Monday, 15 June 2009

Better Than Life - Afterthoughts

This is pretty long so bare with me...

As I mentioned a week or so ago the "Better than life" Red Dwarf convention was on this past weekend at the Park Inn in Bedford. I thought I'd write a bit on the whole thing as it was something worth mentioning on here due to my 'unique' experience over the two days...

First off let's start with a description of me to give those of you that don't know me an idea of who I am and why this experience was blog worthy.


For any of you that visit these UK conventions throughout the year, whether is be a Showmasters, Massive Events or other such company run event, I'm the one that you'll usually see with the short Mohican-strip haircut, I sometimes dress in black Stargate SG-1 gear (the last 3 Collectormania's in Milton Keynes before the Dons Stadium change at least ), I'm almost always with my mate Dark Knight on the Sundays or my missus and two daughters (one who dresses as Wonder Woman and the other who everyone dotes on in her buggy as she's so cute... I can say that, she's my little girl!) on the Saturdays and I'm also almost always sporting a Gold pass round my neck too...

Now what you don't know, and can't tell from just looking at me, is that I have insulin dependent diabetes, spina bifida occulta, austioarthritus in my legs, hips and lower back and am registered as disabled. Going around a con of any size for me is pure torture and causes me to not only run out of energy extremely quickly, caused by low sugar (hypo's), but also extreme pain in the entire lower half of my body. Again, to look at me you'd never know and you'd just think I was lying if I told you face to face... I look like a big thug most of the time, not your average geek!

I have been a proud 'geek' since the age of 4 when I discovered an obsession with not only the comic character Superman, but also gaming systems (the Atari 2600 being my first at that age) and then comics, T.V. and movies of every type and description. As I got older I managed to keep (with the help of my Mum) every toy and action figure that was bought for me, or that I bought myself, over 30 odd years, which slowly grew into a huge collection which I add to almost every day. I hardly ever went out to play as a kid, and had no siblings, so was quite introverted and quiet, enjoying the company of my T.V. or numerous gaming systems instead. I'm now 31 years old and after 13 years of working in the customer service industry through retail stores and the like, those hobbies, and my encyclopedic knowledge of them, landed me my dream job working for an entertainment merchandise distributor and wholesaler who sells a huge catalogue of things like action figures, statues, plushes and replicas etc to companies such as,, Forbidden planet, HMV, Clintons, Tesco's and a large number of independent shops. As the head buyer and product manager of that company I now have access to insider knowledge ,far beyond that of your average geek, to things like future movie and T.V. plots (which is obviously awesome for me) and I get to see the related products months in advance to their release.

I've been to the San Diego Comic Con for free for the past two years (although it's almost killed me) and have met many famous actors, some of whom I've actually become friendly with and kept in touch with after the event.

I have been going to UK based cons for a good few years now and usually spend anything from £100 - £400 at every one, getting anything from 5 - 15 autographs as well. That's not including the money I spend on the dealer stands adding to my collection!

To sum that all up: I am obsessed with everything geeky and now that it's also my job I consider myself, in the immortal words of Wolverine, "The best there is at what I do" and somewhat of an expert and veteran for the entertainment industry and its multi-faceted ways, including numerous conventions and events.

The Event

Now that we have 'ME' out of the way let me explain what happened this weekend so that you get an idea of how p'd off I was...

To start off - Bedford is roughly an hour and a half drive from Chelmsford Essex where I live. A long enough journey for someone with problems like me! It took half a tank of petrol, 80 odd miles one way, and I had to do the journey by myself. I already knew that parking was going to be an issue but I hoped that getting there over an hour early would secure me a spot. It didn't. A guy and his son were told that there was some parking spaces outside a school 'just down the road' which we could grab if they were still available. In the car it is indeed just down the road. In reality, for a pedestrian, a disabled one at that, it is not just down the road but a hard 10 minute trek back to the hotel... I was knackered before the event even began. The walk back after the event was even worse as I had a box frame picture and other goodies which were cumbersome and heavy!

The Better than life event had advertised the entire main cast from the series would be attending, which was obviously fantastic for RD fans. Showmasters/ Massive Events offered a few different ticket options for the two day event and one of them was the £95 pound Gold pass which gives you the highest bonuses over the standard ticket like free 8 x 10 photos of the guests, free photo shoots with each one, a con exclusive mug, t-shirt, mini badge and front row seats at the multiple talks over the course of the two days. There was also a cocktail drinks reception on the Saturday night where the guests and Gold pass attendees could mingle and chat...

Now I personally bought myself a Gold pass for one reason and one reason only, the same reason I always buy one at a Showmasters event: I only want the meet the guests and get the autographs then leave. My disabilities don't give me the luxury of spending the whole day there doing all the extra stuff, apart from browsing the dealer stalls. I'd probably collapse half way through if I tried to do as much as everyone else. I don't go to the talks, I didn't intend on going to the Saturday night drinks reception and the freebies were appreciated but ultimately unnecessary for me. At the London Film and Comic Con or Collectormania the Gold pass is primarily designed to get you into the large queues whenever you want without having to get a numbered virtual queue ticket and wait for your number to come up (which could take hours) especially when there are multiple guests you need to see. Also it usually costs £175... Yes that's right, £175 for a Gold pass to these other cons. It's been the subject of many a forum member/ attendee's disgust that you have to pay so much to get what is considered to be so little, but remember that you don’t have to take this option. Most events are either £10 or free to get in. You are in effect paying what I can only presume is a considerable donation towards getting the guests there in the first place and funding the event premises rental and everything else involved, and I understand that, otherwise I wouldn't pay it at all. Better than life was set out differently to most other events though (I didn't know this before buying the GP) and you got a set group number allocated to you depending on what kind of ticket you had, which is called throughout the day for the signing sessions and the photo shoots. In other words I still had to wait around and couldn't get to the back of the queues I wanted to in quick succession. Fair enough this is how the event works, it just meant that my Gold Pass was a waste of time for me as I was still waiting around getting more tired and experiencing more pain than I'd planned. Bit of a bugger but I accepted that. The big issue for me with the Gold pass ended up being that Norman Lovett (original Holly) and Chris Barrie (Rimmer) cancelled before the event. Two main cast members lost before we even started and possibly a good enough reason for me, and maybe a few others, not to have attended, should we have known. The Gold pass is non-refundable once purchased so it's a case of ‘like it or lump it’ in these situations unfortunately.

You may comment that I don't have to go to these cons in the first place and that you can simply buy authorised autographs online etc, but that's not the point. I'm a fan, a geek, I want to meet these people face to face and experience being in their presence as well as getting the permanent keepsake of the autograph which I know first had was from them to me. My disabilities shouldn't have to stop me from experiencing that and there isn’t a way round it.

The event staff that work the Showmasters events are you and me... In other words they are usually fans volunteering to man the queues and help keep the event in order, policing it and making sure your experience is a fun and efficient one. Well I'm sure a large portion of the attendees would agree that they are great and do a good job, especially members like DavidB, Too Tall, Shabs. Jola and many more that I know of. But unfortunately I've had a run in with one or more at every frickin event. At older cons it was staff being downright rude, having attitudes and aggressive tendencies way above the expected level a volunteer (or even paid) employee for an event like these should have. Some are on some sort of power trip, letting it all go to their head, some are simply indifferent and apathetic to the whole thing and are absolutely useless when asked a simple question like "where to I find this guests table" etc. OK so a good percentage of the time I go into any retail shop in the high street these days you get service like that anyway. But then you don't pay £95/ £175 to enter that shop do you? Is it too much to ask that when you're a Gold pass holder you get a little respect and customer service for having contributed so much towards the show? More than the larger percentage attending who’ve paid the standard entrance fee or nothing at all? Should we be asking for a more expensive 'Platinum pass' to get some better service at these things? I mean, when you pay first class on a flight you get the champagne, the good food, the reclining comfortable chair, the hot air hostesses and the exemplary service, believe me I know. You're paying that price intentionally for the relevant service or you'd be flying standard class wouldn't you? Don't get me wrong, like I said there are a good few staff that are great, but they seem to be the veterans and usually the older ones too. I've even had a couple of run-ins with Showmasters head honcho Jason Joiner. Thanks for doing these events Jason but I'm afraid your attitude towards me in the past has been terrible, you may not remember me but I certainly remember you... Oh and while I remember the female staff member who kept telling everyone to move up in the photo session queue doesn't know how near she came to getting a rectal insertion of my autograph folder. For your information dear we were moved up as much as we could be every time you said it, every bloody 10 seconds you said it in fact. At one point the lady in front of me could have done me for sexual molestation; my groin was so close to her arse! One or two of us did end up shouting at you but you did drive us insane with your incessant yelling of 'move up, move up'. You even apologised and admitted you couldn't see the queue, so why did you keep repeating yourself? A recording on a speaker in a stern German accent would have been more acceptable when we were all being moved along like sardines in a hot undersized can! Remember the fun aspect of these things? This wasn’t it!

O the Saturday I came a cropper of a couple of lippy and megalomaniacal staff members who looked at me like a piece of crap and spoke to me in the same way. One such girl, although I admit she was attempting to enforce something that I needed to circumvent because I was knackered, talked to me in such a way that I came very close to getting violent towards her. Basically Robert Llewellyn had turned up late and because of that his morning signing session had to be delayed until after his photo shoot. This meant that because of the size of the other signing queues and photo shoots the whole schedule for me became a rush. As I mentioned before I just needed to get all the autographs out of the way and get out of there because I was fading fast. After getting through Hattie Hayridge's photo shoot I literally ran upstairs, and yes it was painful, to get into Robert's signing queue. Now as this girl was writing on his queue board that the queue was closed due to the talks being due soon people were still entering the queue unnoticed anyway. I'm a very polite person, yes it’s true, and I voluntarily stopped and asked her if it was alright for me to quickly jump in and grab it as I was leaving soon and wouldn't have the chance to get it later in the day as I wouldn’t' t be there. She looked me up and down and abruptly said "No. It's a two day event; you've paid to be here for two days so if you want his autograph you'll just have to wait". I was a bit taken aback and explained that I wasn't able to do it later, that I may not even return the next day due to how bad I was feeling and would it be at all possible for me to just grab it and run, I would be super quick. Robert still had a good bit of time to get down to the talk and there were literally 5 people in his queue left. Again she simply said no and walked off. I swore, something I wouldn't normally do, and moved over to the wall to chill out. After she'd walked off 3 people entered his queue unchallenged... I went nuts and headed back over for a verbal fight with any staff member I could grab, I was not amused. That same staff member saw me coming, turned her back on me and spoke quickly and quietly to a senior staff member about me and what I'd asked to do (not much in my opinion, but the mohican obviously makes me look thuggish and a bit of trouble, so it's a case of judge a book by its cover). The other staff member told me to come over when she saw my furious face and I explained my disability situation and literally pleaded with her to get the auto so I could go home. She didn't believe me at all, you could see it in her face, but reluctantly accepted and then said "this is a one off; we won't let you do it again". I felt like a school child being told off. I thanked both the senior staff member and the girl profusely when I got out of the queue because that’s just me, I’m polite even in the face of this kind of thing (although I felt like doing some sort of childish victory dance in front of the girl, thrusting my groin towards her face etc) but it shouldn't have gone down like that and if she'd been kinder I probably would have accepted defeat and stayed until the afternoon and suffered more. Suffice to say I got Robert's autograph and went home shortly after suffering an extreme hypo (not good when driving by myself and the glucose tablets didn't kick in well) and a little post-event rage. And just to mention, I wouldn't have bothered with the photo shoots for each guest if it hadn't been the case that they were timed in between each signing session and part of my Gold pass package. I would have once again left them out and gone home.

Apart from all the guests being highly spirited during the signing and photo shoot sessions and the fact that Danny John-Jules (Cat) unexpectedly turned up one day early, my morning did not go well. Even taking photos at the event became prohibited, I managed to snap a couple of shots and then 'NO PHOTOGRAPHS OR VIDEO' seemed to pop up everywhere, what was with that? What if people couldn’t get/ afford photo passes? Could we not turn off flashes? Take photo’s from a distance?

I didn't stay for the talks or the drinks in the afternoon/ evening as I said, but I heard they were good. I got everyone's autographs and photo sessions out the way on Saturday and was able to leave before 12pm. Quite an achievement for me, I literally collapsed and fell asleep when I got home. Only Craig Charles (Lister) was left for me to get on Sunday morning.

Now Sunday for me was the worst bit about the whole 2 days. It was a battle in my mind as to whether to go to Bedford again just to get Craig's auto, a long trip just for one man’s signature, but as I'd bought the £30 box art picture one of the dealers were selling (what was with the lack of dealers too?) and got it signed by pretty much everyone else, plus I'd paid for the two days, I thought it was worth it. Before I left my house at 7:30am I checked the forum to see if there was any sign of Craig having cancelled (something my missus and I had ironically joked about the night before) but there wasn't so I set off. Upon my arrival at the hotel two attendees (I didn't catch their names but I see them at all the events I go to) stopped me and said "have you heard the latest? Craig's cancelled.” I swear they must have thought I was going to kill them. The look on my face must've been a picture. I asked if they were joking and of course they weren't. He'd supposedly called in sick just before the event was due to open. I'd travelled another 80 miles, 160 total for it being a return journey, for absolutely nothing. I went into the hotel to check for myself that he had indeed cancelled and then grabbed my previous days photo shoot pictures and left. I was steaming, literally. More wasted money, time and effort on my part. It's not Showmasters fault and I'm quite aware of that, if a guest phones in sick then there's nothing you can do about it. But think about it... a Red Dwarf specific event where the whole cast is announced and then 3 of them don't turn up... a terrible, terrible thing to happen for the diehard fans hoping to get the full house. And the compensation was a group photo shoot with the other cast members for free. I didn't indulge as you can imagine. Again it's understood that guests can cancel for any number of reasons be it personal, work related or illness but it doesn't stop you from getting mighty p'd off when it happens! Especially when you've paid that bit extra...

Now here's the conspiracy theory thing. When those two attendees told me about Craig cancelling they also said something else. They said that at an event last month that both they and I attended, Craig didn't know anything about Better than life. His agent/ girlfriend sitting next to him at the event didn't know anything about it either... she said she hadn't been approached about another con... But if this really was true then why was Craig announced back on Jan 29th? Since hearing that I've read that he announced on a radio show on the Saturday that he wasn't attending due to a bad head cold, but was then seen out and about in Liverpool looking fine and dandy on Sunday. Either way it didn't really matter about Craig as Chris was also not attending. Both are equally important and the con wasn't complete without them there. Norman was missed of course but as Hattie was there it kinda covered his absence, plus getting Mac Macdonald last minute (Captain Frank Hollister) was also appreciated.

I know that a lot of people loved the event, and quite rightly so for them. The guests were absolutely fantastic and for those that had the energy and ability to see the whole weekend through in its entirety; I salute you and hope you enjoyed yourselves. For me Chloe Annett was lovely to meet and utterly gorgeous (although she looked awfully thin), Hattie Hayridge was amazingly chirpy and laughing with every fan, Danny John-Jules was the same, Robert Llewellyn was nice enough (although rushed due to the above) and both Steven Wickham (Gelf Bride) and Mac Macdonald (Captain Hollister) were polite and friendly.

There is no real blame to be put on the shoulders of anyone that organised the event, as with every other event they do what they can with what they have to use. You can’t expect perfection with so many variables. If Showmasters/ Massive Events didn't put on these cons, we wouldn't get to meet the guests at all, although I'd be a far site richer every year having not spent literally thousands on them! I just happened to have had one of the roughest times I've ever had at a con and I'm hoping my Olympia Collectormania in November goes better. Unfortunately I'm not around for LFCC this year, I am totally gutted as you can imagine with the current lineup being as good as it is, but for those of you going; enjoy yourselves!

May I ask a question to Jason and the Showmasters organizers though? Is there the possibility of a 'disability pass' for these cons going forward, if it doesn't exist already? Something that lets the physically less fortunate jump to the front of any queue they need to? And if so, should it really be something we have to pay for? I'm sure able bodied attendees won't moan if a wheelchair laden fan is pushed to the front for a 10 second autograph, but a specific pass would let people know someone like me wasn't just being an ass and jumping in for no reason. Hell the Showmasters staff seem to jump in whenever they want to grab their signatures or have a chat, happens all the time and is the main perk of being staff so I hear.

A little something to dwell on maybe?

Now let’s hope Craig and Chris are announced at a future event I’m actually going to… and don’t cancel!

Oh and as a last afterthought; the girl who sat on the opposite sofa in the hotel area just past the registration table on Saturday morning... You were gorgeous, plain and simple. I may be a taken man but I can appreciate a pretty face when I see one. I'm a big fan of good looking female geeks/ fans and you were possibly the cutest attendee there. If you read this I'm sorry I didn't smile back at you politely when you originally sat down, I was in my own little world sitting there waiting for the event to start and have to admit to being a little shocked at how cute you were. You know who you are, I was the only mohican headed guy there and was wearing the black Red Dwarf in a circle t-shirt with a black bag and box framed picture.

Just had to say that as I don't like people thinking I was being rude!


Anonymous said...

I'm curious, Did you contact Massive Events (specifically Too Tall) prior to attending to explain your disability needs? I also have a disability which is not obvious,(though I'm not officially registered disabled, it is a pretty rare condition and is signifcant enough to ruin events if I let it). After a bad experience once I now simply contact event organizers in advance whenever I go to things and get something in writing from them to say that they are aware of the situation (that's the important part, get something in writing to show a possible 'jobsworth'). Since doing that its been OK. I suggested to Too Tall a while ago that people with disabilities go into the talks first so they don't have to queue, and ME have implemented that policy at their last few cons. True, one member of staff did query it when I went to the head of the queue at BTL but Too Tall simply waved me through so I didn't have a problem. (I did bring the email confirmation that Too Tall had previously sent me, just in case, but I didn't actually need to show it this time). I have suggested that something be put on attendees badge to indicate that they have a disability, to avoid any confusion, but that hasn't been taken up. I believe Too Tall said that he'd rather deal with disability needs on an individual basis rather than have a standard policy, as everyones needs are different.

I too am very wary of being seen as a queue jumper! Hence the preplanning. The notice that ME put on the door for the talks at the BTL con stated that people with disabilities would go in first, but as I'm not in a wheelchair and look pretty normal I made a point of explaining to the people who were at the front of the queue that I had a disability and would be going in first, but I also emphasized that I wouldn't be competing for their seats! (I had gold but not a high enoug number for a front row seat, my ticket entitled me to a second row seat so that is where I went).

A few years ago I used to try to just blend in and not make a fuss when I went out, and try to act like nothing was wrong. Now I do things differently, and make damn sure that I do everything I possibly can to ensure that (within reason) I can do whatever someone without my condition can do. (on one memorable occasion it took several phonecalls over 5 days, being passed from pillar to post until I got an answer from someone who had the authority to confirm in writing the arrangements that had been made for me at a major outdoor event!,and actually the problem I had when I got there wasn't from the able bodied people it was from someone who had an obvious disability who objected, rather loudly, to me using the disabled entrance to bypass the main queue - the stewards simply saw the letter I had and told the woman to stop complaining, if I hadn't had the letter I would have been screwed).

Kryptonian Warrior said...

Hi, thanks for the info. I've contacted Too Tall and Jason via the Showmasters forum and hopefully from now onwards things will be a little easier for me. Unfortunately that doesn't help the people I go with, but at least it may speed up my day so I can rest. 31 going on 81 y'know!