In the same month that issue 2 of Blake’s 7 Monthly reached newsstands, Marvel UK also published issue 39 of Starburst magazine. The monthly magazine has covered Blake’s 7 in several issues and this one takes us behind the scenes of its visual effects.
The November 1981 version of Starburst has a tagline of ‘The magazine of cinema & television fantasy’, while the 2020 version declares itself ‘The world’s longest running magazine of sci-fi . fantasy . horror’. I’m a newcomer to present-day Starburst, having recently begun to order issues occasionally. I’m not much of a horror fan and a few years ago I wouldn’t have described myself as a science fiction fan either, though I think the cap fits better than I once realised. Yet ‘fantasy’ always seems wide-reaching and I was impressed with the range covered in this issue – let’s take a look at some of its features.
I love that so much of this cover is given over to a magnificent Triffid!
Starburst has a cover price of 70p (around £2.70 in 2020) and a reader’s letter tells us it’s recently gone up by 5p, reflecting similar increases on other Marvel titles. In part, Starburst is more expensive than the likes of Blake’s 7 Monthly – 45p (£1.74) – because it contains 64 pages, compared to the 36 of Blake’s 7‘s title and 44 of Doctor Who‘s. One of Doctor Who Monthly‘s letter writers last month had been jealous of his brother’s copies of Starburst because it contains so many more colour pages, which also accounts for those extra pennies. After the monochrome of the other magazines, getting all that extra colour as I read this issue was wonderful and combined with the content I think Starburst is excellent value.
While the other two magazines both have predominantly young audiences (even as Doctor Who Monthly is becoming more mature), Starburst‘s content and style appears to be aiming older, or at least starting on the upper cusp of the TV magazines’ readers. Starburst is longer and there is far more text, with an absence of puzzles or comics (a shame!). It takes itself a little more seriously in its subject matter perhaps, yet there is still an element of fun there – the joy of indulging in something they love.
There are comments throughout this issue that show Starburst is hoping for a broad audience. John Brosnan tells a tale from 1970, which he describes as, “a year when some Starburst readers probably couldn’t even reach the ‘On’ switch on their parents’ tv sets”, and those readers would be young teenagers by 1981. Elsewhere, John Baxter says that Starburst is a “family magazine” but I was unsure if he was being ironic.
What’s undoubtable is that Starburst‘s audience is largely male. The majority of the readers’ letters are from men and the way some features describe women demonstrates that the writers expect their readers to be heterosexual men. Deathouse (1981) includes a “tasty mistress”, while Message From the Future (1981) is a film that uses multiple languages, “including, in the case of lovely Irit Meiri and the stunning superstructure of Marie Gassman, body language!” To my modern ears, it’s a bit crude but I wonder whether all of Starburst‘s readers found it acceptable and normal.
Things To Come
In the present day, Things To Come remains the title of Starburst‘s news page about upcoming things.
Among the reports in November 1981 is that Raise the Titanic (1980) “has all but sunk Lord Lew Grade’s film-making arm, ITC”. Best known for its 1960s’ adventure series, such as Danger Man, The Saint, The Prisoner and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), ITC had begun a film division during the 1970s. Despite some successes, there were also a few disasters and Raise the Titanic has become infamous. In his 1989 autobiography, Lew Grade said, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic” – the film cost a fortune and took less than a quarter of it back at the box office.
There is quite a large section devoted to telling us about Introvision, a new special effects process that has been developed as ‘”a kind of sandwich of front and back projection mattes”. At first, Introvision sounds like a simple matter of placing partially-transparent photographic plates in front of cameras, then filming actors so it looks like they are somewhere different. However, the piece also says that actors can disappear behind sections and cast shadows, which sounds a little more complicated. Introvision’s demo reel does a better job of explaining it visually.
The Return of Oz
Starburst reports that Disney has announced plans to film Return to Oz, a production that would eventually be released in 1985. Although Walt Disney Productions’ President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Miller states, “This will not be a sequel or a continuation of MGM’s 1939 film”, it would emerge as a film that worked as a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy returning to the land of Oz.
The Wizard of Oz exists among my happiest early childhood memories, while Return to Oz haunts them. The former is a world of bright colours and cheerful songs, but the second is darker, gloomier and quite creepy. I recall people tuned to stone and Dorothy having to choose the right green ornament from a room packed full of antiques. The ornaments were people, trapped forever as inanimate objects. It may have been unsettling for the under 10s, but I still remember enjoying Return to Oz and I think I’m probably big enough to watch it alone now.
Reviewer Tony Crawley did not like Deathouse. He spends a good 250 words critiquing it before we are even told anything about the horror film’s plot. I’ve already admitted that I’m not an experienced viewer of horror, but Deathouse does sound like standard fare: people are being lured to a creepy house to be murdered and there is also an escaped maniac on the loose. I’ll take Crawley’s word on the “clumsy editing”, “plain rotten writing” and that “this appalling waste of potential includes the cast”.
I was intrigued to discover elsewhere that this film had previously had a limited release in 1972 as Night of the Full Dark Moon before a proper release in 1973 as Silent Night, Bloody Night. Interestingly, there is no mention of the previous releases and Crawley’s review implies that he is unaware of how long ago the film was made. He describes one of the cast members, Walter Abel, as having been “pulled out of cold storage at 83, for the first time in my knowledge since a tv movie seven years back”. The TV movie referred to was The Man Without a Country and, apart from a documentary, Walter Abel hadn’t filmed anything else since then. The confusion is understandable, but Abel had only been 74 when he originally shot the film.
Advert: Maya Merchandising
Having seen Maya Merchandising’s adverts in a few magazines, this one grabbed my interest enough to attempt some digging, partly because the company had taken out a full page. Most of the shops and mail order businesses advertising in the magazine have gone, which is disappointing, but understandable when people can order specialist comics and merchandise online now instead of travelling to specific shops or sending off for catalogues.
Maya Merchandising was set up by Dez Skinn, who named it after a song by The Incredible String Band. Skinn had created The House of Hammer magazine and, as the publication was reviewing US horror magazines, he wanted a way of selling them to its readers. Having produced their own demand, Maya Merchandising began operations shortly after The House of Hammer magazine was launched in 1976.
Skinn didn’t have time to manage the mail order business himself, so he offered it to Colin Campbell, who he knew through working on the comic fanzine Fantasy Advertiser. But the demand overwhelmed Campbell and Maya Merchandising was eventually passed on to writer Mike Conroy. Dez Skinn is a name worth remembering here as after his work on The House of Hammer, he created Starburst, which may be why Maya Merchandising could afford to have a full-page advertisement. Skinn had been recruited for Marvel UK next, where, among other things, he was responsible for creating Doctor Who Weekly.
Maya Merchandising’s original address is listed as a terraced house in Romford, Essex, so it seems likely they were using someone’s home – possibly Colin Campbell’s. By 1981, the company is using a Kent address, as well as listing a shop, The Edge of Forever, in Welling, Kent. I’m unsure which came first for Mike Conroy. Maya Merchandising was also responsible for organising what was billed as Britain’s first Fantasy Film convention in 1978 and then again in 1979. Unfortunately, the company did not last long, and issue 60 of Starburst would report that the company had ceased trading at the end of 1982 due to continued family ill health.
For November 1981, Maya Merchandising’s prices stood out to me because I’ve already seen the subscription prices for several of Marvel’s magazines elsewhere. Maya is offering 12 issues of Doctor Who Monthly at £6.60 (around £25.48 in 2020) while 12 copies of Starburst will cost you £12 (£46.33).
Meanwhile, Blake’s 7 Monthly and Doctor Who Monthly both contain adverts from Dangerous Visions, another mail order company, run by Colin Campbell – it’s clear where he got this idea from. Like Maya Merchandising’s early adverts, Dangerous Visions also uses an Essex address. Dangerous Visions advertises Doctor Who Monthly at £4.80 (£18.53) and Starburst at £8.40 (£32.43), each for 12 issues. Readers are actually making a 60p (£2.32) saving on the cover price of Doctor Who Monthly here, with the subscription cost yet to account for Marvel’s recent price rises.
It’s a substantial difference between the two companies subscription prices but is likely due to the fact that although it appears to be a separate company, Dangerous Visions became Marvel’s official back issue service last year and this explains why it can offer better rates for their titles. I’m curious how well Maya Merchandising did out of these costly subscriptions when readers could have subscribed elsewhere and many would simply have asked their newsagent to order and/or reserve them regular copies.
Exclusive report: Message From the Future
Tony Crawley brings us details of Israel’s first science-fiction film, which sounds an ambitious project. Its budget is only $500,000 (around $3,340,000 in 2020) – some few million below Hollywood’s productions – though writer and director David Avidan explains, “We were interested in forging a new concept of sf movie-making, based on brilliant ideas and sophisticated solutions rather than on a pompous art department.” Avidan sounds like a man who has clashed with people.
Crawley seems fairly positive about the film’s chances of success, even declaring the effects good for what they are. I was extremely intrigued by the film’s plot and Crawley draws us in with plenty of detail in the article’s first column. A man from the future visits 1985 to warn the world that they need to let World War III happen if humanity is to have a better future. He takes over the airwaves and beams his message out to the entire world, eventually obtaining a place before the United Nations. For unexplained reasons, there are also karate robots. I’m sold.
Interview: Jim Francis
I loved this piece as I find the details behind the effects absolutely fascinating, especially the more practical ones that are still being used at this time. It’s an interesting period as science fiction programmes are combining traditional model making with more modern electronic and computer effects.
It’s lovely to hear how Jim Francis was able to work his way up the ranks in the BBC’s Visual Effects Department, reminding me of Michael Keating’s description of getting into drama school then gaining his experience in repertory theatre. It seems impossible for there to be the same sort of route into effects now, with the Visual Effects Department having closed down in 2003.
Although I haven’t seen the television version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I enjoyed the details about the effects work on it. I particularly liked how Francis admits he wasn’t happy with how Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head looked on screen, then goes on to explain how this will be improved for the show’s second series.
Jim Francis’s work on Blake’s 7 was what I was most interested to hear about and it was marvellous to learn the thought processes behind the development of the Scorpio ship:
as scripts and ideas started evolving, instead of just lumbering through space as a transporter, it sometimes had to become a fast flying machine. So we had to re-design it and make it more streamlined so it looked as if it could fly fast. I know it doesn’t have to be streamlined to fly fast in space, but they re-enter the atmosphere, so we had to make it streamlined because of the re-entry.
I was impressed to discover that the model for the Xenon base’s cavern where Scorpio lands was 12 ft, with the shaft down to it also about 12 ft and Scorpio itself measuring 4 ft. I’m in awe imagining how amazing those model shots must have looked up close in person – they have been among my favourite things in Series D so far.
There are a few colour photos with this article but I actually preferred the monochrome ones as I loved seeing the detail up close on the models, especially when placed alongside the design drawings.
This feature offers a rundown of the latest video cassette releases and I was surprised by how brief some of the descriptions are.
Although it isn’t stated per title, it is noted that all the releases are “available in PAL – VHS, Beta and sometimes Video 2000 formats”. I’m aware of the ‘war’ between video formats that took place during the 1980s (VHS would emerge victorious), so it’s nice to see some surrounding context. This is the first time I’ve seen Betamax abbreviated to ‘Beta’ and I have pity for those who had gone for ‘sometimes’ Video 2000. I’m used to DVDs and Blurays being fairly neatly divided up by region, so the lengthy list of countries that can play these video formats was surprising.
The majority of the films here were unfamiliar to me but their titles give a certain impression. While the descriptions of most of them are limited, writer Peter Cargin introduces some sufficiently with his comment that “the spate of nasty movies on video continues”. Cannibal Terror (1981), Human Experiments (1979) and Beyond Evil (1980) don’t sound like cheerful family viewing. In a magazine partially dedicated to horror, it’s appropriate that Cargin also admits, “despite the number of vegetarian restaurants about, we are by nature a bloodthirsty and meat eating lot.”
One of the few films that did ring a bell was Flesh Gordon (1974), which is probably the only release among these that sounds like it could offer a few laughs.
Following the list of latest releases, there is also an Extra news-type section announcing that BBC Enterprises is going to begin releasing television programmes on video. I was intrigued to note that the magazine is already aware that there will be cuts to programmes for these releases, yet this isn’t treated as sacrilege in the way I might have expected. Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who are among the potential shows for future releases, but while Doctor Who would debut on VHS, Betamax and Video 2000 in 1983, Blake’s 7 had to hold on until 1985 – by which time some Video 2000 owners must have realised they had made an error.
Advert: The Video Screen
The prices of The Video Screen’s tapes perfectly exemplify why most people were renting their videos in 1981. The titles start from £29.95 (around £115.60 in 2020), but the majority of the ones advertised here are being sold for £39.95 (£154.30). It’s an eye-watering amount yet The Video Screen must have reckoned on Starburst having the kind of readers who would like to own and collect releases if they could afford it.
After reading Video Scene, I’ve noticed that The Video Screen doesn’t mention what format their releases are available on, so presumably you would have to ring up to clarify which one you wanted.
The Making of BBC’s Day of the Triffids
Having read John Wyndham’s novel of The Day of the Triffids, a few years ago I keenly tuned in to BBC Four’s repeats of this television production and was impressed by how well it transplanted the story to television.
The photos with this article were one of the highlights of this issue for me as they seem the perfect opportunity for the colour pages. It’s wonderful to get a mixture of angles and close-ups, as well as an initial design for the Triffids. Being able to look to these image-heavy pages while reading the interview with designer Steve Drewett is one of the great advantages that Starburst has over the cheaper magazines that are still very limited in their colour printing.
It’s Only a Movie
John Brosnan’s name is familiar to me because I found myself with some free time after university exams while my friends were still revising, and after searching the library catalogue I found a book on the James Bond films. It was published in 1972, so only covered 007’s first few films. With ‘Brosnan’ a name already linked with the Bond franchise for me, this other one stuck in my head, as did the wonderfully colourful book cover.
This month, Brosnan’s column has been filled with an extract from his autobiography, which I found huge fun. It details part of his journey from his native Australia across Asia, the Middle East and Europe in 1970, attempting to reach the World Sci-Fi Convention in West Germany. It’s extraordinary to me that he and some friends travelled across countries like Afghanistan and Iran. Brosnan himself reflects that several of the places they passed through “later exploded into chaos and revolution” and “making that same journey in 1981 is impossible unless you do it in a Chieftain tank supported by a couple of Phantom jet fighters”.
Travelling in a second-hand double-decker bus, they had planned to film the trip and sell the footage to TV companies. Brosnan acknowledges that this was not planned well – “there was no one among us who’d ever made a film before” – and it seems to have lurched from one disaster to another. He paints a picture of the bus journey that sounds like every Big Brother-style reality TV series, with a dash of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here thrown in here:
There were 14 of us crowded into its cramped spaces and relations between us all had quickly deteriorated. People didn’t take kindly to Dick filming them getting up, dressing, eating, arguing, fighting, sulking and wandering off into the wilderness with a roll of toilet paper and a shovel.
More than anything, I enjoyed Brosnan’s humorous writing style and would like to read more of his columns in the same vein. He immodestly describes himself as “by far the nicest person there” and says that during a particularly precarious section of the journey, “I was trying to cry and drink a bottle of Indian-made gin simultaneously”. He has a tone that could slip into arrogance in the wrong hands but I think he injects enough self-deprecation to keep the reader on side.
I know that TV Zone eventually spawned its own magazine with the same title, which ran from 1989-2008. It would once never have occurred to me that the feature as it is here could have existed because it offers information that can now be obtained freely in seconds from IMDb or Wikipedia.
Danger Man is the focus in this issue, with an episode list “in order of original telecast”, accompanied by brief synopses, plus writers, directors and lead actors. I have a bugbear with this list as, with Danger Man being broadcast on ITV, the first broadcasts of each episode were likely to be different across the ITV regions. There is limited space for this piece, so explaining that these were the first broadcasts on ATV London probably takes up a tad more room than Starburst are willing to allow, presuming they are aware of these variations.
With the opening of the article focussing on the link between Danger Man and The Prisoner, it might have been expected that the small area discussing the series would have looked at leading man Patrick McGoohan. I was happy that instead TV Zone chose to tell us about Ralph Smart, credited as the creator on Danger Man.