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Sunday, April 14, 2024

SFW-XV: A glorious celebration of wonder

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For over a decade, Sci-Fi Weekender (SFW) has been one of the UK’s top science-fiction, fantasy and horror festivals.  In that time there have been multiple venue changes and a global pandemic.  Yet it not only endures, but continues to improve its format and experiment with new entertainments each year.

The special guests generate a lot of interest for such an event, and this year’s SFW was headlined by the actor Peter Davison (The fifth Doctor in Doctor Who) and filmmaker Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Centurion, etc.).  Also present among the guests were the actors Leigh Gill and Michael Troughton, as well as the author Sarah Pinborough.  All of the guests were friendly and happy to chat with fans.  And this is where SFW differs from other events.  Guests are chosen not so much for their fame or prestige, as for their friendliness and willingness to join in the fun.

The preliminaries for this year’s SFW began on the Thursday evening with the steampunk-themed SFW Awards, which acted as a recognition of the guests’ accomplishments and an informal introduction to the coming weekend.  Throughout the ceremony, the Antipoet provided a series of punk-infused performances of beat poetry with a double-bass, before Levelup Leroy played a storming set.  Unfortunately, the tables meant that there was not as much dancing as there could have been, but that didn’t stop some people.  The steampunk theme continued throughout much of this year’s SFW, with lots of people dressed in their finest Victoriana.

The days of SFW are filled with panels and talks by the guests.  Peter Davison’s interview was especially popular.  Something new this year was a screening of Doomsday, Neil Marshall’s sci-fi action film, followed by a Q&A session with the director himself.  The lack of a live commentary during the film felt like a missed opportunity, but that would have meant Marshall talking for nearly three hours straight…

There were also author readings by GN Gudgion, RS Moule, Graham Smith and many others, whilst the author Bryony Pearce hosted an excellent writing workshop about creating sci-fi worlds.  The comic-strip club returned, with artists like Clint Langley, Graham Humphreys and Neil Fraser, with the latter two giving a talk about their work.

SFW remains a family-friendly event, with several attendees bringing their children.  One fun day-time event in particular was Madam Misfit’s British Aeronautical Piloting School (B.A.P.S.), which was a bit of fun for families (and big kids) wanting to learn how to fly. 

Tabletop gaming also made a welcome return to SFW, with a board games sessions on the Friday and Saturday afternoons.  The gatherings were filled each day, with some games continuing into the evening.  In many ways, this highlights the community spirit of SFW.

A significant change for this year’s SFW was the space port becoming a cinema for the evening.  Family friendly films were shown first, followed by adult movies (not that kind) later in the evening.  The film room became somewhere to chill out, where attendees could relax and watch classic films like Star Wars and Galaxy Quest.  A consequence of losing what was the secondary stage is that the live entertainment was only held in the main void.

The evening performances were excellent overall, but some did not work as well as others.  That said, the fact that the organisers are willing to experiment with new acts demonstrates their desire to continually improve SFW.  There were also occasional technical issues, but these were quickly resolved by the stage team.

The stand-out act for this years’ SFW had to be the gloriously infectious Victor and the Bully; glam punk pirate metal with a distinctly mariachi feel, which was as infectiously crazy as it sounds.  Steampunk electro-swing chaphop artist Madam Misfit returned to headline Saturday evening, with a set filled with passion and energy, as well as some new songs.  LevelUp Leroy also delivered a lavish set of tunes to continue the revelry late into the night.  Unfortunately, Graham Graham Beck and Experimental Sonic Machines did not work so well.  Their music was well performed, but their slower-paced quirkiness felt out of place on the main stage.

There were also some fantastic comedy sets throughout the weekend.  George Coppen is an excellent raconteur of his bizarre encounters, whilst Lost Voice Guy gave incredibly dark but funny tales of his life.  Unfortunately, the improvised Star Wars show It’s a Trap just did not work due to limited audience interaction and sound issues throughout the set.

Pop-up puppet cinema (Punch and Judy style recreations of films) was on fine form.  The premiere of their version of The Shining, a very knowing meta-referential version of the classic film, was brilliantly done and had some excellent sound design.

From the SFW Awards until the final crescendo on Saturday night, Area 51 continued to provide fantastic performances throughout the event.  Their performances were new routines that incorporated LED technologies for a cyberpunk infused display of dance and light.  The stilt walkers and dancers weaving their way through the crowds over the weekend conjured an atmosphere of fantasy and wonder, which encouraged attendees to dress up and engage with others.

It is impossible to see everything, as there are often multiple performances and talks happening at the same time.  SFW is, more than anything else, a geek festival on a holiday park; it is jokingly called ‘Space Butlins’ for a reason.  There is a wonderful atmosphere and everyone is friendly, with lots of impromptu gatherings, such as Pirate Pete’s Portable Party.

The venue was excellent overall and it was great to see staff getting into the atmosphere of the event, but food and bar prices were expensive.  The intermission between performances was delightfully filled with lots of nineties rock – you have not lived until you have danced to Nirvana’s Smells Like a Teen Spirit alongside Geralt and Yennefer from The Witcher.

The accommodation was warm and comfortable, with the static caravans located only a few minutes’ walk away from the halls.  This meant that attendees were far enough away to not be disturbed, but close enough that they could still nip back whenever they desired.  The pool was also open this year, which was great for those with families or anyone who just wanted a soak after the previous night’s festivities.

Overall, this year’s Sci-Fi Weekender was a glorious celebration of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, with great guests and amazing performances.  More than anything else, it proved why so many people return each year to SFW.  With some very special guests already booked for next year’s SFW, I can hardly wait.

All photos are by Peter Gatehouse and are used with permission.

Full disclosure: the author was a panel host.

Peter Ray Allison
Peter Ray Allisonhttp://www.peterallison.net
Science Fiction: the final frontier. These are the articles of the freelance journalist Peter Ray Allison. His continuing mission: to explore strange new realms of fiction, to seek out new genres and new visions of the future, to boldly geek where no one has geeked before.

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A glorious celebration of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, with great guests and amazing performances.  More than anything else, it proved why so many people return each year to SFW.SFW-XV: A glorious celebration of wonder