A long time ago in a Cinema not so far, far away

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The queue outside the Odeon Cinema, London Road, on the day of the Liverpool première of Star Wars. Liverpool Daily Post 30/01/1978 – Page 3.

“You so do not understand! You weren’t there at the beginning! You don’t know how good it was, how important!”
Tim Bisley, Spaced.

Introduction

Due to the excitement building up for the upcoming release of the next instalment of the Star Wars franchise: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, the daring Chrononauts of Retroscoop have set the dial on their ‘Way Back Machine’ to December 1977 to relive the excitement and hype that surrounded the UK release of the first Star Wars movie – an event that completely gripped the nation and ultimately changed cinema forever.


For the generations born after 1977, it may surprise them to know that the phenomenon known as ‘Star Wars’ hasn’t always been around. In fact, even people born before the Star Wars era struggle to remember what the world was like beforehand. Such is the power of the franchise that it pervades every level of our culture and language, so much so that the mystical Jedi element of the saga has been officially recognised as a religious order. Nowadays every rough pub in the land has been given the nickname ‘The Star Wars Bar’ named after the Spaceport Cantina described in the movie as ‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy’; and the character name ‘Jabba’ has cruelly become an epithet for people who are considered to be morbidly obese. If you are still in doubt about exactly how much Star Wars has crept into our way of life then I suggest you become acquainted with the ‘Star Wars Curse’. If you don’t wish to be ‘afflicted’ by this, please skip the next paragraph.

The ‘Star Wars Curse’ is not really a curse. It is just a demonstration of how much the franchise has seeped into every aspect of our culture. Simply put, once you are aware of the ‘curse’ you will never be able to spend a single day without coming across some form of reference to the Star Wars Universe, be it a picture, a meme, a piece of dialogue or someone making swooshing noises whilst holding anything vaguely light sabre shaped. All this is good news for George Lucas, as he laughs all the way to the bank, for once you achieve that level of cultural saturation you have achieved near immortality. In effect, the mythical ‘Force’ that features in the saga has become a perfect analogue to the cultural impact the movies have had on us all, as neatly described by Obi Wan in the movie: “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”. Indeed.

But let’s not forget that there was a time when The Force, Light Sabres, Jedi Knights, Wookies and Death Stars were just embryonic ideas that solely resided within the mind of George Lucas. If you try to imagine a world without Star Wars, you will begin to understand the impact that the first movie had upon us all.

The world changed forever on the 25th of May 1977, when Star Wars was screened for the first time. 20th Century Fox, the backers for the movie, had no real confidence in Star Wars at all, and so gave it a limited release, rolling it out to only 32 cinemas across the whole of the United States. Despite this, the movie grossed over $1.5 Million in box office takings in its first weekend. On the back of this unexpected success, Star Wars was given a much wider release across America where it repeatedly smashed all box office records and became the highest-grossing film of all time.

Although Star Wars didn’t cross the pond for several months, the movie publicity machine rolled into action in the UK shortly after the US Première. Suddenly Britain became flooded with all sorts of Star Wars merchandise, ranging from books, magazines, records, collectors cards and action figures, long before even a single frame of the film had been aired over here.

The film eventually opened in two cinemas in London on 27th December 1977; the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road and the Odeon, Leicester Square. People queued up for over seven hours in the hope of getting in to see it. However, with most of the seats pre-booked until the following March, many of the waiting hopefuls were turned away on a daily basis. Star Wars frenzy had arrived.

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The original Star Wars Poster from the Odeon, Liverpool. Picture courtesy: http://www.reddit.com/r/StarWars/comments/2r8uzd/original_star_wars_uk_release_poster/

Star Wars stayed solely in London for the first Month of its UK release, whereupon it gained a more general release in 12 additional cities nationwide. The film eventually opened in the North West on 29th January 1978 at the Odeon Cinema on London Road, Liverpool. In a repeat of its London première, people started queuing from 6 am, eight hours before the cinema was due to open its doors! The first two people in line that day were 17-year-old Tony Burke and 18-year-old Geoff Cook, both from Ormskirk, who were determined to be the first people in Liverpool to see the film. By mid-day, the queue had become over 300 strong and began snaking around the entire cinema. These sorts of scenes were repeated for many weeks after the initial screenings; an extraordinary occurrence for a cinema release. The fact that most people who watched the movie were completely blown away by it, and came back to watch it again and again, didn’t help the queue situation one bit.

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City Cinema Ad for the first ever screening of Star Wars in Runcorn. Runcorn Guardian 28/04/1978 – Page 4.

It wasn’t until March 1978 that Star Wars reached my local cinema in Runcorn: the tiny ‘City Cinema’ in Shopping City. Despite the ten months since its initial opening, Star Wars fever was still gripping the nation, with queues still stretching round blocks, leaving many people disappointed as they were turned away due to full houses. It took me several attempts before I managed to get into a screening due to the tiny 200 seat capacity of the main screen in Runcorn, but when I did, the film lived up to all my expectations. It was a truly magical experience that has stayed with me ever since, and kept me faithful to the cause despite some truly dreadful additions to the Star Wars canon – a cannon I would dearly love to stuff Jar Jar Binks into and fire him into oblivion. But that’s another story.

Nowadays, in the age of 20 screen multiplexes capable of seating thousands of patrons rather than mere hundreds, I’m fairly certain that the scenes of mile long queues and the accompanying excitement that the movie generated will never be seen again. But if you tell all this to the kids of today, they’ll never believe you.