NEUTRAL ZONE 2000
Photographs contributed by Maike Liedtke and Winifred Mickleson
Field Report from Neutral Zone by Linda "Kezia" Hepden
NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE - Weekend, March 24 - 26, 2000. The Neutral Zone 2000 convention was held at the Forte Posthouse Hotel in Newcastle. Visiting guest from the USA were James Morrison and Joel de la Fuente.
March 23, Thursday: I've long held the view that the con starts with just 2 fans getting together and doesn't end till you part company with the last fan. Close friend Chris B and I traveled up from London to Newcastle by train and damage to the overhead power lines by an earlier train caused a two-hour delay. But, we weren't in that much of a hurry, and there was nothing we could do about the delay, so we waited more or less patiently. We even had plenty of time to read 'Fog Slow To Clear' (Written by James Morrison), which was my belated birthday present for Chris.
Our patience was rewarded when we arrived at the hotel. Standing in front of the reception desk was James Morrison and Joel de la Fuente checking in. We were just in time to stand in line behind them. (It's a dirty job, but somebody had to do it)
After settling into our room, we headed out to locate friends and fellow fans. Surprisingly, we found them sneakily but determinedly taking over the bar lounge.
Gradually more and more early attendees turned up, including James and Joel - or "J&J" as the MC nicknamed them. They chatted with fans for a while but were still jet-lagged and after an hour or so they left us to get something to eat and catch up on some sleep. We understand that Joel became ill after eating at a local Chinese restaurant and drinking some beer with his meal. The British beers are a lot stronger than American's. He paid dearly for it the next day. Poor lad!
March 24, Friday: Opening ceremony, we waited anxiously with cameras ready. Ian, the MC, teased us unmercifully holding off the introduction of the actors that we had come to see. He brought out first, the writers and scientists listed on the guest list. I was getting butterflies in my stomach wondering whom he would introduce first. James or Joel? As a surprise, Ian announced them together. James and Joel walked onto the stage greeted by cameras flashing away.
We had the chance to bid on breakfast with both James and Joel for Saturday morning. Sunday breakfast with the two actors was to be auctioned off later. Bidding was hot and furious, but you could see who the pros were. Chris and I had already checked with several friends and had a little consortium. (So had Mogs). We worked our way up to £260, ($420.00), before Mogs regretfully decided to end the bid. Ian asked if she'd match the $420 for Sunday breakfast. She replied yes, so Saturday and Sunday breakfasts went to the James Morrison's JMDG (James Morrison Discussion Group).
During Friday's ceremony a discussion panel called 'Room 101' (This is a name for a BBC2 TV show) was set up. It consists of the celebrities nominating things they hate, which the audience discusses and then vote on. If the subject gets a high vote, it goes into 'Room 101' for further discussion. Joel de la Fuente started with "people who think Paul Wang is dead," which went into Room 101 easily.
James Morrison nominated "people who wear too much scent," an easy winner to be sent to Room 101. James then proceeded to nominate "people who think that Chris Carter had anything to do with Space: Above and Beyond being cancelled." We dismissed that theory to Room 101 too. Joel's "spam in his mail box" was strongly Returned to Sender!
We had a long discussion around Joel's suggestion that 3 episodes of S:AAB should be sent to Room 101. The end result was the dated Americanized view of the British military as portrayed in the episode of "PEARLY." The episode of RAY BUTTS" was mentioned. First Joel and then James teased the audience during the next ten minutes.
Chris and I had tickets for the 7.30 PM in the autograph line so we had very little time to spare after Room 101. NZ really knows how to organize a good autograph line! We only had a ten-minute wait. The session took place in an anteroom, which had chairs lined up around the walls. The room was soon nicknamed "The Doctor's Waiting Room." James Morrison has recently played 2 doctors (Wonder Cabinet and X-Files), so it seemed very fitting! I want to mention that James and Joel had some lovely pro photos of themselves.
Later that evening we got down to the really serious stuff the disco! James and Joel appeared about 11pm, after having dinner with the con committee. Joel was very interested in the fan's rendition of 'Star Trekkin'! (A song from about 12-15 years ago, which has it's own special dance and is an absolute *must* at UK SF con discos.)
March 25, Saturday: The morning dawned far too early for ten very nervous James Morrison fans! We were happy we didn't have to wait the extra day that Mogs and the other JMDGers did. Breakfast was set for 9.00 am and by 8.30 most of us were already in the restaurant lounge trying to stay cool and collected. A table had been set aside for us, but because of the crowd they told us they didn't know if they could continue to reserve it. Most of us decided to occupy the table so we wouldn't lose it.
I still don't know how I was picked to welcome our two guests, but the other ladies claimed to be too nervous. Chris B and I sat across the table from James and Joel. Most fans don't know that James is a shy person himself. He understands his fans feelings. By consent of the others, after greeting our guests, the first thing I did was ask them to excuse all of us from intelligent conversation till after the second cup of coffee!
James agreed whole-heartedly with that idea. Turned out there's a simple trick to talking to James Morrison at such close quarters - you mention his one-year-old son, Seamus! This is one proud dad. Someone asked about JM's guitar practice - he's still working on it, and Seamus now has his own full-sized guitar to play with, so he doesn't try and play with daddy's guitar...
I asked if Seamus was talking yet. Yes, he has a language all of his own. He recently turned to James, and called him 'Da-da!' James was absolutely delighted for about 30 seconds when Seamus then pointed at some inanimate object and called it 'Da-da!'.... One of the ladies present asked if Seamus was a flirt, because he's so cute at that age. "Yeah, he's a flirt..." Pause. James smiled, "Wonder where he got that from?"
Meanwhile, a chance remark led to the discovery that my roommate and fellow conspirator Chris B and Joel have mutual friends. They were chatting away about Thom and his wife, and how they both came to know them. ("It's a Small World After All...") Sadly, Chris and I had a stewarding duty at 10.00 am so we needed to leave the table by around 9.50am. Once the ice was broken, we were all chatting away, and I suddenly thought to do a time check. 9.55 am! Yikes! This was *very* much one of those occasions where time flies when you're having fun. We made our apologies and left. Joel was due on stage at 10:30 am so the breakfast meeting was about ready to break up anyway.
Stewarding duty at the dealers' room door was over and I dashed into the main hall for the second half of Joel's talk to discover they were doing a double act on stage, and taking questions together! Help! I missed some of the good stuff. Right now I'm darned if I can remember what they talked about.
The first part of the Charity Auction followed right after Joel's appearance. Stefan and Jeff made an even better double act than J&J (very funny, good timing, incredibly camp!), so bidding was brisk and high. Just as well I kept some notes... Let's see the con artwork was in the style of South Park. Two identical T-shirts (only 2 of their kind) with a South Park McQueen and Wang characters that went for £50.00 each. The South Park T-shirt with Wang in space suit and helmet went for £60.00. Maike's artwork of "Eyes" (Which you can view at www.lifeofanactor.com in the Gallery) went for over £50.00.
They had some scripts signed by Morgan and Wong, Kristen and James. The script to SAAB "Never No More," fetched £100.00. "The Angriest Angel" script went for over £200.00. To up the ante on the AA script, James promised to dance and Joel promised to sing as accompaniment. They obliged. The song was something like an imitation trumpet, maybe some sort of 'call to arms'. Now is it possible to describe the McQueen dance? Umm... Kezia sits here staring blankly at the screen for a good two minutes, before admitting defeat. The best I can do is roughly talk you through the moves. You had to see it to appreciate the body language, which was very uptight and also gung-ho at the same time. Hoo-Yah! James stood very erect, bobbing his head in time to the music. His back to the audience, he switched to marching in place before turning anti-clockwise. He then did a 180-degree turn, still doing his fancy little march in place, and snapped off a very cheeky little salute. His face was stern, but a comic stern.James then added that at one time the McQueen dance went like this and he did a dot-and-carry-one limp several paces forward.
Meanwhile, back at the auction.... JM's copy of the 'X-Files' episode "Theef" went for £50.00. Then came the bit we'd all been waiting for... his flightsuit. James explained that he had at least 3 flightsuits during filming. One basically wore out and was replaced. When he fell and busted his knee during "PEARLY," he ripped the pants to shreds (Strike one suit). Then there was the one he was auctioning (Which explains why he wore a green suit for the explosion in the last episode - they didn't want to ruin a good flightsuit, as they were still expecting to be renewed for a second season).
This may come as a surprise to you as it did to me. The opening bid and it was a serious one, was £400 from some guy named Joel de la Fuente! Honest! As James had earlier tried to bump bids by suggesting '5-8' as a good figure to bid. The next bid was £580, from the guy who runs the Battlestar Galactica fan club (I think his name is Robin). Next bid: "£600.00 and a divorce," from Ivan Rukaber of F58. Robin upped to £610.00. Ivan went to £620.00. Was Robin going to bid higher? No, he reluctantly decided that he wasn't going to do so. Sold to Ivan (who pretty much has the height, figure and hair to wear the flightsuit) for £620.00.
At 3.00 pm, it was James' first solo talk of the convention. James spoke for about 30 minutes, taking questions from the audience about X-Files, directing, Prey, S:AAB, live theatre, and giving a reading from 'Fog Slow To Clear' (the poem 'Chromaturity'). He invited Joel to join him on stage and they batted answers back and forth between themselves and the audience. One topic was "why do you choose to take an acting job?" Joel spoke of his first job in Shakespeare, which was performed in New York Park. He auditioned for a role in ST:Voyager and was asked if he would violate his play contract for the ST role. Being young and naive he said, "No." Garrett Wang got the role of Harry Kim instead of Joel.
Joel spoke of performing "The Peony Pavilion" to different cultures and how he'd been fascinated by the varying reactions. Countries where English was not the mother tongue reacted very differently to London and the US because they were not responding to the words themselves.
They started to discuss the role of Lago and doing Shakespeare in modern settings, but sadly Chris and I had steward duty at 4:00 so had to leave 2/3 of the way through the session. We received a raised eyebrow from James so I pantomimed by pointing first to my big red Stewards' badge. I got a very small JM smile for my efforts. Hopefully the action was received and understood.
We decided to do the disco session differently since this was the very last Neutral Zone there would ever be. At 3.00 am Sunday morning, we switched from GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) to BST (British Summer Time). At 1.00am the DJ insisted we all turn our clocks forward an hour and took us straight into 'The Time Warp' (what other song could he possibly play for us?). Always wanted to Time Warp my way through the clocks going forward/backward, another ambition achieved!
March 26, Sunday: "Mogs" group joined James and Joel for breakfast. Several of us sat over at the side doing some serious James watching.
At 9:30 am we were seated in the main hall for some film showings. Funny how there was this frisson of excitement that swept the room when the camera angled in on short cropped silver hair.
Next up, in the main hall, was a joint session by James and Joel. Silly me, I forgot to bring my notebook with me to this one and it's more or less a complete blank. I do recall the subject of filming "The Enemy" came up and it sparked memories of a discussion we had on the JMDG list a few months ago. "What was McQueen's secret fear, he would have had to face in that episode?" I took the chance to ask James the question since he's the closest we have to an expert on what really makes McQueen tick. He thought about it and replied that "it would be the fear of failure, of not succeeding; more specifically the fear of not being *the one* to succeed." He concluded that, "The 'Angriest Angel' was McQueen's 'The Enemy' episode. The one where he had to face up to his deepest, darkest fears head on."
Both James and Joel spoke about working on the London stage and how much they had enjoyed it. They both agreed it was a privilege for American actors.
Next up came the second half of the charity auction. I only stayed for a little while, but long enough to learn that Joel had *really* gotten into the swing of things. He was planning to auction off a pair of his boxers (worn, if required by the purchaser). Hmmm.... Has anyone explained to Joel about obsessive fans?
Chief Steward, Sasha, was looking for a couple of stewards' to go an extra duty. Always willing to help out, I volunteered.
Remember the flight suit? Ivan and Sasha were doing a photo session, with a pro- photographer. They were allowing fans to be photographed with Ivan in the McQueen flightsuit and needed help to organize things and make sure we didn't have too many people in one moderately small room at once. All the proceeds went to the con charity. I took the chance, in a quiet moment, of having my photo taken. Ivan did a very good 1,000-yard stare in all the pictures that I saw later that day. I can't believe that I got hugged by the McQueen flightsuit! But, I have the photo to prove it.
There was a 'rolling panel' on in the main hall from 1:30 PM till the closing ceremony at 3.30 PM, which consisted of get all the guests up on stage and let the audience ask questions. As this overlapped with the photo session, I was down in the lobby as James came back into the building wearing a l-o-n-g black coat and carrying two styrene coffee cups in his hands. Joel greeted him, or maybe it was the coffee, enthusiastically as he arrived on stage still wearing his overcoat.
At the Closing Ceremony, Ian announced that we had not only received enough funds for a Hearing Dog for the Deaf, but a second dog and over half the funds for a third. At £2500 a dog, and with around 500 attendees that was a great result. All that was left was the thank-you and good-byes. (Sniff!)
Earlier on Saturday, Chris had been lucky enough to get into one of the elevators that James was in. She asked him if we would like to come to the JMDG meeting and if he could what was a good time for him. James checked his schedule and decided that the only time he was really free was after the closing ceremony. We fixed a time of 15 minutes after it ended. The hotel has 2 bars on the second floor, one serving the restaurant, and a second, which is only opened in the evenings. That was a good place to set the meeting and was big enough and nice and quiet. Trouble popped up because of the helpful souls that we are, over half of the JMDG girls at NZ were stewards. And, the steward's party was set for 5pm that evening, which overlapped the planned meeting with James. I spoke to James after the closing ceremony and he was happy to shift the meeting back to 5.30pm (which presumably gave him more chance to do a gracious exit from the main hall and still have a bit of downtime before meeting with us. Not that he'd need it with this crowd.)
Chris and I were running around the main hall, the lobby, the bar, trying to locate everyone to tell them about the last minute change of plans. I 'borrowed' one of Chris' post-it notes in the end, and stuck it on the door to the bar, as I kept running into various girls up there looking for the rest of us. At 5.25 PM I realized that most of the JMDGers had quietly said goodbye and slipped out of the stewards' party. I raced up to our room to get the auction material, and raced back down the stairs to the bar area to find most of the girls were there before me and had set up a circle of chairs and sofas ready for James' visit.
Carol and I had started showing the auction items and passing them around the circle (seemed a good way to get everyone drooling and to loosen the purse-strings.) James arrived (quietly as he always seemed to do). He's very good at quiet entrances. After greeting him, we asked one very important question of him. Which charity would he like to nominate for our auction: the con charity, a cause of his own, or a 50/50 split between the two. James mulled it over a moment and requested us to donate the money to the Multiple Sclerosis Society. A close friend, director Emily Mann, has MS and recently suffered a relapse.
Sudden panic stuck as I realized we didn't have the auction list. Carol had left it up in my room. She and Chris dashed off to get it, while I started the auction with just some post-it notes for records. Bidding on some items was slow, others fast and furious. James was graciously signing just about everything (except Vicky's bears) that was auctioned and making it out to the successful bidder. At one point he was bidding himself for some artwork. Winifred was reluctant to outbid him till he insisted it was okay to do so since he was just pushing the price up. When Chris counted the funds from the auction, we had the grand sum (with some donations) of £450.00. Not bad for about 25 people at the tail end of a convention where everyone had been giving very generously!
Auction over, I suddenly remembered one extremely important question to ask. "Um, James, can we see a photo of Seamus, please? And can we have a demonstration of the wallet technique?" Big grin followed and one quick flick of his wrist. James pulled the photo out of the wallet and passed it around, telling us this was a picture of Seamus at about 6 months old. He is one cute little fella! Any bets he grows up to be a real heartbreaker?
Sadly, James had to leave before too long, but first Ivan and Sasha turned up to play photographer for a session of group photos with James. They turned it into a husband/wife competition to see who could take the most photos; Sasha took the more complicated cameras and still won hands down!
That was about it! One last disco (which had to end at the abysmally early hour of midnight!). We packed our bags on Monday morning, gave *tons* of farewell hugs and left for the journey back to London. There were 5 of us on my train, people I've known for years and practically family.
Never letting the grass grow under my feet, my next convention is Manchester five- weeks from now. I'll be working the Con as one half of the OPs team.