Guest blog: Jamie McLoughlin goes to Memorabilia convention in Birmingham, and asks is it a ripping off fan devotion?

Lorna, Jamie and Catherine with a Dalek

Jamie McLoughlin writes the always excellent Boom-Bang-A-Blog on the Eurovision Song Contest, but very kindly agreed to report back on his visit to the Memorabilia convention in Birmingham…

BEFORE I begin, I have a wee confession to make.

I have loved Doctor Who since the Marshmen and Meglos terrified a four-year-old me when they hit our screens in the autumn of 1980.

Barring a longish period when new Doctor Who only existed as far-too-complicated-to-be-entertaining novels and audio plays, I have always had a deep affection for anything to do with that bloke and his phone box and his companion/s.
But as for non-Who science fiction? Nah, never had much time for it. Can’t be doing with any incarnation of Star Trek, Blake’s 7 takes itself so seriously it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious (imagine how glamorous we’d all be forced to look if Servalan and Alexis from Dynasty joined forces to rule the universe) and, sin of sins, I have only seen Star Wars once.

Even that was when I was at university and felt that it was something I had to see, rather than indulging a burning desire to soak in every moment of the heartstopping antics of Luke Skywalker and chums. I did enjoy it, but I’ve never felt the need to watch it again.

Bearing that in mind, it does beg the question why I got up at 5.45am on Saturday to board the 7.20am coach from Liverpool to Birmingham to attend the Memorabilia sci-fi/cult biannual extravaganza at the NEC.

The answer is denim clad. As it’s not an exclusively sci-fi event, Memorabilia really is a tapas of cultish enthusiasm.

Just ten steps away from a table where Denis Law, James DeGale and other sporty types are signing away, you’ll find a row of Bond girls (including Honor Blackman and Britt Ekland) smiling for fan pics, while Kate O’Mara is tucked away in another corner either adding her signature to photos of herself as the Rani, that woman she played in Howard’s Way and quite possibly the other one she played in Triangle.

Glyn and Lorna are detailed by Darth Vader and a stormtrooperBut what I’d come for was the ladies of Wentworth Detention Centre. Now, I realise most people won’t come to Neil’s blog for tributes to Prisoner: Cellblock H, but it was the chance to meet actress Val Lehman, who played top dog Bea Smith for the show’s first 400 episodes that made me get up at Ridiculous O’Clock that morning. So, bear with me.

Although Prisoner has its critics – many of whom I still think never actually watched it – I will say in its defence that the show tackled some very dark stuff over its run and had some very watchable storylines. And as for the sets, if you ever see an episode of Coronation Street from the same era (1978-86), there’s not that much difference workmanship-wise.

The very last episode of Prisoner is, to me, the best example I have ever seen of giving a loyal audience the pay-off it has waited years for. It’s still one of the most satisfying pieces of telly I’ve had the pleasure to sit through.

I also realise that Prisoner: Cellblock H rather is camp, daft and that the governor’s obsession with sending mee-moes (‘memos’ to you and me) around ‘the department’ is just as important a reason to cherish it as the punch-the-air-with-delight feeling you get 15 minutes from the swansong instalment’s closing credits.

Which is why I waited patiently for Val to deal with some rather more enthusiastic fans than I could ever claim to be before stepping forward to complete my day’s mission.

I wanted to get a signed photo of Val for my cousin – a massive Prisoner fan – for Christmas. And this is where I started to have a problem with Memorabilia.

Admission to the hall itself is £10. A photo is £10. An autograph is £10. I foolishly thought that if you handed over a tenner, you could still get an autograph on one of the photos.

No such luck. A smaller-than A5 sized reproduction of a Network 10 fan photo from the early 1980s with a message from Val set me back £20. It wasn’t so much the cost, after all, there’s little chance of me getting Bea Smith to sign a photo for me at any other time and place between now and Christmas, it was the sheer exploitation of the people who love the show – and there were at least two people in the queue who’d gone to the trouble of recreating Wentworth Detention Centre officers’ uniforms for their trip – which started to grind my gears.

It was the same throughout the hall. Opposite a very noisy American wrestling ring (tapas, tapas…) sat Mary Tamm (the first Romana in the classic series of Doctor Who) and Sarah Sutton (Peter Davison era companion Nyssa), with another tariff for autographs and photos.

That’s when my mate pointed out: “You know what this is like don’t you? Prostitution.”

I must point out straight away that there was nothing more than autographs and very family-friendly photograph opportunities advertised by the various folk sat at the Memorabilia tables, but my chum does have a point. Events like these profit from those with a desire that is never likely to be sated – getting close to your idols.

Is it because I’m not used to going to events like this that I’m a bit annoyed? These are decent people who just happen to love a niche TV show being financially exploited. Please tell me if I need to calm down and just accept something that’s been going on for years without question.

Much as I love Doctor Who, I don’t really want to fill my walls with overpriced framed props, stills or signed photos of cast members. I just, well, *enjoy* it and collect the DVDs.

Those shiny discs are filed away (in story order) in a drawer and I’d never even think of having them out on display. Mind you, there are the Tom Baker, Sarah Jane and Zygon action figures on the high shelf in the living room…

That said, I certainly wouldn’t pay £100 for a boxed Tom Baker doll from 1977. One stallholder displayed such an item, safe in the knowledge there’d be somebody in Hall 9 of the NEC who’d hand over that amount of cash just for the pleasure of saying they owned a 32-year-old doll (the head of which isn’t even based on Tom, it’s Mike Gambit from The New Avengers).

It’s like that bit in City of Death where the Doctor, Romana and Duggan discuss how an art collector would pay millions for the stolen Mona Lisa so they could privately boast that they owned it. Whoever buys that doll, they certainly aren’t going to play with it.

I realise I’m sounding positively Meldrew-ish here, so let me add that there were many enjoyable moments at Memorabilia, not least the Dalek patrolling the hall collecting money for charity in a tin hanging from its sucker arm, the nosiness factor of seeing Susannah York, Wanda Ventham and Prentis Hancock from Space:1999 dotted about the room waiting to meet their public and, witnessing at close hand, the very special sort of joy fandom can induce in people.

There was a mammoth queue of people waiting to get into this event eagerly chatting about the pleasures awaiting them on the other side of the ticket barrier, with some dressed as their sci-fi heroes.

It’s the sort of pleasure you somehow don’t get from 90 minutes of club football or an industrial size box of posh chocs. For that reason alone, events like Memorabilia should be cherished.

But please, someone, do something about those prices.

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