Today: May 18, 2024

When I First Saw Star Wars

It’s 1978. Doctor Who has just become Worzel Gummidge. Milk is 15p a pint and TVs still come in black and white and colour. But for me, 1978 will always mean one thing: Star Wars.

The phenomena that was Star Wars opened in New York on 25th May 1977. Brits had to wait until 27th December for the UK premier. Even then, most of the country still didn’t get a look in. The film ran exclusively at the Leicester Square Theatre and the Dominion on Tottenham Court Road for four weeks. Such was the demand for tickets that touts were charging over £30 a pop – around £150 in today’s money. Finally, on the 29th January, Star Wars opened in twelve major cities around Britain …

By then, I’d already read the book – written by the God of the Film Novelisation, Alan Dean Foster (though credited to George Lucas). You really didn’t worry about spoilers when you’d waited almost a whole year to see a film.

For a kid from the sticks, like me, trips to the cinema was a rare and splendid thing. I remember pretty much every single visit. Mostly we saw something by Disney which, with the exception of Jungle Book, I loathed with a passion. Not that I ever let on. A cinema trip was ‘an event’. If I was lucky, Mum would even take me to Littlewoods first for a strawberry milkshake and a ham sandwich – all paid for by the Luncheon Vouchers she’d specially saved up. When we went to see Star Wars, though, we marked the occasion by trying out the newly-opened Wimpey, where the onions were freshly fried and the plates were real china. In 1978, this was really living.

Back then cinemas had two sides: smoking and no smoking. They had usherettes who sold glow in the dark drinks, melt-in-the-hand chocolate and – in case you could still see the screen through the fug of nicotine – more cigarettes.

Every film opened with a short and ads, supplied by Pearl & Dean. Despite the sticky seats, the hyperventilating guy in the back row and the tang of stale whatever hanging in the air, it was still magical. And, unless your parents were particularly indulgent, it was a one shot deal. You might buy the magazine special or the sticker collection, but you’d have to wait years to see any film again, when it aired on TV. (For the curious, Star Wars got its UK TV premier on Sunday October 24th 1982.)

When I saw Episode I, the cinema was full of howling kids, wielding buzzing lightsabers. Not so with Episode IV, no nonsense was allowed back then. As the opening credits rolled, we sat in silence. In fact, when the end credits rolled we were still silent. But by then, it wasn’t the fear of being dragged unceremoniously home having “spoilt it for everyone” that kept us in order. It was awe. Every wide-eyed, short-socked man-jack of us know that the world – and film – would never be the same again.

For a second, that silence reigned supreme. Then, suddenly, we all let out a collectively-held breath. The one we’d swallowed as a gasp as that behemoth star cruiser thundered across the screen. What was more impressive? The visuals were ground-breaking, yes, but the sound track … Oh! The sound track. Kubrick’s space was eerie and silent but Lucas’ was operatic and tumultuous. Lasers pinged, engines roared. What kid could resist?

Star Wars keyed straight into our psyches. That opening shot told us everything we needed to know. That this was a film about the little guy verses the big guy. It’s fairy story stuff, complete with black knights (Vader), princesses, wise old men, and robots. Ok, so there aren’t many robots in fairy stories, but there should be.

The adults in the audience that day went away impressed. They’d had the ride of there life and, for a long, long, time, nothing they saw would quite match up. But we kids had the best of it.

I didn’t know that R2D2 was played by an actor named Kenny Baker. I didn’t know that the lightsabers were just wooden tubes coated with reflective paint, enhanced in post-production. I didn’t know that James Earl Jones wasn’t inside the suit. And none of that mattered a damn. Never before had I seen a world on film that felt and looked so completely and utterly ‘real’. Even today, when I see a Pearl & Dean ad, I expect it to be followed by John Williams’ blazing brass fanfare. Star Wars became part of my DNA that day and even midi-chlorians and Jar Jar Binks hasn’t driven me away. So bring it Johnson. I’m ready. Scared. But ready.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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