The Neutral Zone

Con Report and Pictures by Julia Jones

Posthouse Forte Hotel, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 14-16 March 1997

Paul Darrow, Gareth Thomas, Sheelagh Wells, Joe Nazzaro Bjo, John and Kathryn Trimble, Erik Menyuk, Tim Gaskill

Friday morning - arrived at con and wandered around looking for friends met at previous cons. These were mostly Trekkers to begin with, but then I ran into Judith Proctor and Val Westall, and settled down for a nice chat about my favourite subject. I like Star Trek, but I prefer British SF, and would much rather talk about that. Judith had published some new zines, so the cheque-writing started very early indeed. Unfortunately this means I've been up late reading every night since the con, because I just can't ration myself.

Sheelagh and Joe Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro (52K)

Friday afternoon - We eventually headed for the table where Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro had set up shop to sell their new Blake's 7 book. The book was ready earlier than expected and they had received the very first batch of advance copies from the publishers only two days before, so nobody other than Horizon's Supreme Commander had seen it yet. This left several Horizon members with a dilemma, since they'd pre-ordered copies through the club, but this was an ideal opportunity to get one signed by both authors and two of the actors. Thirty seconds of dithering later, Judith had hauled out her chequebook and bought the first copy ever sold. She was closely followed by Val and myself, and we promptly helped to drum up sales by standing next to the table leafing through them and making "Oh wow!" type comments. One of the nice things was that Sheelagh was there when many of the photos were taken, and was telling people little details about them. Buy this book. It has great stories, wonderful pictures, and the pages don't fall out!

Opening Ceremony - the guests were introduced, and apologies made for Paul Darrow, whose work commitments meant he wouldn't be arriving until Saturday. The MC announced that to compensate, they had managed to arrange a special extra guest - Gareth Thomas. This announcement was greeted with an enormous roar of applause, far louder than that given to the other guests. Gareth has become something of a mascot for the Neutral Zone, having guested at all three now. He is hugely popular even with the attendees who have never watched B7, as he is both highly entertaining and very approachable. I have the photos to prove the latter.

We then went on to the first guest panel. An interesting discussion about casting on appearances - apparently you are almost never cast because of your appearance, but frequently lose a role because of it. Then a series of questions to Bjo Trimble which started innocently enough, but gradually made it clear that the questioner had written what he thought was the best ever Star Trek series idea, which would be fallen upon with cries of great joy if only it reached the right people, and wanted to know how to get it past the studio interceptors. Bjo was extremely patient, and answered the man in detail. Oddly, if he goes about it the right way he does actually have a very small chance (8 from the roughly 1000 scripts submitted by fans) of seeing a script accepted, as Star Trek is the only American series to accept ideas from fans. Eventually this ground to a halt, and we moved on to a discussion of Sheelagh's recent work.

Next, a small sadness - a question about the death of Terry Nation earlier in the week prompted a formal announcement, as many fans were still unaware of this. This almost certainly being the first con after Terry's death, the guests felt it appropriate to lead a cheer in honour of his work, and much of the remaining time was taken up with the Blake's 7 guests reminiscing about Terry and B7.

Autograph Queue I - One of the perks for stewards was exclusive use of the first twenty minutes of the autograph queue. Gareth was delighted to discover that he got to sign my copy of Sheelagh and Joe's book before Paul did. I was delighted to discover that this early in the convention, Gareth's signature could actually be recognised as such. We were interrupted by Erik, who on seeing the book cover promptly zeroed in on the picture of Season 1 Servalan. "Gee, who's that, she's pretty!" Short conversation about Jackie Pierce/Servalan, and I got to retrieve my book before it got covered with drool.

Friday evening - Or "a small filk group is reminded that Neutral Zone is a very videos and disco orientated con". No filk area provided, so we settled down in a corner of the bar. After a bit, we were asked to leave because we were supposedly making it difficult to hear the disco music emerging from the main hall. Three singers and a concertina serious competition for what sounded like a 5 000 watt stereo system? Unlikely. Anyway, if people want to hear the disco, why don't they go into the room? It would have been politer just to say that they didn't want to listen to us.

Saturday morning - Paul arrived, and promptly got his ego dented when the duty steward wouldn't let him in because he wasn't wearing a badge. The steward was a Trekker who claimed she didn't recognise him because she wasn't born when Blake's 7 was on. Actually, she was old enough to have seen it, just not old enough to have remembered Paul for the reason that slightly older female viewers would have. He got his revenge later by telling a suitably slanted version to the con, much to her embarrassment. Trying to bar a guest is in fact a very easy thing to do - I was simply scanning bodies for badges without really registering the face when standing guard outside the dealers' room later that day. Whilst I would recognise the Thomas and Darrow waistlines anywhere, I nearly tried to stop Erik from going in. I'd have barely recognised him anyway, and since he's very tall, looking at the likely badge locations means that the face is in peripheral vision. Fortunately I looked up before shouting "Oy, you".

Auction I - the main auctioneers were the fine men from Forbidden Planet, with the guests lending a hand. Gareth and Paul are very good, very funny auctioneers, who entertain the audience and get a great deal of money out of them. One of the odder items being auctioned was an envelope of Gareth's hair, and there were rude suggestions as to why Erik (very bald) and Paul (slightly bald) should bid for it. As bidding for one item reached £40 - Paul to bidder "We're going for your bra size". As another bidding run reached £65 - Paul "Let's go for Gareth's age" - Gareth "No, we're going for Paul's girth" - Paul, echoing audience thoughts "I think that's the pot calling the kettle black". The age jokes ran through a few more well known people, but reached a climax with Bill Shatner - "No, that's impossible to reach". When they'd run out of things to auction, the session had raised just short of a thousand pounds for charity, so they started looking round for something else to sell - and we were off into the "I'm worth more than him for breakfast" routine. Paul fetched £135 (I think he was actually the single most expensive item in the auction), and Gareth £45 - underpriced in my opinion, but I'd already spent far too much money and couldn't afford to up my bid. Sadly, the bidders were mainly female, so this con was not treated to what I thought was the highlight of Who's 7 - the look on Paul's face as he realised that the most persistent bidder was male, and his expression as said bloke won the bidding.

Guest Panel - Cons never run according to schedule, and this one was no exception. Paul was due on at 2 o'clock, but nowhere to be found (he was allegedly having lunch), so a slight shuffle saw a video moved up a slot, and Gareth filling in afterwards until the rescheduled slot at 3. Paul then proceeded to entertain the audience for an hour, answering questions, elaborating off lines fed to him by the bolder audience members, and telling rude jokes about Bill Shatner when the audience temporarily ran out of ideas. Paul does actually get off the stage and wander around just in front of the audience and in the central aisle, so sitting in the front row is great fun. It's also slightly dangerous, as occasionally he needs a victim for his rather wicked sense of humour, and it can be embarrassing for the woman picked on. I say woman, because for some strange reason the front row appeared to be almost entirely female. I wonder why? - says she who was in the prime position of front row, end seat on the central aisle. This meant that I didn't dare try and take notes, as I'd have been spotted immediately, and probably had my notebook taken away and read out loud for the edification of the audience. Oh well. At least I got a splendid view of Paul's technique for working an audience.

Paul Darrow Paul Darrow on a panel (43K)

Autograph queue II - The Black Streak and I naughtily joined the Saturday autograph queue when it appeared that the rush was over, as Paul hadn't been available for signing when we'd had our legitimate turn on Friday. I came to regret this. It started with Paul indicating to Gareth his opinion of the rugby score (Wales lost - badly) by singing "Swing low, sweet chariot". Paul was aided and abetted by Erik, who I refuse to believe understands anything about rugby, but who was happy to assist in the task of Gareth-winding-up. Welsh mutterings from the middle of the table, and instant collapse of front end of autograph queue with hysterical laughter, followed by further collapse of Black Streak and self, who were both suffering coughs of the type which are triggered by any disturbance to the throat, including laughter. We had recovered by the time we reached Gareth, but unfortunately the tobacco smoke set me off again. Having both hands full, but urgently wanting to smother the cough, I threw my program on the table in front of Gareth.

Gareth Gareth (115K)

Matters were not helped when he started reading out loud one of the badges I was wearing. "What does your badge say? I'm in heaven..." Suddenly realising which badge he was referring to, I tried to get it out of view, but was thwarted by my dear friends in the queue. They had no intention of being deprived of this entertainment, and I was forcibly placed where Gareth could finish reading the badge. "..and it's full of..." voice tails off without saying "Avons", frown appears. Sniggers from queue, and bewildered look from Erik, who has no idea why everyone else thinks this is funny. Thank you ladies, I love you too.

Gareth made a few choice remarks about the cavalier manner in which I had delivered the object he was expected to sign, but realised what was going on after my feeble efforts to explain myself without starting to cough again. The comic potential of a fan rendered temporarily speechless and at his mercy was too much for him to resist. Under pretence of checking whether I had recovered sufficiently to speak, he suggested some things for me to try to say. "Say cheese". Nothing but suppressed coughing fit. "Say sex". Choked laughter followed very rapidly by choking.

Presumably the word "sex" had caught the attention of Paul and Erik, because they decided that fan-baiting was much more fun than signing autographs, and gleefully joined in with suggestions as to what I should try to say. Paul's major contribution was "masturbation" - pause, then thoughtfully "after all, it's sex with someone you care about". At least, I think that's what he said, since any attempt to reply to or laugh at any of this nonsense resulted in being incapacitated by another coughing fit.

Gareth finally took pity on me and signed my programme so that I could move down the queue, but the remaining pair of autograph signers were my other two tormentors. They kept trying to get me to laugh and hence collapse in a choking heap, so the remainder of my time in the queue was spent either glaring at or trying very hard to ignore the people whose autographs I wanted. Different. At least Erik signed quickly and let me move on, but Paul was determined to get his money's worth. In my humble opinion, portraying Avon's malicious wit did not greatly strain Mr Darrow's acting ability. Eventually he relented, and I was allowed to go and collapse in a corner somewhere where I could choke to death without being heckled by three of the guests.

Shakespeare Reading - Late on Saturday evening a small group had the pleasure of seeing Gareth do readings from Shakespeare, and two pieces from a one-man show that he's putting together. One man shows tend to have the actor playing a single individual, often in the style of "The Life of...", but Gareth is intending to do a selection of pieces in different styles, to display the range of material he is capable of. The hour long session was an excellent demonstration. First piece was a monologue by a tenth-century monk, talking about how terrible he feels this morning, and how out of sorts he is with himself, his fellow monks, the world and God - and how his fellows seem to be the same. It transpires that they are suffering the after effects of a visit by a monk from a French monastery, who has brought a gift of his monastery's brew - a delicious green liquor. I think I'd have a hangover too if I'd been drinking spirits like beer. Next up were two speeches from "Julius Caesar", as a lesson in understanding Shakespeare. Very appropriate, since as Gareth pointed out, it actually was the Ides of March.

The last piece was one written by Gareth, which he wanted to try out on an audience who would give him constructive feedback. The intention is to play it on a blacked stage, with nothing visible other than the faint gleam of a miner's headlamp. It was in fact played by Gareth retreating through the connecting door into the next room, so that we could hear but not see him. There followed some ten or fifteen minutes of listening to a Welsh miner trapped in a cave-in, talking to his two mates who'd been working beside him, and trying to get them to answer him. It evoked the fear, and claustrophobia, and darkness - and the horror when he discovers his friends' corpses on either side of him. We were sat in a brightly lit room, had the disco thumping away on the floor below, people kept wandering into the room to see what was happening, and we were still spellbound by Gareth's performance. God knows what it will do to an audience sat in darkness, with the sound of dripping water behind the actor's voice. If Gareth's one-man show gets off the ground, then I would see it for this piece alone. And a note to the person who came and stood in the doorway and when we indicated that you should either come in and keep quiet or go away, just made stupid remarks and silly faces - do you realise how close you came to being picked up and bodily removed from the room? It was an extremely boorish, rude and selfish way to behave.

This session started at 11 pm, ran for over an hour followed by another hour of discussion, and then we decamped to the bar for refreshments, so I didn't get to bed until after two. Unfortunately, the Forte's rooms are far from soundproof. Something woke me up at half four, and I didn't get back to sleep for two hours, so between that and the apres-seven sleep being disturbed by the dog barking in a room along the corridor, I was a wreck when I finally woke up just in time to get to my 10 am steward duty. Fortunately the lovely head stewards found someone to cover for me for twenty minutes so that I could go and have some breakfast and caffeine to make me feel better. By the time I met the dog (an extremely cute but loud miniature poodle), it required very l ittle self-restraint not to strangle either dog or owner. I think it most unfair that Gareth managed to be up bright and early for his breakfast, when I know he went to bed at the same time as I did - particularly as his refreshments were alcoholic and mine were not.

Sunday morning - I missed the morning guest panel, as it clashed with my stewarding duty, (and as it turned out, my breakfast) but I am reliably informed that it was highly entertaining. Checking out of the hotel occupied me until after Gareth and Paul finished their stint in the Auction Part II, but it appeared that Gareth was going back in to do a bit more. Judith, Val and I followed him in, then left again when it became obvious nothing was happening. Back in next time Gareth stirred, but still no sign of him taking part. Hmm. Did we want to sit in on an auction where the only items for sale appeared to be previously signed copies of photographs, when all three of us had no interest in signatures other than as reminders of the occasion when they were given to us. Our only reason for staying was to watch Gareth's performance as auctioneer. People were starting to notice this, and we were in two minds as to whether we should be more discreet, or be incredibly obvious about it. Having made up our minds to go for obvious, we were thwarted by Gareth leaving and not coming back. Oh well. I did enjoy watching Jeff from Forbidden Planet get money out of people by sitting on their knees until they agreed to up their bids.

Sunday afternoon - The afternoon guest panel started with Paul and Erik trying to elicit questions from the audience, and gradually swelled as the other guests were rounded up and brought in. It turned out that if the American guests were God for a day, they'd do horrible things to drivers who disobey the American equivalent of the Highway Code. There were still more Bill Shatner jokes. Gareth was reported to be absent because he was judging the art show, prompting some scurrilous remarks from Paul about his ability in such matters. Paul happened to be in the middle of further scurrilous remarks about Gareth just as he arrived in the main hall, prompting Gareth's party piece of looking hurt and walking slowly out of the room with mournful expression and head hanging down. The audience knew what was required of them, and the chorus of "Ahhh" brought him back again. He's done this often enough over the last three years for people to have noticed that when he does it in the middle of a session, he frequently comes back with a full glass. How convenient that the bar is literally three yards from the door to the main hall.

Gareth Gareth with yet another glass (72K)

The way earlier arrivals had seated themselves left Gareth sat in the middle, with Erik between him and Paul. Erik very rapidly realised that this had him caught in the cross-fire, much to the amusement of the audience. He coped manfully, giving as good as he got. The conversation varied from very silly to quite serious, but was greatly enjoyed regardless of tone.

Eventually the Guest Panel turned into the Closing Ceremony without anyone really noticing. Various items were raffled off, and the awards were presented
- Val got a well-deserved prize in the art show. Then we were told how much money we'd raised - enough to pay completely for a guide dog. To show us what we'd paid for, the committee had arranged for someone with a dog to tell us how much it meant to him. There were also three puppies, and I wasn't the only one utterly charmed by the sight of Gareth kneeling on the floor tousling "our" puppy's hair while it returned the favour.

Gareth with guide dog Gareth with the guide dog (73K)

In the midst of all this merriment, Gareth decided that we should remember one of the reasons we were all there. He reminded us how much British science fiction owed to Terry Nation, and asked us to join him in three cheers in thanks for Terry's life. The ensuing noise was probably heard several buildings away. A fitting tribute to the man without whom science fiction on television would have been so much poorer.

Random snippets

First day of the con was in fact Red Nose day. At some point in the proceedings Gareth handed Paul a Comic Relief red nose, and explained to him about sucking the enclosed sweet to make his lips turn red. Paul very sportingly modelled the nose, but couldn't be persuaded to consume large amounts of fluorescent red food colouring. A pity, as that would have made a rather interesting photo.

Paul Darrow with red nose Paul Darrow sporting his red nose (85K)

How to annoy "Roddenbury is God" Trekkies - walk around wearing a badge that says "Blakes 7, Federation 0". And yes, I did it on purpose.

Some poor soul looking round the dealer's room stopped to look at Judith's zines while a small group of us were chatting about B7. Having asked what the zines were about, she was eventually forced to confess that she'd never watched B7 and didn't know what we were babbling on about. This was a really bad mistake, as Jehovah's Witnesses have nothing on B7 fans trying to convert a new soul to the faith. There followed a quick demonstration of where the word "fan" comes from, and the unfortunate Trekker reeled away promising to borrow the tapes from someone.

Bill Shatner jokes in every guest panel? What has the man done?

Isn't it amazing how if you get two or more female B7 fans together, the conversation inevitably turns to the subject "Why is Avon so sexy"? I'd actually carried out a small informal survey at Who's 7 96, and nicely demonstrated the effects of a biased sample - 100% of female Who's 7 attendees questioned thought that fifteen years older, balder and fatter, Paul Darrow still has more sex appeal in his little finger than David Duchovney will ever dream of having. I didn't ask that at this con, there being so many people who didn't know about B7, but I can guess what the answer would have been. Any psychology student looking for some really interesting material on women's sexual fantasies should have just wandered round the Neutral Zone eavesdropping.

"Gareth, meet your youngest fan." There were two babies at the con, and I have some lovely photos of the leader of the rebellion going goo-goo at them. Ahh, sweet.

Gareth with young fan Gareth with his youngest fan (85K)

Impersonations. Paul does some smashing ones, and his demonstration of why John Wayne walked that way had everyone in hysterics. The vocal impersonations pop up whenever he's talking to an audience, demonstrating that Paul is very definitely a Western fan. This does show up in B7 from time to time - as he pointed out, you don't see many other people doing a cross-draw or fanning a gun when the gun in question is a laser rather than a six-shooter.

Post-con blues - In fact, although the con was officially over after the closing ceremony, the disco and videos were to carry on until the last man dropped. Several of the guests stayed into the evening, allowing us to postpone our withdrawal symptoms for an hour or two. They did stagger off to a quieter side bar for a rest, but continued to talk to anyone who wandered in. I greatly admire them for making themselves available to fans throughout the convention, as however ego-boosting it may be, it must also be incredibly hard work.

PaulPaul Darrow near the end of the con (45K)

Sadly, the inevitable arrived, and it was time to say goodbye. I didn't see the others go, but Gareth's long-suffering wife stood waiting patiently for nearly an hour, as what seemed like half the con said good-bye to him and had one last hug. A chat with friends, and it was time for me to go home and face the real world. But never fear, there's always next time. Deliverence '98, anyone?

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