How ‘space lord’ from North Carolina humiliated U.K. leader
“It’s such a funny fucking trajectory,” said comedian, actress, author and NPR regular Paula Poundstone on the phone last Thursday. We weren’t talking about her career, but that of Lord Buckethead, the “Intergalactic Space Lord” who embarrassed Theresa May in the last U.K. election, and whose fiendish black-gloved grasp Poundstone spent eight weeks fleeing from in the sweaty North Carolina summer of 1984.
You may have heard of His Lordship if you’re a fan of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The man (or alien) whom Oliver memorably described as looking “like Darth Vader fucked an Amazon Echo” first ran for parliament against Margaret Thatcher in 1987, despite being a fictional character created three years earlier for a low-budget American movie.
Britain has a longstanding tradition of bizarre candidates from satirical political parties (the most famous example is musician/politician Screaming Lord Sutch of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party). Perhaps due to American unfamiliarity with the tradition (before 2016, U.S. national elections rarely included joke candidates), Lord Buckethead’s British career went largely unnoticed here until last year. But although he made his biggest impression (so far) in U.K. politics, he was actually “born” in Shelby, North Carolina.
In 1987, U.K. distributor Mike Lee, whose label VIPCO had been prosecuted nearly to bankruptcy for such “video nasties” as Driller Killer and Zombie Flesh Eaters, acquired the much milder U.S. import Hyperspace. Shot at Shelby’s Earl Owensby Studios in the summer of 1984, Hyperspace was a microbudget Star Wars spoof written and directed by Todd Durham. A USC graduate whose Wikipedia page lists Neil Simon as one of his professors, Durham would receive a “story by” credit on the 2012 animated hit Hotel Transylvania and “characters created by” on subsequent installments in the franchise, but IMDB.com lists no director or screenplay credits for him after three films shot in Shelby in 1984.
In Hyperspace, which distributor Lee retitled Gremloids, an evil space lord looking like Darth Vader with a two-foot-high bucket-shaped helmet (and unnamed until the final credits), crashes in a small North Carolina town, where he mistakes a cashier played by 24-year-old Paula Poundstone for the rebel princess he’s been pursuing. A clip of Buckethead commanding his Jawa-like minions to pursue Poundstone and co-star Alan Marx through an Ingles supermarket in flying shopping carts can be viewed on YouTube.
According to “Lord Buckethead – The Whole Story,” a June 14, 2017, article at the website The Reprobate, Lee realized that, even with the £500 deposit required to stand for the election, dressing as Lord Buckethead and running for parliament would be cheap publicity for the retitled (and barely released) U.S. film. Lord Buckethead ran against John Major in 1992, but his greatest popularity (or infamy) yet was achieved last year, with Mike Lee no longer in the costume.
Various articles claim that the identity of the man now wearing the bucket-shaped helmet is unknown. That’s a polite fiction (or perhaps laziness), as the parliamentary official who recorded the votes listed the candidate’s real name as Jonathan David Harvey. Regardless of who’s under the helmet, 2017 was His Lordship’s most auspicious year to date.
That’s when Theresa May called for an early “snap” general election in hopes of securing a conservative majority before Brexit negotiations. This electoral gamble backfired, returning a hung parliament and weakening the U.K.’s negotiation position just as Brexit talks were scheduled to begin. May managed to win re-election, but in the words of John Oliver, “even that came with some humiliation.”
It’s traditional in British politics for all candidates to stand together on the stage when the results are announced. Lord Buckethead didn’t win, but by getting 274 votes in May’s home constituency of Maidenhead, his largest showing to date, he earned his place beside her. Photos and videos of May’s disgruntled expression went viral, and were summed up by John Oliver when he quipped, “Oh, you can roll your eyes all you want, Theresa, but your evening just found a way to get a lot worse.”
Noting the difficulties as Brexit negotiations loomed, Oliver suggested “your only real chance here is to utilize the element of surprise” by sending “someone there’s no way they would expect” as the U.K. negotiator. “Someone bold, someone unafraid to call it how it is, someone with a firm leather-clad grasp of the issues, someone with a bucket list of demands and an honest, slightly muffled voice. That’s right, I’m talking about the intergalactic space lord himself.” At which point, to the delight of his audience, he introduced Lord Buckethead as a surprise guest. (The entire episode is on YouTube.)
His Lordship’s manifesto promises “strong, not entirely stable, leadership” and includes “the abolition of Lords (except me),” the “Nationalisation of Adele,” lowering the minimum voting age to 16 but capping it at 80, and the admonition to “stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia and start buying lasers from Lord Buckethead.” (It can be read at his official website.)
Since appearing on HBO, Lord Buckethead was widely covered in the international press, but with little mention of his origin in North Carolina’s Western Piedmont. To explain how that happened requires explaining Earl Owensby, the former marine and friend of Elvis whom Esquire magazine called “A Very Minor Movie Mogul” and whose IMDB bio dubs him “the redneck Roger Corman.” The devoutly Christian Owensby, a mountain-born moonshiner’s son who grew up near Shelby, made his first fortune selling power tools before the success of the 1973 “redneck revenge” classic Walking Tall inspired him to try his hand at producing and starring in movies for the Southern drive-in circuit that once extended from Virginia to Texas.
Shot for $500,000 to $1 million, E.O. (for Earl Owensby) Productions were rarely shown domestically outside Dixie (except some Chicago and Detroit neighborhoods with significant amounts of white Southern transplants). Due to favorable foreign deals, they made most of their profits internationally. During the ‘80s vogue for cheaply-made 3D movies, several E.O. Productions made it into national U.S. multiplex chains due to the technical expertise of Phil Smoot, the UNCG graduate and Triad-based filmmaker who helped plan the UNCSA School of Filmmaking and was 3D camera operator on the film that spawned Lord Buckethead.
Which brings us back to Paula Poundstone. Along with supporting actor Chris Elliott (with whom she shared no scenes), hers is one of the two biggest names to come out of any E.O. Production. She told me she didn’t realize that’s what it was when she auditioned in Los Angeles.
“I never knew if Todd tricked me into believing that I was auditioning for a Universal film, or if my managers knew, or if everybody thought I would know automatically, and that they had just borrowed this office at Universal,” she said in our phone conversation last Thursday.
As she remembers it, nobody ever told her there was no connection between the L.A. studio and the Shelby one. “Maybe everyone thought that was obvious and I should have known, but I never did until after maybe a week or so of running through the woods in North Carolina. Maybe I was trying not to know, like Trump still doesn’t know he lost last night.” She elaborated by explaining that, when a person doesn’t want to believe something, “you stick with it as long as you possibly can, and perhaps that was my approach.”
She said that she first became aware that the character she’d spent those weeks fleeing had somehow entered British politics when a friend called from London to say he’d seen a familiar costume in a parade, and that the character seemed to be “a cult thing” there.
She said she thought this was weird and funny, but didn’t think anything more about it for years. “And then one night during one of those Theresa May elections, I come back to the hotel from working, and I put on goofy stupid Twitter, and there in the Trending thing is this Lord Buckethead, and I’m like ‘Naaaaaaah.’ And I clicked on it and saw his picture and I thought ‘that is too fucking funny.’ At which point, I wrote a tweet about how I had named the character.”
In response, she said that Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, on which Poundstone is a regular, “tweeted back and asked why didn’t he know that about me, and I was like, you never asked! He asked me a whole bunch of dumb shit questions, but he never asked me that one. I didn’t keep it from people!”
At another point in the interview, she said “I invented Lord Buckethead,” but quickly clarified by explaining she meant the name rather than the character. “They allowed me to improvise here and there, and although I didn’t do anything particularly genius, I did say ‘you come in here with a bucket on your head,’ and after that, we all just started calling him Buckethead.”
She said she never actually saw the film until it came out on DVD, illustrated by the British poster riffing on the one the Brothers Hildebrandt did for Star Wars, with Lord Buckethead looming over a voluptuous space princess resembling Jennifer Connelly.
“Oh man, my kids fucking roared over the cover of the DVD! Because it’s so clearly not me. They didn’t even do the thing where they put my head on somebody else’s body. It’s like they didn’t want an image of Paula Poundstone anywhere near this cover!”
I didn’t tell her that, among reviews of the DVD at Letterboxd.com that praise Poundstone’s “easy gangly charm” as well as Todd Durham’s script (but compare the special effects to ‘70s Doctor Who), one claims it “fulfilled my lifelong dream of seeing Paula Poundstone chained to a wall while wearing skimpy underwear.” If the late Carrie Fisher could read that, our greatest space princess might wince in posthumous sympathy.
Poundstone spoke very highly of the film’s first assistant director Mark Hannah, calling him a good friend whom she’s not seen in far too long, and of Robin Bloodworth, the young actor who was the first person to ever wear the Lord Buckethead costume by costume designer Anne H. Kinney. The film’s IMDB main page mistakenly credits the role to Robin’s father, Robert Bloodworth. The elder Bloodworth, who performed at the Fort Bragg Playhouse at around the same time my father acted there, had been in other Earl Owensby Productions, but had nothing to do with this one beyond telling his 19-year-old 6’4” son that E.O. was looking for a very tall actor to play a Darth Vader-type villain.
In a gracious phone conversation in which Robin Bloodworth, now an Atlanta-based actor, gave me many great quotations I don’t have room to use, he spoke very fondly of Poundstone, and recalled the time the late Robin Williams, an early supporter of her career, called her in the studio dormitory in which they lived for eight weeks, and then sent an enormous box of snacks, including gourmet popcorn (something neither Bloodworth nor Poundstone had ever heard of before) that she shared with the entire crew. He also said he wished he could find the cartoon she drew of him with flies buzzing around Lord Buckethead’s helmet.
Poundstone told me she vividly recalled those flies, as well as a host of other insects. “Lots of great big bugs. They always seemed to have a scientific term for them which made me not comforted when they said ‘oh, don’t worry about that bug,’ because they seemed to call them all the same thing even when they looked completely different. I said ‘I’m not sure that’s real science you’re quoting at me.’”
She said that, other than the heat and insects, she has “nothing but pleasant memories of the experience,” although she added that, when she got back to L.A., she told friends she’d just spent eight weeks running through the woods. “There’s a tremendous amount of footage of me carrying that vacuum cleaner in sweaty hot, humid North Carolina conditions. I finally turned to Todd at one point and said, you know you better get this because I’m not running across that fucking field again.”
Writer/director Todd Durham proved harder to contact than Poundstone or Bloodworth. Shortly before this article was due, he responded to my queries, apologizing for his own deadline crunch that allowed only a brief reply. He offered to share photos from the set and give me a quote for publication if I send him my completed article before publication. I replied I couldn’t do that, but sent him Poundstone’s comments about arriving on the set thinking it was a Universal production, and how she contributed to the character’s name. He responded with the following statement, asking that it be included in its entirety.
“Of the incomplete article that you asked me to verify before publication, I can confirm with certainty that there are many false statements in it with regard to the hiring of Paula Poundstone and her participation in my micro-budget movie; furthermore, to be specific regarding the origin of the name of the Darth Vader-parody-character I created, the words ‘trashcan-head’ and ‘bucket-head’ came out of our improvisation with her during rehearsal since we were using a trash can as a prop, leading me to name the character ‘Lord Buckethead.’ I have nothing but the highest opinion of Paula, who is one of the funniest people I know. And yes, I have been involved to some extent with all of His Lordship’s political activities since 1987 and there are more in the works, but that is classified.”
What I actually sent him was not so much an “incomplete article” as two statements by Poundstone, who readily acknowledged they are subject to the vagaries of memory after 34 years. Readers may note that Durham’s account of how Lord Buckethead got that name do not greatly contradict Poundstone’s. He offered no correction of the “falsehoods” he claimed are in her account of her hiring, indicating that, due to his own deadline crunch, this would be his only comment on the subject. He concluded by thanking me for my interest and wishing me well.
Clearly, the world, and perhaps the universe, shall hear of Lord Buckethead again.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.