Event programme (click for larger image)
HARRIS AT HISTORICON 09
At the back end of 2008 I had the honour of an invitation to Historicon 09, a war games convention held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania USA. Upon receiving the initial e-mail I had to do a quick bit of research into what I was getting myself involved with. Much to my delight I could see 'the thing' I was getting myself into was a huge, well established organisation with a dedicated following and a twenty five year history behind it. Plus, Bob Giglio, convention director was very generously flying me out to the US, putting me up at the grandly named Lancaster Resort Hotel as well as appointing me guest of honour. It was an invitation I'd have been a fool to decline, especially as I'd never done a Sharpe related event state side.
Convention director Bob Giglio
After hanging out with friends on the East Coast for a week I drove out of Manhattan through the Lincoln tunnel, across New Jersey into Pennsylvania and down through enchanting Amish country, full of corn fields and wooden barns, arriving in Lancaster, PA a couple of days before the event kicked off. Ostensibly I got there early to finish off the lecture I had agreed to deliver a day or two into the convention as part of my guest of honour duties. I'd driven down from New York City where the previous night I'd indulged in a little bacchanalian excess with my college friends. So I was totally knackered as I pulled into the hotel late in the afternoon having completely forgotten that I was due to see the midnight screening of the new Harry Potter film. I survived the screening but being a Philistine muggle I managed to snooze through most of the Half Blood Prince despite ordering a monster sized bucket of coca cola to avert drowsiness.
My only glimpse of an Amish Mobile
Next morning after a full American breakfast I made haste to the Historicon 'head quarters' to borrow a laptop so that I might finalize work I should have completed by this point. I was anxious to get my seminar nailed down as I'd never delivered one as part of my usual Harris itinerary. In fact I'd never adhered to structure, coherence and detail during my re-enactor and living history festival appearances, usually answering the questions posed with off-the-cuff, tangential ramblings. Ramblings yes, but entertaining and extremely informative ramblings and for once when telling the story of Sharpe I wanted to cover all the salient points by giving it shape and direction.
Fantastically detailed figures
Naturally, the seminar I'd chosen to give would cover my Sharpe experience from audition to present day, quite a bit of time to encompass, which I would tie together with a welter of photographs never seen before in public. I was going to structure the lecture as if I was writing my long threatened Sharpe book putatively titled Life at the Sharpe End. To facilitate this I was going to have to eschew the golf course, basketball court, pool, sauna etc (not that I play golf) in order to buckle down with my home work.
In addition to the lecture I was due to deliver, I was also scheduled to read extracts from 'The Recollections of Rifleman Harris' and be in attendance at the 'Sharpe Experience' a room dedicated to props, costumes, weapons and other memorabilia from the show. I would be situated on a raised platform sat at a table with my video diaries, photos, audio books etc all to be signed, if desired.
Inside Sharpe Experience
In my breaks from tapping the lap top I wandered through the hotel in search of refreshment from one of the zillion food stations. Hog roasts , pizza, hot dogs and ice cream made up some of the delights; those war gamers sure like their food. Strolling through the hotel I witnessed the furious preparation, now reaching fever pitch just one day from curtain up. Vast gaming tables were spread throughout the hotel, each at different stages of set up in quaintly named rooms that betrayed the origins of the early settlers to this area: New Holland, Strassburg, Distlefink. Some hardened gamers were already at it heatedly debating what rule set they'll use when re-creating a myriad of battles from Saxon times all the way through to Waterloo, WW II and present day. Of course, a Napoleonic theme would dominate the convention's proceedings, hence the invitation to little old me.
Gamers recreate the battle of Waterloo
As well as gaming there was a flea market, figure-painting workshops, book sellers and of course - my main preoccupation - lectures and seminars. After all, Historicon is THE largest gathering of gamers and exhibitors in North America with 4000 people expected through the doors coming to see 90 exhibitors, little old me, and a multitude of others. I was very excited about being there let alone being guest of honour, but I was also quite anxious about completing and polishing my seminar. Luckily I wasn't due to give my first lecture for a couple of days, in the mean time I'd be busy manning my station in the Sharpe Experience.
Guarding the Sharpe Experience
'Vista C', a small room off the main lobby - usually a café - served as a sort of Sharpe museum filled with stuff gathered by Tim Harwood and supplied by Richard Moore -my Chosen Man Guru - and the Sharpe Appreciation Society. There were flags, weapons, first edition books, contents of a rifleman's kit bag plus much more, all augmented with an assortment of re-enactors dressed, naturally, as 95th riflemen. Rather cleverly Tim had secured a short introduction video message recorded (a couple of days before) by Bernard Cornwell from his Cape Cod hideaway. Bernard, Richard Moore and Daragh O'Malley were also invited but for various reasons had to decline, so it was up to me to be the living representative of Sharpe.
I didn't really know what to expect from my first foray into North America, I knew Sharpe had a fairly good following in the states, but in the next few days I was to find how overwhelmingly enthusiastic they really are. Wave upon wave of gamers paid a little extra money to enter the 'Sharpe Experience' for a chance to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of this wonderful show. Fans showed they had a deep knowledge and love of Sharpe, they asked all the same sort of questions as I get back in the UK and most were pleasantly surprised that I had made it all the way from England to be with them.
Roni Giglio gets the Sharpe experience
It wasn't just within the confines of the Sharpe Experience that fantastic appreciation and love for the show was channelled towards me. In the evening when the work was done, I'd wade through the gamers to get a pint, but before I could get the bucks from my pocket, someone at the other end of the bar had paid for my delicious Amish lager, so I didn't have to put my hands in my pocket for a beer very often that convention. The gamers were predominately male, though some brought their families and of course there were some women war gamers.
Young Sharpe fan Christa with a very apt t-shirt
Sharpe fans naturally cross age and gender barriers and for my first lecture that was borne out, though my second seminar, given at the weekend, had more young people, presumably because they didn't have school. Something that amazes me and gives me great joy at the same time is the amount of young kids, on both sides of the pond that really enjoy Sharpe; looks like my ambassadorial involvement with the show might have a little more life in it.
I was very pleased with how the lecture went even with a couple of technical hitches at the front I got a very good response to my version of events in the making of Sharpe, gasps of incredulity, bursts of laughter and incidents that raised many questions came all at the right spots. To boost the entertainment value I projected many of my vast collection of photos that included many unseen photos from the McGann era of Sharpe. I relished recounting mind-boggling stories of the obstacles we faced while making Sharpe and lordy were there many.
The seminar covered my journey from first audition to present day, in a way mimicking the Harris of 'The Recollections of Rifleman Harris' recalling the ups and downs of my time connected with the show. I utilised my written diaries, video diary scripts, copious amounts of photos and various notes collated down the years to tell the story. I've long threatened a book about my exploits and expanding my lecture will lead to that in the future. Hopefully!
In the evening of the first lecture I was invited to the 25th Anniversary silver dinner party at which several military historians who'd written shelves of books with multiple letters after their names and Professor Emeritus status received various awards. I was one of six guests of honour that included a Doctor, a colonel and several authors; it was at this point I felt very under qualified and humbled to be in such august company.
With one of the convention directors Frank Preziosa
Luckily next day I was able to justify my presence with something a little closer to my theatrical skill set. I was scheduled to read passages from 'Recollections' in a cosy lecture theatre in the bowels of the complex which again was well received by the fans. As was the showing of Sharpe's Battle screened in a huge air-conditioned tent out by the swimming pool, replete with pop corn making machine and ice cream. Again I was amazed at how many seats were filled, later I found out around 150 people showed up to see Perkins meet his end.
Interview for Weider History Group
As they loaded Battle into the projector I waffled a few red wine infused sentences to the assembled gamers then took my seat to wait for the DVD to roll; a short blast of Over the Hills broke out in the audience, spirits were high, it was the last evening of the convention after all. In the dark a man sat next to me and said "don't you hate it when re-enactors sing that song?" I smiled enigmatically and swiftly exited out of the tent to do an interview while the movie progressed. I was due to do a podcast interview for The Weider History Group with online editor Dana Lombardy where I expounded on Sharpe, Harris and anything else asked of me. I slipped back to the screening just in time for Perkins to be bayoneted, still sad all these years on. After the credits finished rolling I did a quick question and answer session and spilled red wine on my new white shirt, the sign of a good evening some might say!
Gaming floor at the Lancaster Resort Hotel
Apart from one last short session in the Sharpe Experience room that was my final duty at Historicon 09. Over the four days I'd been impressed by the professionalism, commitment and organisational skill of all those in charge. I'd met some really nice Sharpe appreciators, made new friends and put some faces to people who I'd been in contact with previously only by e-mailing; in particular the girls from Sharpe Pointe, Myriam and Traci. That allied with the warmth of the reception I received from those behind the scenes convention, Bob Giglio, Roni, his wife and Frank Preziosa in particular made this a very satisfactory Harris debut in North America. Let's hope there'll be more campaigns stateside in the near future.
DON'T JUST TAKE MY WORD FOR IT!