Star Wars in the UK: Late ’70s, Early ’80s

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As we dive into the post-Disney acquisition era of Lucasfilm and Star Wars I thought it might not be a bad time to take a few steps back into the past to see what loving Star Wars was like before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, before the Internet, before DVDs, Hasbro, Dark Horse, and even before Star Wars Insider. I’m talking about the late ’70s and being a Star Wars fan here in the UK.

We had to wait seven long months for the greatest adventure in the galaxy to reach our shores. Unlike today when major films enjoy simultaneous international releases, back in the ’70s and well into the ’90s the UK (in pre-pirate video and bit torrent days) would get the big American releases a number of months later and Star Wars was no exception. Released on 27 December 1977, the film was already a phenomenon and kids had heard word of a film that had taken America by storm. But this news wasn’t spread by tweets or Facebook updates. Back then, occasional newspaper articles, TV segments, and word of mouth were the manner in which films and TV shows became hot property and Star Wars just the same.  While we had the shaky sets of vintage Doctor Who and Blakes-7, American TV had cooler cousins like The Bionic Man and Planet of the Apes. UK kids were ready for another dose of Americana, but no one was prepared for what we got.

It started in the funnies. On 8 February 1978 the first issue of Star Wars Weekly was released, reprinting the classic Marvel Comics adaptation of the film that had been released in the US in March 1977 and starting a run that would last 117 issues until May 1980. Backed by classic Marvel stories, the much-loved comic became a staple for the UK Star Wars fan, and for many the first introduction into the worlds of Star Wars.  UK publisher Sphere released Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the film and soon poster magazines, super-8 reels, Palitoy 12-back figures, posters, badges, and much, much more filled the shelves.

For UK fans there was something uniquely compelling about the film, beyond the magic that lit up the screen. Star Wars was largely filmed here, in the UK. A vast percentage of the actors were British and reading through magazines like the much-loved Star Wars cinema program, a black and white, color, and pink printed oblong magazine that revealed exciting scenes from the movie and most interestingly, profiles on the cast and the crew who made the film. We learned all about the legend of Peter Cushing, the chameleon-like acting skills of Sir Alec Guinness and the burgeoning careers of George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and the daughter of an American sweetheart, Carrie Fisher. How else could I possibly remember that Harrison Ford was born on 13 July 1942 in Chicago and his first film was called Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round?

But what made the UK experience that different from those enjoyed by kids in America and elsewhere around the globe? Regional publishing and production differences — now a feature of more relevance to collectors than casual fans. For Kenner in the US, we had Palitoy here in the UK. Substitute Del Rey for Sphere and later Futura. The UK had a weekly, North America had a monthly (although the comic would on occasion change on and off from monthly to weekly publications until the Return of the Jedi weekly renumbered the run with a second 1st issue in 1983). There were regular segments on popular kids’ TV of the day. Magpie, Clapperboard, and Screen Test for the kids. Horizon for the adults — and for kids of all ages, Darth Vader himself, Dave Prowse (already a kids favorite as The Green Cross Code man) would often turn up on the best show of the ’70s, Tiswas, and take on another dark lord, the Phantom Flan-Flinger. Comedians of the day would take off Artoo and Threepio, most famously The Two Ronnies in a psychedelic sketch every bit as whacked out as anything Donny and Marie ever did. The popular weekly magazine Look-In would often feature Star Wars articles, as would sci-fi magazine Starburst, which was launched in November 1977 by Star Wars Weekly editor Dez Skinn. Even the TV listings magazines got in on the act. To celebrate the arrival of Star Wars on terrestrial network television in 1982, the TV Times ran a dozen pages of content, looking back at the phenomenon as well as running a comic strip prequel to the film. Everywhere you looked in the late the ’70s to the mid ’80s — magazines, comics, toy stores, even the sweet counter via Star Wars biscuits and regular Star Wars promotions on breakfast cereal — Star Wars was everywhere.

Of course, come the arrival and departure of Return of the Jedi and the projects that came in its wake — two Ewok movies and the Ewoks and Droids cartoon series — we would soon enter The Dark Times. But that’s a tale for another blog entry…

So despite being as American as apple pie, a concoction of the Western, buddy films, fairy tales, Japanese cinema and the ’70s itself, Star Wars fit as easily into the popular culture of the UK as it did in the US. Because, when it came down to the nuts and restraining bolts, Star Wars was a child of both the USA and the UK. American designed, British built.

Mark Newbold is the co-owner of jedinews.co.uk and has been a contributor to Star Wars Insider since 2006. He also is the co-host alongside James Burns of the Radio 1138 podcast.

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