Adventures in VHS: a love affair with the video
Recently, the BBC Store, the Corporation’s portal for buying legal TV downloads, announced a bold new initiative: for every digital purchase made, customers would receive a VHS copy of the programme delivered straight to their door.
It was, needless to say, an elaborately-staged April Fools’ stunt, couched in fond digs about the VHS format’s ‘sleek appearance, its high quality, its ease of storage and…its robustness’. But in passing it managed to highlight a poignant fact. An entire generation has lived through the home video revolution, watching and collecting stacks of tapes, but all that’s now been consigned to the rubbish bin – or, charity shop – of history.
Film fan Noel Mellor was one of the 80s children swept up in the VHS boom. From his days growing up in Swinton, Greater Manchester, Mellor can recall his family’s first video player. “Around that time, you were looking at the best part of £700 to buy a VCR outright, so electrical shops like DER, Martin Dawes and Rumbelows were renting them out to people. My uncle had been renting one and then my grandad bought it off him. Then we bought it off him, so it was very much passed down.”
The player in question was “this monolithic Hitachi V2000, a toploader, which had been rebranded with the Granada logo because that’s where it was rented from. I would actually kill to just see it again, but it’s probably in a landfill somewhere, unfortunately.”
Mellor’s lingering affection for the world of VHS first surfaced in a series of blog posts entitled Rentals Revisited for the now defunct website eatsleeplivefilm.com. “The idea was that I was going back to revisit some of the films from my youth that had helped shape my love of film, going back and looking at them with the eyes of a 35-year-old and seeing if they held up. But what happened was, all these other memories started to pour out that were attached to the films themselves and attached to the process of renting them, like things my dad used to say. I wasn’t really expecting any of that. Then I ended up writing a little bit more about the format and the video shop that I grew up with. And I thought to myself, I should do more with this. I should turn it into a book.”
Sure enough, Mellor has written Adventures in VHS, his own personal hymn to the days of video shop membership cards, chunky black plastic cases with lurid sleeves, and returning your tapes by 6pm – rewinding them to the start first, of course. It was a long process which began with Mellor reconfiguring his spare room into an old-school viewing den which he dubbed ‘The Analogue Suite’, complete with a vintage Panasonic VCR and a 21” cathode ray tube TV, “the same size as the one that we had when I was a kid. Not one film for this project was watched in any other way than on tape sat on my own in the dark in that environment, usually with a couple of ales. That’s the one thing that was different to watching it as a kid, actually. I was allowed to drink beer this time. But I wanted to recreate it as closely as possible.”
Adventures in VHS is Mellor’s own highly personal take on the glory days of VHS, centring on his relationship with Video World, a rental shop on Swinton’s Pendlebury Road. He revisits a swathe of individual home viewing classics, such as Xtro (1982), Codename: The Soldier (1982), Slayground (1983) and Creepozoids (1987), with the original covers for each lovingly reproduced. A limited hardback edition of the book sold out very quickly, but it’s still available as an e-book. There’s an emphasis on action and horror, but then, that’s exactly the market that thrived on VHS. Moreover, some of these films have never been re-released on DVD. “You’ve got these films that are effectively rotting away on this format which frankly isn’t a very good format, never was, and once that format’s gone…”
One such film is the action-soaked GBH (1983), written by and starring remarkable Mancunian hard-man Cliff Twemlow. Filmed in and around the city, it’s a bizarre snapshot of its place and its time, and could only have surfaced in the VHS era. These days, copies change hands between collectors for good money.
Sourcing original videotapes from traders was a mission in itself, then, though Mellor is sceptical about recent news reports claiming that VHS tapes are now becoming valuable.
“The thing they don’t tell you is that people already own all of those valuable tapes, because for the last 20-odd years, people have been hunting for them. The chances that you are going to uncover a copy of The Beast in Heat in your loft are very, very slim. On the other hand, the chances of you turning up a copy of The Full Monty or Titanic are probably quite high.”
Of course, this revival of a phased-out format does have a precedent. Among music collectors, vinyl is treasured far more that CDs, and vinyl sales have seen a massive upswing in recent years. But can VHS really compare to more modern home cinema formats like DVD and Blu-ray? Does it have its own unique appeal?
“I’m torn on this, because I do think, on a personal level, for me there is an aesthetic value to watching something on VHS that I watched as a kid and that was a big part of this whole project,” says Mellor. “Finding the tapes, getting the tapes in the post, seeing those big beautiful covers, sticking the tape on and sitting through the trailers, maybe adjusting the tracking because it’s a little bit out and getting it just right – that to me feels similar to a vinyl experience. But in terms of quality, put it this way: if a film’s available on Blu-ray, I’m watching it on Blu-ray. VHS is the wrong aspect ratio, it’s often very, very low resolution, the quality isn’t even as good as Betamax and the sound is going to be terrible, especially if you’re watching it on a old CRT tube television. I think there are exceptions to the rule, but on the whole I do not believe that VHS is the new vinyl at all.”
Mellor is well aware of who his potential readership will be. “If I’m honest, I think it’s probably people of my gender, age – and probably weight, I don’t know! It’s pretty much people like me. I mean, I’m aware that this is kind of a niche product. At the same time, there is a huge love out there for cult movies.”
Having amassed a vintage video collection for the purposes of writing the book, Mellor has since given much of it away, mostly to crowdfunders who supported the project. But he’s kept back a special selection of the best stuff for a future date.
“What I’ve done is, I’ve put enough films that I know that I’m going to want to go back and revisit into storage with a VCR, wrapped up very nicely. Right now I don’t want to see another VHS tape again for a while, but I know I’m going to get itchy. So it’s all stashed away with the Super Nintendo for when I next need to tap into my mid-life crisis. I feel like I’ve exorcised those demons a little bit, but it won’t be long before I need to go into the spare room, open the box and have a dig around for something to watch.”
By Andy Murray
Adventures in VHS is available as an e-book here: adventuresinvhs.com
Follow Noel Mellor on Twitter: twitter.com/filmrant
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