Five Hundred Eyes

Unconventional conventionalists

"Can I write a review of Follycon?" I asked David. "Well, it doesn't have much to do with Doctor Who, does it?" he replied. What you are now reading is therefore not a review of Follycon (honest!). Instead I am trying to show that the various DWAS events (including the annual fiasco, Panopticon) could learn a great deal about presentation from other major conventions around the country. (Well, if David can review the new Star Trek series under the guise of comparing it to Doctor Who, I should have no problem slipping this review in.)

Follycon, I should explain, was a general Science Fiction convention held over four days at Easter, in the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. The heavy emphasis on Follycon is partly because it was a fairly recent event, and so is fresh in my mind, but also because it was the most enjoyable convention I have been to so far. Having said that, Follycon was my first non Doctor Who convention (I don't count Fan Aid North) so I don't know how good other such conventions might be. I would also like to add that a substantial part of my enjoyment was due to the company I had during the convention, so my point of view might be rather biased.

The venue, I feel, must surely be the most important part of a convention. Lack of space and insufficient facilities can ruin a potentially good event. Fan Aid North fell into this category: it had a reasonable selection of guests and an acceptable programme of videos, but the small dealers room and a standard television set for the videos made this friendly little con' a bit of a disappointment. Likewise Panopticon has fallen into the trap of returning to Imperial College every year - presumably because it's cheap (if it isn't all that cheap then they certainly have no excuse for using it). Basically, I can only find one advantage of Imperial College - the main hall has excellent projection facilities. These are wasted, though, as the majority of videos are shown on a standard projection TV, hidden in an upstairs room. If they were to show a few more high quality videos in the main hall then they might be justified in choosing this venue, but I cannot think of any other facilities that cannot found at other locations.

Certainly for me, the most enjoyable conventions I have been to have been held in hotels. Admittedly, the actual accommodation costs the attendees more, and this is significant when you realise the average age (and therefore income) of those attending Panopticon is less than for other events. However, if you consider the disadvantages of Imperial College, the extra amount one might be expected to pay seems good value for money. Take Follycon, for example. This cost between £12 and £22 for four days (depending on how late you left it to register), compared with £25 for two days at Panopticon. Accommodation at the Adelphi (a very good hotel) was £19 per night for a twin room with en suite bathroom, whereas Imperial College charges £13.50 a night for a single without bathroom facilities. Note however that (a) the Adelphi is in Liverpool, not London, and (b) I don't think the prices for the Adelphi included breakfast . Even so, it is obvious that the actual cost to the attendees is comparable in the two cases quoted, and the Adelphi certainly provided a better convention venue than any other convention I have been to. The 1985 Panopticon in the Brighton Metropole comes a close second, but this lacked one feature that was the Adelphi's strong point : a lounge area. At Follycon this provided a focal point, a place where weary fans could relax and chat, before moving on to another of the function's numerous events. One end of the lounge held the registration desks and stairs to other floors, the other led to the main halls and film room. To either side were the dealers room and restaurant, and off at the corners were the art show and convention bar. In the centre of this, the lounge provided comfortable seating in a relaxed atmosphere, in an area larger than the main hall at many conventions. Apparently the design was based on the main lounge on the "Titanic" - and it certainly looked the part.

Notice that above I referred to the main halls. Follycon had two separate programmes to cater for differring tastes, but retained the ability to combine these two halls into one big one (by removing a wall - I'm still not quite sure how they did it!) for events liable to attract a larger audience. In addition to these two programmes, they ran a continuous film programme (apart from an hour cleaning break at seven in the morning), and various smaller events in the Fan Room and two "workshops". These took the form of short talks, group discussions, or games in which everyone actively participates.

It was in the programming, therefore, that Follycon really excelled. Guests were present, and there were a few interviews and panels, but for most people these were largely unimportant. Panopticon relies heavily on interviewing guests, and so tends to repeat itself year after year (how many times has Peter Davison been asked to name his f avourite story?). The closest Panopticon has come to the atmosphere of Follycon was in 1985, when they provided an evening of Fancy Dress competitions and silly games - but even that comparison does Follycon an injustice. Follycon was fun, without resorting to (excessive) sillyness. To give an idea of the sort of activities provided, I shall briefly describe three of my favourite items, all of which took place in one of the workshops, and suprisingly, have very little to do with science fiction.

Firstly, an informal group discussion entitled "Partly Baked Ideas". These are described in the convention handbook as "any idea less-baked than a half-baked idea", and is basically an excuse to invent various wacky schemes which have some (slight) base in science fact. About twenty people were present, and we spent about an hour and a half discussing such ideas as running a cable round the Earth and a pulley on the moon, and using the power of the Earth's rotation to lift cable cars to the moon's surface (it's not quite as silly as it sounds!). Other ideas covered were construction of black holes using catapaults round the Earth (I think), and curing constipation with ultrasound. Suffice to say that the solutions began to get very silly, and many are not suitable for publication in this 'zine.

Later the same evening was a similar session with the strange title of "Filking for Beginners". Not knowing what to expect, we went along out of curiosity, and were pleasantly surprised. "Filking" is difficult to describe - it's a sort of folk-singing, but with an apparant leaning towards songs about science fiction, and a few traditional Viking songs thrown in for good measure. The people organising this were the sort I might have otherwise crossed the road to avoid (no offence intended) but after this session I found what great people they really are. There is nothing like a convention for meeting new people and trying to understand their interests.

Finally I shall mention my personal favourite - Cooperative Games. This, as far as I can tell, has practically nothing to do with science fiction. The basic idea is to relax and put your trust completely in other people, in many cases by letting the others physically support you. The games definitely fulfilled their purpose, because I came out feeling that I could trust anyone there with my life.

David has just pointed out that this is rapidly turning into a review of Follycon. That will never do, so I had better get in some reference to Doctor Who. Despite all the above mentioned events, Doctor Who did make a limited appearance at Follycon, in the form of a discussion "When was Doctor Who Good?". Hosted by Chris Leach, and dominated by David, this was a healthy mix of nostalgia and JNT-bashing. Chris also brought along several videos of old stories to influence the discussion, which he then showed in their entirety the following day. Thus a day of continuous videos compensated for the rather poor support for Doctor Who fans earlier in the convention.

It was at this point that Nikki (a raving Trekkie, whose doodlings appear elsewhere in this issue) decided that Star Trek had not been represented well at the convention, particularly in relation to Doctor Who. She therefore organised her own discussion in one of the workshops on the final day, and got a reasonable turn-out considering the last minute publicity. This shows the flexibility of such conventions : the organisers were perfectly happy to let someone come along and "do their own thing" at the last minute. Try pulling a stunt like that at Panopticon. I doubt you'd even be able to find someone to ask, since they seem to spend most of their time chatting to guests in their hospitality suite. At Follycon the guests mingled in the bars and attended events as members of the audience, with the organisers readily accessible in the operations room.

Before moving on, I'll mention two activities tucked away in a small corner at Follycon: a Star Trek wargaming scenario, and a very large jigsaw. These may seem trivial, but are good examples of the planning involved in the convention. Whenever you didn't feel like attending one of the other events, you could always go along and involve yourself. (It gives great satisfaction to wander along at three in the morning and manage to fit another piece into the jigsaw.)

Right. You've probably got the idea that Follycon was good, but what has it got to do with Panopticon? (No smart remarks, David.) Actually, quite a lot. I will admit that the two events set out to achieve different objectives, and will therefore work in different ways. Indeed, they are aimed at different sections of the population : Doctor Who fans tend to be male, aged between fifteen and thirty, whereas general science fiction fans are split evenly between male and female, and are generally considerably older. Even so, the organisation of the two events is very similar, being based around a committee system (although the Follycon committee had to bid for the rights to hold the convention, as opposed to Panopticon which has the same committee year after year). Hence what works for Follycon should also work for Panopticon.

As indicated above, the venue is the first thing which should be changed. Imperial College is very inconvenient, being a long walk from the nearest underground station, and having practically no car parking space. There are no fast-food places and few shops nearby, which are very useful alternatives to food and drink in the convention (I seem to remember that the cafeteria is only open for lunch anyway). Even the accommodation is separate from the main facilities, and this accommodation is poor when com pared to other universities, let alone hotels.

Secondly, the timetabling should be improved. Follycon provided a masterpiece in computer typesetting, with a time axis down the page, and places across (not unlike David's Mawdryn Undead article, but much easier to understand). This allowed you to see exactly what, when and where events were going on, at a glance. Panopticon has yet to provide any sort of timetable, resorting to messages on TV screens saying what's happening in the next hour or so. With this system, you can't pop out for food, or go back to your room, without risking missing something important. I suppose the reason they don't publicise a timetable is because they would never be able to keep to it. I cannot recall a DWAS event ever starting on time, and I remember one occasion when events didn't start for two hours because, we were told, the convention team were still in bed. This is not the way to run a convention. (I believe that this team is no longer organising DWAS events.) In addition to a timetable, Follycon provided newsletters every evening publicising any changes or additions. This is much better than verbal announcements, which are only effective for those present, and can easily be forgotten. Similarly, with the inevitable delays in events, better use could be made of messages on the monitors around the convention. In particular, no indication is given in the video room as to what is happening in the rest of the convention. The only solution for attendees is to rush down from the fifth floor in between each video, and hope that you don't miss too much of the story. A monitor outside the video room would help, preferably showing the activities in the main hall, and a continuous display of any timetable changes.

Regarding the subject of actual programming, I think more choices would be very welcome. In its present form, many people have seen the guests several times, and the only alternative is to watch the videos. I would therefore suggest that the convention team investigate other forms of entertainment, by hiring an extra (smallish) room, and organising dicussions and talks, purely amongst fans if necessary. This, I should stress, should be an experiment, as Doctor Who fans tend not to be quite so outgoing as other science fiction fans, and it remains to be seen whether this would work at something like Panopticon.

Also concerned with programming, Panopticon is very much a two day convention, rather than a weekend event - it stops on Saturday evening, and restarts late Sunday morning. An all-night video session, for instance, would satisfy the few people who do not want an early night, and would only require one or two people staying up to organise it. Furthermore, the two-full-days approach does not suit those people who have to travel a long way to attend Panopticon (not everyone lives in the south, you know). It is very difficult (and tiring) to arrive early Saturday morning, and leave late Sunday. The only option is to pay for an extra two nights' accommodation, and have little to do in the remaining time at Imperial College. If the convention were to start midday Friday (like Follycon), and finish midday Sunday or Monday, then travelling would be easier, and with the extra time for the convention team to set up and clear away, it might actually start on time.

Finally, advance publicity is appalling. Most conventions give at least one year's notice and publish regular progress reports. At the time of writing (early April) I still don't know the dates of this year's Panopticon, a fact which is considerably annoying. Most people book their summer holidays around Christmas time, and since Panopticon occurs late summer, it is very important to know when it will be. The DWAS team must surely have booked Imperial College well in advance, so why can't they tell us which dates to keep free?

I think I'd better wind up there. Sorry for going on so much about Follycon, but many people may not have experienced that kind of convention, and don't know what they are missing. Certainly, I was reasonably happy with Panopticon before this Easter. Now I feel very dissatisfied. Indeed, I will probably stop attending DWAS events unless they improve significantly, although I realise that it's too late to do anything about this year's Panopticon. However I sincerely hope to see some of these recommendations implemented at Panopticon 1989.

Issue two contents
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