• Billie Piper (Rose Tyler from “Doctor Who”)
• Louise Brealey (Molly Hooper from “Sherlock”)
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‘MCM Birmingham’ took place over the weekend of the 18th and 19th of March, at the NEC arena in Birmingham, England. Even though MCM are the co-largest convention organisers in the United Kingdom (with Showmasters), I’d never been to an MCM event before. This was partly because I’ve always got too many conventions to attend already, and partly because it’s only in the past year or so that MCM have really started to put a lot of effort into their guest selection. As guests are my primary reason for attending conventions, there had been little to sway me to one of their events...until now. I will happily admit that I largely attended this event for one reason and one reason alone: Billie Piper. “Doctor Who” is a top-5 show of all-time for me, alongside “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”/“Angel”, “Game Of Thrones”, “Chuck”, and “Dexter”. Due to a combination of bad luck and ill timing, I’d never had the opportunity to meet Billie before this weekend. Historically, either I’d be going to an event with her and she’d cancel, or vice versa. I couldn’t let this opportunity slip through my fingers again, especially as the NEC arena is only an hour or so away from my house in Gloucester.
Speaking of bad luck, I ended up attending “MCM Birmingham” alone, which was not the initial plan when I first applied for press passes to the event (and was successful!). Three different friends had to pull-out, one of which right at the last minute, leaving your friendly neighbourhood Shangel a lonely reviewer for the event. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I went alone. Boy, did I feel like a sad case.
Due to the fact I’d never been to an ‘MCM’ event before, I was both excited and trepidatious to attend. Would the event be as successful and well-organised as I’d imagined it in my head? Or would the horror stories of the Saturday of ‘MCM Birmingham’ come to bite me in the ass on the Sunday? As I could only attend Sunday, I’d kept up with the discussions and social media activity for the Saturday. While most of what I read was positive, I did read some horror stories too – a £90 ‘Starsky & Hutch’ group photo being taken on an iPhone instead of with a professional camera, 3-hour waiting times to get the studio photos printed out...what had I gotten myself in to?
Alas, even before I got to the convention, I was impressed with ‘MCM’. Firstly, children go to the events for free as long as they’re accompanied by an adult with a valid entry ticket. Secondly, there was so much going on! There was live wrestling in one area of the hall, Robot Wars in another, a Steampunk Emporium, a zone specifically for children with face painting, reading, and lightsaber training...and you even got free entry into the sewing, hobbycraft and cake event in the next hall with an MCM entry ticket! If I had children, I would probably take them to an MCM event first because there is so much to do for children...plus, it’s free entry for them. In addition to all the cool activities there were to choose from, I’ve also got to praise the venue itself. The NEC is definitely fit for purpose for a Comic Con. It makes me even more excited to be back there in June for Showmasters’ “Collectormania 24”! There was lots of space, I never felt remotely claustrophobic or crowded once, the lighting was pretty decent (screw you, Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff!), everything was well signposted, and everything was easy to find. I’ve also got to praise the crew and organisation for ‘MCM Birmingham’. I read some of the horror stories from the Saturday, but it’s only fair that I stick to reviewing objectively, which means I can only comment on what I personally saw and experienced for myself. For me, all my photoshoots ran on time, both my studio photos were printed within a matter of minutes, the panels started on time, the event opened on time, and all the crew and NEC staff I interacted with were particularly friendly and approachable. A big ‘well done!’ to everyone involved.
As I’ve mentioned before, my primary reason for attending events is the guests. While I love the Cosplay, merchandise stalls, and atmosphere of conventions, I wouldn’t travel for hours and spend money if it weren’t for the guests. This is where ‘MCM’ was held back a little bit. While the line-up was really good (Billie Piper, Louise Brealey, David Soul, Paul Glaser, Antonio Fargas, Michael Landes, Eugene Clark, Greg Austin, Fady Elsayed, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, and Andrew Lee Potts to name a few), very few of the guests matched my personal interests and tastes or I’d met them before, meaning I was basically travelling to Birmingham to meet two people: Billie Piper and Louise Brealey. I have travelled to conventions before for less, but it would have been nice to have another few people that peaked my personal interests. Alas, there were many, many ‘Starsky & Hutch’, ‘Red Dwarf’, and ‘Class’ fans there, so I’m sure the announcements pleased countless people. The only other downside is that ‘MCM’ are a little more expensive than the likes of “Showmasters” and “Wales Comic Con”. For instance, a guest like Ross O’Hennessy or Annette Hannah would be a £10 autograph and a £10 studio photo at Showmasters or Wales Comic Con, but at ‘MCM’ they were both £15 autographs and £20 studio photos. I mean absolutely no offence to the people I gave as examples above, but I only paid £20 for studio photos with Summer Glau, Hayley Atwell, and James Remar. I paid less than that for studio photos with Rose Leslie, Iain Glen, and Natalia Tena. ‘MCM’ are definitely pricier than many events for autographs and studio photo costs. With ‘MCM’ being the joint largest convention organiser in the U.K., you’d have thought they could keep costs to a minimum, like Showmasters.
How about we get into the play-by-play section of the review, huh? This will be shorter than most of my convention reviews because I only met two people and didn’t attend any panels. That means there’s not a huge amount left to say.
I left Gloucester – by myself, ugh – at 7:00am on Sunday morning, giving me an arrival time of 8:15am at the NEC arena. Once I parked the car (express parking, because apparently I’m fancy now), I headed inside the NEC arena and tried to figure out where to go. Thankfully, everything was very well signposted. ‘MCM Birmingham’ was taking place inside halls 3, 3a, and 4, which gave the event a lot of space to spread things out and eliminate crushes and areas of congestion. I headed to the press office, received my press pass, grabbed a bottle of water, chilled out for a while, and headed inside the venue as doors opened (read: barriers removed) at 9:30am. The first thing I did was head to Billie Piper’s autograph queue. Thankfully, you could pay for all of the guests’ autographs at their respective autograph tables, which was helpful. Most events do it this way anyway, but ‘MCM’ have the annoying habit of making you buy ‘smileys’ at a sales desk, which are then used at the autograph table in lieu of paying there. This is annoying as it means you have to join a very long queue to buy the autographs, and then join a long autograph queue as well. It makes much more sense to do it the Showmasters way and just pay at the autograph table or at a little table right before it. I was 3rd in Billie’s autograph queue. Unfortunately, Billie didn’t show up until 10am. Even though this happens at quite a few events, it’s a pet peeve of mine when guests aren’t at their autograph table for the show’s opening. None of the main guests were at their autograph table before 10am. Louise was briefly, but then went back to the green room as nobody else was there yet. The ‘Starsky & Hutch’ guys didn’t show up until after 10:30am, meaning that the people in their autograph queue had been waiting for an hour or so before the queue event started to move. Annoying.
Billie Piper: Due to Billie being such an in-demand guest, my time with her was fairly limited. Not awfully limited, but the interaction was still in that 1-2 minute range. We started by talking about Rose Tyler and her gut-wrenching initial departure in the season two finale, “Doomsday”. In addition to being a very powerful, beautifully written, and expertly acted episode of television, it also holds a special place in my heart for another reason. Just under a year after the episode first aired, my best friend died. He was hit by a car, the driver didn’t stop, and he passed away. The first 6 weeks after I heard the news, I was a mess. I travelled to London to I.D. his body, I was directionless and confused, but I didn’t show or feel any emotion. I was stuck in this shocked, numb cycle and hadn’t even started the grieving process. I hadn’t cried, I hadn’t raged...I hadn’t really felt much of anything. Until, one day, in July of 2007, a few weeks after my A2 college exams had ended, I decided to throw on an episode of “Doctor Who” to cheer myself up. I chose entirely at random, and the episode turned out to be “Doomsday”. The conclusion of that episode was the first time in 6 weeks that I’d felt anything, anything. It opened the flood gates and was the very first step in a long healing process that took almost four and a half years to complete. So, I decided to tell Billie this. Granted, it was the slightly more condensed version than the above, but she seemed genuinely affected and touched nonetheless. We also discussed Peter Capaldi leaving “Doctor Who” after the imminent series 10, and I asked Billie if she’d be willing to throw her name into the hat as the potential first female Doctor. Billie chuckled and said absolutely no way. She said that her time on “Doctor Who” was amazing, but it was also the hardest work of her career. Very, very long hours, lots of promotional work, etc. She said she doesn’t know how the actors actually playing the Doctor maintain that type of schedule as even being a Companion on the show was positively exhausting after a while. I thanked Billie for coming and thanked her for her time, and I was on my merry way. Guest Type = Big Guest.
(Regular readers, you can skip this section)
“Shangel, what’s a ‘Big Guest’?”
I’m glad you asked. Many years ago, after attending numerous conventions, I devised a system whereby to categorise my experiences with guests and their level of interaction in order to compare the quality of my experiences across conventions and time. I have O.C.D., shut up. The following three types were found :-
· The Responder: This type of guest is often polite and friendly. If you ask them a question, they’ll happily answer. If you comment on something, they’ll respond or smile gratefully. However, they won’t carry the conversation forward, you have to. These are the most common type of guest, and this is what you expect when meeting someone at a convention. This is a great category to be a part of.
· The Groucho/Big Guest: There are two aspects to this category. Firstly, you have the groucho. The groucho is there for monetary purposes or is generally just having a bad day, or is a bit of an ass. If you meet enough people, one of them is bound to be an ass! The grouchos aren’t interested in conversations above a few words. They’ll say ‘hi’ (sometimes they don’t bother with that), sign, say ‘bye’ (sometimes), and you’re on your merry way. Of course, in certain situations this is relevant and expected, which brings me to the second part of this category, the big guest. Some guests are going to be insanely popular. Such as Stan Lee at LFCC ‘14, who had an entire building to himself basically. When you get a huge queue like that, the guest can’t take a lot of time with everyone. If they did, many people would go home disappointed at not getting to meet them at all. Therefore, the convention company and the guest want to get through as many people as possible. You cannot have a huge guest and expect to get above a minute with them, which is perfectly fair.
· The Conversationalist: This is easily my favourite type of guest. They’ll answer your questions with a smile, ask you questions in return, and are happy to chat for an extended period of time (extended = above 2-3 minutes), regardless of where the conversation leads or how long you’ve been talking. Obviously, there has to be some cut-off point if there is a queue behind you, but you leave the experience feeling euphoric and like you gained a lot more than just the autograph you queued for.
Feel free to let me know your experiences with guests in the comments below or on social media!
After leaving Billie’s autograph table, I perused the merchandise stalls for a while before heading over to Louise Brealey’s autograph table. I don’t like wandering over to an empty autograph table, so I waited until a couple of people formed a mini-queue in front of me and then I joined the back of that. It might sound strange to say I dislike an empty queue, but I just find it awkward. They’re staring at you as you’re approaching and you don’t get time to get your composure first. I don’t particularly like long queues either, but having a couple of people in front of me is the ideal scenario.
Louise Brealey: What a sweetheart Louise was! Even if Billie wasn’t delightful (which she was), I would have been happy I’d made the journey for Louise Brealey alone. A week before, at ‘MCM Liverpool’, Louise had partaken in her first convention. She’d enjoyed the experience so much that she’d agreed to come to Birmingham the following weekend to meet more of her fans. On Sunday, Louise was only there until midday, but thankfully I had the time to get both an autograph and a studio photo with Louise before that time. Louise was the embodiment of a ‘conversationalist’ that I referenced in my categories above. For every question I asked her, she’d ask one in turn. She asked what I did for a living, so I explained my job. I also explained that I’m just finishing up a Master’s degree in criminal psychology and that I also review conventions and TV shows as a secondary living. Louise seemed genuinely fascinated, particularly as the criminal psychology ties into “Sherlock” so much. Louise talked about her excitement of being part of the convention scene now and I told her that it’s certainly not a bad way to travel the world if she wanted to do some international Comic Cons. Comic Cons are everywhere now. From India to Abu Dhabi, from Mexico to Poland, from Australia to Dubai. If she were able to travel to these places for a convention, but stay an extra couple of days, her flights and a certain part of her accommodation would be paid for by someone else! Very cool way to explore the world. We also talked about the extension she’s having done on her house. I asked Louise about the auditioning process for “Doctor Who” back in the day. Amusingly, as Louise was sat next to Billie Piper, she once auditioned for the role of Rose Tyler. She said that her audition was ‘dreadful’ and that there was a lot of secrecy around the auditioning process. In fact, they called the show a different name in order to try to conceal that it was for “Doctor Who”! I asked Louise the same thing I asked Billie: would she put her name forth to replace Peter Capaldi on “Doctor Who”? Especially as there are strong rumours that the next Doctor will be female. Louise said that she would love to play the Doctor, but not yet. She said that the last she read was that Tilda Swinton was one of the frontrunners and that she would be a good choice. Particularly as the first female Doctor. Louise went to say that one of the cool things about Tilda is that she has quite an androgynous air to her, but Louise couldn’t remember the word ‘androgynous’. She amusingly said I wasn’t allowed to leave her autograph table until she remembered it – “the synapses are firing, but there’s nothing there!”...Poor Louise. Mercifully, Louise’s crew member remembered the word. I thanked Louise wholeheartedly for her time, she said it was “amazing” to meet me, and I was off on my way again! Guest Type = Conversationalist.
With half an hour to kill before my two studio photos, I had another peruse of the merchandise stalls, and also bumped into some friends. That’s one of the cool things about the convention circuit! Even though I went alone, I bumped into Clare, Kym, Darran, and Andrea within the space of 30 minutes! I know so many people by now that I never feel truly alone at a convention, even if I go by myself. I also got told off by convention agent, Dan John, for not going and saying “hi” to him during the day. In my defence, I only saw him once from a distance, and he looked really busy. Conventions are like one big family if you go to enough. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is friendly, talkative, and is genuinely excited to see you again. It’s awesome. That’s one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to “Wales Comic Con” so much in three weeks time. Out of all the events I go to, “Wales Comic Con” is the most like family. I know almost all the crew, I know half the guests, I know a plethora of the attendees...it’s like a family reunion. I don’t feel more comfortable anywhere else on Earth.
Louise’s studio photo started at 11:30am. It went off without a hitch. I was second in Louise’s queue (behind Kym!), she greeted me enthusiastically, the picture was taken, it was printed a minute later, and I was queuing up again for Billie’s studio photo at 11:45am. Billie’s queue was big. Not ‘LFCC’ big, but still a very respectable size. Thankfully, I managed to be about 30th in the queue, which meant that there wasn’t a very long wait for me before the photo was taken. Billie remembered me from earlier in the morning (“hi Shane!”), which was a nice touch as she’d seen so many people since the start of her signing time. Once again, the photo was taken, it was printed right afterwards, and it came out great!
I now had two choices: head home or linger around for a couple of hours and go to Billie Piper’s panel. I decided to head home. As much as I love Billie, I had a shitload of uni work to do. The Master’s degree ends in 80 days. Almost every waking second right now is dedicated to uni work...or actual work. Having an unexpected extra couple of hours to get ahead of the work was tremendous. I feel bad that I missed Billie’s panel, but I couldn’t justify waiting another few hours for one 30-minute panel.
To conclude, it’s hard to give a really detailed answer to how good of a convention ‘MCM Birmingham’ was as I was only there for half of one day. However, from what I did see, I’m impressed. The crew were great, the organisation was top-notch (although not the case for Saturday from what I’ve been told), the venue was tremendous, there was a lot to do, the layout worked really well for the event, and the location was definitely fit for purpose. The only major downsides I found were that the guest line-up wasn’t really suited to my tastes and that the autograph and studio photo prices were more expensive than MCM’s competition in many instances. Would I return to ‘MCM Birmingham’? Probably. It’s close to home, it had a lot going for it, and it was a fun day! I’d just need a line-up worthy of the travel and expenses.
Now, on to “Wales Comic Con” and “Em-Con” in April! Don’t be afraid to say “hi” if you see me there.