So, you’ve got a week off work and there’s £80 burning a hole in your pocket. What do you do with yourself?
Enjoy a couple of nights out? Treat yourself and your partner to a nice meal, perhaps? Buy this season’s Vale/Stoke/Alex shirt?
Well, I decided none of the above was for me and instead I made a 500-mile plus trip to the south coast to attend a convention for fans of TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series Angel.
Madness, I hear you cry. I can’t argue. In my defence, I love both shows — I’ve been a fan since they were first aired and, more to the point, I came out of the closet early on.
Yes, I’ve got Buffy mugs, mousemats, books, CDs, posters, games — you name it. Merchandise from a show that, for the uninitiated, revolves around an American teenage girl — Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar — whose role in life is to save the world from vampires and all manner of other supernatural nastiness while trying to get a boyfriend and graduate from high school.
Buffy’s the kind of show you either love or hate. It either seduces you completely or makes you reach for the remote with the kind of split-second reaction time that even Olympic athletes would be envious of.
And even though satellite TV viewers have already watched the last episode of the seventh and final season of Buffy, its place in the sci-fi hall of fame is secure.
Buffy is a worldwide phenomenon thanks to five years of tightly-written scripts, innovative plots, first-rate acting and a host of televisual firsts (including an episode with almost no speaking and a musical episode) which have earned it a cult following.
Aside from the mountain of merchandise and obligatory plethora of dedicated websites, it even has its own dialect — Buffyspeak — which merrily dismantles the Queen’s English and, as one academic puts it, creates with each episode “a free-for-all grammar implosion”.
So whether or not you know your Watcher from your Willow or your Mr Pointy from your “wiggins”, the big question is, of course, what drives people to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and spend so much money to take part in conventions?
Ellis Cashmore, professor of media, culture and sport at Staffordshire University, traces the roots of conventions and the notion of being a “fan” back to the post-war paranoia environment of the late 1940s which spawned a raft of science fiction books and films.
At the time, particularly in North America, the fear of communism was such that it manifested itself with the concept of “aliens” — the kind from outer space — being among us.
Professor Cashmore said: “This is when the sci-fi genre really took off. This literary explosion led to the circulation of newsletters which were effectively the first ‘fanzines’ and then came the first conventions.
“The advent of rock music then led to other kinds of conventions such as those for Elvis fans and then, by far the most popular and enduring, conventions for fans of the TV series Star Trek.
“Star Trek conventions have proved beyond doubt that there are far more to such events than dressing up and buying memorabilia.
“Academics present scholarly papers on subjects far deeper than the storylines from the series, but which the show explores through metaphor in its plots.”
According to Professor Cashmore, being a fan is not just about escapism. He said: “It’s more than that. When these people come together with hundreds or thousands of kindred spirits in a convention environment they command and enjoy mutual respect. It empowers them.”
Of course, fan gatherings are nothing new to Staffordshire. The Daniel O’Donnell Appreciation Society is based in Uttoxeter. The worldwide Laurel and Hardy fan club Sons Of The Desert has a city branch called the Midnight Patrol Potteries Tent. Members produce their own newsletter, meet on the second Tuesday of every month and enjoy screenings of their idols’ classic films.
And until a few years ago Burslem pubs annually played host to local members of the Max Wall Society — giving many a pub-goer a double-take as a posse of Max lookalikes mimicked the comedian’s legendary funny walk on the streets of the Mother Town.
Personally, in spite of what Professor Cashmore might think, I didn’t feel particularly empowered when I arrived at the fan convention venue in Brighton on the morning of the event. I was just grateful for the bright sunshine and the clear blue skies.
The first thing I noticed was the now-famous shell of the burnt-out pier jutting from the calm sea. The second was the queue.
I had thought arriving an hour before the doors opened was a smart move. Thank God I was no later.
Five hundred or so of the 3,000-strong audience for day two of the three-day event were even keener.
The queue, comprising an eclectic mix of fans of all ages (OK, teenage girls were in the majority) snaked down the front and round the corner of The Brighton Centre — better known as a venue for political party conferences.
To my surprise there was no-one in costume — not a creature of the night to be seen, in fact. However, black was certainly the colour to be wearing and a lot of animals must have been sacrificed to satisfy the demand for leather trenchcoats.
Once the doors opened things moved quite quickly and your options were to queue for tickets to have your picture taken with stars from the shows or take your first-come, first-served seats in the auditorium.
The real star of the convention was David Boreanaz. In fact, the convention was called, rather grandly, The David Boreanaz European Event. He plays Angel — Buffy’s true love — a vampire with a soul. A character so cool, so popular with viewers and with such an “aaah” factor that the producers gave him his own spin-off series.
Boreanaz is all spiky black hair and brooding good looks. If you’ve not seen him in either show he’s also an up-and-coming Hollywood star and the hunk of tall, dark and handsome starring in the video for Dido’s latest single, White Flag.
Boreanaz brought with him from the States two stars from the original show — the ever-present Nicholas Brendon who plays Buffy’s friend Xander Harris and Kristine Sutherland, aka Buffy’s mum Joyce Summers.
They weren’t on time, of course. Kept us waiting for an-hour-and-a-half. Apparently, the helicopter was delayed. Public transport, eh?
I haven’t been to any other fan conventions, but at this point I should say that the organisation of this event left a lot to be desired. Plenty of words spring to mind, but shambolic just about edges it.
The basic problem was there were three sets of people working at the venue — the venue’s own staff, personnel from convention organisers Jealous Events (henceforth to be referred to as Muppets), and David Boreanaz’s own people.
That the itinerary went out the window owed much to the late arrival of the stars, but the shocking lack of information available to fans seemed to be down to the fact that no-one dared ask David’s people what the hell was going on.
I imagine the French revolution to have been less chaotic — and the less said about the seating fiasco the better. Suffice to say many a complaint form was filled in as the event drew to a close.
So, after much waiting around, an expectant hush fell over the auditorium and the compere (I use that term loosely when referring to a Muppet from the Black Country) announced the arrival of the star man.
Boreanaz appeared on stage amid a cacophony of whooping and cheering — just as cool and annoyingly good-looking in his slobs as he is on the show. The first fan to appear at the edge of the stage was literally lost for words as she tried in vain to form a question which resulted in a Norman Collier-esque moment.
“Breathe,” said Boreanaz, helpfully. And the laughter of the audience made the poor girl’s embarrassment complete.
Thus began the first of four question and answer sessions with the stars from both shows. Given the ages and motivations of some of those asking the questions, it was never going to be of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman versus Michael Howard.
But, in its own way, this was just as enthralling a spectacle. It really was Hollywood meets Portsmouth, Aberdeen, Dublin, Bristol, Birmingham, Holland, South Africa and even Sydney, Australia. Yes, people really did travel those distances to meet their idols. And yes, yours truly dutifully represented Stoke-on-Trent with a question posed to Buffy’s mum.
We had two hours of questions and, during the constant stream of “can you say hello to my friend/mum/sister/dad/brother who’s in row Z”, found out very little we didn’t already know about Mr Boreanaz. He was very Hollywood. Wearing shades indoors and his voice a slow drawl, he was polished, reserved and possibly just a tad embarrassed at the love emanating from the floor of the main hall.
The others — who appeared on stage together — were more laid-back. Nicholas Brendon bounded on stage and jigged around to the deliciously noisy Buffy theme tune. Even Kristine Sutherland, somewhat older than the rest of the cast, talked freely and laughed along with the crowd, who hung on her every word.
Perhaps the most telling remark was when Kristine Sutherland diplomatically spoke of the mother/daughter bond between her and Sarah Michelle Gellar and how they still keep in touch now the original show has ended.
“Well, will you say hi for me then, ’cos she never returns my calls,” answered Nick Brendon with the refreshing honesty of a man no longer contractually-obligated.
Fans had paid between £40 and £80 for the privilege of mixing with their TV favourites — and most came prepared to pay a further £49 each for a picture of themselves with Mr Boreanaz.
A privileged few who had shelled out several hundred pounds enjoyed a VIP backstage reception, while we mere mortals packed into the trade hall for a browse through Buffy/Angel memorabilia stalls.
There was even an evening themed disco/karaoke where the vampire wannabes and all those who have dreamed of playing bass guitar for Dingoes Ate My Baby at The Bronze nightclub (Buffy reference) could strut their stuff.
It was an enlightening experience to be surrounded by like-minded people and to catch a brief glimpse of the actors and actresses who have brought so much enjoyment to millions.
Speaking of her motivation for attending the event, one middle-aged mother-of-two who had her two teenage daughters in tow said: “It’s our hobby. It costs a lot of money to travel and see the stars and to buy all the gear, but we don’t have a football season ticket or go to concerts. This is what we do.”
To enjoy such a thing as a convention you have to be a hardcore fan. You have to be prepared to be patronised, messed about and charged exorbitant amounts of money. Because in the end, it’s worth it. That’s showbiz.