Monday 23 October 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 4) - UK TV Premiere, 35 years ago

As hard as it may be for people (such as Dude) to believe these days, in the not-so-distant past, once a film had left the cinema that was the last most of us saw of it until it turned up on TV.  In the early 80s, video recorders were starting to become affordable (ish) and some of my friends had them (big old top-loader machines, some of them Betamax system), but most didn’t (including me).

Although I was a big fan even then, I’d only seen Star Wars a few times - the original release in 1978 (at least twice, if memory serves), the re-release in 1979 and then again as part of a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back in late 1980 (at Corby cinema) - and I wanted to see it again.
I finally got my chance in 1982, when ITV premiered it on Sunday 24th October 1982, a good four months before it hit network television in the US on 26th February 1984, though it had already been shown on pay-per-view channels there.  Tony Crawley, in his March 1982 Starburst magazine column, reported the news of the purchase but pointed out George Lucas wasn’t pleased - Lucas owned the TV rights to the sequels but distributor Twentieth Centry Fox owned Star Wars.  Sid Ganis, Lucasfilm’s spokesman, was quoted as saying “If it were up to Lucasfilm we wouldn’t sell Star Wars to TV” as they felt “there is considerable theatrical life in the film.  And that’s why Lucasfilm will not sell the TV rights of The Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Jedi.” Jedi, under its original title, had begun filming in January 1982.  Lucas, Crawley pointed out, took the view that if Disney had been so quick to sell films to television rather than reissue them at cinemas, Disneyland would never have been built.

Even so, I was well chuffed and hatched a plan (we might not have had a video but I owned a tape recorder with a hand-held microphone) - if I couldn’t record the images, I could record the soundtrack!  It was an idea of utter genius, something only a Star Wars-mad 13 year old could come up with.

The TV Times magazine for that week made a big deal of their film premiere and Star Wars was the cover story.  "The Force Comes To ITV", it crowed, "Star Wars Sunday" (it also mentions “Channel 4 is coming” and that there were  “5 Ford Sierras to be won”).  Although the gang were all present - Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, the droids and Darth Vader, towering over them all holding two lightsabers - the image was taken from a poster for The Empire Strikes Back (shown left) with the non-New Hope elements taken out.

Coverage started with a double-page comic strip by Martin Asbury (who also drew the Garth strip in the Daily Mirror and was a key artist for Look-In magazine, which I wrote about here), showing how the Rebels got the Death Star plans to Princess Leia (not apparently read by the writers of Rogue One).  There were two articles - “Unveiled: The most famous faceless men of films” about Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew, whilst “’I’m a female Woody Allen,’ says Princess Carrie” is an interview with Carrie Fisher - a competition to win a host of Palitoy products and resident critic David Quinlan’s brief review, in which he writes “it’s a lot of fun” but compares it to a pantomime.

My tape (note the Topps card cover) which I haven't listened to in years
At 7.15, I settled in front of the TV with my trusty tape recorder, reminding my sister Tracy to be quiet and stressing to Mum & Dad that if they needed to come into the living room, could they please do so quietly.  The film started, I pressed record and then stage one of my plan came undone - I was using a Winfield C60 cassette, giving me one-hour recording time with the necessary tape-flip midway through and it just wasn’t enough.  Yes, I should have realised before (I'd suggest it was a schoolboy error but, then, I was a schoolboy), but in the excitement it just didn't occur to me.  The film, with ads, was due to finish at 9.30 so I filled one side of the tape and then gave up, content to just watch.  Yes, it was a pan-and-scan version (apart from at the cinema, I wouldn’t see it in widescreen again until the one of the 90s VHS re-issues, when it was a revelation how much visual information was lost) and didn’t have a stereo soundtrack but it was still as exciting and gripping and utterly thrilling as I remembered.  As I wrote in my diary entry for that day, “it was ace” and I just wanted to see it again, as soon as possible.
The film rights, negotiated by Leslie Halliwell who was an ITV buyer as well as writer of the eponymous Film Guide, were bought for $4m.  At the time, it was the highest ITV had ever paid for a single film and allowed them three showings over seven years.  The premiere topped the ratings, with an estimated 16.8m viewers though it has since been suggested the figure was higher, as it wouldn’t include people taping off TV.  Halliwell was apparently disappointed, saying, “for top money, I would expect 20m viewers”.

The film was originally released on VHS in 1982 (though back then, sell-through copies were very expensive) and I didn’t buy my first version until much later (I picked up the 1985 re-issue and numerous versions afterwards).

Star Wars was re-shown on Sunday 30th December 1984, Thursday 1st January 1987 and Friday 1st January 1988 and, according to my diaries, I watched them all.  The Empire Strikes Back premiered on Christmas Day 1988 and the following year, Return Of The Jedi premiered on Boxing Day.

I remember that evening well, partly for the thrill of seeing the film again, partly because of how big a deal it was that Star Wars was finally going to be on TV.  You don't get that kind of hype now for films on telly. 

This YouTube clip was taped from TV (the trailer was the same for all regions, though this comes from London Weekend Television, as you'll see towards the end), this is how ITV advertised their big film.

Episode Nothing: A Day Long Remembered - 1982 Star Wars TV Times
Leslie Halliwell and film rights info from Halliwell’s Horizon, by Michael Binder

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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