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The British role in Star Wars

PUBLISHED: 00:10 20 December 2017 | UPDATED: 10:50 20 December 2017

Star Wars superfan David Whiteley.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Star Wars superfan David Whiteley. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

A new BBC TV documentary will lift the lid on Star Wars secrets and the British crew who brought a whole new galaxy to life in 1977 - just what was Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber made from...?

Star Wars superfan David Whiteley.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYStar Wars superfan David Whiteley. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

It may well have been set in a galaxy far, far away, but the first Star Wars film was actually created much, much closer to home.

In the first BBC documentary about Star Wars in almost 20 years, BBC East’s David Whiteley has produced an extended love letter to the British talent which helped to make George Lucas’ intergalactic vision a reality at a time when science fiction had no box office appeal and few people in the industry believed a space movie could be a hit.

The Galaxy Britain Built is a meticulously-researched, beautifully-made hour of television from a team whose Star Wars knowledge leaves you breathless: David, who has been hooked on Star Wars for as long as he can remember, knows the films so well he can recite them. In a Star Wars pub quiz, he would leave mere mortals behind in his vapour trail.

Essentially, David’s devotion was written in the stars: he was born on May 4 1977 – the force is strong with this one – and his initiation into the Galactic Empire began when he was around four years old, when he watched the first film in the franchise.

Star Wars superfan David Whiteley.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYStar Wars superfan David Whiteley. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

“Gareth Edwards (director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) said I had the most Star Wars birthday of anyone he’d ever met,” laughed David, who admitted that he had felt “like a kid” as he met the experts who had brought Star Wars to life.

“I can’t remember a time when Star Wars wasn’t important to me. We used to watch the first film and The Empire Strikes Back on VHS at home and in 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released at the cinema my father took me to see it. We sat in the third row in the Southend cinema and afterwards, he bought me a toy Ewok. I still have it!” said David.

“My Dad Clive died 11 years ago and I’m sad that he won’t see the documentary and won’t know what introducing me to Star Wars all those years ago eventually led to. He would have loved it.”

The partnership between Britain and Star Wars began with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which director George Lucas was planning to film in the UK after jumping through a number of Equity-shaped hoops which saw Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill listed as minor roles in comparison to those taken by British actors including Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing and David Prowse.

Star Wars superfan David Whiteley.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYStar Wars superfan David Whiteley. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Mainly shot at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, it was the creativity of wily Brits that brought the Galaxy to life amid a host of budget and time constraints.

Tracking down the British talent who helped create the original film was a labour of love which David has worked tirelessly on for 18 months.

Travelling across the world to find the silver screen heroes who made one of the most successful and memorable films of all time saw him travel to St Maarten to LA (“a dirty job, but someone has to do it…)” to London and Oxfordshire to interview producer Gary Kurtz, producer Peter Beale, production supervisor Robert Watt, art director Les Dilley, creature maker Nick Maley, production designer John Barry and costume designer John Mollo, who died in October and to whom the programme is poignantly dedicated.

Along with Matthew Wildash, who also works for BBC East, the documentary, which airs on BBC4 at 10pm on Thursday, lifts the lid on a host of Star Wars secrets and features previously unheard stories from the people who made one of the most iconic movies of all time.

In the documentary David discovers how the blockbuster was a very British endeavour and how it continues to be in the present day – the most recent release, Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, was set in a host of locations which include Pinewood Studios near London (and the Irish Tourism Board will be rejoicing: many of the outdoor scenes were shot on the rugged Irish coast while others were shot in County Clare, County Cork and Donegal).

When he meets John, he’s shown the prototype Chewbacca drawings (“not very good,” says Oscar-winning Mollo, modestly) and discovers how costumes were based on simple but impactful ideas that combined elements from a range of sources to create an instantly-recognisable look.

Robert Watt explains how managing to secure Elstree for £75,000 for all seven stages and workshops, meant the $4 million budget was adhered to while set director Roger Christian proves his mettle by describing the metal he salvaged in order to create the props and sets that brought an air of antiquity to the space age.

“I had a list of weapons, robots, sets, vehicles…I just stared at it in horror,” he admits, before explaining the make-up of iconic props in the manner of a junk shop list: R2-D2’s dome was a lampshade from a scrapheap, the hilt of the lightsaber was a flash from a press camera from the 1940s ‘pimped’ with the innards of a calculator and hand grips.

The film also sees interviews with John Barry, production designer who built the iconic bar where fans first meet Hans Solo, which is made purely from old jet engines lacquered in gold.

And there are also interviews with those who have been involved in more recent films from the franchise, including Edwards (“I think as a kid you picture it in this galaxy far, far away and it’s a real shock to learn one day that it was just somewhere off the M25!”) and Colin Goudie, who edited Rogue One.

David said that in addition to the huge number of people he was thankful to for helping him make the film, top of the list would be wife Amelia who looked after the couple’s two daughters Annabel and Cleo while he made the film in between working for BBC East.

“Amelia has only ever seen the original film once but she knew that this was something I was passionate about and she just said ‘go and do it!’. She’s watched the documentary and at the end of it she was in tears because she knew how much it meant to me and she saw how humbled the people in it were. I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said.

“I think it proves you don’t have to be a Star Wars fan in order to like the documentary. If you like film, if you are interested in the way that films are made, how props are made, how small budgets on films are stretched, then this will interest you. It’s about more than Star Wars: it’s about how problems are overcome.

“And of course if you are a Star Wars fan…well, you’ll be in heaven.”

He added that making the film had been a privilege.

“I tried to keep my geekiest moments of joy off-camera, but I can tell you that there was definitely one when I saw these books which were full of drawings of the characters from Star Wars – it was just incredible. Here they were: the first visions of characters that we now know so well,” he said.

“You have to be professional and you have to keep it together, even if you’re holding Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber! To be honest, it was a dream come true. Everyone I spoke to and dealt with was so generous with their time and so humble about what they’d done. It has given me an entirely different perspective on the films.”

David will be watching the network premiere of The Galaxy Britain Built at home near Norwich on TV with Amelia, Matt and his wife Paula: “I think it might feel a bit emotional, actually. All that work and finally it’s come to pass. Now it’s time to think what we’ll do next!”

• The Galaxy Britain Built is on BBC4 at 10pm on December 21 and after on BBC iPlayer.

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