Over the first weekend in February this year the SF Ball happened for the 23rd year in a row. The SF Ball is something of a unique event in amongst the many other Sci-Fi and genre conventions. Not only is it operated totally in support of Charity, in this case the Teenage Cancer Trust but it’s a convention that blends Celebrity Guests and merchandise stalls with formal evening entertainment and party games throughout with a sense of history and the familiar. During our time there this year we were fortunate enough to sit down with the Directors of the SF Ball, Anne, James, Paul and Andrew, to find out about the history of the event and what happens behind the scenes.
CPT: Can you give us the story behind SFB, how did it all come about?
Anne: Well, SFB started when I went to Bournemouth University as a mature student and there was no Sci-Fi society, which I thought was a little lacking. So I went and raided other departments and found James and Duncan and B and several others and we formed the Sci-Fi society, which was a mad cap society which turned out to be very succesful and is in fact one of the longest running societies at the University, to my last knowledge it was still running a year ago. Following on from that we joined an international Star Trek club called Starfleet Command and we opened to the Public after discussion with the University and thought thirty, maybe fourty people would turn up. One hundered and fifty people turned up and we thought wow! Then we opened monthly, Paul joined, Andrew joined, lots of people who are still here joined and we started running in a whole wing of the University. We had three lecture theatres running full time, all day, we had lots of mad cap stuff, a bit like the ball but reduced and we became the biggest ship in the fleet worldwide because we were running at four hundred people a month, which is when I fatefully said “shall we run a convention?”
James: And we stupidly said yes.
Anne: And we opened in Bournemouth on a thundery, rainy day, that was raining so hard that we couldn’t see out of the windows of the Royal Bath Hotel and we had no guests it was all just the same sort of format and we were innundated by people, they were qeued out the door. We stayed there for two years, outgrew the hotel almost instantaneously and then moved to the Carrington so we stayed there for eighteen years and then when the Carrington was taken over we had to move, as they were bought out by a rather unpleasant chain, and we moved here and we’ve just been here for our third year. So we’ve been running the ball for twenty three years and the club ran before that so most of the core of the team have known each other for the best part of twenty five years.
CPT: Out of all the charities that are out there, what was it that moved you to support the Teenage Cancer Trust?
Anne: We actually supported a number of charities in the beginning, our prime one for the ball itself was the MacMillan Trust at Christchurch Hospital and we had a very good relationship for a long time but things change in the sense that they weren’t quite as dynamic as we had hoped and as involved as we would have hoped. So I happened to be at a business meeting and they had a presentation there from Teenage Cancer Trust and I really felt touched by it, it spoke to me definitely as I had younger children, so I took it back to the crew and we all discussed it and said yes. At our Midlands Convention we supported Rainbows and when Michael Sheard was still alive we used to provide him with a special auction for the heart foundation. But Teenage Cancer Trust has been our main focus from there on in, we’ve helped them to build the unit on Southampton and we now help to keep it going, it costs over a thousand pounds a day to keep it going so it’s very important that people like us manage this for them. To date since we’ve been raising money for them, we’ve raised over thirty one thousand pounds.
CPT: What do you think the value of the SF Ball is to people? Why is it so popular?
Andrew: I suppose the value of the ball from my perspective, none of us get paid anything to be involved in this, but there is this wonderful sort of cliche about being a Science Fiction fan, particularly when we all started finding Science Fiction at various points in our lives, when it was a dirty little secret. You’d whisper Star Trek and keep quiet about it and I think what’s been amazing is in the same way that Science Fiction and Fantasy and things help us grow as people through the stories they tell, to be in an environment with the doors closed with like minded people and as we have all gone through our own personal timelines, certainly myself I’m thirty one this year and I was at ball two. I was a child who has grown up, looked at people here as role models, gone on to do whatever I do outside of this, and I think it’s this one time of the year where you get to feel like the family’s back together and every year we bring more people into that and it’s being an unashamed fan.
Anne: It’s inclusivity. From the very outset we have said this is an environment that’s going to be safe for everyone, where everybody can enjoy themselves, it doesn’t matter who you are, what gender you are, race, creed, colour, who cares. We’re all the same, we’re the human race and this was what Gene Roddenberry always talked about, infinite diversity, infinite combination and that’s what you get at the Ball. It doesn’t matter, everyone excepts you, no one even thinks about it not being run of the mill, no one takes any notice. They’re all here to enjoy themselves, they’re all here to discuss what they have in common which is Science Fiction and they love it and they will come back year after year, it’s like a big family reunion.
Paul: It’s the family ethos definitely that makes everyone come back to look forward to seeing friends.
CPT: If you could have any guest, any dream guest to headline the convention who would it be?
James: Mine would be Linda Carter.
Andrew: Mine would be Dean Stockwell.
Paul: I would love to see William Shatner here.
Anne: Harrison Ford, Blade Runner.
Andrew: You know, that little thing we all just did there, talking about just four names, that little smile sums up the whole weekend. All going yes, of course! When we have to go back to our day jobs, answering phones and emails, how often do you get to feel like that? And it’s just because we’ve said four names.
CPT: Do you have a favourite memory from a past SFB?
James: For me personally, it was when I had my old wheelchair but it was new at the time and the crew spent the whole weekend collecting money to pay for my new chair but I didn’t know. The way they did it was, do you want to see James cry on stage? And all the attendees who’d known me for years naturally gave money to see me cry. I went up thinking I was announcing the raffle total at the closing ceremony and actually Anne makes me cry by presenting it to me, so for me that’s my favourite memory. But as guest liaison I have so many with guests, but for me personally, that’s something I’ll always remember. Just don’t do it again!
Andrew: I think mine is when I came back and these guys, hopefully won’t mind me saying, they were a little bit older than when I’d last seen them. I’d been away for quite some time but it was as if I hadn’t been away and it has been lovely to reconnect and the investment that these guys constantly give to everybody that comes to the ball is why everyone works so hard. It’s charity, not just the Teenage Cancer Trust and that vital cause, but as people we’re very charitable people and everything about us is giving what we can and sometimes that’s more than just money.
Paul: I think my most memorable ball, not necessarily happiest but happy ending shall we say, was taking all the guests out one Friday to do our little looking at England in the South and have a meal and something like that and just make them all relaxed and amenable to us for the rest of the weekend. We got to our first stop which was overlooking Poole harbour and it started to snow heavily and I said to Anne, “we’re going to have to move now if we don’t want to get caught and want to continue the day.” Mary MacDonald was with us that year along with Erin Grey, Robert Picardo, they were all with us and we came down the hill, which had already got about four inches of snow, very gently, went over the chain-link ferry at Sandbanks and up towards Corfe Castle. Where we’d booked to eat was up an S-bend hill, normally you’d be looking at the lovely view across the harbour, there was nothing, it was a white out. You could feel the SUV twitching and I’m thinking “don’t let me crash and lose all the guests before we’ve even started. ” But we had a meal, made it back down the hill, had a lovely time and everyone was happy but that’s my most memorable, not necessarily happiest for obvious reasons but happy we made it home and everyone enjoyed themselves.
Anne: I think for me it’s nothing to do with the guests or anything it’s about the people that come. I remember one specific time. I was out the front and I happened to hear this conversation going on and it was quite an elderly lady with her son who I would have said was probably in his late forties to early fifties. “Oh come along Mother you’re never going to see anybody.” And she said “But Armin Shimmerman is here.” And he said “So?” She said “But I like Armin Shimmerman.” I stopped and I asked “Are you just here for the day?” And he said “We’ve got to leave.” I asked “Why have you got to leave?” “He said “We’ve got to go shopping.” And I said “Well would you like to go shopping or just sit in the Foyer and I’m going to take your Mother somewhere.” He said “Who are you?” I said “I run this.” I said to her “Come with me.” And I took her to the green room, I got Armin and he gave her a special photograph and he sat and talked with her and she was over the moon. Her son said that she was too old for that kind of stuff and I said “I’ve got news for you mate, she isn’t.” And I’ll never forget her face as she went out the door, she was so happy, she had to be in her late seventies or early eighties I would have thought, she had a stick, she was quite elderly and loved Star Trek. I thought how can you do that to someone, bring them in to a convention then say sorry we’re going shopping. Doesn’t happen on my watch and to see her go out happy, that was probably one of my favourite memories.
CPT: There are a lot of people who don’t realise the amount of work that can go into an event like this. How difficult is it to organise the guests and the event itself?
Paul: It all comes down to crew.
James: The most important thing for the Ball over twenty three years, we could not do this without our crew. We are a team, yes there are us as Directors but without our crew who do the tech, the guest liaising, the entertainments, the welcome desk and more, without them our event would not happen and that is the prime thing. We set the ideas in motion, each department has a manager, they liaise with the hotel, tell them what we want, Anne does the guest bookings and deals with all that. It all comes together about two or three months before the event.
Anne: Well we work all the way through the year and it usually crystallises two or three months before. But what I will say is that because we’ve been lucky to run the way we have, we started at University so we got our start there, we’ve got business expertise, we’ve got B who’s a VFX generalist these days, we’ve got people who’ve got skills in all sorts of things and in sales and marketing, in entertaining, the entertainments team are phenomenal. So everybody pulls their weight, we’ve got guys who are really good with money and finance who take care of all that stuff so I don’t have to worry about it, it all clicks together and it’s a team and without that team it wouldn’t exist so we go out and talk and Andrew will go out and organise things for tech and tell our tech manager what he’s managed to find and they’ll go find other things. They network and talk and it all comes together through hard graft, we’re all unpaid and do it because we love it.
Andrew: The important thing and everyone should realise this because it is really, really important is that at the end of the day it’s a big risk every year. We have to raise a vast amount of money and it’s lovely to have that old phrase, if you book them they will come, not necessarily. What we as organisers are desperately trying to ask for is just the awareness that we think we have a very special event here with a very special ethos and anybody that is able to support this event either financially or by joining the crew or being in partnership with us which we’ve really started to do because we think this is a very special model, our model, that is worth investing in so we can continue to do this to SF Ball fifty.
The SF Ball returns next year 2nd – 4th February 2018.
For more on the SF Ball head over to the official site
For more on the Teenage Cancer Trust head to their site