Neutral Zone 1998
Photographs contributed by Theresa Douglas, Winifred Mickleson, Muriel "Mogs" Moore, Trisha Poxon and Bink Vollmer
Click on pictures for larger view

Field Report from Neutral Zone by Linda "Kezia" Hepden

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE -- Weekend, March 20 - 22, 1998. The fourth Neutral Zone convention took place on the weekend of Friday 20th March 1998 to Sunday 22nd March 1998 at the Forte Post House Hotel in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. Convention guests consisted of Stephen Furst (B5's Vir), James Morrison and Tucker Smallwood (S:AAB), Gareth Thomas (Blake from BLAKE’S 7), make-up artist Sheelagh Wells, and writers Joe Nazarro, Jim Swallow and Keith Topping. As a not-for-profit, fan-run event, the Neutral Zone Committee's chosen charity was Hearing Dogs for the Deaf -- they'd raised enough funds for a dog at both the '96 and '97 conventions and wanted to make it three in a row. The convention mascot was a cute cartoon pooch called Geordi Le Paws.

I've been to many conventions over the last 17 years and have, in the past, met many well-known actors and other celebrities. All too often, I've come away from the experience thinking what a good actor they really are -- because in real life the person is nowhere near as nice a person as the on-screen persona the fans have come to know. So I refused to get my hopes up too high over meeting the man who portrayed Tyrus Cassius McQueen -- fictionally, a very special person with great depth of character.

Although the convention proper didn't start until Friday, as experienced con- goers, my friend/hotel-roommate Christine Bury and I decided to travel up on Thursday and return home on Monday -- especially as it was a six hour journey each way. A number of guests and other attendees did this also. We were still exploring the hotel layout on Thursday afternoon when we met up with Tucker Smallwood, who remembered Christine from her work as his guest liaison the previous year. He greeted her warmly.

James Morrison, we were told, was already in the country doing a guest seminar at a university on the south coast and would be flying up that evening. Provisional arrangements were made for him to join the committee and a party of fans for dinner that night, but he was delayed and arrived very late in the evening, missing the meal altogether.

neutral2.jpg (50918 bytes)Friday morning. There was a buzz of excitement in the air as fans and guests arrived. Old friends greeted one another. The convention registration desk started handing out our registration packs and all-important con badges (no badge, no access to convention rooms!). I had early stewards’ duty, checking badges at the door into the main hall lobby, and was kept pretty busy for that hour! Having then run a brief errand, I went to rejoin my friends in the lobby area and found a cluster of people right inside the lobby door. I was politely waiting for room to move past them when I realized that I was standing a mere eighteen inches behind James Morrison -- the reason why everyone was gathered around the entrance.

Locating my roommate, she introduced me to two ladies attending their first ever convention, A mother and her 9 year-old daughter . The daughter was both incredibly excited by the entire experience and extremely nervous at being in the same room as one of her favorite actors. Surprisingly, we noted that James also appeared somewhat nervous, and we were reluctant to crowd him too much. As most actors feel a lot more comfortable around children than they do around a large number of adult fans of unknown quantity, Chris took the girl over and explained to James that this young girl was scared about meeting him. Mr. Morrison proved to be a natural with children and spent a little time talking to her and creating a great memory.

neutral1.jpg (33114 bytes)Although a video program was running in the main hall from 9.00am -- and in the 3 video rooms from mid-day -- the convention proper didn't start until 5.00 p.m. with the "Opening Ceremony" when all 8 guests were introduced to a packed audience before settling down to a brief introductory session. All three writers introduced themselves. Joe passed the microphone to Sheelagh, whose introduction, to the amusement of guests and fans alike, included the fact that she was the wife of one guest (Joe Nazzarro) and ex-wife of a second (Gareth Thomas), each of whom was seated on EITHER side of her! Taking the mike, Gareth announced that he wasn't even going to try and top that one.

neutral3.jpg (54008 bytes)Dressed in a black jacket, dark check shirt, faded jeans with black ankle boots, and wearing glasses, James was the last one to speak. He explained that this was only his second convention, that he looked forward to meeting the fans and that he was enjoying the chance to come back to Britain. Seated next to Tucker, it was clear from some friendly bantering between them that they got on well together.

Of the three-video programs running all weekend, one strand covered work done by the guests. The starting item on that program was the S:AAB Christmas episode, "River of Stars." Other goodies included Tucker Smallwood's BABYLON 5 and X-FILES episodes and James' episodes of FRASIER and QUANTUM LEAP (much appreciated by Chris and myself, as we hadn't seen them previously). The large dealers' room, conveniently located adjacent to the main hall, had a wide selection of merchandise on sale including quite a selection of material relating to SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND and copies of James' play IDLE WHEELS.

neutral4.jpg (59373 bytes)As is the normal custom for British fan-run conventions, there was a disco/fancy dress party on all three evenings, each with a different theme. Friday's theme was blue, Saturday was "Glam Rock" -- much to James' amusement when he looked in briefly that evening -- and Sunday was the "Wind Down" party. An excellent team of DJs made sure that every evening, the party atmosphere kept on going until the wee small hours.

For the SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND fans, Saturday started at 10.00 a.m. with Tucker Smallwood's talk and question/answer session. He accompanied himself on guitar as he sang the blues version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" that he'd prepared for the episode "River of Stars" -- only to be informed by the show's naval advisor that it wouldn't be appropriate for a Commodore to sing to his troops, so he was filmed humming the tune instead.

By 3.00 p.m. that afternoon the main hall was well and truly packed with fans waiting for James to appear on stage. Dressed once again in black jacket, faded jeans, black boots but with a gray T-shirt, he answered questions from the audience -- even throwing a few more esoteric ones back at the fans for them to answer! Early on in the talk he was asked if Riad was there. He explained that some work in a commercial had come up, and she had been unable to attend.

neutral6.jpg (36684 bytes)The subject of his work in the circus came up, and he told us he'd worked as a clown/low wire walker/juggler for a very miserable year in his youth. One fan had evidently come prepared. Upon admitting that, yes, he could still juggle, she produced the traditional trio of juggling balls and started tossing them to him -- much to the crowd's delight. James explained that he was seriously out of practice but obliged with an impromptu juggling session anyway.

There was a request to show James' short film PARKING after he had commented that it had had it's UK premiere at Bournemouth University a few days earlier. Mindful of the fact that there were a number of children in the audience, he declined the request, as it was unsuitable for showing to the younger attendees. This being England, the subject of Shakespeare was raised, and he listed Iago from OTHELLO as the role he'd most like to do from all the plays.

One fan asked who chose McQueen's first names, Tyrus and Cassius, and James said that he had been allowed that privilege, and did we like them? NO, seemed to be the general consensus from the audience. James then went on to explain that he had chosen the names to honor his favorite baseball player, hence Tyrus (sorry, but baseball is not my sport, and I really can't recall his surname), and one of his favorite Shakespearean characters, Cassius from Julius Caesar. He commented that he had this mental image of the 2 monitors responsible for naming IVs being a baseball fan and a boxing fan who couldn't agree on which names to use, so they chose this famous baseball player, and Cassius Clay (later Mohammed Ali) as the basis for McQueen's first names.

Further questions elicited the news that he had been allowed very extensive input into what was or was not found in McQueen's quarters -- virtually everything found in the scene in "The Angriest Angel" episode was there at his suggestion. However, he did NOT choose the music McQueen is listening to. James, like the audience by and large, felt that Beethoven was not McQueen's taste in music and that it jarred with the rest of the scene.

Inevitably, the subject of SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND's shock ending came up. Apparently the confirmation that they had definitely been cancelled came through after they'd finished filming. Morgan and Wong called up the SFX team and said that if the show wasn't coming back they wanted to show Paul Wang going out in an absolute blaze of glory. The SFX guys balked at this but did a sneaky compromise. If you watch the scene carefully, as the ISSCV blows up into lots of tiny pieces, one fairly large chunk peels off, presumably the gun emplacement where Wang was firing from, leaving him a small avenue of escape. The first time the cast new about Paul being killed off was when they watched the show on television. Joel de la Fuente (Paul Wang) and James were watching it together -- there was Joel, sitting open-mouthed and shocked to learn that "he" had just been killed. James was also shocked but reacted completely differently -- he burst into laughter when it happened. Although he didn't say so outright, we were left with the distinct impression that Joel was none too enthusiastic by James' response to "his" death!

Among many topics covered was his reading on the character of McQueen, and what he would have liked to have seen developed had there been a second season. Chief among his regrets was that the father/son relationship between McQueen and Hawkes wasn't allowed to develop more fully. He further mentioned that there had been plans in the pipeline for him to write a second season episode.

Stunts that went wrong proved to be sticky subject matter however. Apparently on the two occasions when a cast member was injured, it was himself both times. The first time he jumped down and landed on Hawkes' rifle, cracking a rib. The second time he landed badly from a fall during the filming of the episode "Pearly." Off-camera, to really add insult to literal injury, he needed surgery after the show finished. This was the reason why they wrote the loss of McQueen's lower right leg into the final show's script -- they knew he needed fairly major surgery, and he couldn't guarantee he'd be fully healed by the time they'd hoped to start filming the second season. After the second accident, the younger cast members were advising him to leave the action to them, calling him "Granddad."

neutral5.jpg (33293 bytes)By turns serious, funny, introspective, James was an entertaining and variable convention guest. Toward the end of his hour-long session he presented his copy of the script to the Millennium episode, "Dead Letters," in which he had played James Horn, to be being auctioned off for the convention charity. James promised to personally autograph it for the successful bidder. Committee member Ian, dressed for the occasion in khaki jumpsuit with an extensive collection of S:AAB patches, took bids from the floor while James clowned around showing open pages from the script. In response to a request that he read part of it, James started browsing silently through it, until a wit from the audience called out, "You're supposed to be reading it out loud, James!" "Oh, out loud! Why didn't you say so?" he joked back.

Throughout the weekend, various club meetings were posted on a white board sited just outside the main hall lobby, and earlier that day I'd spotted details of the JMDG meeting. On asking around, I learned that this stood for the James Morrison Discussion Group -- an on-line chat group of his fans. Having only just signed up onto the Internet this sounded very interesting, so I turned up at the specified time, which was a short while after James' on- stage talk, and asked if how I could join. "Come on in, join the fun," was the warm invitation, and I was given details on how to find the group online by Bink Vollmer, the meeting organizer.

We were all just starting to chat among ourselves when we were joined, by the lone male of the 20+ to attend the get-together, -- James Morrison. He was a little startled to find himself in an all-female gathering, but, just then, an interruption occurred. Some fans poked their heads around the door and asked if they could intrude for a minute as part of a little joke they were playing on someone. In trooped three female fans leading our bound and blindfolded chief steward, Ivan. They circled the room and wordlessly exited. We were all putting our hands to our mouths trying not to laugh out loud and giggled helplessly as soon as the door was closed. James' dry delivery of, "And that's just for a first date," didn't help either.

neutral7.jpg (62706 bytes)Having broken the ice, we started chatting back and forth and, in this smaller group, James bantered and teased in a relaxed manner. Bev was there and apologized if she'd embarrassed him by asking him to juggle -- and would he mind doing it again please? Not only did he, again, prove he could juggle -- he did it on one foot too! The conversation, at one point, turned to his writing, and he talked about the experiences in his earlier life such as the mobile home he and Riad had lived early in their relationship, which had gone into his play IDLE WHEELS. Someone asked if he could recite any of his poems, and he decided, after a pause, that he couldn't recall all the words to any of them -- only to remember a few minutes later that he had a copy of one poem up in his hotel room.

neutral8.jpg (62001 bytes)While he was away for a few minutes collecting it, Bink suggested that when he returned we arrange a group photo, and, having checked the room layout, we agreed on one long uninterrupted side wall as the best background for photos.

The poem James read was called "Peter Panic." Simple, thought provoking, evocative, it was an exquisite example of his work. He also showed us the layout of the words -- visually the poem winds down the page like the tail of a cat or dog! At his request we all introduced ourselves briefly. On hearing that I'd just gone on-line and was planning to join the JMDG, James teased the rest of the group by telling me I was heading for trouble.

neutral9.jpg (83483 bytes)Taking the group photo turned out to be a marathon effort, as so many of us wanted a photo taken with our camera -- and thanks go to the two ladies who were too shy to be photographed, and who bravely clicked away on a wide range of different cameras. James then posed for individual photos and chatted individually for a moment with several fans he knew, staying over an hour. A magical experience was had by all that were there.

Chris and I had been really torn -- we both wanted to attend the JMDG meeting, but it overlapped with Jim Swallow's talk and presentation on SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND. So we had to compromise. As Chris had already promised Jim she'd be attending his talk (we've both known him since he was at school), and she wasn't likely to be going online for several months at least, Chris attended Jim's talk while I was on the floor above with the JMDG group. On going back downstairs, I found the main program was running late. Jim was still on, and he was showing an unsold pilot called "The Notorious Seven" made by the S:AAB creators James Wong and Glen Morgan. It was great fun, complex and impossible to describe (got a couple of years to spare?) and completely unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Apparently that was their brief, bring-us-a-completely- new-with-an-original-premise show. So they did. And the studio executives decided that what they'd actually wanted was something completely-new-with-an- original-premise -- that was just like all the other shows currently on television.

Sunday (Already, we cried -- It can't be!). At 12:30 all the S:AAB fans were treated to the sight of James (dressed in black polo shirt, black pants and black shoes. Proving what a smart move it was to put McQueen into a black jumpsuit -- it's definitely his color!) and Tucker taking the stage together.

Both were relaxed, chatting and taking questions from the audience, frequently batting answers and comments back and forth between them. Questions asked of both men included an inquiry about their golf playing. Although Tucker still plays regularly, James admitted that, as he concluded he would never get any better at the game, he had given it up in favor of playing the guitar. Tucker commented that he felt James played the guitar quite well, but, when asked to play for us, James considered that he was still too much of a novice to be making public performances yet.

neutral10.jpg (91778 bytes)At one point, in reply to a question, Tucker took off his jacket to show the gray Wild Cards T-shirt he was wearing -- so James joined in by pulling up his polo shirt to show the white T-shirt he had on underneath. Christine asked what proved to be a popular question -- could they stand up and give the fans the chance to photograph the two of them together. Tucker sensibly deferred this event until the end of their session, when both men could have been excused for claiming they'd gone blind, as flashes galore started going off. After standing side by side for a minute or so, arms around each other’s shoulders, they obliged and stood back to back, chatting quietly to each other as the fans took yet more photos.

All too soon for everyone, it was time for the final guest panel and closing ceremony. Once again, the guests fielded questions from the audience, such as one aimed at the four actors: If you were to play poker against your most famous character (ie, McQueen, Ross, Blake and Vir), who did you think would be the better player -- you or your character? Interestingly, all four felt that they were so different from their character in certain key areas that it wouldn't be appropriate for them to play poker with them. For the main part, it was because they saw and lived life so differently.

It was nice seeing the friendly banter involving Gareth, Sheelagh and Joe. Clearly they are all still friends, which is always great when a relationship has ended. Winners for the various raffles that had been running that weekend were drawn. James had to decline the chance to draw on one raffle because he'd bought himself tickets for that particular raffle. Then the winners in the Art and Craft, Fiction, Fancy Dress, etc, competitions all came up and collected their prizes and certificates from the guests.

By Monday morning the lobby was full of new-made friends saying goodbye and exchanging addresses even as the taxis kept pulling up to take the next group of attendees to the railway station or airport as relevant. Tucker showed what a thoughtful person he is by coming over to Christine, as we were waiting for our taxi. He said he was glad she hadn't left yet because he hadn't had the chance to speak to her the previous evening, and he had a big good-bye hug for her. As we crossed the station footbridge to get to the London-bound platform, we realized we knew an awful lot of the faces down there -- half the train had been at the Con. "Party on, folks!" I thought as the Con ain't really over till the last two fans part company -- according to British tradition!

Memories that just jump to mind? Getting evacuated because of security alerts from our London railway station and being fifteen minutes late to board the train. Walking back to the hotel from the city center and realizing that James Morrison is standing outside a local restaurant, studying the menu and looking incredibly handsome in a long black coat and dark glasses. Developing my relationship with Christine from casual friends to a strong sisterhood over just that one weekend. Watching James go out of his way to reassure nervous fans and to make them feel more at ease. Making a lot of new friends.

Coming down to breakfast on Sunday morning to learn that there'd been a flood in the wee small hours when a stag party (not fans, I was glad to hear) in the 3rd floor bar set off the sprinkler system. It was the fans who not only raised the alarm but pitched in to help hotel staff mop up the mess as ceilings collapsed and carpets were soaked on the 2 floors below. Seeing Gareth Thomas take an hour or more to reassure, talk to and listen to one distraught teenage fan who'd just had disastrous news about her school exam results and for whom the world was in ruins as a result.

But most of all finding that James Morrison was even more of a special person than I had hoped -- one case where the real person is, if anything, even nicer than his fictional character.

P.S. We got the third dog for the hearing impaired. And she’ll be called Alice!

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