Goodbye VHS!

Well, almost. Currys and Dixons, which ever is online or in the high street, might have announced their phasing out of video cassette recorders some time ago but I took rather longer to remove the VCR from my living room. Indeed, I've only just gotten around to it in the last fortnight, replacing my VCR, DVD player and Sky box, which was so long out of contract that Sky seem to have forgotten about me, with an all-in-one Freeview box, Hard Disc Drive (HDD) recorder and upscaling DVD player/recorder. My viewing habits have, as was promised by those who've eulogised TiVo and Sky+, changed with a HDD. No more rewinding and fast-forwarding of tapes to find a free hour or two, no more bundles of tapes beside the television and no more fishing for unspooled tape out of the innards of the machine. But is it all good news? Isn't there anything we'll miss from then? Time to pay tribute to video, which, twenty-five years ago, we all got very excited about.

Readers of a certain age will always think of The Young Ones when video recorders first made their way into homes. "Have we got a video?" was the question Neil asked as he interrupted his bath to stand with a saucepan over his crotch in awe at the new video recorder. I remember the night that my father brought home our first VHS video recorder. I could no more sleep that night than I could on Christmas Eve and when I heard his work van pull up, I, along with my sisters, trotted down the stairs to look at our video recorder. It was the size of a PC - I'll not exaggerate and claim that it was almost the size of a hatchback - but it did require no small amount of strength to lift it, needed much space above it for the toploader to work and probably caused the lights to dim on pressing play.

Blank tapes cost more then than a film on DVD does now, if it could be programmed at all, it was done so with a method so difficult that it became a gag beloved of stand-ups and there was a memorable format war. VHS vs Betamax (vs V2000). But it did mean that you no longer had to be at home or awake to watch television. Granted, there wasn't a good deal of television to actually tape - four channels, all of which shut down during the day, meant that choice was limited - but if you were like me, you taped things just, well, for the sake of taping things.

Then two things happened. The first was that films became available pre-recorded onto tape - as sure a sign as anything that the format war was heading one way with hundreds of movies on VHS dwarfing the meagre selection of Betamax tapes - while people figured out, in the pre-Macrovision days, how one video could be connected to another to copy films onto blank tapes. The casualties of this homebrew approach to making tapes were, as now, the blockbusters. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (complete with subtitles in Arabic) and ET were all available, the latter so dark that twenty minutes passed by before I asked if it had started yet. Not that that really mattered. The excitement that came with having these films to watch at home hasn't ever gone away. And what films there were. Without a Video Recordings Act to meddle in what was released on tape, I Spit On Your Grave, Basket Case, The Evil Dead, Dawn Of The Mummy, Phantasm, The Exorcist, Cannibal Holocaust, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS were all available in the high street and could be enjoyed time and again and, with a second video recorder, a couple of leads and a blank tape, could be yours to own.

Not so very different from now, you might say. Well, that's certainly true to some extent but it was also a very different time. The Internet, multiregion DVDs, multi-format televisions and importers have meant that films not available in this country are not out of reach of the average punter. It's also possible, if one is not particularly concerned with the illegality of Internet downloads, to find, watch and record onto DVD the most bizarre and/or pornographic material ever produced. In fact, five minutes searching will have the average punter turning up the very stuff that the VRA was meant to stop with sites like movieshark making this stuff freely available in a choice of formats. Ten or fifteen years ago, though, you had to make a considerable effort to get your hands on such material. For a star, you had to get to know some very undesirable people. Then, there was the need to have some kind of collateral to prove yourself worthy of a place in a video swapping club. But do both and photocopied lists of exciting-sounding movies could be yours, many of which involved executions, fatal accidents or sex. The names Bodil Joensen, Bud Dwyer and GG Allin will be familiar to anyone who gained entry to these secretive clubs. Then again, you were just as likely to turn up a Sonic Youth concert movie, some scratchy nonsense by Richard Kern or a movie record of an autopsy.

However, it seemed that if you were going to go to the effort of tracking this material down, you were best off going as hardcore as possible. It wasn't until relatively recently that I actually saw a porn film in which a man and a woman had normal sex. During those video-swapping days, everything pornographic that I watching a decade or so ago seemed to end with piss, shit or an animal. And sometimes all three. My mind will be forever scarred by the memory of a woman, a horse and a giant-sized condom, which saw two friends of mine needing to leave the room to be sick. Then there was the unique case of A Clockwork Orange, which needed a trip to mainland Europe to get. Down amongst the wraps of cannabis resin smuggled through on the return leg of a trip to Amsterdam would be five or six copies of A Clockwork Orange, each one of which would find a ready owner. I've never been able to watch Kubrick's version of Burgess' novel without mentally filling in the Dutch subtitles, which has forever ruined it for me.

I thank DVD for helping me grow out of all that nonsense but also to realise that it wasn't going to be completely wonderful in that shiny new digital garden. Like many I assume, I have a sizeable collection of films and series taped off television that are either not worth buying on DVD or are simply unavailable. Like the demand for A Clockwork Orange, it was that issue of availability that will see video lasting for many more years to come. Granted, video was around for very much longer than DVD but there's a wealth of material on VHS that DVD publishers simply haven't got around to yet. Without spending a very long time looking through tapes, I can think of the films of Hal Hartley and Bertrand Blier, neither of whom have been well served on DVD. While Trust, Simple Men, Flirt, Henry Fool and Amateur were all available on VHS, not one can be bought on DVD, not in the UK and not in the US. Blier has only a few films on R2, a couple more on R1 and while he's been done proud in France, none of the DVDs released there carry English subtitles. It's only in the coming month that Frank Henenlotter's cult movies Basket Case and Brain Damage will be available on R2 DVD in spite of having been around a long time on VHS. The same goes for an unbelievably vast amount of television shows. Absolutely, Glasgow Kiss, Goggle-Eyes and Eureka Street I would happily buy on DVD were they available. I suspect that the drive towards high-definition will, most unfortunately, see these shows lost forever in the archives.

Then again, I'm not entirely sure that I'd want to buy everything all over again, much like not buying CD copies of all that I've ever owned on cassette or LP. By and large, I'm quite happy with my taped-off-the-television copies of romantic comedy I Married A Witch, most Cronenberg with the exception of Crash, the Kirk'n'Spock era of Star Trek, the Doris Day musicals On Moonlight Bay and By The Light Of The Silvery Moon, The Day The Earth Caught Fire and Blood Feast are all sitting about on VHS and I'm quite happy that that's the case. Indeed, they'll be there so long as my trusty old video recorder keeps working and, should it break, it would be well worth poking a screwdriver into just to keep it ticking over. So it's almost farewell to VHS as I welcome in HDD recording, recordable DVD and Freeview but with so many wonderful memories that I've had of VHS tapes over the last twenty-five years, it won't be forever.

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