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Interview: Simon Plumbe

Written by Darren 'Starscream' Jamieson on February 23, 2004 | Features,Interviews |

We managed to catch up with Simon from Auto Assembly and talked with him at great length about the event itself, the guests and Transformers in general.

For those of us that have never been to Auto Assembly, or any other kind of Transformers convention before, what sort of stuff goes on there? Is it just for the extreme hardcore fan who knows everything about everything, or is there something for people with a casual interest or just like collecting the toys?

It’s a pretty packed event really over the two days and I’d like to think that there’s something for everyone. At the very heart of it is the collectors fair with dealers tables from all over the UK – you’ll be able to buy pretty much any piece of TF merchandise you want from some of the UKs top dealers. However, Auto Assembly is much more than that… As well as the dealers, we’ll have episodes screening throughout the weekend from all the shows, guest talks and panels (with some great guests making an appearance this year over the two days), quizzes, a games area, a massive toy and art display, a charity auction (with some great autographed items), a charity raffle, autograph sessions and a chance to meet the guests, and a lot more besides! It doesn’t really matter whether you’re a die-hard G1 fan, a casual TV viewer who buys toys occasionally or someone who appreciates all aspects of TFs as you’ll find something at AA for you and throughout the whole weekend you’ll find something to keep you occupied. It’s our goal really to offer two days of entertainment and to offer a great weekend… and we are making sure that both days (and the special Saturday night programme) are all going to be offering something different so no two parts of Auto Assembly will be the same! There are other UK conventions that take place as well and they all offer something different, but generally, they all tend to offer dealers, guests and videos, with their own mix of original ideas thrown in.

So Auto Assembly is spread over two days this year? For some of us Birmingham is quite far to come, and we can only make the one day. Are we able to book for just one day, and what would be the best day to come for?

We are taking bookings for single days although this is something that we are having to keep a close eye on. We need to keep a balance in terms of the numbers of people around on both days so we may need to close bookings on certain days for one day places at some point so the best way is still to go for the whole weekend. With the different activities on offer and the fact that there will be different guest talks on both days it’s still something worth considering. There is very cheap hotel accommodation in and around the city centre – less than Shelfwarmer Prime for a night with a lot of places – so it’s not too difficult to afford to be there for both. We are doing upgrade deals for one day attendees though so you can upgrade at a later date or one the day so you can be with us for both days. In terms of the best day, we’re still working on the programme itself so I can’t really say at the moment, but Wally Wingert will be actively involved in the main programme on both days doing different things. Despite Saturday running for longer, the Saturday night programme will be restricted to weekend bookings only though. It’s all down to personal choice really and what you’re able to make, but I’d ring or email us to check availability and book NOW to make sure your preferred date still has tickets available.

It all sounds like an enormous amount of work to put together a convention of this size. How many of you guys are involved in the organisation, and just what made you do it – and see it through?

At the very heart of it is myself and Sven Harvey. Sven was the one who came up with the idea for Auto Assembly several years ago which was a spin-off from a Star Trek club that we used to run called Alpha Quadrant, both of which coming under our general sci-fi organisation Infinite Frontiers. Mini history lesson over! lol

We have got other support staff as well, including our very understanding other halves and other friends and family, but I’d say that about 95% of the work is done between the two of us.

In terms of why… well, we keep asking ourself that every year! Well, originally AA started off as a Transformers equivalent to our monthly meetings for our Star Trek club but it kinda exploded from there. It was meant to be something to do occasionally for something different but neither of us expected it to be where it is today. We started off with 30 people for the first one, the second grew to 60, last year had 230 and we dread to think what this year will be like!

Don’t get me wrong, running something like Auto Assembly is incredibly hard work and takes up a lot of time but just seeing the look on people’s faces as they enjoy each convention or reading comments on forums about the convention makes it all worth while. Knowing that people appreciate what we’re doing and that we’re actually able to give something back to TF fandom keeps us going!

I thought from attending the last AA that organising the event would have been a full time job! You’ve kind of touched on it there with the Star Trek mention, but what other interests do you guys have despite Transformers, and what is it about Transformers specifically that makes you want to dedicate so much of your time to it?

We’re both interested in sci-fi and fantasy generally and computing/gaming. Sven’s more into the Amiga, which he trades in, and my gaming interest lies more with consoles lately and retro stuff. For Transformers, I guess it’s just something that appeals to me as a collectible item (and the big kid that’s in me), has good TV shows (I can watch Beast Wars over and over!), is generally fun and accessible and has a varied and incredibly friendly fan community (being in fandom for as long as I have, this is fairly important to me) so it’s an all-round thing really. In terms of dedicating time, I’ve been actively involved in sci-fi organisations since 1989 when I formed Infinite Frontiers, so it’s been a constant part of my life since then, but Auto Assembly is the most important, has had the most positive feedback, and is certainly the most enjoyable, and as long as that’s the case, I’m only too happy to carry on doing it!

It sounds like much of yours and Sven’s time is taken up with either Transformers, or some Sci-Fi activity. How do your better halves react to your Sci-Fi dealings, and how do friends who aren’t as interested react?

Sven’s wife, Claire, is a bit of a sci-fi fan herself although I think sometimes she thinks Sven is a little insane over TFs. My fianc�e absolutely hates sci-fi and I bet she wishes I’d give it all up and sell me collection. Fat chance!!

A lot of my friends are into sci-fi, although I’d say that most of the friends I keep in touch with online aren’t. Strange or what?! As a lot of my friends are into sci-fi, most think it’s pretty cool that I’m interested in AA, and in terms of the ones who are into TFs, it’s more of a competition to see who can get the most toys!

I’d say things are probably similar for Sven although you’d probably have to ask him that one. I don’t think any of his friends try to compete with him for toy collections though!

So I take it your TF collection is a source of great pride? I saw Sven’s proudly displayed across ‘several’ tables last year, I myself consider my Diaclone boxed Frenzy and my Original Lee Sullivan comic art among my best pieces. What pieces are the jewels in your collection, and what (at the risk of bumping the prices up) are you desperate to get hold of?

My collection isn’t that large at the moment as I didn’t really get into TFs in a big way until a couple of years ago and I didn’t really actively start collecting the toys until last year. I’ve only got somewhere between 70 and 100 toys, but I have got some I’m quite pleased with, not necessarily because of value but just because I think they’re pretty cool!

Obviously is RiD Prime which I have to be honest and say has to be in everyone’s collection. One of my latest additions is a red transmetal Cheetor which I’m really happy with and I got it for a pretty good price on eBay – it’s one of those rare toys in my collection that Sven DOESN’T own! Other stuff would include my Worlds Smallest Prime and Soundwave just for the coolness factor.

I’ve only got a few convention exclusives so far including a few Botcon comics, Tap-Out and Rook so nothing special there but I can’t really afford to change that!

I managed to get a Japanese Armada Megatron not long ago that I quite like, some Takara reissues (so nothing really that exciting) but I have got a personalised signed photo of David Kaye if that counts! 🙂

In terms of future wants, this will mainly be at Auto Assembly and it’s got to include all the Worlds Smallest that are missing from my collection, a few more Botcon toys (especially Windrazor), Universe Sideburn (I admit I am biased here!) and Depth Charge and probably a few things in the AA auction including some of the signed comics from Dreamwave that are on the way to us!

In a position like ours, with access to hundreds of fans and their desires, demands and wants etc, have you been involved in any of the UK releases of TFs from the likes of Hasbro, Metrodome, TITAN, Atari and the like?

In a word, Yes (well, actually that was four words but who’s counting!). I’ve been talking to Hasbro for months now and I’ve been hoping to get them to attend Auto Assembly 2004 although we still don’t know what is happening there – even Hasbro themselves don’t know if they are attending ANY events in the UK yet. Metrodome I think will be a permanent guest at AA and again they’re producing exclusive postcards that we are going to be giving away, and hopefully some stuff for the auction. Titan again are being talked to in a number of areas and we will be doing something with them. I have been in touch with Atari and their various PR representatives since last year for several aspects of them being involved in AA so it’s looking promising on all fronts there! I’ve also been in touch with other companies producing Transformers merchandise and we do have a few surprises up our sleeves in terms of the auction and generally for the convention, although one or two haven’t been too supportive but I can’t really go into details on who these are for obvious and legal reasons!

Yes, I’m familiar with companies who aren’t very supportive or responsive to the wishes of their customer base in this way, do you feel that the various Transformers license holders are receptive to the fans requests in terms of giving us what we want? After all, we ARE the customers who will be buying their products.

Some companies are pretty fantastic both in terms of the support they have given to us and generally in terms of adapting and listening to the views of fans and their general customer base (remembering that there are more fans out there other than us die-hards!. As you said, if we don’t buy the stuff, they’re not going to make any money.

Dreamwave are a perfect example – they have been wonderful in terms of listening to the fans and despite the opinions of some fans, even Panini adapted their Armada comic as their sales audience changed and I don’t think anyone can doubt Atari’s commitment to doing the brand justice. There are some companies however that will produce what they want whether the market wants to buy it or not and then they complain when sales are poor.

In the UK it’s still difficult though as it will always be seen as a toy line and apart the specific collectors market there will always be the belief that toys and cartoons are for children and I don’t think that this is an attitude we are ever likely to see change in the UK.

Yes, it’s really frustrating being in the UK seeing all of the great releases that Takara bring out, and the willingness to please of Hasbro US, and then the scraps we get dealt afterwards. With the problems of import tax, or hiked up prices in the UK for imported lines (Forbidden Planet for example), where do you go for your rarities and reissues?

It all depends on what I am after really. I do get a lot of stuff from eBay as most people do, but I tend to be careful in terms of the amount I spend so I keep it within customs limits (in other words, I aim for bargains!). Otherwise, I’d rather stick to UK dealers as I know I don’t need to worry about import duty as it’s already been covered in
the price. Most of my non-eBay buying tends to be done either at Auto Assembly (for my annual blow-out) or through Sven at Stellar Dreams. I used to be Sven’s business partner so I used to be a TF dealer (as Michael Caine would say, “Not a lot of people know that!”), but with Sven living locally it’s just easier for me to pop and see him. I will buy stuff from other dealers too but it usually depends on what I am after and what prices I can find – I spent quite a bit locally on stuff in the last six months on Worlds Smallest, comics and Jap Armada stuff! I can’t remember the last time I bought a TF from Forbidden Planet though, although I have to say that they do have some good deals now and then.

What did you think personally about Hasbro US refusing to reissue Megatron, and many US retailers taking the ‘moral standpoint’ and not importing the Takara Megatron, when real handguns are freely available? I made a lot of noise about that on TheTransformers.Net stating that if Americans want less shootings they should try banning guns, not Transformers.

I can understand completely about the reissue problem although it’s obviously different for the US and UK. UK wise it’s a combination of safety and meeting CE regulations and realism in toy guns, where in the US it’s toy guns looking too realistic as Megs does in gun mode and if I remember correctly, wasn’t it actually a legal ban on Megs and not selective retail boycotting?

For the UK with the restrictions now stressing that Megatron has to be marketed solely as a collectible for the 14+ age range. We’ve had to introduce a “weapons policy” for AA this year simply to protect attendees (if anyone carries a G1 Megs around the city centre in gun mode, they could have a few problems with the odd armed police patrol!) so I can understand the decision completely.

With the issue over the gun law, it’s not just adults who use guns or get hold of them in the US but even the perception of someone having a gun in their possession is too great a risk Stateside. The gun culture is too dangerous to take lightly.

Not wanting to sound morbid on this, but a friend of mine in America had a gun in her house, and years ago one of her sons got hold of it when he was young. He accidentally shot and killed one of her other children. Makes you think, doesn’t it.

If that’s the risk we take in making guns seem acceptable, even with realistic looking toys, then maybe banning them or restricting sales is a step in the right direction until attitudes change?

Some US etailers did import the Takara megs, whereas others stated that they wouldn’t. Big Bad Toy Store for example didn’t take Megatron, whereas Maybang’s Collectibles did. It was a choice depending on whether they were comfortable selling a replica gun. Agreed the US gun culture is extremely dangerous, but when a child can get hold of a handgun far more easily than they can get hold of a Megatron, clearly a policy is wrong somewhere.

Off the morbid subject now, for those of us who’ve only attended Transforce in the UK, how does Auto Assembly compare to Transforce, and have you had any contact with their organisers?

I think all three UK events are very different. At Auto Assembly, we’ve come from a very different background to the others and we’ve got more experience than people might realise. We’ve run somewhere in the region of 75 events in the last 15 years and been involved in a lot of sci-fi conventions and one thing we are trying to do is that, in addition to the collectors fair sales side of things, is to offer a more rounded package of activities for fans who are interested in all aspects of Transformers whether it’s the toys, TV shows, comics or anything else.

I’ve only been to one Transforce and that was as a dealer, but if I had to compare the two (which I don’t really like doing!) I’d say that AA seems to be more informal, with more things going on and with more interactive elements. From what I saw we seem to have better access to our guests as well with them being on hand all throughout the convention, but I can’t comment on the other Transforce events since then.

To be honest, I think every convention has something different to offer and even if we’re in different parts of the UK, there’s enough going on at each to offer something for everyone.

Back to Transforce for a moment though, and one thing I did notice is that, despite the large number of dealers and videos, Transforce did seem to have more of a drive towards the comic/book side of Transformers where AA has always tried to be an all-rounder covering everything. That’s certainly not a bad thing – there’s room for every style of convention and there are a lot of fans who are mainly interested in the comics – so I think this is something that should be applauded for Paul trying to do something different. Maybe that’s just me though from what I saw!

I’ve been in touch with Paul a few times about AA2004 and Transforce 2004 and how they relate to each other but not too much. To be honest, Paul has been fairly quiet recently apart from a few posts on the Transforce forum, so I guess he’s been too busy behind the scenes with Transforce – I know how that feels!

I remember when I first spoke to Lee Sullivan that I was very much in awe; the man shaped my childhood with his work on Transformers. How approachable have you found the Transformers celebs, have you become friendly with any of them and is there anyone you would give a carded Huffer for; if you could get them to attend AA?

I think it depends on the person really. Because of the auction and guests, I have been in touch with a lot of people from all aspects of TF – actors, writers, artists etc. and I would say that I have probably contacted somewhere between 50 and 100 of these. Of the ones that have replied, most have generally been great to deal with and really approachable. Bob Forward was really great not only with the auction but really friendly with his emails and helpful with the interview, David Sobolov shocked the hell out of me when he sent the signed Depth Charge toy over (I thought he was sending a photo), David Kaye’s pretty cool… I could go on… Some have been complete assholes though; I have to be honest. One person who I contact asking about an autograph early on sent me an email reply with just two words – “what charity”. Nothing more. I replied with a fairly friendly email and never heard anything since. Others just didn’t even bother to reply. In terms of being on friendly terms, I do email some of the actors occasionally keeping them posted on what we are doing, how AA is coming along that sort of thing and the odd email to Bob Forward. I try to keep in touch with Lee, Simon and Andrew as much as possible. Since first emailing him back in September about AA (initially to get an autograph for the auction), I’ve become close friends with Wally Wingert and we tend to email each other all the time, talking on the phone quite a bit, and we’re even planning a trip down to London on one of the days he’s over here for AA, so it’s been pretty cool making new friends out of running something like AA! Is there anyone I’d desperately want to meet? Well, as well as TF I’m a big Star Trek fan, so I think you can guess the rest of my answer…!

Ah yes, Mr. Nimoy. I wonder if he ever attends any Transformers conventions in the USA? Somehow, I doubt it – but he is a legend. I’ve been trying for some years now to get an interview with the main man in TF voicing, Frank Welker – but can never get past his agent, despite the promises. Have you approached Frank or Peter at all?

I’ve been trying to find contact details for as many voice actors as possible since we decided to run a charity auction (literally days after AA2003 ended). I still haven’t been able to find ANY details for Frank Welker despite the number of websites dedicated to him (if you could help, it would be appreciated – I seem to have a talent for negotiating or so I’ve been told!), but I have been in touch with Peter Cullen’s agent on quite a few occasions and he’s quite a nice guy.

I don’t think we have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting Peter to ever attend a convention in the UK because of his incredibly busy work schedule, but I am trying to get an autograph for the auction. However even Steve, his agent, has trouble getting photos from him to get signed!

You mentioned that you’re into all aspects of Transformers, for me the defining moment has to be Lee Sullivan’s work on the Time Wars storyline (of which I have two original pages framed on my wall), and is the best comic storyline ever. What for you is your favourite Transformers moment or item that said to you ‘yes, transformers are the best’?

I don’t think there was a moment that said “Transformers are the best” for me as I’ve been an avid sci-fi fan since I was very young (before Transformers came along) and I’ve been into Star Wars, Star Trek and much more besides including running a large Star Trek fan club and convention so Star Trek is one of my main passions.

However, when it comes to Transformers, probably the trigger for me was Sven’s fault! For a LONG time, he’d been trying to get me into Transformers with no success, trying to force-feed me with G1 and anything else. Gradually every time I went to visit him and his family he kept putting episodes of Beast Wars on and I got hooked! I started getting the odd toy (I think Silverbolt was my first), and it just went from there!

In terms of my favourite moment, it keeps changing as I’m always having new favourite moments as they happen. Last year’s AA was obviously a big one for me when it all came together and seeing how we managed to pull everything together on the day but I think this year is going to top that so I think that will become my new “favourite”!

I take it from your constant references to it that Beast Wars is your favourite incarnation of Transformers, why is that?

Primarily it’s what got me into Transformers, but it’s got great storytelling, I love the characters, I don’t think there’s a bad episode in the series, and there are some pretty cool toys.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of the other shows and toy ranges, but Beast Wars is what started it all off and I’ll always have a soft spot for it!

As well as all the personal sacrifices and time that goes into AA, there must be a huge financial outlay as well. Are you able to break even from the event, and if a profit is made what happens to the extra cash?

Also do you need to seek permission from Hasbro before organising an event of this nature with their brand?

Yeah, to say that Auto Assembly costs a fair amount of money to run would be an understatement. We’ve been working hard to keep costs down to attendees and although £15 might seem a lot to many people, compared to sci-fi conventions and even our own Star Trek convention that we ran back in ’96, AA2004 is a bargain! When we held that, it was a two day event as well at the same venue. A similar structure, and we had booked a Star Trek actor to fly over. Most of the costs were the same as Auto Assembly, although our guest budget was obviously higher. We did have a few differences in terms of activities – we hired a DJ for a disco, we hired AV equipment, and we had a magazine printed (A4 black and white 32 pages) so in a lot of ways it was not as elaborate as Auto Assembly is. The registration for that year was £35 for the weekend because of guest costs and equipment hire, and we lost a considerable sum of money. Auto Assembly 2004 is VERY different. It is costing us THOUSANDS of pounds to run the convention and every penny that comes in counts and this is why weekend registrations are better for us than day places and one of the reasons why we are offering better activities for those who book for the full weekend. The hotel hire alone is costing several thousand, our guest budget is also a four-figure sum (hotel, flight costs, expenses), printing of a full colour fanzine is costing a few pounds per copy, publicity, postage, possible equipment hire and more besides. It all adds up very quickly. We know that Auto Assembly will break even (every AA event so far has done so and this year is looking to be the best of all of them) – we plan carefully to make sure that the event grows physically only when we can afford to do it and that’s why we took so long to announce Wally – but in terms of the scale, this is down to pre-bookings. With excess income, we have two charities we are raising funds for, and after all our costs have been worked out and final bills paid after the weekend (with some of these not being completely cleared such as printing for about a month after) then we’ll split the balance between the NSPCC and Cancer Research. Finally, Hasbro have been aware of Auto Assembly for some time. As a non-profit making event, as long as we don’t claim to be officially endorsed, generally there isn’t a problem – and this is the same for conventions covering any product, franchise or series, but we wanted to keep Hasbro informed of what we were planning and doing. I have been talking to them for some time about them actually making an appearance at Auto Assembly. There’s nothing definite here although they have expressed an interest in coming along, but obviously if anything develops here, you’ll be the first to know…

Crikey, it all sounds like a major headache. As much as I like the idea of being a part of something like this, I think I’ll leave it to the experts and just be content to come along and enjoy the fruits of your labours.

As a final word, what would you say to those still undecided about attending?

It’s the 20th Anniversary year, so EVERY fan should really try to get to at least one convention this year, ideally all three. I won’t make comments on the others but I do know that pretty much everyone who attended AA last year had a great time and I know that this year will be better than ever. We’ve got great guests, a good selection of dealers, a fantastic auction, loads of variety in the programme throughout the weekend and a lot of things that you won’t see at ANY other event in the UK. Metrodome will be filming the convention to appear on a Season 3 DVD set (they’re bringing their own camera guy this year) so if you want to be on a Transformers DVD, AA is the only place that this will happen. I know you’ll have a great time and you’ll struggle to fit everything in all weekend that you want to do – yes, we’ve got that much going on that’s different each day! If you’ve only been to Transforce or OTFCC/Botcon before, then I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what we’re doing and you’ll find us to be a refreshing change, and if you’ve never been to a convention before, I think you’ll find that Auto Assembly will give you a great introduction to the world of Transformers conventions and that hopefully it won’t be your last.

Well, we’d like to thank Simon for taking the time to speak with us, and Sven for working with Simon to create Auto Assembly. If you want more info on the event visit the AA website (no, not that one) here.