The Delta Science Fiction Film Group
by Bill Burns
A talk presented at Mancunicon, the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester
So in the summer of 1964, at age sixteen, how did I get involved with a group of fans who were also amateur film makers?
It all started with our milkman. I had been reading SF for quite a few years, starting with the juveniles in the children’s department of the local library, gaining access to the grown-up section in my early teens, then finding that the Salford Market had a second-hand book stall with British and American paperbacks and magazines—and its proprietor happened to be our milkman. I was there every week adding to my (then) small collection, saw an ad for the BSFA in New Worlds and sent off a postal order for a membership.
But that wasn’t how I found fandom. After a few weeks the milkman told me he knew some other lads that liked this kind of stuff, and even published their own magazine. He gave me the address of Harry Nadler—this was before the days when everyone had a phone at home—and I wrote him a letter. Somewhere I still have his reply, telling me that the Delta SF Film Group met three times a week at their clubhouse over a dance studio on Oxford Road, and that they were presently busy making two films to be shown at the World Science Fiction Convention in London in 1965, just over a year away. He invited me to come to a meeting, and I see from a mention of my name as a new member in the fanzine Alien (the “magazine” that the milkman had mentioned) that this must have been around August 1964.
How did this group get started, even before they knew about fandom themselves? Well, it all began with Harry Nadler.
Harry was one of the driving forces behind Manchester fandom in the 1960s and beyond, until his too-early death in 2002. A Salford man all his life, he was a journeyman printer by trade, but his main interest was always the fantastic film, from early horror movies to the latest science fiction production, and he was also an amateur film-maker. This had started in 1957 when he was about sixteen, and he wrote about it in Alien #2 in June 1963. “The Delta Story” was the first published record of the group’s history.
Let me tell the story in Harry’s own words from that article, as these are events that happened before I joined the group:
Two further episodes have similar stories about the hazards of making films on a very low budget, and in fact “Seas of Space” was subsequently abandoned.
As I found out later, several of the Delta Group members had been to the Eastercons in Peterborough in 1963 and 1964, where they met not only other new arrivals to fandom, but also what was to them an older crowd—the fans of the 1940s and 50s, and some who had been involved with the beginnings of British fandom in the late 1930s. At the cons they soon became friends with the Liverpool Group, Ron Bennett, Eric Bentcliffe, the Cheltenham Group, and fans from London, Birmingham, and other parts of the country. And of course the professional authors were themselves fans, so the Delta crowd also fell in with Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, Ted Tubb, James White, Bob Shaw, Mike Moorcock, and others.
This contact with fandom resulted in the publication of the fanzine Alien, edited initially by Harry, Charles Partington, Tony Edwards, and Tom Holt. The first issue came out in May 1963 right after their first Eastercon, and Alien (later Alien Worlds) continued on an almost monthly schedule for fifteen issues.
At the 1964 con the group were invited to present some of their short films, which led to the commissioning of two new movies to be shown at the upcoming Worldcon to be held in London in 1965.
As Harry reported it in Alien:
In late April 1964, immediately after the Eastercon that year, the Northern Science Fiction & Fantasy Group was formed. This was intended to be a separate entity from the Delta Group, which was responsible for making the Worldcon films, but had most of the same members. They met over a chip shop in Kersal, where they socialized, showed SF and horror films, and planned the shooting of their own movies. By August they had moved to more convenient premises on Oxford Road, near the centre of Manchester, and shortly after that the two groups were amalgamated into the Delta Science Fantasy Film Group.
And this is where I came in, as I set out for my first meeting in late August 1964.
Now I wouldn’t attempt this today, but traffic around Manchester was much calmer fifty years ago, so I hopped on my bike one evening and cycled the seven miles from Winton, where I lived with my Mum, to the clubhouse. And after just one meeting, I was hooked. Up until then my friends had been typical for a mid-teen in the early 1960s – boys from school and pals of a similar age in my neighborhood. But at Delta I found an older crowd of both sexes (some of them must have been at least in their twenties!) who made me feel welcome. I was soon involved in helping make the films, which we went out into the countryside every Sunday to shoot, along with building sets in the clubroom for interior scenes. And when I remarked on the many typos in Alien I was also roped in as proof reader, which in turn led to my buying a typewriter and learning to touch type from “Teach Yourself Typing”, which I borrowed from the library.
Here's the group’s programme for September 1964, which shows the high level of activity in both making and viewing films.
Meetings in the clubroom were on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday every week, with filming on most Sundays at the club or remote locations. Friday was always the social night with a film programme, usually shown on 8mm with the occasional 16mm feature.
As can be seen from the programme above, members were encouraged to "Support the Forbidden Planet Fund", and we dropped our spare change into a jar until at long last we had reached the vast target of 8 guineas (£8.40). In those days long before video recorders of any kind, and with infrequent showing of SF films on television, the only way to see a classic movie was to hire it from a film library, and that was how much it cost us to have Forbidden Planet for a few days - a great treat, with multiple showings.
I was quite shy when I was young, and never had any inclination to appear before the camera, but there was plenty to do on the films for someone technically minded, and the common purpose led to a very close-knit group. Those were the days when fans formed groups which did much more than meet in a pub every once in a while – in fact, other than what was then the London Circle, now the First Thursday meeting, I don’t know of any group that just had pub meetings back then.
Let’s both backtrack and go forward here a little bit, and I’ll show “A Decade of Delta”, which Harry put together in the late 1960s using out-takes and leftovers from many of the group’s films shot between 1957 and 1968. The picture and sound are both a little rough, for reasons I’ll explain later, but I hope this will give a sense of the scope of what could be done with an enthusiastic group and a very low budget, and some idea of the fun we had. The narration is by Harry himself, and the film is about fifteen minutes.
(Note that each video has a full-screen button at the bottom right)
Harry’s enthusiasm for the medium of film is obvious – as is his love of slapstick. He had grown up watching Laurel and Hardy, and their films always remained some of his favourites. He was also a big fan of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation, and included some of this in the Delta films.
Sadly, as far as I know, all the films that the group had made were lost after Harry died in 2002. The first ones were shot on black and white 9.5mm film, a format which was just about obsolete at the time, and later on standard 8mm colour reversal film. The camera originals were edited to make the final version, a magnetic stripe was applied, and the soundtrack was dubbed on. These original films were then shown time after time, slowly deteriorating.
At some point after video cassette recorders became generally available in the late 1970s, Harry lent me some of the films, and I had them transferred to VHS videotape. Even by the standards of the time VHS was never great quality, and by then the films themselves were in quite rough shape, but at least it was something. Unfortunately, some of the films had already been lost, and others were not copied, particularly the earliest ones shot on 9.5mm film. Eventually the tapes were transferred to DVD, and extracts from that format are what we’ve just watched.
Now back to the mid-1960s, a period which was the peak of the group’s activities. As Easter 1965 approached the group was working on the films for the Worldcon: “Castle of Terrors”, a horror movie spoof, and “Breathworld”, a parody loosely based on Harry Harrison’s book Deathworld. Through the filming sessions I had by then met the Liverpool Group and some other fans, and Harry asked if I would be going to the Eastercon in Birmingham. I hadn’t really thought about it; I was still at grammar school and up until then my only trips away from home had been with my parents on seaside holidays, and a couple of school trips, and I had never even stayed in a hotel. But with Harry’s offer of transport to Birmingham with the rest of the group, and a share in a hotel room, my mind was made up – and my life changed.
The con was a revelation to me – there were only about 80 attendees, as many fans could not afford both Eastercon and Worldcon in the same year, and because I already knew quite a few established fans, and was introduced to others by them, I didn’t suffer the feeling of not fitting in which afflicts so many at their first convention. I knew that this was something I wanted to keep doing, and I was right – the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester was my 52nd without a break.
Harry Harrison was Guest of Honour at Brumcon, and we took the opportunity to rope him in to play a part in our parody of his own story. As in the book, the film’s hero is dropped onto a hostile planet with two warring factions and tries to make peace. But first, just to survive, he needs weapons training, and we had Harry Harrison play an inept instructor who manages to shoot himself with his automated weapon. We filmed this scene in one of the hotel bedrooms and applied special effects later. Of course the filming session inevitably turned into a room party.
“Breathworld” runs about 25 minutes and the sound is poor, so I’ll show just a few short clips. We’ll see the opening credits; hero Charles Partington with weapons instructor Harry Harrison; Charles getting rather the worst of a meeting with a dog; and the closing credits.
Operating the dog was my one and only on-screen appearance in the Delta films, and I received a special credit for my performance!
With a lot of work, both films were finished in time to be shown at the Worldcon in late August 1965, where they were well received. I wasn’t able to attend the Worldcon myself, having made plans long before to visit my brother in Canada for the summer before starting an engineering course at Leeds University. The group continued making films after Worldcon, although at a much slower pace, and I was able to get away from Leeds and join them on some weekends. And of course I kept going to Eastercons.
By 1968 we had finished another short film, “Doctor Doom and the Annihilation Ray, Chapter 3” – a spoof of the old cliffhanger serials. Of course there were no other chapters. This is one of my favourites, and as it’s only about ten minutes long I’ll show the whole thing.
In 1968 I graduated from Leeds University and moved to London to work for the BBC. My odd hours there, and the added distance, meant I wasn’t able to be in Manchester on too many weekends, so my involvement in the filming was greatly reduced, although I still remained very good friends with Harry and the rest of the gang. Between 1968 and 1970 four further films were completed – two serious ones based on short stories by Brian Aldiss: “All the World’s Tears” and E.C. Tubb: “Anne”, and two comedies: “Castle of Dracula”, a return to the group’s old favourite monster movie spoofs, and “Son of Birdman”, a remake of a lost early film.
In the 1970s pressure of work and family for many of Delta’s members put an end to film making. As for me, at the 1970 Heidelberg Worldcon I met a fan from New York, then moved to America in June 1971. Mary and I were married that August, just in time to honeymoon at Noreascon I in Boston. We’ve lived in New York ever since, but have been in Britain for every Eastercon, which also allowed us to keep in touch with our many friends in British fandom over the years.
In Salford, the Delta gang continued as a social group, and Harry and some of the others maintained their interest in film. In 1990, with Tony Edwards and Gil Lane-Young, Harry started the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, an annual convention run in traditional fannish style, in contrast to the usual format of commercialized media events. Harry’s long-standing connection to the horror and science fiction genres had won him many friends in the industry, and the Festival was able to attract quite a few high-profile guests over the years. The 26th Festival is at the Manchester Conference Centre in early November 2016.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat random look at what fans were doing in Manchester fifty years ago.
Postscript: I have mentioned only a few names above, but the cast and crew over the years added up to a lot of people. Some were involved with the group for many years; others came and went, and a few had only a cameo, but this list, in alphabetical order, is as comprehensive as it can be made all these years after the event:
Eric Abbott, Liz Bennett, Ron Bennett, Eric Bentcliffe, Noel Bowes, Ian Bradbury, Colin Britch, Bill Burns, John R Campbell, Peter Day, Tony Edwards, Vic Gibbs, George Gill, Harry Harrison, Tom Holt, Linda Howard, Eddie Jones, Tina Kerrigan, Mick Lloyd, Aub Marks, Brian Marshall, Ray Miller-Lawson, Sandra McKay, Scott McKay, Alan Maxted, Harry Nadler, Marge Nuttall, Stan Nuttall, John Owen, Charles Partington, Jack Partington, Don Poole, Don Pound, John Roles, Bill Robertson, Marie Rothwell (later Nadler), Ina Shorrock, Norman Shorrock, The Shorrock Kids, Joyce Tarrant, Dave Trengove, Ted Tubb, Tony Underwood, James White, Marge Williams (later Edwards).
Thanks to Video.js for the film playback code
Last revised: 29 September, 2016
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