After taking a break for one year, Europe's biggest Transformers Fan Convention (not to be confused with a Transformers Convention, there are subtle differences there) once again took place in Birmingham, so my wife and I wanted to be there, too. So we registered (numbers 37 and 38 respectively) and booked a flight and hotel.
A week before our departure we got the big scare, though: Verdi, Germany's biggest union, threatened to put the airline Lufthansa on strike. So there was a good chance our flight would be canceled. We checked out alternatives, but neither of us was particularly interested in spending over 9 hours in a car or on a train to get to Birmingham. And as threats gave way to facts and the first flights were canceled, we waited and prayed.
Two days to go and things became calm again. Our flight to Birmingham would take place and while our flight back would be canceled, we were booked on a flight just four hours later with minimum fuss. So we'd made it through the first bit of excitement and could now look forward to a nice weekend in Birmingham.
The Flight and the Hotel
On Friday, August 1, the day of our arrival, we got our second shock. We were at the airport on time, the flight was calm and almost without turbulence, we touched down smoothly, had a nice cab ride into the city, but then... we got to the hotel. The Norfolk Hotel in Birmingham. Normal price per night for a single room was GBP 49,-, for a double room GBP 69,-. We should probably have gotten suspicious that we could book a double room online for a mere EUR 39,- per night.
I've seen quite a few hotels in my life. On a business trip I once stayed in a hotel in Augsburg called "Ziegenstall" (Goat Stable), which richly deserved its name. But that was nothing compared to the Norfolk Hotel. The lobby was more or less okay, but it steadily got worse from there. Each corridor stank differently, the one where we finally found the elevator of horses. The button of the elevator was missing, so you pressed directly into the circuit. And that was just the beginning.
The room we found ourselves probably hailed from the 70s and hasn't been cleaned since, I'd wager. It stank of cigarettes (despite being labeled a nonsmoking room) and don't even get me started on the bath room. Not to mention the fact that we booked a double room, but got one with two separate beds. The run-down bureau was missing a drawer and in the upper corner we found something that looked more like a camera than a smoke detector. And the icing on top of this cake: For blankets we got two rancid, greasy quilts.
On our way back down to the lobby we got a first-hand demonstration on how cleaning looks in the Norfolk Hotel. The cleaning lady (who had no trolley or any sort of cleaning utensils we could see) opened the door to a room, emptied a can of air freshener or whatever, and closed the room again. Finished. That was it for us. We briefly informed the lady down in the lobby that we would not be staying in their hotel under any circumstances and fled to the outside. We could only shake our heads about the fact that the normal price for staying in this rat hole (and that's insulting the rats) was nearly 100 Euros per night.
Fortunately it was less than 100 meters to reach the hotel we stayed in during our visit in 2006. According to the Internet it had changed owners and was quite a bit more expensive now, but thankfully the concierge took pity on us and gave us a double room for a fair price. So everything turned out to be a bit more expensive in the end, but we had a clean, habitable room, so we didn't care.
Birmingham, the City
In order to make use of the remaining day we took a bus into the city center of Birmingham for a bit of shopping. Unfortunately we had to realize that nearly half of the various shops and offices were standing empty, while the stores that remained seemed to tender more or less exclusively to those of the big wallet. The chasm between rich and poor had opened quite a bit wider since the last time we'd been here.
In terms of toys our only success turned out to be the local Woolworth's, which offered quite a bit. Seeing as it had gotten pretty late, though, we quickly made our way back home. Seeing as the stores are open in Birmingham on Saturdays and Sundays as well, we figured we could go by and have a more thorough look tomorrow.
After having dinner in a near restaurant (or pub, rather) in the form of a pretty nice burger, we then fell into the (clean) bed and slept the sleep of the justly tired.
No, not quite yet. We forced ourselves back on our feet one more time. Since the Auto Assembly offered those already present to get their entry passes on Friday evening, we did head over to the Clarendon Suites (just a block away) and got our tickets. We also exchanged a few words with Simon, the organizer of this entire event, and booked a quarter hour of his time for tomorrow, but more on that later. Like I said, we desperately needed sleep, so we went and got it.
The Auto Assembly, starting up!
After a restful night and a pleasant breakfast we strolled over to the Clarendon Suites and thanks to our pre-collected entry passes we could walk right past the row of people and into the main room. That had the big advantage that it was still relatively empty inside, giving us a free shot at the many dealer tables and to look over the general layout of the event area.
One of the first things we noticed was the big HASBRO sign. Yes, it's true. After seven years of Auto Assemblys, Hasbro UK finally decided to make an appearance there with its own table. And what do you know, assembled on that table were several of the newest figures out or soon to be out, making my heart beat faster.
And look there: A sign with an Internet address for a British version of the Hasbro Toyshop. If you know a bit about online shopping, you might have come across the Hasbro Toyshop in the US, which features a pretty good number of figures, but sadly doesn't deliver outside the US. Here I was hoping that this British shop might just deliver to Europe, but no go. UK-residents only. Just like the Hasbro-raffle, by the way. To pick up my spirits a bit I was allowed to get a hands-on look at Animated Leader Ultra Magnus.
Apart from several tables with custom figures, special articles to be auctioned off later on, and several other specials, the largest part of the room was, of course, filled with dealer tables. And seeing as the room was still mostly empty, I did want to take the opportunity to get my part of the loot. So we started round one of the power shopping and my rucksack as well as several bags started filling up pretty quickly.
Between the endorphine overload and the growing desperation as my wallet began to empty, some facts managed to register in my brain. There was very little in the way of Animated and Universe 2008 figures available. Only two dealer tables offered any of that and it was all stuff from Wave 1. As for the visitors, the Transfans in Britain might not be quite as diverse as the ones we saw at the BOTS in Holland, but here, too, we had the young and the old, families with children, and even a rather tall woman with colorful braids and pink plush boots, who scored quite a few Transformers as well.
At high noon we got to the official opening ceremony. After a few words of welcome we were introduced to the guests attending this year's AA. Apart from Auto Assembly regulars Simon Furman and Andrew Wildman, there were Geoff Senior, Simon Williams, Jason Cardy, Lew Stringer, Staz Johnson, Liam Shalloo and Kat Nicholson, all of them in the comic and/or artist business.
The guest of honor this year was none other than Dan Gilvezan, though, the voice actor of the original G1 Bumblebee. Dan would get a chance to strut his stuff later in the day, so right here we only got a few words of welcome.
Directly afterwards we were shown the first trailer of the upcoming TF Animated computer game. The trailer didn't involve that many screenshots from the actual game, but what little we saw did look good. I'm not a big fan of computer games in general, though, so I didn't pay attention as closely as some others might have.
Seeing as the next few items on the event's agenda weren't exactly of interest to us, as well as the fact that our look rucksack was getting to be quite heavy, we decided to take a break. Back to the hotel to drop off the loot, we then decided to take a quick bus hop into the city center to Woolworth's. So after quite a few Transformers Daniela, too, was able to assemble some loot of her own, so our bags wouldn't be filled exclusively with transforming robots on the trip back home. It's still a bit sad that Woolworth's was the only decent toy store available in the city center, but it's still a nice place to look around if nothing else.
Talking to Bumblebee
The best part was still to come, of course: The appearance of Dan Gilvezan. He brought with him not only a Bumblebee T-Shirt, but also his wife (as was evident by the words "Mrs. Bumblebee" on her shirt), as well as numberous fun tales and anecdotes about the work on the G1 cartoon series.
Back in the day 20 or more people were squeezed into a relatively small recording studio. Thankfully Peter Cullen is freakishly short, at least Dan said so, but it was still pretty packed. The recording sessions tended to go for 8 hours and more (today's union limit is 4 hours) and more than one voice actor was reduced to a sobbing wreck by voice director Wally Burr.
Dan told us how he met Wally Burr recently and their talk went something like this:
Dan: "Hi, Wally!"
Wally: "Okay, Dan! Let's do this once again with a little more feeling, okay?"
Dan fondly remembers his colleagues from back then, especially Frank Welker (Megatron), who was always in the mood for a joke, as well as the late Scatman Scrothers (Jazz), who oftentimes brought along his guitar to make the hours in the waiting room more bearable. Dan has some mixed feelings regarding the late Chris Latta (Starscream), whom he regarded as a tremendously talented voice actor, but who was always good for surprises and trouble.
Apparently Dan was originally slated to voice both Bumblebee and Spike, but seeing that this double role would have forced him to do a lot of dialog with himself, that idea was shelved. Apart from Bumblebee Dan gave voice to Outback, Hot Spot, Rollbar, Scamper, Skids and Snapdragon. He also sent in a demo tape for the 2007 live action film, but never heard back from director Dan Murphy. You kinda got the impression that he was still a little irked about that.
Dan, who just loves questions like "In episode 42, scene 11, there was this 3-second part where..." had his start in the voice acting business with the 70s cartoon show "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends", where he voiced Spider-Man. More recently he featured in an episode of Boston Legal.
Regarding the 25th anniversary of the Transformers, Dan would very much like to be involved in some kind of special event, for example a joint reading of the remaining members of the original cast. Whether or not something like this will ever happen, though, depends on Hasbro and your lucky star.
All in all it was pretty much evident that Dan had a lot of fun doing this. I experienced him as a very charming, engaging personality and certainly wouldn't mind seeing him again at a future TF convention.
I did one final round among the dealer tables after Dan was done and we were already approaching the end of the day's events. There was a raffle that didn't care whether you were a UK resident or not and the German faction managed to score once again. I won an Animated Lockdown figure. Okay, I already own one, but it's about winning, not about the prize. Two TF conventions, two wins in a raffle. That's quite a streak, I'd say.
After the raffle everything wound down and the visitors started heading towards the exit. Daniela and I stayed behind for a bit to talk to the very exhausted Simon Plumbe for a bit. Seeing as we're planning a TF Fan Conveniton of our own for Germany next year, we were eager to get some help from a seasoned pro like Simon.
Despite his exhaustion Simon gave us quite a few useful hints and told us the dos and don'ts, hopefully we'll be able to take those to heart. He also promised to help us as much as he was able, at least once he was able to stand upright again. That man really needs some holidays.
That's it then!
And so the weekend was almost over already. We returned to our hotel, enjoyed a nice evening meal, went to bed, slept in, drove to the airport and flew home. Along the way we learned that the Lufthansa strike was over and that normal services would resume starting next week. Now isn't that great?
But we made it home with lots of loot and no lasting damages, which is the most important thing. Everything else, as unfortunate or stressful it might have been then, is now nothing more than an amusing anecdote.
So to sum up the weekend: A complete success. And to every TF fan out there: Do visit a TF Fan Convention one of these days, too.
Oh, and never, ever stay in the Norfolk Hotel in Birmingham.