to lessen the blow by telling me it wasn’t the “real” version, so not to be too upset. The real version would arrive after my brother had been born.
Kids can be mean even when they don’t intend to be. My school friends were talking about the time they saw the film, how fantastic it was and talking about classic scene after scene. But how could they be? It wasn’t the real version? How could their parents not know it wasn’t the real version? My dad knew it wasn’t so how could they not know? My best friend in school started talking to me about it and I told him what my father had told me. This led to a chorus of my fellow kids laughing at me, lambasting the fact that I hadn’t seen the film yet and making fun of me due to that fact. Then the penny dropped — they had seen it, it was the real version; my father was trying to fob me off!
Never underestimate a child’s brain. After the film had been playing for around two weeks, an idea popped into my head. It was sneaky and would end up with me getting a smack for it, but ultimately it worked. I asked my grandmother without my parent’s knowledge to take me. She said yes. My father wasn’t happy that I had gone behind his back to ask my Nan to take me and I did get the aforementioned smack across the backside, but he relented and let her take me to see it.
I will never forget it. It was a Thursday afternoon. My Nan picked me up from school, walked me back to their house, where I had a change of clothes and a snack. Then we jumped onto the bus into Kingston town centre and the Granada cinema. I remember the anticipation standing outside the cinema, looking at the poster with the knowledge that I would soon be inside watching what I thought would be the greatest film ever made.
I didn’t realise it would start a love affair that lasts to this day. The film was slated to begin at 5pm and the doors were opened at 4.40pm to admit the paying customers, who were so patiently queuing outside in cold and blustery weather conditions. Well, 99.99% were queuing patiently — any guesses as to who wasn’t?
I watched as the cinema manager came down the stairs inside the cinema, opened the door and allowed the people waiting for Star Wars to come in and purchase their tickets. Everyone then had to wait outside the screen with their popcorn, drinks and snacks. I was shaking as we finally got inside the cinema — the day I had been waiting for was here, and soon I would see it and could finally join in the conversations at school with my friends. The film was in screen 1, the biggest screen the cinema had. This was back in the days of there only being three screens maximum at the cinema and the biggest screen could hold 150 people. We got ourselves seated, I ran and got two seats directly in the middle of the screen, about eight rows from the front and then, as the lights went down, I felt a shiver of excitement as the curtains opened and I saw the screen.
Here we go!!!! Adverts. What? I didn’t want to see adverts; I wanted to see Star Wars! Get this rubbish off and start the film! For ten minutes, all that was on the screen were adverts for popcorn, drinks and other local rubbish that I had no interest in. I was starting to get a sinking feeling. What if the film wouldn’t play? What if the projector broke? What if there was a fire in the cinema? What if what my dad had told me was true and this wasn’t the real Star Wars after all?
The adverts ended and the now traditional trailers started to play. I watched them with no interest or enthusiasm at all, I wasn’t here for this. The trailers finally ended and the curtains slowly drew across the screen again and the lights went up. Hang on! Where is Star Wars? Why is it not on the screen? In those days, they closed the curtains and turned on the house lights while they transformed the screen to 16:9, the now traditional aspect ratio for films made in what used to be Cinemascope and was later Panavision. However, I didn’t know that!
The house lights went down again after a minute or so. The curtains once again opened to reveal the now lengthened screen. The screen slowly lit up. The BBFC screen came into view on the screen directly in front of my eyes. This was to certify that Star Wars had been rated “U”. The screen faded. Silence. Then the greatest thing I had ever heard came out of the speakers. It was the 20th Century Fox fanfare. The screen lit up with the familiar logo they used in those days. It faded and was replaced with a green written card stating this was a Lucasfilm production. That too slowly faded along with the fanfare.
The words I read next will never leave me, for they started me on a journey I could never have imagined would still be with me forty years later: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.…” Then the title blasted out from the screen, the now familiar scrawl rising from the bottom and the Star Wars fanfare echoing through the whole auditorium, making my seat shake ever so slightly with the bass of the score. Or could it be I was shaking in my seat? To this day, I still don’t know the answer.
I sat in my seat, enthralled with what I was seeing, not understanding why people laughed when the Jawas shot R2-D2 and made him fall over. Why women were wolf whistling when Han Solo came onto the screen. How could Governor Tarkin be so evil? What must the people of Alderaan have felt as their planet was blown up? Why did Ben Kenobi just stand there and smile and allow himself to be killed by Darth Vader? Why did I cry when Kenobi died but laughed when C-3PO got covered in wires and blamed R2 for everything during the sentry ship attack? Why did Han Solo come back to save Luke during his Death Star run instead of flying away and leaving him? (Though I must admit, I cheered when he did!) Why did Darth Vader get away with it when everyone else died? Why didn’t get Chewbacca get a medal too? (Yeah, come on George, WHY?)
The film finished and the credits rolled. I jumped up from my seat and joined in the applause with the rest of the audience. Did they too love the film as much as I did? Did we just witness a film that bonded us all together for life? Would my Nan take me to see it again? (No, she would not.)
As I left the cinema (during the end credits — I still haven’t lived that down!), I felt overwhelmed with feelings of joy and satisfaction. I had done it, I had seen Star Wars and it was the greatest film I’d ever seen and I would ever see. I went to bed that night thinking of all that I had seen on the cinema screen and replaying it all in my head. I went to sleep with a smile on my face that no one could wipe off for days. I spoke to my school friends about it; we all acted out our favourite parts of the film and bonded together like never before. Little did we know it was only the first part of a much larger story. We would be doing the same thing again, albeit as a bit older, but still waiting impatiently for the second part of the Star Wars Saga: The Empire Strikes Back. This time however, my father and mother would take me to see it and this time around I had my little brother as my wingman. He would love it just the same as I did and we could bond even more over our love of all things Star Wars. That is another story for another time.
Those memories of a Cinema in Surrey in 1977 always linger in my memory as it was the day a larger world was revealed to me. It was not in Surrey. It was not in the United Kingdom. It was not of this earth. That larger world was, and remains to me to this day…..in a galaxy far, far away.
Until next time,
May the Force be with you…always.