It was the film that saw my 12 year-old self in a queue outside London’s Dominion Theatre two days after opening and then again outside the Odeon Leicester Square in the freezing cold a few days later. I even once sat through three consecutive showings at Ilford Odeon back in the day when nobody came in to clean the cinema or eject loafers like me in between times. Those were heady, dreamy days when movies were just movies with no thought of them being huge commercial juggernauts and back then the significant impact of Star Wars on me was that it acted as a catalyst for adventure and excitement in my pre-teen imagination, rather than filling my bedroom with merchandise. I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it and even now I still get the same thrill, not necessarily from the film itself but by remembering how much that 12-year-old me enjoyed the pleasure and escapism it brought. I never for a moment dreamed that I’d some day meet Mark Hamill. Not for a moment.
Fast forward over three decades and during an otherwise mundane day in the office the phone rang and Dave, co-founder of HeyUGuys and former workmate, asked me if I want to go on a set visit to Dunsfold in Surrey to see the filming of new British movie Airborne, to take some photos and be the camera-wrangler for interviews. I was as happy as anything to go to Dunsfold as it’s the home of the Top Gear track, a significant location in my world, and I got to wander round the aircraft that they have parked on the tarmac and run the camera while Dave interviewed some fabulous British talent. Even better was the fact that Julian Glover, of Indiana Jones fame, was on set and I got the chance to see him doing his thing. It was utter bliss, if a cold and frosty nighttime bliss.
During the evening a couple of mentions were made that they were hoping to secure some “big American talent” for a future part of the shoot but they were being very secretive about it. Dave and I speculated briefly about who it might be but nobody was giving clues away so our speculation remained just that. It didn’t entirely leave our minds though and later in the evening director Dominic Burns relented under Dave’s questions and, on promises of non-disclosure and pain of death, he said that they were trying to get Mark Hamill. Mark Hamill? On a movie that I’d visited the set of? Praise be! As we drove home from the set I was basking in the warm glow of the fact that my tenuous connection to the Skywalker had never been closer. It wouldn’t have been a vast exaggeration at that point to have said that I could die a happy man and when Dave asked me:
“If they ask us to go on the set with Mark Hamill are you interested?”
Of course my reaction was “Yes” but in my heart I was silently thinking
“And monkeys might fly out of my butt”.
You see, meeting my movie heroes isn’t the kind of thing that happens to me. It just doesn’t, and at that point I had over forty years of evidence to back up that theory. Sure I’d photographed movie stars on the BAFTA Red Carpet not long before for HeyUGuys but that’s not the same as really meeting them is it? In fact I was sure that I remembered a saying that specifically warns people not to meet their heroes as it will inevitably end in disappointment, so I put the possibility of a return trip to the Airborne set to the back of my mind and got on with life. Que sera sera and all that.
You know it wasn’t destined to end there though don’t you.
A couple of weeks later I got a phone call from Dave:
“It’s on. Are you in?”
“Absolutely yes” was my answer and the fact it was going to be in or near London was a bonus. I didn’t really think it was going to happen though. These things don’t happen to me.
After the speculation of which London airport the filming was going to be at the news came through late in the day that it was going to be in Leicester. Really?!?! Leicester!?!? Although my wife’s family originally came from near there I’d never even been to Leicester and couldn’t really think of a reason too except, apparently, to meet Mark Hamill. In my cossetted southern-softy mind Leicester was little more than a signpost on the M1 or a dark mark on the vast expanse of Google Earth and Luke Skywalker could have been talking about it when he said:
“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet [city?] that it’s farthest from”.
I groaned inwardly. Wasn’t my life complete enough with being happily married, having three children and knowing that I’d been on the set of a movie that Mark Hamill would, someday, act in without getting in a car and trolling round the M25 then up the M1 in the possibly vain hope of getting thirty seconds with someone who I’d once idolised instead of spending a precious Saturday with my family?
So was I going to drag my sorry ass up to Leicester to see Mark Hamill? Damn right I was. The 12 year-old me whooped in delight while adult-me tried to be realistic about the prospect. One thing was certain. Whether I got to meet Mark or not I was going to be going to Leicester.
After a fitful sleep on the Friday night Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Actually I have no recollection at all of whether the weather was bright and clear but in my mind it was, in fact in couldn’t be anything else could it, and by the time Dave arrived at 9 o’clock I had checked and rechecked my gear, batteries, lenses, you name it. All checked several times over. Now it should be said at this point that Dave is one of the most chipper and optimistic people that I know but on this bright and clear morning even his cheery grin seemed wider than usual.
“We’re going to meet Luke Skywalker” he said, beaming.
“I know” I grinned back and we both laughed the laugh of crazy men.
The M25 was unusually kind to us and we sped around to the M1 where progress was frustratingly slower under the watchful yellow gaze of the average speed restriction cameras. Dave and I chatted incessantly about life, the universe and what it was going to be like to meet “Luke Skywalker” but eventually the need for breakfast overcame us and we pulled into a service station that Dave identified as potentially offering breakfast of the golden arches variety. Even though we were just minutes too late and they’d switched to their daytime menu Dave managed to procure some stomach filler from the breakfast menu from an understanding staff member to keep us going through whatever events were going to come our way. Looking around the bustling people crowding in and out of the services I felt that we were like unnoticed aliens in their midst.
“Just think. None of these people know we’re going to see Luke Skywalker” We couldn’t tell them either but a small part of me wanted to scream;
“Don’t you know what we’re here for? Don’t you know what we’re going to do?”
I didn’t. We ate. We left.
The set for this particular part of “Airborne” was at the National Space Centre, an impressive title for a modest facility tucked away in a suburban area of Leicester and next door to a steam museum exhibiting an extensive array of Victorian hi-tech. If saying the words “National Space Centre” brings to mind the massive and lush expanse of Cape Kennedy in Florida with its impressive platforms cradling immense spaceships then it’s not that. It certainly looks spacey enough for suburban Leicester though and it seemed quite busy on what had turned out to be a drizzly day in the midlands but I wasn’t there to compliment them on their fine facility. I was there to meet Mark Hamill.
When we arrived Mark was firmly ensconced in his trailer while the rest of the cast were preparing to film their scenes and the air was overpoweringly thick with paint fumes as the crew hurriedly spray-painted black the desert camo gear they’d been able to find at the last minute for the extras playing the role of the Black Ops special forces. As a result the atmosphere was heady for more than one reason and that regularly forced us out into the fresh air to recover but happily provided opportunities to chat with the various cast members when they popped out for a cigarette or to catch their breath. As a result I got to have a long chat with Sebastian Street (Jack Falls) and the fabulous Billy Murray, best known for his appearances on The Bill, plus various other cast and crew. I didn’t know Billy personally but when I had lived in Wimbledon some years previously The Bill had regularly filmed in my road, which made watching the TV series a slightly surreal experience.
We’d been there a while when it was time for Mark to arrive on set. The radio crackled with “The talent is on the move” and moments later Mark appeared, flanked by a suitably large and intimidating minder, and bustled through to the set in the main room. The pace seemed to pick up after that and there was a buzz in the air that had nothing to do with fumes of any kind. Stood out in the hallway there was little to do except to gauge their progress based on the number of times they had to reshoot a particular scene and chat with the extras who were trooping in and out of the control room.
After lunch Dave worked out that he could stand in one corner of the set and nobody seemed to mind so he grabbed me and we spent a happy couple of hours watching the cast, and particularly Mark at work. What impressed about Mark me was that he would do take after take with different intensities and deliver the same lines with emotions ranging from anger to menace in the search for the perfect delivery and I couldn’t help think about how he must have delivered his lines as Luke Skywalker in a dusty Tunisian location or some other Star Wars set all those years ago.
There was one problem though. The day was going slowly.
“Hurry up and wait”, was the description that “Close Encounters” actor Bob Balaban gave his experience of being on set and that seemed entirely appropriate for the pace of the day. The elephant in the room was that there was a cut-off limit of 5pm at the Space Centre, but lunch had been and gone and there wasn’t a huge amount of progress being made. I grabbed a copy of a script left on a nearby chair and judging from the scene they were currently on it was going to be a big ask to get it done by 5pm. Our chances of grabbing Mark in between scenes was now virtually none and our hopes of being home early were similarly dissipating, Dave being due to go out with his wife for the evening. “Do we leave now and give up on our hope or stick it out in the hope of getting hold of Mark later?” was the dilemma we were wrestling with. I stepped outside to think for a minute and my eyes were drawn to the happy families who were wandering into and out of the Space Centre blissfully unaware of who it was who was in the little building off to the side and that it was his likeness, in its Lego incarnation, that was being sold in the gift shop only yards away. “How could they know?” adult me reproved 12 year-old me “They’re not mind-readers!” I still wanted to shake them though.
It got even more uncomfortable as the clock rolled on towards 5pm and the security guard from the Space Centre had noticed the lack of packing and clearing up and was starting to probe as to what time the set was going to be torn down and reminding everyone within earshot what the time limit was. Everyone on set was diligently getting on with their job of racing through the remaining scenes while some token props and cables were packed into the waiting vans while the clock ticked ever onwards and the security guard got ever more twitchy.
A quirk of my upbringing means that I’m unable to walk away from uncomfortable situations without in some way trying to resolve them so I found myself engaging the security guard in conversation in the hope of temporarily distracting him from his task of evicting the crew while they got on with finishing their scenes. While we were chatting another van pulled up and began to unload a red carpet and lighting, not for the set but for the entrance to the now closed Space Centre.
“It’s for someone’s 50th birthday party” volunteered the security guard.
“That’s why they need you to be out”.
Over the weeks this escapade had been progressing the hand of fate, destiny or outrageous coincidence had been present all the way and now was to be no exception
“It’s a sci-fi themed party” said the guard
“I wonder if they have any idea who’s in there?” I said, gesturing at the outbuilding.
“Not a clue” he replied expressionlessly.
At the last minute the crew eventually managed to do a deal with the Space Centre which gave them enough time to finish filming and get their equipment packed away before the party was due to start. The last scene was wrapped and as Mark came out of the set I stuck out a hand and introduced myself.
“I’m Colin from HeyUGuys and I was wondering in ‘Comic Book the Movie’ how you managed to get Donna D’Errico (Baywatch) to say ‘work on my beaver’?”
“Oh she’s such a good sport” he replied, and we were off and talking about his 2004 movie based around comic book characters and ComicCon. We chatted about the film for the hundred yards back to his trailer and he disappeared inside with a brief wave to get changed. In that hundred yards I’d learned a lot about Hugh Hefner’s connection to Mark through his wife, Hugh’s talents as a comic artist and the fact that Mark could talk, I mean really talk. Even from those brief moments he’d come across with the air of someone who loved telling stories and having an audience to tell them to and boy was I ready to listen. Dave caught up with me a minute or two later and we settled in to wait for our interview slot as the sun went down on our cold patch of tarmac in Leicester.
We now found ourselves outside Mark’s trailer on a cold and dark evening with another online journo, someone from the film company doing interviews for the bonus features section of the DVD and a selection of the cast who were hanging around outside Mark’s trailer hoping to get a word. Happily I’d thought to deck myself out in all the thermal clothing that I owned otherwise this could have been potentially miserable and cold but still it was a bleak scene. Soon the guests started to arrive for the party in their sci-fi themed costumes and walked past the trailer where we were huddled on their way from the car park to the main building. There were lots of generic sparkly sci-fi outfits together with more identifiable Star Trek uniforms and inevitably the odd Jedi with lightsabre, the occasional Darth Vader and a handful of Stormtroopers. One lady spotted Billy Murray in our throng and came over to have her photo taken with him while cooing her undying affection to him and the attendant crowd.
“Good job they don’t know who’s actually in the trailer” Dave and I agreed.
The trail of sci-fi characters became so huge that we took to having our photos taken with the best of them whilst wondering at the surreality of the whole scene. “Sci-fi movie legend in a trailer doing interviews while sci-fi themed fancy dressers troop past oblivious to his presence” would have been an appropriate, if overlong, tabloid headline.
It wasn’t all looking good though. The deal that had been done to buy the film some extra time was that Mark had incredibly generously agreed to attend the party as a guest of honour but that meant that the clock was ticking on when he was due to attend.
“I don’t think we’re going to get in” said Dave as the time ticked away,
“It’ll be alright” I said, with more confidence than I felt.
We’d had a great day, I’d met some fabulous people and I’d got to see Mark at work plus meet him briefly so I was prepared to go home happy with the day I’d had and being at peace with the fact that some things just ‘are’.
“Can you come in and take some photos of Billy with Mark?” asked the PR as the door of the trailer suddenly swung open.
“Erm. Yes. Of course” I replied.
I grabbed my gear and in moments I was into the trailer with Billy Murray, Mark Hamill and a couple of others involved in financing the film. Instantly my camera lens steamed up. Mortified I realised that in going from the cold outside air to the inside of a humid trailer the predictable had happened so the camera wasn’t going to unsteam itself instantly as it just needed to acclimatise. Thinking quickly I grabbed my ‘point and shoot’ from my hip pocket, with its mercifully steam-free lens, and fired off a few shots, by which time my main camera had cleared up. I felt massive relief mingled with huge embarrassment but they seemed fine with it so I took a few more pictures while they posed and chatted at the same time.
Soon they filed out and an excited Dave was ushered in. I set up the video camera as best I could and Airborne director Dominic introduced Mark to Dave and HeyUGuys and instantly we were off. We were supposed to have five minutes but it turned into twenty as Mark chatted with us about everything from movies to comics to his son’s business and through the whole thing I snapped away, happy as the proverbial pig in muck to be in a room with the man who played Luke Skywalker. When the interview was done Mark kept talking and Dave posed for a couple of pics with him and then I handed the camera to Dave and jumped in to get a photo with as indisputable proof of the moment, a photo I still have on my desk at work. With photos taken we said our goodbyes and made our way out of the trailer and back into the freezing night.
We hadn’t talked about Star Wars for a moment. We didn’t need to. Just being there in that trailer with Mark Hamill was what we’d wanted and it was what we’d got. Once again we laughed the laugh of crazy men.
Feeling lighter than air Dave and I packed my gear in his car and we headed off through the suburban streets of Leicester back to the M1. Shortly after pulling onto the motorway we came across a service station and, being desperately in need of food, we pulled in and found somewhere that would dispense burgers to us for a reasonable fee. It was quite empty at that time on a Saturday evening so we picked a table and sat down, still giddy from the evening’s experience.
“You know what” I said to Dave, with the aura of a drunk attempting to dispense wisdom to a passing lamppost,
“Marriages can end and your body will eventually give up on you but you can’t ‘un-meet’ Luke Skywalker!”
We laughed again and as we continued our journey home I loaded up the photos I’d taken onto my laptop and scrolled through them as Dave craned his neck to see the best of them. We talked and talked as the miles went by and at some point a thought struck me that I felt compelled to express, albeit inappropriately.
“You know” I said, not for the first time that evening,
“The only thing that could take this memory from me is Alzheimers” and laughed again.
So should you meet your heroes? I can’t possibly say but if it’s Mark Hamill you’re talking about then the answers definitely “Yes”.
See the exclusive HeyUGuys interview with Mark Hamill from the set of Airborne here