It all started around Christmas, 1977.
My cousin, who lived in California, had come home to visit for Christmas. He had seen this new, wonderful film with laser swords and spaceships that he was certain my brother and I would enjoy. With Christmas just around the corner, he ventured to the Dominion Theatre in London with the intention of purchasing two tickets to for us to see Star Wars: A New Hope.
He decided to buy an extra as someone would need to take us, then he decided to buy an extra two as it would be easier if my Mum and Dad took us... before you knew it, on that cold December evening, eighteen members of my family took our seats inside the theatre. I couldn’t have known how much this special Christmas present would change my life.
From the beginning until the end I sat open mouthed in awe at what I was seeing. I was an instant fan – but it was the bad guys that had the biggest impact on me: the Star Destroyer that seemed to go on forever. The attack on the Tantive IV. The stormtroopers. Darth Vader.
“I bought a helmet. Then I decided I needed the whole suit.”
Obviously, collecting Star Wars items followed, with regular visits to the one and only Forbidden Planet store in London’s West End – but it was always the stormtrooper I was fascinated with. Fast forward many years – and add in the wonders of the internet – and what was once a pipe dream became achievable. I bought a helmet.
Then I decided I needed the whole suit.
That brought me to the 501st Legion, a worldwide group of 13,000 fans in 100 countries named after Vader’s personal division, who meet in full costume to celebrate the ‘bad guys’ of Star Wars. After seeing the UK Garrison at conventions, I decided to join. The 501st insist on members making their costumes screen accurate – if you’re going to do something you may as well do it as well as you possibly can, right? – and so thanks to the like-minded friends I made, I became a stormtrooper complete with blaster, digital voice and that iconic armour.
So far this all sounds incredibly selfish, and I guess in many it was.
But what I also realised was that the 501st exist to appear at events, and help or raise money for charity. Something clicked – I never liked football, fishing or any of what one might call the regular hobbies, I was into comics, sci-fi and stuff. So with the 501st not only could I enjoy my hobby with a very cool group of people but I could also help raise money for charity, support community projects, visit hospitals and bring Star Wars to life. I could literally make dreams come true.
I’ve now been a member for many years and have also had the honour and privilege of heading up the fantastic team who run the club that now boasts more than 500 members up and down the country – from helicopter pilots to vets to plumbers to vicars in their day jobs.
We attend around 500 different events every year, from providing a single Stormtrooper for a small charity event to the great privilege of walking the red carpet in costume for the premiere of The Force Awakens in Leicester Square, London.
“Just being able to perhaps bring a moment of happiness to a child going through a really tough time, a distraction to help forget their pain, is an honour”
Personally, I try to attend as many events every year, recently managing to notch up my 1000th event with the UKG, a visit to a paediatric oncology ward at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital. Each event is different and brings a new audience, so costuming never get tired or old. One of the most meaningful, touching and rewarding events I regularly attend is visiting the children’s wards at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Just being able to perhaps bring a moment of happiness to a child going through a really tough time, a memory for them to take away, a distraction to help forget their pain, is an honour and, in the face of their bravery, very humbling.
Most of our members get involved for similar reasons to me, and stay for similar reasons to me too. They love Star Wars, they love researching, building and wearing the costumes, but most importantly they love being able to do good and put smiles on faces. We have a lot of fun and get to do things and go places we would never have had the chance to otherwise, and all the while we are giving something back.
Next year marks our club’s twentieth anniversary, and it’s amazing looking back at just how far a small club – started in 2000 by a huge Star Wars fan named Graham Campbell with a dream and just a handful of members – has come. Though we lost Graham in 2004 and he never got to see just how big and successful the UK Garrison has become, he left an incredible legacy and I am so proud to be a part of that.
I don’t think he – or any of us – ever imagined just how this band of Imperial bad guys would become such a force for good.
Gary Hailes is an actor, celebrant, and commanding officer of the 501st UK Garrison. For more information on the group and their work, visit their website
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