It was sunny when we left Sheffield, but as we crossed the Pennines, it got grey and damp. So, typical Manchester then. There was no one to meet me off the train at Manchester Oxford road, but a nice woman helped me lower the wheelchair off the train and I found a member of staff who pointed me to the lifts. From the station, I took a taxi to the venue, which was in an industrial estate near Trafford Park. There was a long queue of damp and cold people waiting to reach the ticket entry, so I wheeled the chair over to speak to a steward and he waved me to the shorter queue behind the barrier. This saved me at least an hour of waiting to get into the event at all.
There were pre-booked entries, which had sold out, and people buying tickets on the day. The whole thing seemed to be massively over-sold. It opened at 9:00.am, but people arriving at 8:30 found all the car parking taken up. There were cars parked all over the industrial estate, on verges, double yellow lines, and in business' car parks. Some people had to park half an hour away and others just gave up and went home.
Once actually inside, it was almost as packed as the train. Areas were poorly lit, there was little clear signage and no maps readily available. The staff were difficult to identify and many seemed to be general event staff for the venue, and didn't know much about this specific event.
The first thing I went to was the 40 years of Star Wars panel. The programme had said that all guests would be attending a panel: Denis Lawson wasn't listed for any particular panel, so I assumed he'd be on this one. First of all we got Ian McDiarmid on his own, being interviewed by Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers). Casper was a very good host, and Ian was an amusing guest. I'd have like to see Ian on stage with Denis, since they attended drama school together and even shared a flat, I believe. After about 20 mins of Ian, he left and we got Brian Muir (prop maker). Jeremy Bulloch (Bobs Fett), Daniel Logan (young Boba in ep 2) and Joonas Suotamo (new Chewbacca actor). Jeremy was good and so was Joonas, who was entertaining and very likable. When Disney were looking for a younger actor to play Chewbacca, they wanted someone who was very tall and blue-eyed, so they contacted the Finnish Pro Basketball association, who gave them Joonas' number and that was that. It was a good talk, but that was it. No Denis, or indeed Billy Dee Williams, who was also at the event.
I ventured into the main hall, and found what looked like an insanely long queue for the guest autograph room. I wasn't sure I could even get to the end, as there was actually a drop of three steep steps to the main floor of the hall and the line went to the top of the drop and then curved around. I had pre-booked autographs, which meant a priority queue into the guest room, so I went up the queue to the official at the doorway. He let me straight through into another queue, in a sectioned off area of the event hall. This was divided in two, but most people were told to queue down one side with only a handful (platinum pass holders ?) allowed down the other. I was in this line for over an hour, very glad I had the wheelchair to sit in, and getting annoyed at the guy behind me, who kept leaning on one of the handles of my chair. There was some vague attempts by staff to find people in the queue who wanted autographs from guests who were shortly due to go off to photograph sessions, but this wasn't well co-ordinated and I'm not sure anyone actually got in quicker.
When I finally made it into the guest hall, it was 2:00 and Denis had gone off to the first of his photo sessions. I spoke to someone at the exit of the room, who suggested I wait 25 mins for Denis to return. However, I had a photo booked and couldn't wait for the later session, as I'd probably miss my train and the booked assistance at the station. I went through to the main hall, which was packed with people and props and took a few minutes to find photo area B. Once finally there, it was a fairly short wait for my turn to be photographed with Denis. I got my feet slightly tangled with the footplates of the wheelchair as I stood up and looked rather more wobbly than I actually was. Denis took my hand and put his arm round me, and I asked if we could stand in a dance hold for the picture. Denis was a little surprised and liked the idea. We got into a ballroom hold and he swayed gently back and forth; I quickly caught the rhythm and moved in time with him. When the pic was taken, he kept hold of my hand and helped me across to the wheelchair and steadied me as I returned to it. It wasn't really necessary, but I wasn't objecting :). There was another queue to collect the photo, but I got a good look at the ECTO-1 standing nearby. It wasn't the original one, but a movie-accurate replica, and rather impressive close up. One of the female Ghostbusters in attendence admired my X-Wing earrings.
Once I'd collected my photo, which came in a cardboard frame, I went back to the exit of the guest hall, explained that I'd already queued to get in but had to leave for the photo session, and convinced them to let me back in without queueing all over again. There was a tremendously long line for Billy Dee Willams taking up a lot of room, and causing most of the delays.I'd have gone to see him if he'd made it to the Sheffield Showmasters even a year or so back, but here the price for an autograph was just too much. Ditto, it would have been cool to have a photo taken with William Shatner, but I couldn't bring myself to spend £65 for it.
I didn't have to queue to see Denis, who was there with his new wife (married in September). I'd mislaid the paper confirming my pre-paid autographs (I thought it had been taken by an offical at the photo shoot - found it later in my trouser pocket). I explained this to the staff member with Denis, but he seemed inclined to believe me, and Denis clearly wasn't that bothered as he just waved his hand to indicate it didn't matter.
I produced a biscuit tin from my wheelchair bag, explaining that there weren't any biscuits in it, much to Denis' disappointment. Instead, I produced my model of the snowspeeder flown by Wedge Antilles and Wes Janson in Empire.I'd already got it signed by Ian Liston (Wes), so it's now got autographs from both actors on it. Then I produced the second of my two Denis Lawson calendars - Denis had signed the other one back in 2013. He looked surprised when I produced it, saying he didn't remember it and I explained it wasn't any kind of official merchandise but something I'd had made. As before, he looked through it at the pictures. I had to remind him what a couple of the older ones were from but I think he liked seeing them all. After that, I produced copies of Dynamite Express and Outlaw Express and explained about the Star Wars connection, and Sheriff Lawson being named after him. He was surprised again when I explained I was giving him the two books, and he thanked me for them.
I said I had a ticket already to see him in the touring production of Art next April and he agreed when I said I thought the whole cast (all 3 of them) was good. I was tempted to stay longer but as the lines were so muddled, I wasn't sure whether or not there was anyone else waiting to see him. Denis doesn't chat as easily to fans as other actors, and it's well known that he's not particularly interested in Star Wars. I wish I'd thought to ask him about something else, to see if I could get him talking a little more, but I was feeling I'd taken up enough time already, especially with not being sure if anyone else was waiting.
I had a little look around the rest of the event. There were lots of cosplayers, and a startling array of various uniforms in sight. I noticed that Trek uniforms were predominantly of the Original series, though I did see one fellow in a lovely copy of the burgundy jacket from the original cast movies (Wrath of Khan onwards). There were also a surprising number of Ghostbusters. There were also a fair few stalls but I needed to keep cash for taxis and there were no cash machines around. I left around half three and got back to the station in good time. A helpful member of staff took me to the nice warm cafe to wait, then helped me on the train. It was less busy than the morning one, but I still didn't see a conductor and got home with my tickets umarked.
Altogether, it was a tiring day, and frequently frustrating, but overall worthwhile. It was also good to have tried a train journey with the wheelchair. It went fine, and as I usually find, people are generally kind and helpful.