On the 18th of August, Manchester played host to the United Kingdom’s first Friendship is Magic focused fan convention. The Brony UK Convention, or BUCK for short, came right after Germany’s Galacon for a back-to-back weekend tour of Pony fans in Europe. As the first convention I’ve ever been truly interested in going to, along with being the first FiM focused event, I wanted to document the experience. Read on to find out more.
A New Dawn
I’ve never had that much interest in conventions before, for a few reasons. A typical case of social anxiety led to an avoidance of crowds. My residence in the UK meant that all the best conventions would usually be held abroad, except the ones celebrating the best of British entertainment.
However, the biggest reason? I’ve simply never been enough of a fan of anything else to even consider going to a convention. I like the Doctor Who revival, and liked the Simpsons before things went downhill, but I like those in the same casual way as most of the rest of the UK. I played Pokémon semi-competitively with friends, but I wouldn’t have gone to a convention even if the chance had been offered. The closest I’ve come before is Homestar Runner – which wasn’t big enough for a convention outside of its own fictional universe, never mind over here – and the Top Gear Live show, which was hosted at a car convention when I saw it. I had no interest in the convention proper and I have no interest in cars outside of the high-octane antics of Clarkson, May and Hammond.
After reading through the previous con-writeups posted here and on the forums, I was struck with two revelations: one, Friendship is Magic is something that I do feel strongly enough about to go to a con, and two, given the accelerated pace of the fandom compared to almost every other one out there, if I don’t take the chance now, I may never get another opportunity – the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, as they say. All of these things weighed heavily on my mind before I finally plucked up the courage to actually hit the book tickets button.
A few days before the convention, I reflected back on the month since I bought my ticket. Given the massive gap between the UK and the US, it is completely understandable that none of the show’s regular cast or crew were able to make it, but John de Lancie having to cancel still struck a bitter blow. A friend I’ve known for years online wanted to come, but also couldn’t make it. The thread in the Ponygoons meetup forum has been worryingly quiet.
On a personal level, I started working, and finally made the first steps towards conquering my neuroses – even so, I still worried about all the things that could go wrong at BUCK, despite knowing the irrationality of this behaviour. It was only following this conversation that I began to truly realize the positives of going; the conversation proceeding from that one – with someone who I’d only known for a few minutes – was one of the most animated I’ve had in a long time, free from attempting to hide behind any sort of mask.
The Beginning: Day One
My journey started at Barnsley Interchange, which provided the first sign that the British rail system might cause some problems with my transport plans:
Half an hour later than scheduled, the train finally departed. Both stages of the journey were uneventful after that.
I somehow managed to get into Manchester before the con opened, but I wasted another half an hour wandering the streets looking for the venue. My phone – normally vital when it comes to navigating new places – took a turn for the useless, sending me down several dangerous looking back alleys with locked gates at the end.
Eventually, twenty minutes after the doors opened, I finally turned the corner towards Bridgewater Hall. The venue looked impressive from the outside, but far more imposing was the queue. It was hundreds strong when I joined, with an amazing amount of variety on display. People with outfits even more modest than my own pony polo shirt and chinos ensemble mingled with incredibly elaborate costumes. Additional accessories ranged from the completely plain, to unfashionable hats adorned with pony badges, to this:
It soon became clear that everyone – or at least, everyone without the more expensive 20% Cooler tickets – would be waiting around for quite a while, due to a meticulous scheme of bag checking. After a full inspection, it was straight to the back of a secondary queue to actually get the entry wristband. Still, the queue was kept in high spirits throughout, with many of the various cosplayers doing their very best to keep the crowd entertained, helped by some impromptu live music performances. Bemused and confused locals were, to the best of my knowledge, treated with nothing but respect. Everyone smiled and waved at the passengers on an open-top tour bus. All the while, various cameras were going up and down the line, though I couldn’t say whether they were for the BronyCon documentary, the Everfree Radio live stream, the official Facebook, or simply people who wanted to capture the memories for themselves.
It took about an hour and a half from the moment when I joined the queue to finally getting inside, and it seemed like there were still a hundred or so to go behind me. This meant that I had missed the documentary Q&A, but it couldn’t be helped. A quick text later to arrange a suitable meeting location, and I met up with fellow forum member Mad Surge, who had travelled here from Italy. Despite some desperate attempts to get in contact, neither of us had managed to reach Perrydotto, the third forum poster (and Galacon staffer as well) who had expressed an interest in being here.
With a few minutes to go before the start of the first musicians’ panel, we elected to check out the merchandise stands. There was an impressive range of fan created merchandise – including artwork by Bibliodragon – but of more interest to me was the official merchandise that wasn’t available in the UK. The Enterplay trading cards were going for £5 per pack – a much higher price than their US market value – and, allegedly, someone bought at least 34 packs of them. It made me wonder just how much money Hasbro is leaving on the table with the very gradual releases of merchandise internationally. While most of the recent US merchandise I wanted was unavailable at BUCK (except as raffle prizes in some cases), I would have certainly bought these things in stores if they’d been available.
We got in the queue for the first musicians’ panel… and then had to near immediately rush downstairs to get in another queue for an entry ticket, then back to the first one. Thankfully, this requirement was dropped from all subsequent panels. I should probably point out here that while I have heard of a lot of the musicians in attendance, I don’t always pay attention to who’s made tracks that I like to listen to. As someone who doesn’t make music, it’s still really interesting to hear the processes behind the songs. The most memorable part of the panel came when one of the Spider-Man cosplayers asked a question. During the response…
After that, we split up so I could grab some lunch from the local Subway. The “sandwich artist” enquired if there was an event in town, possibly because I was the only person in the restaurant with the con wristband. I was also without the kind of cosplay accessories that hopefully only come out at cons – and I told her honestly and quickly. Considering how long it had taken me out to spit it out before, I was impressed – though it’s obviously a lot easier with someone I’ve never met before and will likely never meet again, as opposed to my boss and a colleague.
After another quick trip around the vendor stands to pick up an unofficial shirt – and finding out that one of them was already out in my size – I got in the queue for the game developers panel. This one was noticeably more empty than the first (and in fact, more than every other panel I attended); I can only imagine that the combined delights of the art workshop, the craft workshop, karaoke, and a pre-recorded message from John De Lancie proved too great a distraction for most people. Again, interesting to find out the process, and I did actually ask a couple of questions to prevent some awkward gaps.
Following that, it was straight downstairs to check out the demo of one of the games that had been represented on the panel, Budding Friendships. Unfortunately, it seemed like no one had attempted to test the demo on the convention provided computers beforehand, as it repeatedly failed to start. The presenter, Raptor, managed to keep going despite this significant setback, delivering a professional, humorous presentation that still engaged with the audience, highly impressive for his first piece of public speaking.
The theme of technical difficulties continued in the next panel, the live link-up with Everfree Northwest. This was to start with a repeat of John De Lancie’s message – along with an additional one by Amy Keating Rogers – but someone had misplaced the USB drive. During the intervening minutes, with no instruction by the con staff, a couple of impromptu singalongs started. Some of them abruptly stopped when the loudest group forgot the lyrics part way through, and the remaining voices just weren’t strong enough to carry on. Finally, the con staff put something up on the screen, but it wasn’t what everyone was expecting.
We were then informed that the USB drive had been found, and the De Lancie and Keating Rogers messages played to great applause. What should have followed was presumably a live audio/video stream from Everfree Northwest, with them presumably seeing and hearing our side of things as well – this was the only “panel” not detailed in the conbook, so I’m guessing here. Now, I don’t know what the EFNW side of things saw. I don’t even know if there was an EFNW side of things. What actually happened is that the MC gave the crowd a long list of things to laugh at, including, but not limited to:
- Asking us to sing Winter Wrap Up. Which was one of the songs already sung without prompting. And we forgot the lyrics. Again.
- A completely accurate depiction of their technical specialist attempting to fix the stream.
- Bringing year-old memes back, with a couple of mentions of us “los[ing] the game”.
- Calling for a rap battle, which morphed into a reworked version of Party Rock Anthem.
- Declaring Brodyquest the song that would be playing when we march into battle, striking fear into the hearts of our enemies.
- Making a lot of typing errors, which only seemed to get worse as time went on.
I think that overran slightly, as by the time I went back downstairs for the Equestria 2D demo, they had already run out of chairs. The demo was incredibly unpolished – two rooms, one of which was just a pure black void, Twilight Sparkle as the only playable character despite the demo being meant to showcase multiplayer, Twilight’s sprite broke if you performed such esoteric actions as “jumping” or “walking to the left”, and the multiplayer didn’t work. The presenters failed to address even the most basic of concerns – like how they’d be able to achieve their lofty goal of continuous free DLC without donations or micro-transactions. The guests of honour had been finalized three weeks ago, and the demo had only been worked on for four weeks.
Finally came Pinkie Pie’s Party. I knew right from the start that I wouldn’t be able to stay until the end due to transport commitments. I made a purely financial decision to get the train back to Barnsley and then coming back instead of getting a hotel, so when it was introduced, I did consider downgrading to the lite ticket that didn’t include access to the party. Thankfully, laziness prevailed, and I’m glad it did.
Sketchy Sound’s set was great, but the real standout was RainbowCrash88 and his band. Having chiptunes blasted at you in incredibly close proximity was an intense, amazing experience. Unfortunately, I had to leave immediately after that, so I never saw LaserPon3′s show, which included a BUCK take on Pinkie’s party cannon.
Powering On: Day Two
Day two began with a vital piece of communication: Perrydotto posted in the Ponygoons meetup forum to let us know that she’d lost her phone and what to look out for. I knew Mad Surge had no Internet access, so it was lucky that I’d thought to check.
Due to the trains being on Sunday service, I was always going to get in late on day two, not helped by another delay. I was still pleasantly surprised to see absolutely no queue; clearly at least some of the issues from day one had been sorted. Entry still wasn’t entirely trouble-free however, as I received a first-hand lesson in why not to prop up an expensive tablet against a smooth post. This resulted in a desperate attempt by the staff member responsible and me to catch the device before it met with the floor (we failed).
I met up with Mad Surge again for the second musician’s Q&A. While again it was interesting to learn about the process, there was a clear winner between the panelists: despite making an incredibly creepy reference early on, Pipsqueak definitely stole the show, and certainly has a bright future in public speaking and/or comedy if music doesn’t work out.
Pipsqueak, if you’re reading this, it isn’t meant as a statement about your musical ability, just as one about unexpected talents. You’ve accomplished far more at fourteen than I have at twenty one.
After another stop at Subway, it was finally time for the BronyState live event. I have never watched anything from BronyState before, but this was something that Mad Surge really wanted to see, and I’d kind of felt like I was dragging him around the other panels, so this was literally the least I could do.
The Everfree Northwest “linkup” was chaos, but at least it was clear that someone was in control of it. Here, anarchy reigned. Saturn, the chairman of both the panel and the con itself, had clearly designed this as a freeform event. Aside from the basic idea of Wrek drawing something requested by the audience: in this case, a pirate Rarity. With not enough content to fill the time slot, random audience members – almost including Mad Surge, and by proximity, me – found themselves suddenly elevated to the status of panelist, as was one con volunteer that had been doing vital work backstage (tweeting). Music was streamed from Spotify, apparently making it impossible for anyone watching the Everfree Radio stream to hear what was being said. Despite all of this, it was still good fun, and apparently managed to be less of a disaster than the Equestria Daily event at Everfree Northwest, which is something.
Next was to be Rainbow Crash’s live show, but this was postponed – and eventually cancelled – due to car trouble. With nothing else to do for an hour, I took a walk around the streets of Manchester for a bit. It seemed like a lot of people had the same idea, with many familiar faces from the convention being out and about as well. Most of them had the same idea to come back in when typical British summer weather kicked in. I checked out Cluttershy’s rescheduled live event, but spent most of it browsing the Internet.
After that came an immensely lucky break – since seeing Perrydotto’s post, I’d been scanning every crowd and queue for any signs of her. With multiple events scheduled simultaneously and multiple ways of getting around them, this had proven impossible. However, before the charity auction, the staff blocked access to all rooms other than the main foyer where the charity auction was to take place, along with the second staircase down to it. Watching the people come down the main staircase, I finally spotted the signs I’d been looking for.
We only had a brief time for introductions before the start of the charity auction, in aid of the National Autistics Society. Bidding started slowly – perhaps as a result of the UK’s current financial perspective – but soon picked up following an inspirational speech by Perrydotto. No items before that speech broke the £100 mark, while all subsequent ones did, save two: a three-part Crackle’s cousin costume, likely due to difficulties with transportation, and a cake, though the buyer then sold individual slices for the cost of £5 towards the charity, raising an additional £486. The clear standout was the plushie of the convention’s mascot, Britannia, handmade over the course of the two days. The room exploded with applause when the final bid for £1000 was confirmed. The convention took £2920.01 in auction proceeds alone, rising to a final total of £3687.96 factoring in sales of the cake slices and donations made afterwards – including all of Perry and Mad Surge’s remaining GBP.
We then went upstairs – initially for Rainbow Crash’s live show, but after finding out that was cancelled, we stayed up there for the Art Workshop. Perry took requests, helped with other’s drawings and gave words of encouragement to other artists. Lots of stories were told, including how someone’s friend had bitten the head off a blind bag toy at either the London MCM Expo or the London Film and Comic Con (forget the circumstances behind why), and Perrydotto told the story she must have told many times by now.
We didn’t particularly notice the gathering of people by the live stage, at least until the music started. The Balloon Party Mix was effectively a smaller, less exclusive version of Pinkie Pie’s Party. The difference in atmospheres made it a lot easier to lose yourself – indeed, I didn’t even notice if there was actually a live act or just music being pumped through the speakers. Discord and David Tennant/Time Turner cosplayers kept the party flowing, calling up people from the shifting, jumping crowd to the chaotic dance in the centre.
Finally, it was my turn.
Now, I had my eyes closed for most of the next few seconds, so details are fuzzy. I remember doing some kind of acrobatic pirouette off the handle to some applause – I presume because it was so bad – followed by bear hugging a Flim (or Flam) cosplayer. This almost brought both of us crashing down, but still, all in good fun.
Sadly, after the party died down, my time after that at BUCK was all too brief. I was only able to catch the very beginning of the cosplay competition before I had to say my goodbyes, giving Mad Surge and Perrydotto some money for something to eat. Yet again, the train was delayed. On the platform, I struck up a conversation with a brony from Nottingham about audio equipment, his plans for a home studio, and his desire to be the only featured artist in an Equestria Daily music post. If you’re reading this, keep chasing the dream.
Make Do and Mend
As I’ve said, BUCK was my first convention, and as such I have no frame of reference to compare it to. I watched specific livestreams from BronyCon – including the infamous writer’s panel – but nothing truly compares to actually being at this kind of event. While initially disappointed by the lack of show crew and John De Lancie, this led to a greater degree of variety in the panels and guests – and with the guests as much a part of the crowd as a part of the con.
Was it perfect? No, but few things ever are. Technical issues plagued the panels, queues were some of the longest I’ve been in outside of amusement parks, and there were a few comments made by con staff and guests that went over my personal creepy line, along with the con’s own, less strict creepy rule. Along with the aforementioned comment by Pipsqueak, the charity auction opened with a joke about one particular explicit fan fiction – though the audience’s negative response was heartening to see – and featured one print that made me involuntarily cringe (which I later noticed was part of the con book as well).
Still, some of these failures are to be somewhat expected with the first major event like this. If nothing else, these failures, while not as spectacular as some of the other notable convention failures, still provided opportunities for us to demonstrate the British spirit – that “make do and mend” attitude. And while we may moan about events before and after them, when the time comes, we can still put on one hell of a show.
One of the other things I’d have like to see was if the merchandise stands could have been rotated out on day two, just for additional variety. However, this would have needed more vendors, and that would have required more promotion. While 680-ish attendees is impressive for a first convention with no-show crew, one of the things I picked up on was that a lot of attendees seemed to be part of a few UK-specific pony fansites – the idea didn’t seem like it could have gained as much attention from the fandom as it could. For better or worse, it shows how influential Equestria Daily continues to be to the community – BUCK updates were usually forced lower down into the convention roundup posts, and when things slip off the front page, they’re pretty much gone.
Would I go again? Well, I’ve already marked my calendar, but next time, I’d like to give something back and experience things from the other side – to volunteer. I’d also love to broaden my horizons and visit GalaCon – Mad Surge and Perrydotto made the effort to come all the way out over here, so it’d be the very least I can do. ■