On 20th February 1973, BBC1 broadcast an episode of the Liverpool-based sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, called ‘No Hiding Place’. The basic premise is that the two main characters, played brilliantly by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes, are trying to avoid the score of an England vs Bulgaria football match. They are plagued by their friend Flint – delivered perfectly in the menacing machismo of the frighteningly bald ex-professional wrestler and full-time Yorkshireman Brian Glover – who bets the pair that they cannot go the whole day without knowing the score, until the very final scene and inevitable punchline.
Their pain is wrought across their faces as they ignorantly struggle across the city from the barber’s to their front room, determined to both win the wager and, more importantly, sit down to watch the match without any knowledge of the score and retaining the surprise.
On November 28th, 2014, Lucasfilm released the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and from then until December 28th, 2015, I have been enacting my own episode of ‘No Hiding Place’. And, in this digital and (anti) social media-driven age, it would have been easier to avoid a constant parade of spoilers at the Ford Escort Wankers Bodykit Club World Championship night at Southend.
Why did I choose this painful path? Well, I wanted it to be a pure hit, straight to the nostalgic vein. I wanted to cloak myself in the winter-duvet-warmth of the full-length movie, not put on one thermal sock of the ninety second trailer, leaving me shivering for more, whilst diluting the effect.
But, with so many friends proclaiming their excitement to the point of childlike giddiness, exposure and revelation was inevitable. Seeing some images of old men with wookies and the occasional lightsaber headline is unavoidable, unless you happen to live a reclusive and non-conformist life on a farm, taking accurate and lethal pot shots at pikey burglars with a shotgun. You’d have to be more of a ‘Bond’ man for that sort of existence. Or a fucking lunatic. Or both.
After December 18th, though, this evasion grew harder still. The shark had been well and truly jumped, the film released and the associated comments began to flow from all corners of the globe. But, thankfully, every comment avoided any information. It was purely comment or opinion, reflecting the respect that the viewers had for each other’s innocence and potential enjoyment.
There was not one dissenting voice, every single comment being universally gushing. However, until I’d seen it with my own eyes, I wanted to know nothing about it – no storyline, no characters, nothing. I wanted to witness it innocently, as I did ‘Episode IV’, in Leicester Square in 1977, and subsequently for every episodic cinema release. I refuse to use the word ‘franchise’ – whilst I accept that, when the revenue from tickets and merchandising reaches this stratospheric level, breaking every record known to man, when the word could be accurately appropriated, I still associate that particular f-word with rip-off pizza peddlers, not the artistry of filmmaking. Having said all that, anyone who saw the Google advert ‘The Internship’ – a spelling mistake if ever there was one – would suggest that there is more artistry in a chimpanzee spontaneously throwing its own banana shit at a wall than some filmmaker’s “vision”. (Regular sufferers of this page will be pleased to note that I haven’t given up digression for 2016.)
But, innocent, young, energised and genuinely excited was how I felt as we entered the cinema. Few films will ensure that three generations of families will all go to the same screening, and it was full, ten days after release. And it was silent. Even the kids and their never-ending sweet wrappers and popcorn portions bigger than their Death Star-sized heads could not be heard. The expectation was not only palpable, but because of the positive reactions I had seen from friends I respected, and the lack of reviews or opportunity to potentially tarnish the purity of the experience, I was more excited than any other time I have been to the cinema.
And, well, here’s the thing: From the very first moment of that screen, declaring where and when this fantastic story all happened, I started to smile. Broadly. Then, the scrolling yellow text glided over the celestial space, as the familiar, militaristic orchestration imposed a marching rhythm on my heart and commanded the hairs on my arms and neck to stand to attention. Having trained myself to repel any information for a year, I had to suddenly concentrate and begin to absorb what was being spelled out in front of me. The senses struck back.
I confess I was struggling to read, as I began to well up. I was instantly taken back to those moments from years gone by – that innocence, when the biggest problem I could possibly face was puncturing a tyre on my Raleigh Night Burner, or my mum insisting I had peas with my fish fingers and chips, or whether my brother and I could get enough coupons to order the Dengar figure (though that was ok, as Chris up the hill had him, so between us we had ALL the Bounty Hunters from Return Of The Jedi). When life is hard, escapism becomes a priceless commodity. And for over two hours, we felt like the richest people on this insignificant planet.
The miserable, the cynical and those pretentious enough to have to be different will find fault in the film. Go ahead, try and suck the joy out of the joyful. You can’t. Like resistance itself, it is futile. You could say it has the same familiarity of A New Hope. So what? That film is bloody brilliant, and as long as idiots keep trying to ‘re-boot’ older films, then why not? (By the way, it is a ‘remake’, not a ‘re-boot’. Continue with this sort of renewal of the language, and I will have to re-boot you up the re-arse re-hole.) You are the sort of person that thinks Jaws II was too much like Jaws: Oh? So there was a bloody great big plastic shark in it, eating innocent kids? WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU FUCKING EXPECT? Go to a Star Wars movie and you’re disappointed that it contains the Rebellion, the Empire, the Force, droids, love interest, X-Wing fighters, a freaky bar full of aliens and lightsabers? Did you watch The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and complain because Clint Eastwood squinted at the sun, adjusted his hat and shot a barman? He did that in other Westerns, too, by the way. In every Western, in fact. Does that make the genre unwatchable?
That Disney had acquired the rights to the Star Wars juggernaut was a cause of slight concern. Admittedly, after the opening battle scene, there was a slight fear that new hero droid BB-8 was actually Wall-E with an adidas Brazuca football wedged up its metallic sphincter. But, thankfully, that feeling passed, faster and better than the aforementioned ball.
If you didn’t know it was Disney, you wouldn’t say it was a Disney production. That in itself speaks volumes about how respectfully and deferentially they have treated the films and the fans. Fans know a fraud when they see one, and while the prequels do a job, they never hit the high notes or struck the same emotional chord or connection as this one does. JJ Abrams was tasked with breathing life back into Star Wars as a meaningful experience after the disappointing episodes I, II and III, and he hasn’t just given it a pulse. He has given it a soul.
The new cast members are energetic, engaging and easy on the eye and ear. The reintroduction of the older characters gives the nod to the heritage, whilst not compromising the freshness. So Carrie Fisher has gone from clipped, pseudo-Brit, bun-worrying Leia to Brooklyn-drawling, just-one-more-for-the-road-cowboy grandmother but, in the context of the film, it is utterly forgivable, and you exit thinking she seems much more real and less stuck up than when she fancied her brother.
Can you remember the last time you walked out of the cinema, excitedly planning your next viewing of the film you’ve not yet exited from? No, nor can I. I must have missed countless references, clues, nuances and details during the first viewing, because I was either grinning at the screen myself, slowly shaking my head in wonder, or enjoying the involuntary gasps, giggles and hushed “YES!”’s of fellow viewers all around me. It has been thirty years since I last sat in a cinema and heard a round of enthusiastic applause at the end, like Italians praising the pilot for landing a short haul flight.
If you can’t feel that joy, or refuse to buy into it when entering the auditorium, then you have truly chosen the Dark Side and you might as well not bother going to the next one. But you will, because you know – if you look inside your Vader-shaped heart – you know it’s a hyperspace journey worth embarking on.
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