Bad Guys Doing Good

A head and shoulders profile of a 501st UK Garrison Stormtrooper standing against a Henry Allen Trust charity flag.

Rebel Briefing wouldn’t usually initiate contact with agents of the Empire, but we did. Our brave Rebel operative, under armed guard and surrounded by Stormtroopers, sat down with the Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison to gather vital intel about the group. Here is part 1 of our official report. No Bothans died to bring you this information.

Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. Taking a break from his frontline duties, he boasted to Rebel Briefing that the 501st Legion “are the good guys.”

While this could be dismissed as Imperial propaganda, there’s an element of truth to his claim.

If you’re not familiar with the 501st, of which the UK Garrison (UKG) is a part, it is the largest costuming group in the world. It is made up entirely of volunteers and boasts 14,000 active members from more than 60 countries. You may recognise the Legion from San Diego Comic Con, MCM London Comic Con, film premieres and Star Wars Celebration to name a few.

Founded by South Carolina resident Albin Johnson in 1997, the 501st spreads the magic of Star Wars through its screen accurate Stormtrooper costumes. It also has a grander, philanthropic mission, being dedicated to many charitable causes. It is credited with raising millions for charity, particularly those involving children living with illness. It is Lucasfilm’s preferred Imperial costuming organisation.

In 2004, and with Lucasfilm’s blessing, author Timothy Zahn honoured the 501st by incorporating it into his novel, Survivor’s Quest. Since then it has been included in video games, the Clone Wars animated series and many other Star Wars stories and merchandise.

The Legion is nicknamed ‘Vader’s Fist’ because of his exclusive use of the unit. See those clone troopers backing up Darth Vader as he sacks the Jedi Temple in Revenge of the Sith, yep, that’s the nascent 501st.

But, shouldn’t these accolades fly in the face of everything we know about the evil Empire? Well, it depends on a certain point of view and who you talk to. For instance, while many of us were opening our presents on Christmas morning, Gary and members of the UKG were driving to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. Their mission? To bring some festive joy to the lives of sick children spending Christmas in hospital.

Still, why would someone want to become a Stormtrooper when they could be anything else in the Star Wars universe – a hotshot X-wing pilot, Rebel commando, Jedi Knight, or even a rogue smuggler with a Wookie sidekick?

“I’d been into costumes for a while and I knew of the 501st,” says Gary. “I decided I was going to build a Stormtrooper uniform and the UK Garrison seemed the obvious place to go.”

Joining the Ranks

You cannot mind trick your way into the UKG. First you need a big passion for Star Wars and for helping others. Secondly, you need to own a professional-quality costume celebrating Star Wars ‘Dark Side’ characters.

While famous for its Stormtroopers, the Garrison welcomes other Imperial ranks such as TIE fighter pilots, Royal Guards, Biker Scouts, Snowtroopers, Sith Lords, clone troopers and bounty hunters.

You should also note that the UKG, as with all 501st global Garrisons (local units in each country are called Garrisons), is very fussy about the accuracy of its costumes. Raw recruits must adhere to strict, minute details to ensure that their outfits are screen accurate.

“Accuracy and attention to detail is what we look for,” explains Gary. “Some people may argue that it doesn’t matter if something is not completely accurate. To us it does matter – buttons should be the right size, lenses for helmets the right type, and belts the correct thickness. Armour colour should be exact. Blu-ray has had a big impact on costuming in recent years, meaning people can now study costumes in great detail. It’s about making your outfit look like what’s on screen.”

Once accepted into the Legion, you are given a unique identification number. This follows the tradition of the Stormtrooper character TK-421, mentioned in A New Hope. Gary’s is TK-2739.

A Force for Good

Charity work is a big priority for the UKG, indeed the whole 501st. Because of this, it proudly refers to itself as “Bad Guys Doing Good.”

The Garrison does not charge appearance fees for attending and supporting fundraising and charity events. For corporate, marketing or promotional functions, it welcomes donations which go into their collective pot. These are distributed to the UK charities it directly supports including The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, and the Oxford Children’s Hospital.

The UKG has also granted many wishes for children on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation (UK) and has a close relationship with Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. 100 percent of the money raised gets shared between the organisations. In recent years the Garrison has raised over £336,000 for worthwhile causes.

“Being part of the UKG is fun but hard work,” Gary says. “Ultimately it’s fun. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t do it. The upside is that we raise a lot of cash for charity. On Christmas Day me and two other guys woke up at silly o’clock and drove to Milton Keynes. We live nowhere near there. We travelled to the hospital and spent the morning giving presents to children. It’s an amazing feeling, and that’s why we do it.”

Gary recalls one visit when a three-year-old patient, Tia, screamed and ran away from the Stormtroopers as they invaded the hospital ward. Finally, she started talking to the troops. By the end of the visit Tia was holding Gary’s hand and telling the nurses she didn’t want them to leave.

With its penchant for Star Wars villainy, the real-world mission of the Garrison is to help local communities. Its goal is to brighten the lives of the less fortunate and highlight good causes both locally and globally.

Despite the ideological differences between the Alliance and Empire, Rebel Briefing can only applaud and celebrate this excellent work.

Serving the Empire

So, if serving with the Empire is still your ambition, how do you begin building your Stormtrooper armour?

Gary says that costumes are usually hand-assembled. He describes them as being like giant Airfix model kits which, like the original armour in A New Hope, are made up of different pieces of plastic.

When he bought his kit 10 years ago, it turned up in a big, brown box full of different pieces that needed cutting and trimming. At first the small and different parts meant nothing to the rookie trooper; it was just a question of getting out his Stanley knife, glue and tools and getting into it. The armour – which is vacuformed ABS plastic – needed to be cut, sanded, and attached to and around a black undersuit.

While this may seem as complicated as reading the Death Star plans, you will be glad to know that there’s a lot of support to help you assemble your outfit. And this is where the club mentality of the UK Garrison comes to the fore.

“I could not have completed my costume without the help of the UKG,” says Gary. “A member sent me a text message inviting me over to their house one Sunday. She said to bring my incomplete armour, explaining that members of the group would be there to help me get started. And that’s what I did – I got there at 10.30am and left several hours later with my uniform nearly complete. The rest I finished at home.”

Gary warns that it is easy to be conned by people taking advantage of the enthusiasm and naivety of beginners. The danger is you can spend a lot of money on something which is not worth much.

“We don’t want you getting ripped off, so come to us and we’ll steer you in the right direction,” he advises. “We will help you build your armour, advise you on the how, why, when and what for. As a club that’s something I am very proud of; we try to help people out.”

Suiting Up

There are essentially two kinds of Stormtrooper armour available on the market – fan sculpted costumes and those made by a Cheshire-based company called RS Prop Masters.

Licensed outfits are available, which are usually used for fancy dress. “These are not practical for our needs and requirements,” Gary says. “They are not what we call ‘trooper worn’. I probably suit up 80 times a year, and commercially available armour is not something you can use on multiple occasions.”

This is interesting when you consider that the original Stormtrooper costumes were made for one film, A New Hope. To save cash, the same outfits were reused for The Empire Strikes Back. While that armour was made to look good, it was not sturdy or rigid. He explains that Legion suits are thicker and hard-wearing. “We put them together so that they are practical to wear. It’s interesting to watch Rogue One and see how the filmmakers have adapted the armour to be more wearable. They obviously learned mistakes from the original films, and I suspect they have used ideas from the 501st. I notice how flexible they are, being easy to walk, run and sit in.”

Costume Drama

“I am Darth Vader,” booms a voice suddenly from the shadows.

Startled, our agent notices the presence of a tall figure dressed in black watching the interrogation. The mere mention of the Dark Lord’s name triggers a feeling of dread in the room. But, just like everything related to the UKG, appearances can be deceiving.

Garrison member Mark Brooks steps into view. “Well… I am a Darth Vader,” he says with a smile. “We actually have several, but we only let one out at a time because they are trouble.”

Like Luke Skywalker and his height issues, Mark is actually too tall to be a Stormtrooper. At six-two, his impressive frame makes him a natural fit to play the Sith Lord. “I had a Stormtrooper outfit which was not up to muster, so I sold it on eBay. Because of my height people suggested that I play Darth Vader instead.”

Mark now enjoys scaring children for fun. A good day for him is counting how many kids he makes cry. The more he reduces to tears, the better day he has.

He recalls appearing at a Christmas grotto called ‘Dark Santa’. The idea was, instead of visiting Father Christmas, you go into the grotto and meet Darth Vader.

“Because of the long day there were two of us playing Vader, each taking a turn to meet the children. The other Darth spent two hours meeting the kids, and it was all laughter and smiles. I was in there for 10 seconds and the first child who approached me was reduced to tears. I thought yep, he’s not supposed to be lovable or approachable. Vader, if you go back to prequels, is a baby killer; he murders the Younglings at the Jedi Temple. He’s not nice, and the idea is that if you put the suit on you have to be him. I’m not going to give people high fives. Darth Vader doesn’t high five.”

Just when you could be forgiven for thinking that UKG members are scum and villainy for scaring children, Gary defends Mark with cold, Tarkin-like logic.

“It’s not just the accuracy of the costumes that’s important. We try to create an experience. If you see Mark, he’s Vader. He’s not some guy who’s takes his helmet off and asks ‘are you OK?’ and then has a cup of tea with you. When he’s out there, he’s the real deal. Personally, as soon as my Stormtrooper helmet goes on, then I’m not me. I am quite dull in real life, and the characters are much cooler than me. It’s great to be someone else for a while.”

Mark adds: “Other than Finn, what does a Stormtrooper look like without its helmet on?” Our agent considers Jango Fett’s progenitor of the clone army for a moment before dismissing it. There is silence.

“That’s my point,” he continues. “We’ve never seen a Stormtrooper without its helmet on. One of the things the UKG prides itself on is our ‘lids on’ policy. When our members are in front of the public, you are that character. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Stormtrooper, Biker Scout, Sith Lord or a bounty hunter – when you are in the public eye, you are that character. You embody it and you do the things that character does.

“It’s only behind closed doors that we remove our helmets to get some fresh air. We try to maintain that sense of mystery – nobody knows who we are because we’re supposed to be anonymous. It’s one of the many things I love about being in the Garrison.”

Suddenly there is an announcement over the comms systems alerting the room of a disturbance up on Cell Block 1138. Gary looks at Mark, who offers to deal with the unfolding chaos.

As his large frame leaves the room, our agent feels sorry for the jokers causing mayhem up on the detention block.

For more on life in the UK Garrison, be sure to check out part two of Rebel Briefing’s intel mission…

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing.

Bad Guys Doing Good pt.2

Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. The Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison takes another break from his day to day duties with the Empire to share a little more of what life is like in a galaxy a little closer to home. Here is part 2 of Rebel Briefing’s official report…

With more than 500 volunteers in the ranks, UKG members are expected to appear at least once a year in their costume to be granted “active member” status. Like other large organisations, it is made up of people from all walks of life. Each has their own reason and motive for pulling on their ‘bucket’ (helmet) and trooping across the UK.

Male, female, scientist to binman, there’s not a profession, gender, class, colour or creed that is not represented in the Legion. For members it is a hobby not a job, and nobody gets paid. The costumes are paid for out of their own pockets and can run into thousands of pounds. A Darth Vader costume can cost up to £3,000, while Gary’s armour was more than £1,000.

A lot of work goes into building every outfit – more than 25 hours for a classic Stormtrooper uniform and much more for other costumes including Vader’s.

It is like a big golf club. Not only do members help each other – a TIE fighter pilot fitted Gary’s back door and is now helping to build another’s kitchen – they also socialise together. The ranks are filled with people living in the north of Scotland down to Land’s End.

They usually meet in their geographic regions, but once or twice a year they get together en masse. Last year they met at Birmingham Comic Con. Star Wars Celebration is also a popular place to meet.

Movie Stars

Star Wars has always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Not only was the original trilogy filmed at Elstree Studios, The Phantom Menace was shot at Leavesden and the new trilogy at Pinewood. Lucasfilm has always relied on the skills and talents of the British film industry’s actors, film crews, model makers and technicians to shape our favourite galaxy far, far away.

In 2015 the UK Garrison became part of this tradition when six of its members appeared in The Force Awakens.

Apparently, JJ Abrams is a big fan of the 501st, and because of its close links with Lucasfilm, an idea was floated to have a couple of Garrison people appear as Stormtroopers.

“Mary Franklin, who was senior events lead at Lucasfilm, came to England to spend a day with us at London Comic Con,” says Gary. “She visited our stand and met some people. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was selecting guys to be in the film. I was never intended to appear, so I asked if I could act as liaison. I also drove people to and from the studio. By a quirk of fate I managed to get in front of the cameras as a Stormtrooper. It’s hard to tell which shots I’m in, though.

“It was fantastic, but hard work. We arrived at Pinewood at 5.30am and spent the day working on set. We didn’t leave until gone 9pm. We had tons of stuff to do, mainly Stormtrooper shots. I was impressed with JJ Abrams. He’s a hands-on guy; very friendly and ordinary. I love passion, and I believe that most people in the Legion are very passionate about what we do. JJ is just like that, a very passionate guy.”

Gary describes being on set as incredible. The down side was having to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Disney. The contract was so tight that the budding movie stars were only released after the film came out on Blu-ray.

Doing the Job

Having led the UKG for eight years, the demand on Gary’s time is immense. As Commanding Officer, he is the chief administrator and policy maker for every event that occurs within the Garrison’s borders. There is never a moment when he’s not on his phone updating or sharing Legion information.

For the last two years he has served as Legion Executive Officer of the global 501st – basically the organisation’s second in command. This is in addition to his UKG duties.

“I am lucky that I work freelance, which gives me a lot of flexibility to do my duty. For the UKG, I spend a lot of time ensuring things are done, passing information along and making sure things are up to speed. Today, for example, I was out on a troop at a hospital in Oxford. Now I’m speaking, reluctantly, to you Rebels. Afterwards I will workout before getting back to business. Luckily I have great people who support me including our events team, PR team and Finance Officer, who I’m constantly in touch with. My emails are constant and come in from around the world.”

Because of his position in the 501st, the UKG carries a big voice on the international scene.

“The Garrison is a big club, which is part of a bigger organisation. But we are loud, and we have our reputation for accuracy. We’ve been part of the 501st for 18 years. The Legion is now in its 21st year, so we joined early on. We were one of the first non-American groups to join.”

As Legion executive officer, he is friends with founder Albin Johnson, who he first met at Dragon Con 10 years ago. “We hung out together in the US and have stayed friends ever since. I worked under him when he was running the 501st. Albin’s an interesting, friendly and humble guy. He’s been over to the UK to troop with us several times.”

Duty, Honour, Empire

Gary’s motivations are bound in his duty, honour and service to the Empire. A massive Star Wars fan, his love and passion for the UKG and 501st is huge. He takes his role seriously because, as he says, he has to.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m not paid – people have a right to expect you to do what you say you will do. That’s a commitment. Over the years it just snowballed and evolved to become a massive, massive part of my life. Most importantly, we are normal people doing a normal hobby. We have a lot of fun.

“Some people like to tease, but I reply ‘yeah, I helped raise £50,000 for charity last year, what did you do?’ They then immediately ask how they can get involved. It’s brilliant, because when they do, it proves to me that everybody has a Stormtrooper inside them.”

Then pointing to the door, Gary signals that our time is up. His Stormtroopers hustle our agent towards the exit with the words “Rebel scum” hanging in the air.

Happy to be alive, there is a quick rendezvous with the Tantive IV, which is waiting in a docking bay. Before making the jump to lightspeed the vital intel is beamed to our Bothan friends at Rebel Briefing.

Editor’s note: 

Rebel Briefing would like to thank Ginny Tait for helping to organise our ‘sit down’ with the UKG. Thanks also to Mark Brooks for his contributions. Most of all, thanks to Gary Hailes for agreeing to talk to us. See, it wasn’t a Rebel trap!

You can find more information about the UK Garrison by visiting www.ukgarrison.co.uk

The 501st Legion homepage can be found at www.501st.com

For details about the charities supported by the UKG, visit The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, the Oxford Children’s Hospital, and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing.