“Get ready, love – we’re almost there…”
It’s the summer of 1983 and I’m in the back seat of our car, vibrating with joy. We’re on our way to 101 Toys in nearby Westbourne - a thrill on any day, to be sure. But this day is different. This day, history is going to be made. I am going to meet Darth Vader. The Darth Vader: David Prowse.
Before Star Wars, I was vaguely aware that David Prowse was famous for playing the Green Cross Code Man in commercials on TV - a sort of slightly effete superhero who would materialize out of nowhere in front of a couple of unwary kids right before they were about to run into traffic and get smacked by a Ford Cortina. He’d then admonish them firmly, reminding them to “stop, look, and listen” before crossing the road, after which he’d turn to the camera and remind us to do the same.
I smirk at those dumb kids whenever those commercials come on, but if I’m being honest, the Green Cross Code Man has probably saved my life on numerous occasions. Those ads have been driven down our throats with such regularity that it had to sink in after a while (hats off to you, National Road Safety Committee). Nevertheless, if Mum ever asked me if I wanted to drive to Westbourne to meet the Green Cross Code man, I’d snort in disgust and storm off to my room for a therapeutic Lego session.
But David Prowse has come up in the world. David Prowse is Darth Flipping Vader - a character who arguably cares nothing for the safety of wayward pre-teens. And I can’t wait to shake his hand.
My sister has come along, too, clutching her small purple autograph book for the occasion. I’ve brought my 1979 Star Wars Annual. I’ve only had it a few months, but it’s been well-used in that time with pages bent and corners lovingly mashed. Anyway, it’s about to be rendered practically invaluable by the inscription of Darth Vader’s name by his own black hand.
We enter 101 Toys, and kids and parents alike are being fielded to the back of the store by a couple of fluttering and flustered employees. It’s not a particularly large place, so it’s quickly reaching its capacity for this sort of thing.
“Attention everyone. Mister Prowse… pardon me, Mister Vader will be arriving shortly via the back entrance. Please gather around everyone… gather around… yes that’s right… over here please, thank you… thank you… over here…”
We plant ourselves in good view of the back door and I come quickly to full attention. This is it. The moment has arrived.
The door opens.
The term “everything happened at once” could not be more appropriate than it is now. Darth Vader sweeps into the room and immediately starts strangling the first kid he can get his hands on. The entire room erupts in collective terror. “Nope”, I say to myself, and join with the rest of Vader’s soon-to-be victims in a massive push to get the hell out of there and never look back.
The next few moments are a blur of pre-adolescent dismay, but they end with my Mum somehow successfully placating my sister and I, and we find ourselves once more standing our ground in line to meet this clearly homicidal robot-faced maniac.
I watch as each kid walks up to greet him. He is every bit the Dark Lord we’ve seen on screen - black as night and 9 feet tall if he’s an inch.
He grabs each child by the back of the head as they approach and bends them over to form a makeshift table on which to scratch out his name in their books. I’m still terrified, but I’m starting to get the joke now: he obviously got sick of constantly having to save gormless kids from running in front of speeding lorries, and is now luxuriating in the opportunity to physically assault as many of us as he can, while he can. It occurs to me that I don’t blame him.
Anyway it’s my turn now, and in one of the bravest moments of my life so far, I approach. Vader’s gloved hand grabs the back of my head and I obediently bend down and wait for him to finish signing my book. He stands me back up again and boots me gently in the arse as I stagger away.
We’re back in the car and I open up my book to have a proper look at Lord Vader’s signature. Honestly, it looks more like “Daryl Varts” than “Darth Vader”, but I’m not about to complain. This was hard won, and as precious to me now as anything I own - a treasure to be passed on for generations to come.
Monday morning arrives, and I decide I have to show off my book to my mates at school. Mum and Dad would undoubtedly have a fit if they knew, but I sneak it out anyway.
The book is a hit - I soak up all the oohs and aahs during first and second period.
Lunchtime comes and someone tells me that students are selling home-made sherbet from the science building window (not the same sherbet as the American dessert - English sherbet is a fizzy, sugary, fruity powder that kids vacuum into their faces by any means possible). I have no money, but I go and check it out for myself. I get to the building and my friend Anthony approaches with a freshly purchased cone piled high with purple magic. He sees the Star Wars annual under my arm. “What’s that?”
“Star Wars annual. I got Darth Vader’s autograph this weekend.”
“No you didn’t.” I show it to him, all the while eyeing his sherbet. “Whoah…” he says appropriately, eyeing the Dark Lord’s scrawl.
I make up my mind in an instant.
A month or two passes and my Dad is making toast before heading off to work. “What ever happened to your Star Wars annual? The one with the autograph?” I’m eating cereal and I freeze mid-chew, momentarily struck dumb as I fumble for an answer – any answer.
“He swapped it for some sherbet,” my sister interjects.
Dad puts his toast down and turns fully toward me. “You didn’t.”
What can I say? I’m guilty. Bloody guilty. I slowly continue chewing and cast my eyes down at my bowl.
“You know,” Dad continues, “this is why Darth Vader was smacking you kids around like that.”
He’s right, of course.
But I still can’t stop thinking about that sherbet.