Friday, 8 June 2018

Em-Con: Nottingham 2018 - A Detailed Review

Guests met and discussed in this review (with the franchise(s) I most associate them with personally) :-

• Billie Piper (Rose Tyler from “Doctor Who”)
• Pearl Mackie (Bill Potts from “Doctor Who”)
• Nicholas Brendon (Xander Harris from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”)
• Emma Caulfield (Anya Jenkins from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”)
• Tony Curran (Vincent van Gogh from “Doctor Who”, Datak Tarr from “Defiance” & Markus from “Underworld: Evolution”)
• Chris Rankin & Ness (Percy Weasley from “Harry Potter” / Girlfriend extraordinaire) 

Two quick notes before we get started...

1) If this is your first time on "Shangel's Reviews", I'm currently reviewing every single episode of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" in depth. A list of all the reviews I've written so far can be located here. Yes, I haven’t written one in a while due to my Master’s degree, but I am starting up again really soon now that the Master’s degree is over.
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With that being said, let’s dive in...

Once again, starting a review with an apology….I. Am. So. Far. Behind. On. Everything. I intended to get this review up a fortnight ago. I intended to get the “Em-Con: Worcester” and “Film & Comic Con Cardiff” reviews up ages ago too. Alas, I’m a very busy man. Two jobs, lots of personal life changes, and many, many cons over the past couple of months has meant that everything else has taken a back seat…but I will catch up over the next week or two, I swear!....Still need to finish those Buffy and Angel reviews at some point too. Does anyone know how I can clone myself?

Before diving into my review of “Em-Con: Nottingham”, I just want to address something. This review is from my perspective. I went Sunday. Just Sunday. Some people I know had issues on the Saturday of the event. I will briefly talk about them, but I won’t go into detail as I wasn’t there! It would be unfair. So I’m just going to talk about things from my perspective – and from my perspective, it was an excellent day out and a very enjoyable convention. So, before I left my house on Sunday morning to travel to Nottingham, I did some research….what was the feedback for Saturday like? What issues could I face? Preparation is key, people. While most of the feedback I was reading was positive, a handful of issues did catch my attention (every convention has issues, no shame in that). Firstly, my friends Natasia and Adam bought VIP passes for Pearl Mackie. One of the perks of these passes was priority seating in the first couple of rows of the “Doctor Who” panel. When Natasia and Adam entered the panel about 10 minutes before it was scheduled to start, they were told that the VIP seating was “full” and that they’d have to sit at the back. Big no-no. If you’re paying for VIP perks, you should receive those VIP perks. The other complaint I saw crop up a few times was that the space used for the guests wasn’t sufficient – guests’ queues merging into one, David Bradley’s impressively long queue covering the queues of the other Potter guests, etc. As I’ve been to Em-Con a few times before and the layout looked the same as the previous year, I was unconcerned by this personally as historically the Sunday of the event has been much more relaxed than the Saturday. Always, always go on the Sunday of any convention if you’re only going one day and the guests you want to meet are there both days! It’s usually 20-50% quieter, more time to talk to the guests, less people, less fuss, more fun! In the case of Em-Con, it actually worked out in my favour too as one of the guests I wanted to see (again) the most was Billie Piper, who happened to cancel her appearance for the Saturday and was now just attending on Sunday. Phew! As far as negatives go, that was basically it. The only negative I saw pop up a few times was the space used for the guests. Everything else was either the odd complaint or personalised to one or two attendees. So kudos to Lee and the team for organising a show that had positive feedback greatly outweighing the negative.

The Motorpoint Arena is still a terrific Comic Con venue overall. One of my favourite things about it is the amount of available seating there is in the stands. If you go to an event like “London Film & Comic Con” and you’re knackered, and really need to sit down, it’s almost inevitably going to be an uncomfortable ass-ache on the concentrate floor. So having thousands of free seats surrounding the main arena at Em-Con is very helpful. I still think the space in the main arena can be used better though. The first year I attended the Nottingham show, some of the guests were out in the main part of the arena, which seemed to work way more efficiently. I’m not sure why all the guests were moved to the alcove part, but it might be worth looking into moving some of them back into the main section of the arena for next year. Another positive from Em-Con is that the entry queues were very efficient and on time. Doors opened at 10:00am sharp and we were inside the main arena by 10:02am. Always helpful for people like me that have my day mapped out in 15-minute intervals because I always inevitably have a thousand things to accomplish. The crew are also tremendous as well. There’s a good blend of old-school, battle-hardened convention regulars like Kev and Clare that have been in the deep end of massive-scale events like LFCC, coupled with existing crew that have been around Em-Con for a few years, mixed with newbies that can learn the ropes from the old guard. They seem to function really well as a team, which is always helpful. If someone is struggling, they jump in. As I write this review, I’m two days removed from attending “Collectormania” at the NEC and during my time there, Robert Englund’s autograph queue was a catastrophe. The V.Q. tickets were handed out like they should be (“1-2-3-4…”) and at some point the crew member started handing them out from the back instead (“500-499-498-497…”), so it became a clusterfuck. By 3:00pm, after signing for almost 6 hours, Robert was still on V.Q. numbers 0-75. This is partially because he’s a slow signer as he likes to chat to everyone for ages, but it’s also because of the V.Q. mess. When people were all congregating around Robert’s queue and getting annoyed, Showmasters management scooted over and started being rude to the attendees (according to people I know that were there receiving the rudeness, I wasn’t there personally). It just goes to show that a solid, unified crew can make or break the experience for many, many attendees. You need a solid crew.

Another positive about the event was the solid line-up of guests that were attending. Headliners included Billie Piper, Pearl Mackie, David Bradley, Sam Jones, Jason David Frank, Nicky Brendon, and Emma Caulfield. Now, for people like me that have been hovering around the con scene for a decade, most of these names will be people that you’ve likely met before as they are semi-regular convention names in the UK, but if you’re newer to the con scene or don’t go to that many shows, there are some big names contained within the list above. I swear, every time I see David Bradley at a convention his autograph queue is getting longer and longer. The only newbie for me to meet was Pearl Mackie. However, I still wanted to go and see my friend Nicky Brendon and my friends Chris (Rankin) and Ness. I still needed a better photo with Billie Piper as my last photo with Billie was taken at ‘MCM Birmingham’ and MCM are shocking when it comes to professional photos. Firstly, they always zoom out really far, which is annoying. Secondly, they don’t offer digital copies whatsoever. So if you wanna crop it to make it look more like every other Comic Con photo in the UK, you end up with a pixelated mess. I also wanted to go and get another autograph from Tony Curran and have a chat because the man is simply delightful. He always takes his time talking to everybody that goes to meet him. Finally, I wanted to get a…erm, shall we say, ‘appropriate’, duo photo with Nicky and Emma, Xander and Anya from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”. I got a duo photo with them both at “Wales Comic Con” a year earlier, but Nicky was a little off the wagon and so the end result is that Nicky is mimicking pleasuring me with his hand in the duo photo. As much as I love that photo (it is one of my favourites of all-time), I also wanted one where my penis remained metaphorically unviolated.

 (cropped to keep it PG)

Finally, as always with “Em-Con”, it was apparent that they were trying to give the attendees as many ‘additions’ as possible, such as replica vehicles outside, a TARDIS inside, a Monsters Inc. photo opportunity, etc. I always appreciate any and all ‘above and beyond’ type exhibits. “Em-Con” seems to always have pretty reasonable prices overall, especially if you’re comparing them to some of the other UK prices in 2018 (I’m looking at you, American companies!). Another thing to remember with the professional studio photos is that the digital copies are free. With most other Comic Con companies, they’re £5 each. As I always get the digitals, I can basically knock £5 off the photo price in order to compare it to most other conventions. I love free digitals. “Em-Con” are the only big UK convention company that offer this to my knowledge (update: since writing this, Em-Con have announced that moving forwards digitals will not be free for the Nottingham show…aww, man!).

It’s now time for the play-by-play section of the review. This is usually the part that determines whether the review will be 8 or 9 pages, or whether it will be 30. In this case, it won’t be that long simply because I had a handful of autographs and photographs as opposed to my usual 15-20! Hence there is less to write about. Everybody ready?

Myself and John left Gloucestershire at 07:30am on Sunday morning. The drive from Gloucester to Nottingham is about two hours, so that gave us time to get there, park up, and get to the Motorpoint before doors opened at 10:00am. Barring unforeseen traffic, it should be a pretty smooth start to the day. It was. No traffic. No issues finding parking. We were in the entry queue by 09:30am. I love it when a plan comes together.

Photos are usually pretty straightforward. They’re at a specific time in a specific location. So as long as you get there on time or 5-10 minutes before it starts, you’re gonna be totally fine. This takes almost all the pressure off of photos and places it all on autographs…will I get the autograph completed? Will the line be too long? For events like LFCC, for the headliners, there is a real possibility these days that you might miss out on the autograph entirely if you aren’t smart and don’t get a low virtual queuing number. As my priority for Em-Con was predominantly Pearl Mackie, I headed to Pearl’s autograph queue first. She wasn’t at her desk yet (arrived about 10:30), but no matter! I could see a handful of people I knew that could keep me company. Plus, just to my right was Chris and Ness, who both came over to have a cuddle and say “hi”, and catch up after they saw me…I say ‘catch up’, I actually saw them a fortnight earlier at “Wales Comic Con”! It’s always great to see them though. Two of my favourite people on the convention scene and two people I consider to be extended family. I won’t go into detail about things we talked about because it was personal stuff, not con stuff. After chatting to Chris and Ness, and Wales Comic Con crew/friends of mine, Heather and Ben, Pearl got to her autograph table and started signing.

Pearl Mackie: The first thing I noticed is that the mannerisms and personalities of Pearl and her “Doctor Who” character counterpart, Bill, are strikingly similar. The excitable puppy-esque characteristics of Bill definitely originate within Pearl herself. At this time in the morning, I knew Pearl would be pretty busy so my time with her wouldn’t be that long. That’s fine. Sometimes all you need is 30 seconds, some eye-contact, a smile, and some politeness to leave feeling great about the experience. As James Marsters says, “it’s so easy to make people happy at Comic Cons!” Of course, to get a better conversation, the recommendation will always be to go later in the day. Between 3-5pm is always going to be optimum. Less people = less queue = more time to talk. However, the risk you run there is that if you leave it too late, you run the risk of the guest leaving early because their autograph table is dead. Even though Pearl was busy, we still had time to chat about her one-season run on “Doctor Who”, as well as her time on stage for “The Birthday Party” and the mechanics of theatre vs. television acting in general. Considering Pearl was the major draw for me personally for “Em-Con 2018”, I was delighted that I managed to get a decent conversation and really enjoyed the experience. Yay! Guest Type = Responder.

(Regular readers, you can skip this section)

“Shangel, what’s a ‘Responder’?”

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!

Tony Curran: I first met Tony a year earlier at “Collectormania” at the NEC in Birmingham. During my time meeting Tony at that event, two things struck me: 1) His queue moves very slowly, 2) Because he loves to talk! Every interaction I’ve ever seen Tony have with a fan goes above and beyond what you’d expect from an autograph table experience. He genuinely cares about people and genuinely wants to get to know people. We caught up about everything that had transpired in the year since I had last seen him – his filming projects, my Master’s degree result (distinction!) and new career, etc. I also joked that I hoped he’d slept more than he did the last time I saw him as the night before Collectormania, the hotel fire alarm was going off at 3:00am and he had to go to a fire assembly point outside. Ouch. We talked about “Outlaw King”, a recent project of Tony’s that resolves around the 14th century Scottish ‘Outlaw King’, Robert The Bruce. The cast list for the movie is staggering – Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stephen Dillane, James Comso, Tony Curran….of course, inevitably, we also discussed Tony’s breathtaking one-episode stint on “Doctor Who” as Vincent van Gogh, which then led us into a very deep conversation about mental health and suicide. I must have spent about 10 minutes chatting to Tony overall and it was easily my favourite guest encounter of the day. I’m so happy that Tony will be joining us for “Wales Comic Con Part II” in December too. The more Tony is around the UK convention scene, the better, as far as I’m concerned. I grabbed a table picture with Tony too for £10. Guest Type = Conversationalist.

After a little chillin’ in those glorious arena seats, it was time for the professional studio photos to start. First up: Nicky Brendon and Emma Caulfield’s duo photo at 13:30 in ‘photo B’. After I got to the front of the queue and stood between Nicky and Emma, and the photo was taken, Nicky turned to me and said, “I prefer your Funko Pop to my own!”, which was very amusing to me. How had he seen it?! To be fair, my custom Shaney Pop does look better than the Xander Pops. He’s all scowly and arms-folded in the Xander Pop. I later found out that Nicky’s agent (and friend of mine), Theresa, had shown him the picture of Shaney Pop. As Nicky was telling me all of this, he was holding my hand. We clearly have a very special budding bromance blossoming, which is hilarious to me as he was one of my childhood and adolescence heroes…life is strange. Wonderful and spectacular, but strange. I’ve always felt connected to Nicky, much like I did to Xander growing up. I connected to Xander because he was the dorky, insecure one without superpowers. I connected to Nicky over the past 4 years or so that I’ve known him because we’ve had similar challenges and obstacles to overcome – depression, self-harm, covering pain with humour, addiction. Back in 2015, when Nicky came to Wales Comic Con, I arranged a massive collection of cards and gifts, and words of positivity for Nicky via my Buffy page on Facebook. I gave him this bag containing hundreds of letters and words of encouragement from fans because Nicky was struggling a lot at the time. I always love seeing Nicky. I consider Nicky a friend.

Soon after, it was time for Pearl’s studio photo at 14:00, then Billie Piper’s at 15:00 in ‘photo A’. I love Billie a lot. She’s so great. She made an effort to have a little chat with basically everyone before the photos were taken, even though she had hundreds to get through (all of the photos sold for Sunday, plus all the ones sold for Saturday before she had to cancel and change her appearance to Sunday only)! Such a pro. and class act.

At 15:30, it was time to leave the Motorpoint Arena briefly in order to meet Susie outside. With a grand total of 90 minutes to spare before the end of the convention weekend, Susie had arrived in Nottingham! Woohoo! Re-entering the venue commenced and then we spent the next hour perusing the merchandise stalls. It’s very rare that I have the free time to merch. hunt and buy cool shit, so I always take the opportunity to look around and enjoy that aspect of the Comic Con experience if time permits. At 16:30, Susie wanted to get her Xander Pop signed by Nicky. Alas, Nicky had left his autograph table and gone home (all his 8x10s were gone too)….or had he? I spotted Theresa hovering on the edge of the guest area, so I moseyed over and asked Theresa if Nicky was still around as Susie wanted to get her Xander Pop signed. Theresa said that Nicky was outside having a cigarette before heading back to the hotel. She said to leave it with her. A couple of minutes later, Theresa returned and took me and Susie outside to the little section of the arena that the guests and crew have to themselves to have cigarettes or catch some fresh air. Theresa had a beautiful blue Sharpie on her. Nicky chatted to myself and Susie, and signed the Xander Pop! Aww! I’m so glad I managed to get that sorted out for Susie. It meant so much to her. I gave Nicky a couple of cuddles and told him to look after himself and stay strong, and that I’d likely see him again later in the year. Emma Caulfield and Billie Piper were also outside with Nicky, so I said goodbye to them too.

Overall, I had a terrific time at “Em-Con”! I didn’t have as much to do as I would ordinarily, as I’d met a lot of the guests I’d usually go and meet before, but it was great to meet Pearl and it was great to see Billie, Nicky, Emma, David Bradley, Jason David Frank, Tony Curran, and Chris Rankin (and Ness!) again. People like Nicky and Chris are extended family by this point, and people like Billie and Tony always make you feel like the only person in the room with them when you meet them. The event was well organised overall. I know some people had issues on the Saturday, but I wasn’t there so cannot judge it. I can only judge what I saw and experienced, and I had a tremendous time. There’s a reason I’ve been to three Em-Con: Nottingham’s in a row and four Em-Con shows overall – because they’re a good outfit with a stand-up organiser. I would be very surprised if I didn’t see myself back there again next May for round four! With Jason David Frank, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, and Sylvester McCoy already announced for 2019’s Nottingham show, it looks like “Em-Con” is going from strength-to-strength.

Stay strong, stay safe, and stay happy!

-        Your Friendly Neighbourhood Shangel


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