How Star Wars charmed Britain on its first release

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The queue to see Star Wars at London's Leicester Square on December 27, 1977
The queue to see Star Wars at London’s Leicester Square Thetre on December 27, 1977

Star Wars at Christmas? The release date of The Force Awakens seems all wrong to some fans in the US. After all, the first Star Wars came out on May 25, 1977, and all its sequels and prequels were released as close to that time of year as possible.

Some people will even tell you that Star Wars was the first of the modern day summer blockbusters – an assertion that overlooks Jaws, to begin with. Spielberg’s mega-hit opened two years earlier – and on 409 US screens, compared with the thirty-two which had booked George Lucas’s movie on its opening day.

But in my country, the UK, the idea of Star Wars at Christmas is not unprecedented. What’s more, I think the story of the original film’s British release tells us how different the movie-going world was back in the 1970s, and is a reminder of how fresh and original Lucas’s original film seemed at the time.

Back in the 1970s, it was routine for films to be released in the UK many months after their US debut. Video piracy was still some years away, so there was nothing to be risked by delaying a film’s overseas release.  So there was nothing odd about the fact that Star Wars was not due to be released in the UK until 1978. But the film’s astonishing and surprising success in the States made the wait seem very long indeed.

Most people have heard the tales of how Star Wars opened to full houses and lengthy lines at those original thirty-two movie screens. And as the Star Wars phenomenon gathered pace in the States, we became aware of it through the news in the UK. I remember a lunchtime BBC television magazine show called Pebble Mill at One showing a clip from the film and explaining how the film had broken records.

Plenty more news outlets were reporting on Star Wars. The novel credited to George Lucas (but ghosted by Alan Dean Foster) was on the book stands. Magazines, like the British youth culture bible Look-In, were devoting a good deal of space to Star Wars by that December. But we still lacked just one thing – the film.

look-in star wars december 1977
The young people’s magazine Look-In promoting Star Wars in December 1977, when practically no one in the UK had seen it

There had been a press and trade screening of the film as early as July 1977, and another in September, but as the year wore on, exhibitors had grown increasingly frantic to get their hands on the movie. The Christmas school holidays would have been the ideal time for a release, but in fact the first public audiences in the UK did not see Star Wars until December 27, 1977, and that was only in a small number of screens in the West End of London.  After that, a frustratingly slow roll-out to major UK cities began, with the biggest widening of the release happening in the February half-term holidays.

Of course, fans in every country of the world would have similar tales to tell of how they anticipated the release of Star Wars.  Cynics could see all this as the tale of an American cultural juggernaut rolling across the world, crushing all resistance.  In fact, plenty of people have seen it that way. But at the time, that was not how it seemed. Star Wars was not conquering the world; it was exciting and charming the world with its freshness and exuberance.

Russell Davies, who reviewed the film for the Observer and didn’t much care for it, nonetheless summed up how most people were carried along by Star Wars mania: “The man who doesn’t like Star Wars puts himself instantly at the centre of an HM Bateman cartoon. All around him are raised hands, shocked faces and cries of ‘Shame!’”

Today (and It pains me to say this), there is too much Star Wars in the world. The spin-off stories  – or, “expanded universe”, as we’re supposed to call them – eventually became ridiculously numerous and perplexing. When Disney took over Lucasfilm, it declared all these tales to be “legends” and stripped them of their status as official canon. It then began starting up a universe of spin-offs of its own.

However, back in 1977 and 1978, when Star Wars claimed to be nothing more than a cheery and imaginative homage to Flash Gordon – the fun tale of a farmboy who rescues a princess and saves the galaxy – it was almost impossible not to like.

Has JJ Abrams been able to recapture a little of that freshness and fun in 2015? If you’re an American reader, I will probably know before you – because, all these years after that frustrating wait, Britain will get the new Star Wars a day before you do.

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