Digital Killed the Video Star

Digital Killed the Video Star

Blockbuster Video store will disappear from the UK high street on Monday of next week (16th December) as the administrators announced the closure of the 91 remaining stores.

It is, I suppose, an inevitable sign of the times.

Sky, Virgin, Xbox, Playstation, Lovefilm, Blinkbox, Netflix, iTunes and so many other digital and online suppliers now make it almost ridiculously easy to access just about any film or TV box set that you can think of; at the touch of a red button, in the comfort of your living room. All beamed in glorious 1080i HD directly to your big ole flat screen gogglebox, laptop, tablet or phone.

With all that access, why would anyone go to the video shop anymore?

Now, I’m not complaining about this you understand. Having virtually instant access to the films I want to watch is a positive thing as far as I’m concerned. And yet, I cannot help but feel a certain pang of sadness at the final demise of Blockbuster, marking, as it does, the end of the video era.

Video was epic.

The video rental store would become a cornerstone of popular culture. There was something cool about video stores – this place, this shop with row upon row of the films you longed to see, the films you’d heard about, the films you never knew existed. The TV constantly playing, usually above your head, hanging precariously by bracket, playing Ghostbusters or Goonies, distracting you from making a choice.

And how difficult was it to make a choice?

I could spend hours in my local shop trying to come to a decision. Staring at the walls, at the Top 20 wall, the new releases wall, the differing genres – comedy, drama, horror, family. Should I get a film I’d already seen and enjoyed in the cinema, or something completely new?

Decisions, decisions.

Of course, some things never change – the days of standing aimlessly in the video store may be over, merely replaced by the vacuous scrolling through the on-screen lists provided by Netflix or Sky, the night ebbing away without a film actually getting viewed.

The Golden Age of the Video

When it came into our lives it heralded an era of unprecedented change. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.

Video first arrived into my family in the early part of the 80s. It came in the form of a giant silver, rectangular box with a row of buttons along the top and the words FERGUSON imprinted on the side.

It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen.

A gadget that enabled you to record programmes off the television. Not only that, but you could pause those programmes and rewind and fast forward them as well – the way you could a cassette player.

Which is essentially what it was – a cassette player for the telly!

Imagine that?

Our machine was fab – I loved it from the moment it arrived in all its garish and heavy glory in our living room. I loved that when you pressed the eject button the compartment that held the video tapes would spring up in the manner of Arkwright’s till in the sitcom Open All Hours.

I helped set it up and, shortly afterwards, considered myself quite the expert upon its workings.

On that first morning I taped Tiswas while I continued to watch Multi-Coloured Swap Shop on BBC1. This was a revolutionary moment. Up until then I’d had to make a choice; usually this meant the first hour of Swap Shop, watching Noel’s introduction, the Tarzan cartoon they’d show, finding out where Keith ‘Cheggars’ Chegwin was on his travels that week, before changing channels at ten for the anarchy of Tiswas on ITV.

But not anymore. Now, thanks to the wonder of the video – I had the pleasure of both. My parents were thrilled.

Video changed everything.

Over Christmas I played with it as much as my new AT-AT Walker. Father Christmas even brought me some blank tapes of my own as an additional present. I taped as much television as I could, patiently tolerated by my parents. On Christmas Day alone I taped the Worzel Gummidge Christmas Special, The Muppet Movie and Dr No, even recording the Queen’s Speech that preceded the big Bond movie, much to the delight and amazement of Nan and Bampy, who’d come down from Rumney to stay with us over the holidays. Even the smallest advances in technology were enough to bring sighs of wonderment from Nan, so such a radical invention as the video recorder had her clicking her false teeth in astonishment.

I was diligent in my video use, strict in my cataloguing of all the taped programmes, bringing in a system of numbering each cassette with the sticky numbers provided then keeping a record of what was on each number in a small A5 notepad.

The system lasted about a week.

Nasty Videos for nasty times?

The birth of the video era was quite a thing indeed – but it wasn’t all joy and jollity.

Rumour was growing that this new technology might be a weapon of more sinister design. A tool of corruption and seediness; even, perhaps, a gateway to depravity and moral decline.

In fact, as the guardians of all that is moral and right, the tabloid newspapers, informed that we were all in grave peril of our souls being tainted by the rise of the VIDEO NASTY.

Video nasty is a term, much like Frankie Say Relax, laced through with pure 80s. A term we became all too aware of as the opportunity to watch movies at home grew in prominence. A term which, in fact grew in conjunction with the rise of the video rental store.

My first experience of these new, somewhat at odds, phenomena came via my dad who revealed that there was a new place down on Cathays Terrace where you could go and rent films to bring home to watch. Films that hadn’t been shown on the TV before. New films. Or at least, nearly new films.

We made a trip to this new shop, a family outing to this wondrous new grotto. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Every wall was covered from ceiling to floor with row upon row of every film imaginable. Surely this spelled the end for The Monico, the Plaza, the Odeon – all the places I loved to visit. As it happened, video itself was soon to be under attack because of the sudden availability of many of these film titles.

I scanned the walls of the shop in awe that day, reading titles and looking at cassette covers that were thrillingly gory and disgusting and scary, even if you were older than eight years old. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Driller Killer, I Spit on your Grave, Zombie Flesh Eaters. And I thought Raiders of the Lost Ark had been terrifying. Mum and Dad were soon ushering me away from there, thrusting a copy of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo into my hands before bundling me back to the car.

I don’t recall ever going back.

Somehow, everybody in school had learnt of the existence of these films. One of my best friends who had a brother and sister, both well into their teens, had even seen them. Rumours abounded about what horrors they contained.

“Apparently a woman is put on a hook and then sliced up,” was the prevailing rumour about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most laughed and said how much they wanted to see it. I remained quiet on the subject. I didn’t like being scared.

Soon the powers that be joined forces with the powers that wanted to be and cast moral judgements down from their lofty positions of correctness. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was passed and swathes of films were cut from shelves, confined to the naughty step of the banned video list.

To defend the action to a small degree – video was still in its infancy and as is often the case, was something of an unregulated domain. As such, films of low budget and lower quality came onto the market via the new ‘straight-to-video’ distribution (i.e. without getting a cinema release or classification) – films, in many instances, designed only to shock. If they’d been banned on the grounds that they were dreadful, we would perhaps have understood a bit more.

As it was though, any film that delved into more troublesome terrain of sex and violence, gore and general horror, found itself cast into the abyss (the void, as opposed to the film). The Exorcist, Clockwork Orange, Texas Chainsaw et al all became these mystical movies whose legend and notoriety grew with every passing year out of view.


That first trip to the video store on Cathays Terrace was the start of a love affair with the video store that would end, quite literally, with a more traditional type of love affair.

My wife used to work in the video store on Caerphilly cross-roads, where Rhiwbina kisses Llanishen delicately on the cheek.

It was where she worked when we first started going out back in 1997.  In fact I picked her up from there, at the end of her shift, to go out on our first date. I arrived early, hung around in the shop, watching Top Gun on the TV as she got rid of the late night pervs trying to discretely rent their Saturday porn. I helped her lock up, pull the shutters down and off we went in my little Ford Fiesta to catch last orders at the Traveller’s Rest.

It was all very John Hughes.

Within 3 years we were married, the big day recorded for posterity on video. Trouble is, we no longer have a player to watch it on.




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