Fans want to memorialise every wookiee and cranny. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jon Spira's Elstree 1976: memorialising the unseen performers in the first Star Wars

Jon Spira's forthcoming documentary Elstree 1976 focuses on the Star Wars cast members time forgot: from voice-artists to extras and wookiees.

I’m feeling excited about the new Star Wars film. No, not Episode VII, which will continue the franchise beyond the end of Return of the Jedi—though my hopes for that were raised once I heard that the dead hand of George Lucas was not being allowed anywhere near the steering wheel. (JJ Abrams, the Lost creator who did a splendid job of rebooting Star Trek for cinema a few years back, is in charge.) An idiosyncratic cast list (Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis) has also made the prospect of Episode VII marginally more enticing, though I would still draw the line at the word “excitement.” We 1977ers, who saw the first Star Wars film on its release, and then experienced in adulthood the betrayal of the most recent trilogy (beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace), are a hard bunch to placate. We hold grudges.

The Star Wars movie that I’m really looking forward to, though, is a documentary called Elstree 1976, which is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign to raise £30,000 toward the costs of post-production. The target has already been met, so the film’s future is looking bright; you can see an early trailer, and read details about the project here.

Unlike other Star Wars documentaries, this one focuses on the unseen performers in the margins on the set of the first film: the extras and bit-players hidden behind Stormtrooper masks and alien faces in the Cantina, or under Rebel helmets with their faces turned just slightly away from the camera. Some of these are known to us already—such as David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in body (though not voice) in the first three Star Wars movies, and had also starred in A Clockwork Orange and become famous as the Green Cross Code Man.

But many of the subjects of Elstree 1976 (so named because of where Star Wars was made) are barely even household names in their own streets. If the trailer is anything to go by, the director Jon Spira has coaxed warm, revealing and sometimes melancholy reminiscences from people who have found themselves defined by their involvement, however tangential, with a pop-culture phenomenon. The mood seems to be Rosencrantz and Guildernstern in Space.

Spira has form in this field. His previous documentary was Anyone Can Play Guitar, a film about the Oxford music scene which displayed a similar fondness for the names destined to be footnotes to footnotes if they weren’t omitted altogether. Although bands like Radiohead, Supergrass and Ride appear in the movie, the focus shifts to the ones who never quite made it: your Talulah Gosh, your Unbelievable Truth. Star Wars cast members who feared they might never get their due can at least rest easy. Their stories are now in the hands of a filmmaker who specialises in a tender kind of cultural restitution.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Getty
Show Hide image

The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war