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Sunday, May 29, 2022

MCM Birmingham 2021 -Back to normal?

After the return of MCM London on October 22nd, we felt that the return was a little underwhelming. In our review, Laura noted that after two years, the ongoing restrictions and pertinent fears surrounding the pandemic this return of the convention giant would be “an interesting test case for a return to ‘normal’ for the industry”. I had similar feelings about the Birmingham convention, owing to the fact that the convention had made the decision not to return to Manchester or Glasgow – and so, as of 2021, Birmingham was the only MCM convention outside of London and as such had a lot to live up to.

Along came November 13th and 14th, and I arrived at the NEC a little unsure of what to expect. I had always known that due to the nature of the building, the NEC would have multiple events going on at the same time – as such, this would have a knock-on impact of the size of the convention. How much space would be dedicated to the independent artists? How would they fit in the interactive components, especially to accomodate for space over COVID fears?

The Convention

One Covid Passport later (tests were provided on the day for a cost), and I found myself walking amidst the smatterings of stalls that lined the hall of MCM Expo. The morning was relatively quiet, but soon the cosplayers and attendees all started arriving in their droves until the space felt quite packed. People were chattering and greetings being shouted from each corner as long-time friends met for what must have been the first time in over a year. Stall vendors welcomed new and intrigued eyes to peruse their wares, with a variety of content on offer. The Artist Alleys were a bit neatly packed, but all the vendors seemed to be making the most and striking up pleasant conversation with all who stopped by – I did recognise a few familiar faces, and picked up some goodies from fairly new ones. Similarly, there were several stalls available to pick up a variety of figurines and merchandise. I was especially surprised to stumble across severally reasonably priced Limited Edition Dungeons & Dragons books which I had only previously been able to locate online for at least twice the asking price.

Unfortunately, this tightness of spaces seemed to be shared by the attendees as well as the vendors – it was impossible to maintain social distancing, and many people came by not wearing masks. Fears of such an eventuality had caused a few friends to back out at the last moment, and there were times when I felt uncomfortably close to people as I went about moving from stall to panel.

There was a significant lack of decoration too, which seemed to put more pressure on the cosplayers and stalls to light up the venue – no banners from the ceilings, or adorning the walls. Even the passes were a dull, blank and filled with only necessary information. Even the adverts were muted to almost non-existent; at least London had one Wheel of Time stall, here in Birmingham there was nothing except the panels and guests! It seemed rather unfortunate to consider it as a glorified shopping hall, but this year it felt rather subdued and almost colourless – another complaint which had been raised at the London MCM Expo prior.

Meeting the Stars

I have mixed opinions on this aspect. Not because of the stars, but more the handling of them by MCM. Now, I understand that with some actors availabilities being tight and the cancellation of Brian Herring would have narrowed down the options – however, interviews with the stars were organised on the day and relied on press keeping a close eye on their emails throughout the day to be told of opportunities. On the Saturday, I was able to sit in on an interview with Roger Clark (Arthur Morgan) and Rob Wiethoff (John Marston), who were talking about their roles in the Red Dead franchise.

Roger got the opportunity talk about the medium of acting through performance capture is the current technology, and how it had been a massive privilege to experience. He felt that it was is in a state of development where we can see the potential and improvement in other mediums, such as film and television. I asked about the possibilities of improvisation, and he agreed that motion capture definitely allowed for a little more leeway with improvisation, enabling the camera to capture aspects to help fully immerse into the character. However, as an actor you still have a script to work with and there are expectations from the director to meet. Robert discussed his position as a returning actor, as when the original Red Dead Redemption was produced he felt that returning to the franchise was a great opportunity after the fun that was Red Dead Nightmare. In terms of attitude for the character (young John when compared to Old John), “he’s never going to back down from anyone ever”. Arthur Morgan and the others don’t give John respect, and it’s very different to the John we saw in the first game, with Rob utilising an anecdote of fitting in as a freshman to symbolise John’s place amidst the crew. In terms of the future, Rob was cautiously optimistic that the franchise could include more John Marston, but is unsure of how they would fit it in the timeline – what timeframe could the game be set in? It was a shock to be called back at all for the sequel, let alone the DLC. He recalls being called out of the blue for more work and was initially under the assumption that it would be a cameo as was the case for other prevalent Rockstar voice actors. Finally, he mused about the possibility of taking Red Dead to the big screen stating that he would love to come back due to his fondness for the John Marston, but the question remains unclear whether he would be able to reprise his role or make a cameo appearance.

My final talk came on the Sunday with John Rhys-Davies. There was so much to talk about and so much to say, that I have to link a video as John took control of the meeting and turned a short 15 minute interview into over half an hour with a legend. It was quite amazing to listen to him as he regailed us with his stories, and especially to learn that he was working on his own book which he would like to narrate himself!

Full credit for this video comes from Red Carpet News TV.

The panels, on the other hand, were very well managed. There was a careful seating plan, and everyone seemed very eager to welcome the celebrities to the stage. Indeed, with Ian McDiarmid, the panel hall erupts in cheers and applause as the Emperor himself stepped out onto the stage, waving before taking a seat on a couch. During this time, McDiarmid was very at ease and regailed us with tales and information such as the the fact that he was not first actor to be approached for the role of Palpatine in the original movie. In fact, he was cast as a replacement as the original actor found the contact lenses for the role incredibly uncomfortable. He talked about his work with George Lucas following this appointment, and how he was given creative freedom with the role as he had belief in actors making the characters their own. The only instruction he remembers being explicitly given was that he should think of his eyes as Sideous’ contact lenses in the Phantom Menace. He found returning to the role for the Disney movie to be very exciting, and was especially enamoured with the prop throne in Rise of Skywalker which allowed for the ‘mad’ physical aspect of flight that provided a kind of ‘evil satisfaction’ (and gave a wry smile at the applause he received when mentioning that he had a sort of ‘evil satisfaction’).

Upon opening up to questions from the floor, I had the opportunity to pose a question myself to McDiarmid; if Disney handed you a blank cheque to bring to life an aspect of Star Wars he would love to expand – such as, for instance, a series about an archaeologist unearthing a Sith Holocron which acts as a time capsule containing a record of the early days of Sheev Palpatine. McDiarmid had a good chuckle at the idea of a blank cheque, remarking it was unlikely but that maybe I should approach Disney with my pitch. The question opened up an opportunity for him to discuss the recent endeavours into lesser-known corners of the Star Wars universe, and how it lined up with ideas and concepts that George had envisioned but never pursued because the technology never matched how he imagined it. To him, The Mandalorian was a representation of George’s dreams finally being realised.

Verdict

This MCM was not quite the triumphant return to conventions that most had expected. The lack of decor left me with not a sour taste in my mouth, but more an absence of any kind – the muted convention had left me with a muted response. I attended with a group, and I felt that without them I would have been completely underwhelmed with what exactly happened at MCM – however, we still had a good time. We walked about, talked, attended panels and left with bags of merchandise. It was a fun trip out, but MCM should feel a bit…more. It should leave you thinking about the games, the films and television shows coming up.

I completely understand that COVID has certainly had a knock-on effect on the entertainment industry, but I have a small hope that next year sees the returns of the wholehearted celebration of old and new in glorious colourful fashion.

Daniel Delargy
Daniel Delargy
I read. I write. I play.

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