Neutral Zone 1998

By Chris Blenkarn

This is but a partial account of Neutral Zone. Firstly, the con focused on guests Tucker Smallwood and James Morrison from Space: Above and Beyond, and Stephen Furst from Babylon V, neither of which series I am familiar with, so I didn't attend the whole of their talks. The B7 contingent consisted of Gareth Thomas, as if you needed telling, plus Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro kindly deputising for Michael Keating who was working down in Essex. Secondly, I was accompanied by a non-fan in great need of a weekend away in a nice hotel who while conversant with Blakes 7 is not of the True Faith. We therefore spent some time elsewhere in Newcastle.

So if you want to know what happened at the fancy dress, quiz, or room party, ask someone who was there. I am able to tell you that alcohol was consumed at the party, as one of the combatants turned up in the bar to ask if I happened to have a corkscrew about me. Why they should think a Vila fan was a likely person I do not know, but I shall ignore the slight on his and my character as they gave the corkscrew back the following morning.

I arrived in Newcastle on Friday afternoon following a week in which the Liberator crew would have come in rather handy. Firstly, the deadlock on our front door had jammed and we couldn't get out of the house. Now being locked out is a traditional family past-time but being locked in? Where is Vila when you need him? Then the wardrobe rail collapsed and I couldn't lift it up- a job for Gan here. While Liberator is in the vicinity, we might as well get Avon to have a look at our malfunctioning printer, and if Cally and Jenna can tear themselves away from dusting the flight deck, I wouldn't object to their having a go at the stain in the bath from when our daughter last dyed her hair.

Val Westall had several delectable pictures to mount in the art exhibition. They included one for Judith Proctor's Morgan, and one of a tastefully draped Avon. We mounted him - no, better make that stuck him on the wall - almost opposite the open door. I hope he didn't catch his death of cold in the draught, with only that sheet on.....

Friday evening brought us the opening guest panel. I regret to say I forgot to take down any notes, so I can't remember the bons mots; in fact, I can't remember much of anything. Sheelagh scored bonus points for having married more panel members than anyone else, and further bonus points for running around the hall with the mike. Following that, I sat eating a dubious but cheap baked potato on the floor of the bar, surrounded by a heaving mass of Avon fans. Why are almost all my B7 friends stuck on the dark and grumpy one or on young Mr Tarrant when they have such endearing alternatives. What's the matter with you, ladies?

Next I was delighted to meet Pat, with whom I have long corresponded on B7, mediaeval history and the iniquities of EC publications. Pat, thank you for the flowers. She and her fellow Antipodean travellers had been doing a tour of Sacred B7 Sites, and she told me that Betchworth quarry is being filled in. Good Heavens! What price our cultural heritage? Can we not get an Arts Council grant to preserve it?

Judith remarked that website pictures make it easier to identify one's penpals. Had she remembered that on her own site, her husband is pictured with three heads? Zaphod Beedlebrox apart, I had never seen a man with more than the standard allocation, and had looked forward with anticipation to meeting him last year, but alas, it was just a trick photo.

Later on I got changed to join Sandy and Christine at the disco, whose theme was the colour blue. I had spared no expense for this, lavishing 50p on a shiny blue jacket from Help the Aged, and 20p on the letters VILA to hang on a neck chain. I had also borrowed a dress from a friend which had a blue star emblazoned on the front, to stand for Star One, naturally. Something borrowed, something blue, something new, and we'll forget about the old if it's all the same to you... In the event I had trouble removing the inevitable shoulder pads from the jacket, so I abandoned it. I wonder what happens to all the discarded shoulder pads? Perhaps they are what is filling up Betchworth quarry.

The following morning I shared a breakfast table with a fan who turned out to be very active in the National Childbirth Trust, as I was some years ago. There has to be joke here on the lines of Aquatar "Small world, large voluntary organisation." Incidentally, this was the second consecutive con at which I've ended up talking about charitable funding. Given that things come in threes, which voluntary group is lurking in wait at Deliverance?

The reason I enjoy conventions so much is not just meeting friends, nor listening to guests, nor even having fried potatoes for breakfast, important though all these are (especially the fried potatoes). It is being a part of a safe, convivial environment in which I feel comfortable chatting to total strangers in the lift, where normally I would avoid eye contact. It's knowing that for once I can act frivolous instead of sober and responsible, without people wondering from which psychiatric establishment I have been released into the community.

It is feeling unconcerned about accosting a passer by on Saturday morning and asking for his help in removing from my right ear the remains of a broken earring which I'd had trouble with the previous night - thank you, sir, whoever you were. Thanks also to Sheelagh, who also happened along and offered assistance in repairing it. Now that's what I call a guest! I did wonder whether to bring her all my other earrings in distress at Deliverance, in case she got bored with normal guest duties, but on reflection decided they would take up too much space in the suitcase.

There was no B7 talk on Saturday's programme, though Joe was discussing other fandoms at 1pm, so most of the morning was spent in talking to friends. There was a very full video programme but I can watch videos at home. Wonder why B7 and B5 were being shown under the title Mishmash, rather than under Sci-Fi or Fantasy? In the dealers' room, Judith was still doing a roaring trade. Sheelagh and Joe were selling an enticing selection of merchandise including the best recent photo of Mr Darrow I had set eyes on, and a splendid one of Gareth and the amazing Ms Pearce at their recent book signing.

We spent some time in the auction without buying anything, then my friend Janet arrived and we retired to the bar. Debating whether or not to assay another baked potato or cross the road to the Laing Art Gallery for real food, she noticed what appeared to be frankfurters revolving slowly and disconsolately around a strange contraption at the back of the bar. Did anyone else see them or were we hallucinating?

Later on we caught some of James Morrison's talk. Not having seen SAAB, questions relating to the significance of the twitching left nostril in episode whatsit didn't mean much, but Mr Morrison was lively and amusing, not to say rather attractive, so I enjoyed his talk anyway. He began his career in the circus but didn't really take to it, so like John Major he ran away, but with happier results for the rest of us. At one point he took up the challenge to prove his juggling prowess when a woman in the audience tossed him some juggling balls. Thunderous applause.

Now at previous Neutral Zones there had been copious quantities of Klingons, but this time I hadn't seen any. Off fighting the Romulans in Sunderland, perhaps? And I had promised there would be Klingons, and maybe the odd Borg. Luckily that night's disco featured a spectacular female Klingon with waist length red hair on the dance floor. The gentlemen present seemed quite content with this one sighting. The disco music wasn't exactly to my taste, and included a lot of step sequences which I relied on Janet to guide me through. Around 3.15am she pushed our friendship dangerously close to breaking point by revealing that she didn't like Honky Tonk Women. However we sat down and talked it through like mature, sensible adults and resolved our differences.

The following morning brought the eagerly awaited panel with Sheelagh, Joe and Gareth. I shared the lift on the way down with the charming Mr Morrison, who politely forgave my treading heavily on his foot as I entered. Usually I make notes straight after a talk but I omitted to do so on this occasion, so please forgive any gaps. The question arose of what makes a cult programme. Define cult, as Avon might say. Gareth said it was the audience that decided what became a cult and what didn't. The X-Files and the Teletubbies were cited, and Sheelagh suggested the Clangers - now you're talking! Joe wondered what ever happened to Pinky and Perky (well those of us who are of riper years remember them, even if you don't) Sheelagh also suggested The Magic Roundabout and the Wombles. She related how she once inadvertently received a standing ovation in the BBC executive lift for her rendition of the Wombles song.

Gareth was asked about favourite parts, and recounted reading Morgan's boy around the dining table and realising what a gem he had been offered. Sheelagh and Joe were asked if they are planning any further B7 books. The answer was no, but they enlarged on how the existing one was researched. Joe had an awesome joke about a mushroom, but as he may wish to delight Deliverance with it, I won't repeat it here. They also talked about their audiotapes, and Joe demonstrated his balancing skills by placing them on precarious display on the table. Sheelagh described how the tapes were produced in a friend's house, in the intermittent presence of the friend's cat. Vila fans and / or foot fetishists will doubtless recall the incident where the cat takes a close interest in Mr Keating's toes. You Avon fans have Rumours of Death, but we have the unfettered power of the imagination.

More seriously, all three talked at length about the appalling pay and conditions offered today both to actors and production staff. Sheelagh had been asked if she was interested in working on a production in Hungary; sounds attractive, but the pay was so low no-one could be persuaded to go out there. Gareth told of an actor having to pretend he lived near the place where a film was being shot if he wanted to get a part in it; the company concerned would not pay hotel expenses for a non-local actor. Accountants rule the world. Gareth cited the appointment of Gerry Robinson, chair of Granada and self-confessed non-arts expert, as chair of the Arts Council.

Afterwards we adjourned to the dealers room again, where Janet got a copy of the gorgeous Paul photo amongst other goodies. Val very kindly bestowed a photo of Vila upon me. Thank you, Val. I really will try and be nice to Avon in future, no, really I will. Back in the bar the frankfurters were still revolving listlessly. We had a drink and returned to the hall for Tucker Smallwood's talk but I got cramp in my foot and came out again to stamp about.

Gareth was holding forth in the bar so I stayed put. Somehow we were all still there an hour later, having dealt with the Council Tax, Tony Blair (I wish) theatrical superstitions, and the absurd price of a red wine and soda - Janet got particularly impassioned at this. Gareth also revealed the shocking fact that Mr Keating loathes custard. Alas, I adore custard. Will this come between us, should I ever have the good fortune to meet him? I suppose it's a little unlikely to arise in an autograph queue conversation. Anyway, if I can stay friends with a woman who doesn't like Honky Tonk Women I suppose I can deal with the custard issue. I wonder where he stands on rice pudding skin?

And that's about it from me. The final panel ran very late and we had to leave as it started. I'll have to ask the others how it ended, too.

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