Thanks to my decision to start returning to my first true love (sci-fi), and the fact there is no summer convention that interests me in 2014, I allowed myself to be persuaded to try attending the Sci-Fi Ball, a fan-based, charity-driven event that has in the past 20 years run out of the Carrington Hotel in Bournemouth. Much to my chagrin, I had never heard of a Sci-Fi Ball in Bournemouth – or any sci-fi event in the area – before last year. It’s a little embarrassing, especially as I had complained both frequently and rather vocally about the lack of events in and around the South of England. Colour me thoroughly abashed.
The event hosts a small number of named guests (this year saw Chris Barrie, Marina Sirtis, Paul McGann, Sophie Aldred, JG Hertzler, Robert O’Reilly, and Paul Blake, not to mention a number of literary and comic authors) in a cosy setting consisting of one dealers-type room and a photograph/autograph room. Not only that, but the guests are encouraged – and certainly appear to enjoy! – to interact with the attendees whilst wandering the halls. It is a setting very unusual for someone used to the likes of small anime events (Minamicon) or giant corporate events (MCM Comic Con/LFCC).
The focus of the Sci-Fi Ball (hereby abbreviated to SFBall) seems much less on the acquisition of memorabilia such as autographs and/or photographs of the stars (though they are amenities available) and more on just generally having a good time in the company of other like-minded sci-fi types. During the day the guests make themselves available for interesting Q&A (Question and Answer) sessions in which they are both informative, funny, and always willing to engage with the attendees.
There are game shows during the evenings as well as fantastically enjoyable discos during which I learned the horror exhaustion fun of “Con Dances” and Sunday night karaoke that seemed feverish in its attempt to keep the Ball going until the last possible second. Each evening is themed, giving attendees the option of gearing their costume towards the theme and having photographs taken around the amusing decorations provided by the volunteer staff. For those interested, this year’s themes were “Apocalypse”, “Cowboys and Aliens”, and “British Sci-Fi”.
SFB Events, owners of the SFBall, are a non-profit organisation raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. The Trust is the only UK charity dedicated to improving the quality of life and chances of survival for the six young people aged between 13 and 24 diagnosed with cancer every day, and as far as I can see they have been doing a remarkable job. Numbers from their website indicate that since 2009 the Ball has raised £13,648.49 for the charity, which is absolutely fantastic!
Initially I was a little wary of the price of the ball; £104 for the weekend is a lot of money for someone used to paying little more than £50 for an anime event. Had I not wished to spend the entire weekend (and been able to commute daily into Bournemouth) I may have chosen the daily entry at £5 for the day (kid go free, whoop). Having said that, once I had been unceromoniously dumped at the hotel (never ask siblings on a time-limit for a lift), I decided that £104 was pittance to pay for such a warm and welcoming event.
My first indicator that this was a Very Different Con (capitalisation entirely necessary) was when I found myself sat alone in the hotel restaurant, waiting for my friend to arrive, and finding Robert Rankin and Lady Raygun at the table next to me, who promptly engaged me in conversation as if not only was I known, but was a friend. Nearly forty-five minutes of chatter and banter (and lunch) later, Mr Rankin and Lady Raygun had to leave to finish their set-up, and I promptly found myself immersed with a group of attendees more than happy to include me in their chatter and tell me more about the event.
Genius that I am, I realised that in my rush to leave Portchester that morning I had forgotten my badge. A quick word to a mischievous and friendly individual I would come to know as B, and I was able to replace said missing badge for a small fee. No matter how awkward I thought I was being, I was made to feel that nothing was too much trouble, and that the staff were genuinely happy to have me there.
I will admit that I spent a large part of Friday in a bit of a daze. I’m not unused to conventions, and I’m also not unused to friendly people at conventions, but the level of warmth and openness at the Ball is honestly something else. I was initially not disappointed to have missed “The Con Dance Workshop”, as I had had no idea what it was. More fool me… I also managed to miss “Nixxie’s Pub Quiz”, which ran as I was hurtling through Boscombe to pick up the things I had forgotten (namely my toothbrush and hairbrush).
During the opening ceremony on Friday evening, the attendees were introduced to the guests and to the main staff, given information on the “Money Can’t Buy Raffle” (a collection of interesting items B has rescued from destruction), and news bulletins. After the announcements and opening ceremony, I was introduced to the traditional Con Games of Geekbusters and Double or Drop, and found myself most frustrated at my perceived lack of intelligence. No matter what I thought of that, the games were great fun to watch, and it was interesting to see the entire audience getting in on the action. It was easy to see how many of them had been attending for years; there was a familiarity to the call-and-responses from B, and a great deal of friendly heckling of both B herself and some of the ‘contestants’ in the games.
After the games the disco began, and I was properly introduced to B herself, who upon realising I was a ‘virgin’ or ‘newbie’, instructed a gentleman called Martin to introduce me to ‘the others’. Friendly and cheerful, Martin hauled me around the room (losing my companion, Scattergood, on the way) and faithfully introduced me to a number of ‘the forum crew’, all of whom greeted me with genuine enthusiasm and interest. I was swept onto the dance floor by no small number of them, and taught how to do some of the con dances – although I admit I was too coward to join in with either “Star Trekkin’” or “The Grid”, as the former was hard to learn in one go and the latter just made me stare in abject horror at the increasing speed of complicated movements.
Saturday was a pleasant and chilled-out day, which I found completely unusual as generally at this point in time at conventions I’m flapping about like a headless chicken trying to catch up with people whilst pulling bits of costume haphazardly on. Instead of participating in poultry-shaped shenanigans, I was able to swiftly throw on my Captain Janeway uniform, and explore the “Doctor Who Corridor of Monsters”. I was absolutely fascinated by the hard work gone into recreating these amazing costumes and masks, which were so well-made by Mr Harvey Walker that you would be forgiven for thinking they had been swiped off set! Had I been a little more bold, I would have taken a number of photographs of myself with the mannequins, but I have to admit my courage failed me on sight of the Cyberman.
After spending a large amount of time in there, I had a walk around the exhibition hall, as I had missed the guest talks. This was an area much more recognisable to me; a cross between an artist’s alley and a dealer’s room, there were stallholders of beautiful geeky-themed hand-made goods, comics, replica costume pieces and – of course – steampunk paraphernalia. The size of the room, and amount of stalls, was strongly reminiscent of Minamicon’s dealer’s room, and as such I felt quite at home. I spent quite some time finding out more about Reload! Comics, The Titanic’s Mummy, the books and jewellery of Mr Robert Rankin and Lady Raygun, and the fascinating tales of Mr Kit Cox. There was plenty of room to move unimpeded, and each of the stallholders was more than happy to engage in conversation, share information on their wares, or stories. It was a most relaxed and welcoming environment.
Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to get a weekend-with-dining ticket, which meant I was to miss the attendee-and-guests meal, not to mention the famed chocolate fountain. Rumour had it there was also a custard fountain! In addition, I missed the “Money Can’t Buy Raffle” (which I wasn’t so upset about as I was on a very strict budget!) and the cabaret. Instead of waiting for the disco (which ‘normal’ ticket-holders could attend), I turned in early, ready to start again at a reasonable hour in the morning.
Sunday I broke out the Idris costume and proceeded to spend the majority of the day in the exhibition hall in the steampunk area, successfully missing the guest talks and Teenage Cancer Trust charity auction. The League of Bournemouth Steampunks and those around the beautifully-crafted steampunk goodies (many of which were available for purchase) were as welcoming to newbies as the other stallholders, and I barely noticed the time passing until the gathering of various steampunk costumers broke for lunch. Due to costume issues (my Idris bodice was stabbing me in various uncomfortable places) I used the lunchtime break to change into my own steampunk gear, and returned in time to be introduced to Tea Duelling.
I had never heard of Tea Duelling before, but it was well-explained (and wonderfully hosted) by a member of the League of Bournemouth Steampunks. Participants must dip a malted milk biscuit (according to the society, no other biscuit will do) into a mug of tea for a count of five seconds, before removing the biscuit. The last participant with a ‘clean nom’ wins. Please click here for a more in-depth look at the rules of Tea Duelling.
Sunday night was, unfortunately, the closing ceremony. Unsurprisingly, B was on spectacular form as the host, the guests were in high spirits, with a few extra charity auctions occurring: Robert Rankin auctioning off the identity of the villain in his next book, Marina Sirtiss auctioning off a snog(!)
Guests also expressed genuine thanks for the weekend. There were a few technical issues with the little goodbye video from Sophie Aldred who had had to leave early, handled brilliantly by the ever-amusing B, with some good-natured heckling from the audience and staff alike. During a brief break, the Sunday night game of “Universally Challenged” was set-up. Much like University Challenge, the game tests two teams on their general knowledge, with an unsurprising lean towards the geeky. The teams were brilliant, innocent members of the convention that either volunteered or got volunteered by the host, B.
After Universally Challenged, the dance floor was cleared for disco and karaoke. As on Friday night, the disco music leaned towards the cheesy and ‘con dance tunes’, which I was much more prepared for, and so I joined the crazy rush towards the dance floor the moment I recognised the track. The dances were interspersed with karaoke songs, giving us a bit of time to breathe (which was certainly needed for me!) before the next dance. I was forced to point out to Fwah Storm of Reload! Comics that he really is only allowed one talent, he’s not allowed to be a brilliant singer as well as a comic artist – it just isn’t cricket.
Between dancing and karaoke, I was engaged in conversation with Anne Lindup, the lady in charge, and B. Far from being in any way superior, Anne was down-to-earth and friendly, very willing to discuss the ball and its upcoming move to Southampton (I’m still excited about that).
Though the disco and karaoke ended at 1am, after a most ridiculous rendition of “Summer Nights” from Grease sung by a good quarter of the weekend attendees (myself included), there was very little effort made to clear the hall. There were goodbyes, many of them sad if not tearful, and an almost desperate amount of chatter around as if we were all trying to squeeze the last possible drop of fun from the ball. Contact details were shared, Facebook friend adding was happening all over the place, and before we quite knew it it was 2am.
The Sci-Fi Ball is making a new home at the Grand Harbour Hotel in Southampton from the 5th to the 8th of February 2015, and I can guarantee I will be there for my second year. I can very highly recommend coming to this event, even if it’s just for a £5 day ticket, as the staff are crazy full of fun and welcome, the exhibits are fascinating, the guests will invariably be fantastic, and it is all-in-all, the best fan-led convention I have ever attended. Roll on 2015, I am confident I have learned most of the con dances in preparation!