Star Wars and Batman fandom: Gary Hailes interview

We speak to the Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison about his love of collecting and costuming

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Actor Gary Hailes is a familiar face at conventions like Collectormania and you’ll also know him from EastEnders in the 1980s. As a huge Batman and Star Wars fan he’s at the forefront of the collecting and costuming hobby, and in the UK he has fun raising money for charity through the UK Garrison of the 501st Legion of Stormtroopers.

We’ve known for some years that Gary has an attic full of awesome Batman memorabilia so it was a thrill to finally glimpse inside. You can read about his favourite items on page 36 of the latest issue of SFX , but our conversation covered loads about fandom, collecting and movie going, so here with our pleasure is the rest of our interview:

SFX: Your Batman collection is amazing! How long did it take to grow this big?
Gary Hailes:
I’ve been collecting since I was a kid, although I stopped for a while (I discovered girls!). I still remained slightly uncool throughout that period though; I maintain that uncool is cool! I picked it up again in my late teens, when I started re-reading the Batman comics and watching the classic TV show.

People always have a go at it but I’ve always loved the Adam West TV show. I think the great thing about Batman is that you can enjoy all the different varieties. They all have – with the exception of Christian Bale of course – some validity. I’m not a fan of Christian Bale’s Batman!

SFX: What?! What is it about the latest movies versions that you don’t like?
Is it Christian Bale or Christopher Nolan who’s at fault? Anyway, I just don’t believe in his version of Bruce Wayne nor his version of Batman. Bale’s Bruce Wayne: I think everybody would figure out was Batman! And I think Batman sounds like he’s got throat cancer. He doesn’t have the essence of Batman for me. He’s just a strong-armed vigilante. There’s little of the detective stuff.

SFX: You’re a fan of the 1989 Batman film, then?
Keaton and Burton really nailed it, I think; they really managed to make a comic book into a movie. And that managed to satisfy to some degree both audiences, the comic book fans and the moviegoers. Some say Burton changed the look of Batman but you could argue they took it back to its roots. And in a million years no one would have believed that Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was Batman!

As a movie, the 1989 version is stunning. Great script. Do you remember that wonderful moment when Bruce Wayne goes to tell Vicki Vale that he’s Batman, and his opening dialogue when he goes into her apartment is the same as the Joker’s?! Most people miss that, and it’s wonderful that they pick up on that: different sides of the same coin.

I think that’s probably why I don’t like Christopher Nolan’s film – he didn’t get away from all the stuff that had come before, he actually abused the stuff that had gone before. He took a rubber suit, but turned it into something that was unpleasant, I think. The cowl is too small so it takes away from that kind of jaw Batman should have.

SFX: We’ve seen all the Batman stuff you’ve collected. What was the first item that made you a collector?
When I was a kid, I was into Batman and Spider-Man and Star Wars . There was less merchandise back then. I remember as a very little kid getting a Batman cowl for Christmas, a felt one based off the ’66 film, and I remember playing with that forever. And it probably was the reason why I’m running around like a lunatic these days – although now I justify it by saying I raise money for charity. But I do it cos I want to be Batman, really! Umm

I remember an ex-girlfriend from the 1980s, who I’m still very friendly with, who came back from this shop in Covent Garden and she’d bought me a Batman ashtray. It was at that point I started to realise that it was a collection , because other people were buying me things for it. I actually clearly remember thinking at that point, “Oh, this is something above and beyond what I originally thought.”

SFX: What sort of buzz do you get from costuming and collecting?
It’s a lot of fun. People were once so easily dismissed as geeks, nerds, what have you. But actually it’s all become cool now. And the dressing up, and the running around – you will never have more fun, I promise you. The camaraderie within the Garrison is wonderful. And then when you watch grown men at conventions smiling like seven-year-olds because you’re in a Stormtrooper uniform – just fantastic. The dads insist their kids have a photo even if their kids don’t want one! And they absolutely force their kids to go and have a photo. The kids might be terrified but their dads just do not want to go away but are slightly too unsure to ask for a photo for themselves!

This weekend a buddy of mine and my partner Sam (she’s got a Batgirl costume) and me, we’re going to meet a little boy in London who is terminally ill, who wants to meet some superheroes for Make A Wish.

I’ve got a Stormtrooper costume, I’ve got an Imperial gunner, I’ve got the ’66 Batman… I’m working on an Imperial officer, a Tusken raider and a biker scout. So it has become a bit of an obsession, I have to say. Without a doubt. But it’s fun. And it’s an excuse to get together at my house at the weekend – a hub of people gluing, stitching, cutting out. There’s plastic shavings all over the place.

SFX: You obviously love Star Wars as much as Batman
I was 11, the perfect age to see Star Wars , and I saw it 30 times. I was completely obsessed and I have a similar collection of Star Wars memorabilia. Specifically the first film. I love Empire Strikes Back , I love Jedi , but it’s the first one, A New Hope , that really does it for me. (The prequels I’m not a big fan of at all, but I don’t think they were made for me particularly.) In fact, everyone raves about The Empire Strikes Back but I just always felt that George Lucas cheated us! I remember having serious, serious debates with my friends about whether or not Vader could actually be Luke’s father. But A New Hope has got a beginning, a middle, an end – there are fantastic characters, great villains, everything about that film is a 10 in my book. To this day, the opening shot of the Tantive IV overhead and then the Stormtroopers break through… Wow! There’s not a better opening than that in cinema, there really isn’t.

SFX: Do any of your group dress up as characters from the Star Wars prequels?
Yeah I mean the Clone Trooper stuff is massive in the States, and getting bigger and bigger here. We have Clone experts. The amazing thing about the Clones is of course the CGI. If you’re replicating a Stormtrooper suit, you can base it on something that actually existed. With the Clones, you have to develop it – because it often never existed. The guys in the States sat down and worked out how you could turn what is basically an animation into a real object! You almost need a degree in engineering. They have to replicate what in effect on screen looks seamless because you can make something look seamless when you’re doing CGI. The calves are apparently the hardest part, because it has to open and then close. It’s absolutely phenomenal.

We’ve got many, many Republic Commanders now, and there’s actually quite a lot of Clones. People are moving across into things like the Kashyyk Troopers and other stuff. I think if get into something you enjoy, you’re forever pushing the boundaries. But it’s doable. I very often do a Garrison talk at events like MCM Expo and we get people joining because, as I explain to them, if you want to do it, you can. We’re there; we’ll help you. It’s not the cheapest hobby in the world, but it’s shed-loads of fun, and you get to raise a lot of money for charity, and you get to go out and have fun.

SFX: Is being part of a community the best thing about fandom?
It’s a worldwide community. I go to the States and go to conventions; the 501st has have a military structure so I’m the commanding officer of the UK Garrison (and have been for a couple of years now) so I go to the States and I liaise with the American guys quite a lot. We try to do stuff together. Then I’ve had guys and girls come over from the US. You’ll get involved on the forums and people will post, “I’m in London for a week!” I’ve had people stay here who I’ve never met before. It’s kind of bizarre. You know it’s gonna be cool because you’re all into the same thing. I have friends in the States that I only met through the forum, two of which I’m very close friends with now – we went over to North Carolina for a long weekend just to make sure we were at their wedding. Fandom and the forums and the costuming community are generally all very friendly.

SFX: And fandom is an influential force too, these days.
It brings people together and it changes things too. The power of fandom has had an effect on the kind of merchandising we get, for instance, and even on the kind of movies we get. I’m convinced that Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox are watching and reading sci-fi forums to see what people want. Financially that would make sense, giving people what they want! As fans we have more of a say and more involvement than ever before, I think.

SFX: Thanks Gary!

To find out more, visit the official page of the UK Garrison . The next big conventions and events in the UK will be The Elstree Empire Day , Kapow! , SCI-FI-LONDON and MCM Expo . The issue of SFX with Gary Hailes in (opens in new tab) is only on sale for a few more days, so pick it up this weekend! If you have a collection of memorabilia, costumes or merchandise that you’d like to show to other sci-fi fans, drop SFX an email at marked “Your Collections”.

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