Neutral Zone (Blake's 7 con)

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Convention
Name: Neutral Zone
Dates: March 14-15, 1997
Frequency:
Location: England
Type: celebrity guests, non-profit
Focus: Blake's 7 (though it could have been more broad than that)
Organization:
Founder: one of the main organizer was Diana Lawson
Founding Date:
URL:
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Neutral Zone was a 1997 Blake's 7 con in England.

Gareth Thomas was one of the guests, and apparently a very entertaining one. Bjo Trimble was also at this con, and after hanging out with Thomas, felt he should star in the new Doctor Who. See Open Letter by Bjo Trimble to Doctor Who Fans.

Con Reports

This is only the second con I've attended. I only discovered B7 in 1992. Shame on me!

I met Judith Proctor at the railway station and went onto the hotel room we were to share Friday through Monday morning. A lot of people were due to arrive on Saturday. Come Saturday morning, I help Judith set up her dealer's table, and in return she helps me set up my drawings in the art show. I find out Gareth Thomas is to do the judging.

When Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro are selling copies of BLAKE'S 7: THE INSIDE STORY (great book!), I can't resist buying it - even though I've already ordered it from HORIZON.

I can't wait.

There are other fandoms here. In the dealers room. B7 is represented by HORIZON and, of course, Judith, both doing B7 proud selling wonderful stuff.

I met a lovely lady, Chris Blenkarn, and she kindly helps relieve us at Judith's dealer table when we are either stewarding or going to watch Paul and Gareth talk. They do the auction and are going at it "a storm." They spark off each other. It's very amusing impromptu entertainment.

Sadly, we are informed of Terry Nation's death a few days before the con. Gareth asks us to give thanks for Nation's life.

Later that night, Gareth puts on an unscheduled reading session and includes his own work of a portrayal of a miner trapped underground. This he hopes to include in a one man show. It's a riveting, moving, powerful performance. I'd never seen him perform - except for Blake and one other piece. His acting is stunning-first class.

Then Judith and I join Gareth in the bar after we'd done some filking. We went to bed about 3 A.M. [Not all three together. I'm sure.]

Sunday, Paul has breakfast with lucky Ginny Syn (another nice lady whom I later met) who won the bid in the auction for this.

Paul has kindly agreed to sign one of my drawings for charity. He, also, auctions and sells it.

At 10:10 A.M., Paul and Gareth gave an enjoyable talk, including anecdotes and jokes. One of Paul's is about the Jewish kid with the nice watch his grandfather sold him on his deathbed. [Isn't it refreshing the British don't have to be so darn PC!! An American would get "lynched" for this joke.]

Paul, talking of zines, reveals his favourite is THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN, so Judith promptly displays a notice to this effect [with her zines].

The con continues with the raffle, guest panel, award presentation, and closing ceremony, Hey, I get second prize in the art show!

Then amazingly it's over. Lovely con. [1]

Thanks to dear old BritRail, I was so delayed I got to Newcastle about 6:45 PM on March 14. At least my cabbie knew the Forte Posthouse. My reward at the desk was Gareth Thomas! Now that made everything worthwhile!

Ahem...there were drawbacks: not the least being that despite Diana Lawson (chief NZ organizer) also meeting me at the desk, first it took awhile to get just my 'generic packet' - then nobody mentioned that the sole autograph session arranged for NZ had just started. According to Ms. Lawson, we'd have lots of time that weekend to get autographs on our own. (Not hardly.)

Thus, my Friday evening was spent getting to know my Con roommate. Besides the great hotel, I really lucked out. Alex was a petite, fun redhead who definitely was a kindred spirit. To my surprise, she was really into the Video Room - me, I always go for the actors and "shopping" for Blake's 7 stuff.

Saturday, 15 March: Up early to hit the Dealers' Room, my first delightful discovery was Joe Nazzaro and Sheelagh Wells with copies of their masterpiece BLAKE'S 7: THE INSIDE STORY. It was quite a shock when Joe informed me that B7 creator Terry Nation had died earlier in that week. [Nation died on Sunday, March 9th. The con started Friday, March 14th.]

Later, a gleeful Gareth mentioned that he had volunteered to fetch Paul Darrow from the airport; it seems the bars are open there much earlier. Evidently, he hadn't shared that with Paul. Paul's greeting was nicely warm and pleasing.

Compared to the Dealers' Rooms at Who's 7 and Visions in '96, Neutral Zone '97 proved a treasure trove of goodies. Horizon, the Blake's 7 Appreciation Society was the clear winner with tons of photos in all sizes (even snagged a bunch for Stateside friends), and kitchen magnets. Hey, it's only money. [I recommend HORIZON merchandise, too.]

Both Judith Proctor and artist [Whitby27] were lurking about [perhaps on the lookout for Servalan - or the Borg Queen?]. Judith's voice had partially recovered. Besides spotting a great selection of fanzines, I came away with a very nice addition to my B7 art collection, thanks to [Whitby27] - whom I was quite pleased to meet at last, since she did many illos for the Avon APA BATTLESTATIONS!, as well as GAMBIT [Both are defunct now.] and other fanzines.

Oops - made it in to the Charity Auction just as Gareth started the almost-traditional 'ceremony wherein he and Paul auction each other. Yes, I did get into a bidding war with someone over Mr. Darrow - and won!

Oddly, Paul took but one-third the time to award Gareth to another young lady.

[If I ever made it to a con, there'd be the mother of all bidding wars for Gareth for breakfast! Sigh... I do so envy ever)'one who goes to these cons.]

The Masquerade contest had two particular highlights for me: standing next to Gareth by the ballroom wall, I got the lovely full effect when he started singing along to "It's Not Unusual" -- how was he to know I'll never hear T. Jones anymore, I'll always recall his vocal delivery?; and, entering to Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady," the Borg Queen strutting her/his stuff. Naturally, she/he was the overwhelming winner.

Since Paul had earlier checked with me on the time of our upcoming breakfast date, I headed back to the room. With all the catching up on events and videos, Alex and I didn't get to sleep til wee hours - myself not til 3:00 AM.

Sunday. 16 March: Lucky me -rising at 7:30 AM, in order to prepare for breakfast with Paul Darrow. I chose rather formal wear - from the Forever Knight/Nigel Bennett wardrobe, a great navy blue jacket dripping with gold braid and brass buttons. [It's an actual costume Bennett wore that Ginny got at another con.] A true challenge, all those buttons. So. I barely arrived on time: Yeah, I was a bit worried 'cos Gareth came up from the lobby with me. (He is not generally on time.)

Fortunately, Paul and I were given the first corner table. We both needed a caffeine fix. He did insist on my trying their northern bacon. "You are supposed to eat the fat, you know!" I prefer Western-style: lean and crispy. Such a pleasant change to just visit with him; and he even made it to his 10:00 AM panel.

A couple more infamous incidents: Poor Paul not killing me for asking just what role he had worn the least for, and would he please elaborate on that: and The Gift of the Red Nose, wherein Gareth entered the ballroom to hand a red clown nose to Darrow. After some harassment, Paul gamely donned it, putting on a high squeaky voice. Drat! 'Blake' simply refused to model said schnozz.

Gad - Couldn't believe NZ had a second Charity Auction: as I lack resistance and sense, my further penance included an autographed Richard Biggs (B5) photo, a really gorgeous 2nd Season Kerr Avon original drawing signed by both the artist [Whitby27 and Paul Darrow, and a Star Wars poster. One pair of auctioneers tried to turn me up sweet by dubbing me "Sergeant Pepper" in honor of my jacket.

Just have to mention that both Paul and Gareth were saddened by the passing of Terry Nation. Gareth reminded all the fans at the beginning and closing of the Neutral Zone con of Terry's wonderful contributions to sci fi, and had the con dedicated to his memory.

Now, if Paul would just let me know why he spent the rest of Sunday scrupulously avoiding me... [2]

Being in Newcastle, this con is rather too far to the north for me, but I was suffering withdrawal symptoms after Who's 7... A friend of a friend said that she thought Gareth was going, so I followed up for details. It turned out that Paul was a confirmed guest but that Gareth was only a possible. As I skipped The Neutral Zone last year because I thought Gareth would have to miss it (he was working around that time) and then he did make it in the end, I decided to take the risk and sent in my registration. I was lucky - about two weeks before the convention, Gareth became a confirmed guest.

Having talked my friend Val into sharing a room with me, we arranged when to meet each other at Newcastle station on Thursday and made our independent ways across the country to get there. I staggered up from the south coast with two cases mainly loaded with fanzines. Getting across the underground in London was fun, but I teamed up with two visiting Americans from San Diego - they offered to help with the cases and I helped them navigate through the system and find out how to buy a rail ticket to Edinburgh (I still wonder if they managed to find anyone willing to stamp their passports in Scotland - they really wanted this to be done.)

Finally making it into Newcastle after about 7 hours of travel, I teamed up with Val and we shared a taxi to the hotel. It looked horribly empty and we both had the dread 'is this really the right place' feeling. However, we had deliberately arrived a day early (because of the travel distance) and the hotel reassured us we were in the right place. We unpacked, went out for a meal at a local Italian restaurant (with a great accordion player) and went to bed at a remarkably reasonable hour for a convention.

Things started to happen on Friday. We stacked up all the zines in the dealers room, stuck up Val's art, sorted out and mounted the entries for the art show, volunteered to help out as stewards, said hello to friends who had started arriving and generally got settled in. By the time of the opening ceremony, we were going well. One of the perks of stewarding at this particular con was that you got to sit in the front rows in the main hall. Val, myself and several other friends were to make very good use of this - about the only drawback was that Erik Menyuk (the Traveller from Star Trek TNG) smokes cigars that can set off an asthma attack from 15 feet away... The other guests apart from Paul and Gareth were Bjo Trimble and her husband and daughter. Bjo was the lady who organised the original campaign to bring back Star Trek - I got to talk to her later on in the con and liked her very much. Sheelagh Wells and Joe Nazzaro also came along to sell their new Blake's 7 book which has just been published.

Paul wasn't there for the opening ceremony, but Gareth was in fine form. This is the third year he's been at this particular convention and he was obviously enjoying himself. One thing I've taken to doing at conventions is making a list in advance of the questions I want to ask. I find this useful, as when the moment actually arrives, they all fly out of your head otherwise. It can also be useful to have a list when those occasional moments arrive when the audience dries up and everyone is hoping someone else will ask something. What I hadn't anticipated was getting through about half the list during the opening ceremony! Ah well, for those who want to know, Gareth was nominated for a BAFTA (British Actors Film and Televesion Award or some acronym very like that) for Stocker's Copper and Morgan's Boy. Don't ask me what the former is as I've no idea. Morgan's Boy is a drama series Gareth did where he played a Welsh hill farmer, and I'm convinced it's the best thing he ever did (that I've seen anyway). There's some photos on the web page (http://www.hermit.org/Blakes7 - under Who's Who) and its not too hard to locate a fan with a tape. Gareth studied English and History for two years at Oxford before dropping out and turning to study acting instead. Other discussions that I remember involved the difference in acting for stage and TV. On stage, body language is very important, whereas on TV, the focus is on the actor's eyes.

After that session was over, I sold a few zines and Val and I decamped to the bar when the dealer's room closed. As a virtually tea-total asthmatic, I only ever have one reason for visiting the bar at conventions. Gareth likes fans. Fans like bars. By a happy coincidence, Gareth also likes bars. You'll find him there at any convention and it's not just because he likes to drink. His philosophy is that it makes it easier for any fan who wants to meet him in an informal setting. He sees himself as being there for the fans, rather than vice versa.

Val gave Gareth a picture of Blake meeting Tom Baker in a corridor. He enjoyed the joke; anyone familiar with Gareth's stock of anecdotes will recognise the reference - it's probably on one of Sheelagh's tapes somewhere.

We had a long and varied conversation, although the details are sadly slipping into the mists of time. I find Gareth an interesting man to listen to even when I disagree with him. One thing I've noticed about Gareth is that although he drinks an amazing quantity, he rarely gets drunk. The distinction was brought sharply home to me very late one night when he was accosted by a fan who really was drunk. He was polite and courteous for nearly a quarter of an hour before finally managing to escape. Same thing another evening - he put on a session performing some extracts from a one man show he's hoping to put together. When he's acting, he's sober.

Saturday - stewarded at an ungodly hour in the morning. Knowing that I had to steward at 8.00, my brain insisted on waking me at 6.30. Grrr. Unlike my usual habit at cons, where I usually subsist for most of the day on a good breakfast to save money, I ate very little. Oddly enough, I ate very little over the entire con and never really felt hungry. As far as drink went, I brought some herbal tea bags for the kettle in the hotel room and carried a water bottle around. I often do this anyway, but I was also under orders from my speech therapist to take regular sips of water - I still haven't fully recovered from the voice problems that I had at Who's 7.

After stewarding a largely empty corridor and the art show for an hour, I sold some zines. Took a break from the table when a friend generously offered to help out. Her comment later on was that sitting at the table was a great way of meeting people. I couldn't agree more. There's no better way of finding the B7 fans at a con than manning a table selling B7 zines. It's a great excuse to chat. It's one of the many reasons why I produce zines.

Watched an episode of Voyager with Val to introduce her to the show. Needn't have bothered, it was a naff episode even by Voyager standards. One thing that I must say about this con was that although I only watched a couple of videos, my impression was that the video programme always ran on time. That's good organisation.

Charity auction. Nothing I actually wanted apart from breakfast with Paul or Gareth, both of whom went for more than I could afford, but I enjoyed watching them taking part in the auction. I think Paul went for around 130 pounds and Gareth for 45. I really really wish I'd had more money on me. Gareth's worth more than that. (Did I mention that he's lost well over a stone in weight since I last saw him?) (14 lbs in a stone)

Two o'clock. Paul Darrow. Paul was late (don't know why), so they rescheduled his session for three and slipped in another video. Come three, Gareth was covering for Paul for the first fifteen minutes until Paul finally appeared. Paul's still looking good. The charm is still there. I remember asking him why anti-heroes were popular with women, but he (fairly enough) just tossed that one right back at me. I love Avon, but I'm hard put to explain why dark good looks and a mean personality should appeal. (I guess it's that, combined with Avon's occasional vulnerability, that does it).

My favourite moments from this session are when Paul would say something derogatory about Gareth (as a joke). Without fail, a head would pop through from the door connecting to the bar and Gareth would shamble in, looking the very image of wounded innocence, and the entire audience would give him a sympathetic 'Aaah'.

Sold more zines. Did some filking. Difficult when my speech therapist had forbidden me to sing, but heck, what are friends for? I dragged out my trusty concertina and they attempted to sing <grin>. Julia got out her flute and tried to learn some of the tunes, slightly hampered by the fact that I got D and E mixed up... I seemed to spend half the con asking people if they knew the words to the verse of 'Cushy Butterfield' because as soon as someone suggested it to me, I realised that it was crying out to be done as a Gareth filk. It only took ten seconds to write the chorus (if you know the song, you'll know why!). Never did discover the verse, but I have it on tape somewhere at home, so all I have to do is to find it and filk it. When someone at the bar complained that they couldn't hear the disco over the singing (and given the volume for that disco, they just *had* to be exaggerating), the stewards very kindly found us an upstairs room to occupy where we could make a noise to our heart's content. Went to see the fancy dress competition which had some very good entries from a range of fandoms. There were several people (including me) who did the entire convention in fancy dress without actually entering the competition. The group I remember best were dressed as the 'Wild Cards' from Space Above and Beyond. Flight suits with all the necessary badges stitched on. I'm told they were very comfortable to wear all day and that the pockets came in very handy! (My only pocket was a belt purse pretending to be a power pack for a Liberator handgun).

Late in the evening I went to a writing workshop run by Bjo which finished dead on the dot. It finished dead on the dot because Bjo, as well as several of the rest of us wanted to watch Gareth who had promised to perform various things for us. What he gave us was a couple of extracts from a one man show that he's hoping to put together. First was a monologue in the person of an 11 century monk with a hangover after a visitor gave the community a drink much stronger than they were used to. (If you've read the fanzine Blithe Spirits, you may recognise this. - I haven't read it, but I've heard of it.) This was followed by a few short bits fom Julius Ceasar. I got ticked off by Gareth for not bringing Shakespeare's comedies with me. (He was using my copy of the Tragedies which I'd brought to read on the train.) However, the performance I think everyone who was there will remember for a long time afterwards was the third item he did. Gareth wanted to simulate a totally dark stage, so he went into the adjoining room and partly closed the door so that we couldn't actually see him. What we heard was the voice of a Welsh miner, trapped behind a rockfall, calling out to his friends, trying to discover if they were alive or dead. The tone slowly shifted through fear, abuse of his friends, the optimistic imagination of rescuers, to despair. The best way I can describe the audience reaction to this piece is to say that firstly you could have heard a pin drop and secondly, that anyone breaking the mood by trying to enter the room after the start got a combined glare from the audience that ought to have fried them on the spot. It was extremely effective. It also made me consciously aware of acting as a craft. I believe that I can write effectively; I can read a story aloud effectively, but I don't believe I could ever become a character to that extent, nor could I hold onto it through interruptions.

I'm not sure how late I went to bed, but it was probably around 2 am.

Sunday. Took in an episode of 'Hercules' at some point. Concluded that I could save myself the effort of ever watching it again. What it does, it does very well, but it doesn't happen to be what I like. When the hero has to tap the bad guy on the shoulder so that he can turn around to be hit in the face, you can't help but wish for Avon's shoot in the back technique.

Bought a copy of Sheelagh and Joe's new book. Four Gareth fans promptly had a fit of mass giggles at an extremely silly picture of him (If you've only ever seen Gareth as Blake, it's easy to underestimate how much of a clown he is). I'd actually pre-ordered the book from Horizon, but Sheelagh was giving away a photo of Paul and Gareth with every copy, and it was a very nice photo of them both... Besides, I knew I could easily find somebody to take a spare copy off my hands. I cannot recommend this book too highly. Adrian Rigglesford eat your heart out! I also pre-ordered Sheelagh's next audio tape. I loved the first two, so I figured it was a pretty safe bet I'd like the next one too.

Guest talk, Paul and Gareth. Was I there? Do pigs fly? I can't remember many of the questions now, but Paul had got me dead to rights <grin>. When he caught me with my hand up in the air yet again, he said, "It's for Gareth isn't it? You've been watching him with eyes boring into him like lasers!" Ironically enough, that particular question actually was for Paul, but wonderful though Paul is (I'm not a member of the Avon Club without reason), I have an enormous soft spot for Gareth. Don't ask me why. Paul's better looking and I've always preferred Avon to Blake, but there's something special about Gareth Thomas. I asked Paul about his habit of tossing bits of Avon (the occasional smile, etc.) into other characters he's playing on stage, but didn't really get a definitive answer. They were asked about roles they would like to play. Paul plumped for Coriolanus, Gareth (as always) for Othello. The audience decided that Paul would make the perfect Iago to Gareth doing Othello. (Iago is the villain of the piece) Paul was asked about future stage work - said he had none planned and that he got less keen on stage work as he got older because of the inconvenience of having to live in digs for long periods. Val asked Gareth at the end if Blake trusted Avon. He said yes. (Then added that that trust got him killed)

This talk was followed by the second charity auction. The two auctioneers were among the best I've ever seen: they shifted goods fast and they kept the audience entertained. At one point, they were simultaneously auctioning two items and trying to see which side of the audience could get the highest price. Sheelagh had cut Gareth's hair recently, so he auctioned off the hair cuttings. Went for around 16 pounds I think. This allowed Gareth later on in the day to get his own back on Paul and Erik by turning up with an envelope and claiming it contained their hair for auction - the envelope being empty of course. (Erik doesn't have much hair at all, but Paul's bald spot is a figment of your imagination)

Stewarded again. I swear, hand on heart, I will never again wear my badge in an impossible position. Trying to spot badges pinned on trouser legs, back pockets, under jackets and in other places of concealment is a nightmare. Guests, being awkward people, rarely remember to wear them at all. I feel sorry for the Trek fan who was stewarding when Paul came in without a badge. She stopped him, as she didn't recognise him (not being a B7 fan), and he teased her about it for the rest of the convention.

The afternoon guest panel was one where things just gelled perfectly. Paul and Gareth started reminiscing about other actors they had know and pulled anecdotes from each other non-stop. That's a session I shan't forget in a long time. The atmosphere was wonderful. They were relaxed and hilarious and the audience was drawn into it. Sometimes, there's a chemistry between Paul and Gareth that makes you feel you have something greater than the sum of the parts. It was there in full that afternoon and that same chemistry on screen was a large part of what made Blake's 7 work so well for me.

The award ceremony - various prizes. The two that suck in my mind were the prize for the worst disco dancer among those that stuck it out to the small hours of the morning, and Val winning second prize in the art show. (It was for a portrait of Soolin that will appear in 'Deadlier Than The Male')

The con charity was Guide Dogs for the Blind and also (I think) a burns unit at a local hospital. At the closing ceremony we were introduced to a working guide dog and its owner and a number of puppies in training. Gareth is definitely a dog person. I hope someone caught a photo of him with a puppy scrabbling its paws in his hair - I wasn't fast enough. Anyway, as the con had raised enough to pay for a dog, Gareth was allowed to choose a name for it. He chose Gelert, which is the name of a dog from Welsh mythology. (The dog's master came home to find Gelert beside his baby, licking blood from its paws. He killed the dog, and only then discovered the body of the wolf that the dog had killed while protecting the child)

The rest of the evening has blurred a little. I remember talking to Bjo (a woman after my own heart - she likes Gareth) and promising to send her a tape of Morgan's Boy (Julia, bless her heart, thinks she can convert to NTSC). I remember filking on an upstairs landing and being defeated by a song for practically the first time. I wanted to do a Travis filk to the 'Bluebells of Scotland' - "Oh where, oh where, has our one-eyed baddie gone?" but the rhyme and scansion were so tricky that I could only manage two verses and gave up. I remember saying goodbye to Gareth when he had to leave, and I remember talking SF with Val and Julia until my voice got too weak and I had to resort to notes. (But I can talk today because I actually stopped when I felt the voice going, rather than after it had gone) Last event of the day was a pillow fight with Val which rounded things off rather nicely.

Next morning we took a taxi to the station and bumped into several other con survivors. Two of them turned out to be on my train and I managed to persuade another passenger to swop reservations, so I ended up chatting to Sasha and Ivan most of the way to London. I even ended up joining the fan club for Space Above and Beyond.

Overall, a con that I greatly enjoyed. Not for the disco (I'm not a disco person), nor the videos (though there was a wide range, mainly Trek), but simply for the people. Seeing Paul is always worthwhile, but it is the friends, old and new, that really make a con for me. Gareth and Val, Chris, Julia, Janet and all the others. There's only one problem - I have con withdrawal symptoms again... [3]

References

  1. Whitby27 in Orac's Oddities #2, the words in italics in brackets are Joyce McCoy's ("Orac's Oddities'" editor) remarks
  2. Ginerva S in Orac's Oddities #2, the words in italics in brackets are Joyce McCoy's ("Orac's Oddities'" editor) remarks
  3. Judith Proctor at Lysator Digest V97 #63 (Marcy 20, 1997)