Be kind, rewind: life in an Eighties video store

By Alan Gregson

My one link to Quentin Tarantino is that we both spent five years in the Eighties working in a video store, although mine wasn’t in California, rather it was in Bury, a town a few miles north of Manchester.

I started there in May 1985, and on my first night I was shown the ropes by a nice lady who was promptly sacked when one of the owners arrived. The co-owner then gave me the keys, showed me how to set the alarm, told me how to cash-up the till and where to drop the cash through the floor into the safe. Then she disappeared.

Great first night on the job. Luckily it wasn’t busy so I coped well enough until it was time to lock up at 10pm.

This was the start of five fun years. Although I was only part time, working evenings and weekends while I was at college, then just evenings when I got a full-time job, I soon became de facto store manager. I was responsible for gauging customer tastes and deciding whether we needed five copies of a film, or ten, or 15 for the very big films. This was a big risk because while a sell-through cassette in HMV or Woolworths would cost £10 or so, the rental copies were £80-£100 a copy, partly because of the rental royalties, but also because the tape, cassette case and box were all made of sterner stuff than the high-street films.

As I worked from 5.30pm to 10pm, and our shop was on the high street (right next door to McDonald’s; I think it’s a chip shop now), I was around as people were going home from work, so it was my job to choose that night’s viewing for them.

In the days before the Internet Movie Database, or indeed the internet, video-store assistants had to know about every film, who was in it, who directed it, who did the soundtrack, everything. We had to be ready to answer questions like: “That guy in The Hitcher, you know the one, the scary blond guy, well have you got any more of his films?” At which point I’d hand over a copy of Nighthawks or Blind Fury, which also starred the brilliant Rutger Hauer, the scary blond guy from The Hitcher.

We weren’t computerised at Great American Picture House so staff also had to remember what films people had already seen, and then from that list we had to be able to recommend similar films. For a lot of our customers we also had to remember their membership numbers and tot up in our heads the price of all the sweets they ate off the sweet counter while they browsed.

One of the best parts of working in the town centre was the deals I managed to work out with the local shops. Unbeknownst to our owners, I lent cartoon cassettes to McDonald’s and a TV rental shop for their kids’ corners. They had a couple of films each that they swapped around between themselves. This meant I got a free TV and video for home and never had to pay for my food in McDonald’s. I also got a discount in a number of other shops for ignoring late fees and I never had to pay at a small, family Italian restaurant after I let them off for dropping a copy of Top Gun in hot tomato sauce (I never did find out if they still served up that sauce after they fished Tom Cruise and his buddies out of the pan).

Occasionally a customer would “forget” to return a tape, usually because they’d lent it to their brother, who’d then passed it to a neighbour. It would eventually turn up at a car-boot sale. In these instances, we retained the services of a “recovery agent”, a chap called Terry who was 5’6” in every direction, with tattoos on his tattoos. He was the scariest-looking individual I’d ever come across, although he was actually very nice and very well spoken. He almost never failed to recover a tape.

We had one tape that he didn’t manage to track down. It was a romcom. I can’t even remember what it was called, nothing famous, neither Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan were in it. It was borrowed by the girlfriend of a local wheeler-dealer called Mike, one of a family who owned a double-glazing company and a couple of clubs. At first I wasn’t bothered when it didn’t come back straight away because Mike would always pay his girlfriend’s late fees, usually from a thick stack of £20s in his jacket pocket.

After a fortnight, I sent Terry round to collect it but he came back empty handed. Nobody at home. He went back a few times, each time reporting failure. Eventually, Terry came in to tell me the house was up for sale (it was a huge house with indoor and outdoor pools and a helicopter pad at the bottom of the garden, bought by a Bolton Wanderers player) so we’d better just write the tape off as lost.

I forgot all about this until a parcel arrived at my home address, posted from Malaga airport. It was the tape and a cheque for £50 to cover some of the late fees, posted by Mike’s lawyer on behalf of his client. I read in the Bury Times the next day that the whole family had skipped an arrest warrant and were suspected to be somewhere in southern Spain.

Naturally the cheque bounced.

By the mid Eighties, the VHS/Betamax/V2000 battle was all but over. Arguably the most inferior product won, but that’s a whole other story and I’m not getting into it here. We had customers with Beta machines and so we did cater for them as best we could, although there were few films released on the format. Our stock consisted of roughly 2,000 VHS tapes, maybe 100 Beta tapes and I think we had five films on V2000. If memory serves, one of those five was Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl but I don’t think anyone rented any of the V2000 tapes while I worked there.

In 1985, the Video Recordings Act came into force. Prior to this, the certificates on video recordings were advisory only and did not carry the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) logo. Theoretically, every pre-recorded video cassette should have been withdrawn as soon as the act passed into law but in an uncharacteristic bout of common sense, the government allowed all pre-existing tapes to remain available while all films were reclassified for videotape distribution over a period of around three years.

During this period, we would be given a list of about 100 films each month. These films were temporarily withdrawn while they were reassessed by the BBFC. At the end of the month, any films that were successfully reassessed were allowed back on the shelves. We were given a huge stack of age-certificate stickers to apply to the boxes and cassettes. Any films that required cuts – or, like Driller Killer, The Last House On The Left and their ilk, were completely banned – had to be boxed up and sent back to their respective distributors. Some months later, we would receive new copies of the re-cut films or refunds for the video nasties.

On a regular basis, while the films were being re-classified, a customer would ask for a film that was temporarily off limits. It was always funny watching the faces of customers who’d asked for a Disney film only to be told it was banned.

With so many films to choose from, I had to come up with a series of Gibbs-style rules to decide which films I wouldn’t watch. The rules were largely arbitrary and involved things like no Meryl Streep or Anjelica Houston (except The Grifters, as the no-Anjelica Houston rule was trumped by the watching all-John Cusack films rule) and no films that in my opinion were overly hyped, which usually meant any film advertised on TV or where a main actor appeared on breakfast TV.

We had a TV for showing trailer reels, which we used to play all day. We weren’t supposed to play whole films in the shop because we didn’t have a public-performance licence, but the owners would let us show U or PG certificate films after 6pm, as it was decided that no one from the “Ministry” would be out and about after teatime. We definitely were not allowed to play 15 or 18 certificate films.

Now, the shop owners were like Irish ninjas. They could unlock the back door and sneak up on you as silent as a mouse wearing slippers so we would generally keep to the rules. But it was unknown for the owners to appear after 7pm, so at 7.01pm we’d put on something from John Hughes or Top Gun or something else with the odd bit of profanity.

The TV was facing the customers so they could see whatever was showing. We’d just hear the soundtrack. For this reason, I can almost certainly recite Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Pretty In Pink, or, as one of my colleagues was a fan of Fifties music, I could sing along to Dirty Dancing, although I’ve never actually seen it.

By the late Eighties, Blockbuster arrived in the UK in a big way, opening large shops on the outskirts of most towns. While we would have ten copies of a big film, Blockbuster would have at least 25, and it wasn’t unknown for them to have 100 copies of a major release, 80 of which they’d return to the distributor after a fortnight.

There’s no way a little chain of shops like ours could hope to compete and within a month of Blockbuster opening, our takings were down by 75 per cent. We struggled on for a year or so, with some customers remaining loyal, valuing the encyclopaedic knowledge of the staff, and we were much handier for anyone living our side of town.

The end came when Variety Video opened at the opposite end of town to Blockbuster. We were now boxed in by major players and our owners threw in the towel. My branch wasn’t the first to close; we were still making a slight weekly profit. The owner shut the other four branches first and it became my job to close each branch down, spending a week at each, jobbing off the tapes to market traders and collectors. I got to keep anything I wanted.

Finally, the Bury branch closed and five years of my life was over. Lots of regular customers came to say their last goodbyes on the day we closed. They were all agreed that they would never get the same level of service at the video supermarket but there was no way a small player could hope to compete. Video libraries were closing left, right and centre, just like corner shops today are drowning in the wake of supermarkets and small pubs are struggling to live alongside Wetherspoons.

I never did get the three-hour Looney Toons marathon back from McDonald’s. I wonder if they’ve still got it.


Living for the weekend: Saturday kids’ TV

By Alan Gregson

Offered: Subbuteo FA Cup Final set – Wanted: Anything to do with Adam Ant

Up to the late Seventies, our mum used to drag us kids to town and deposit us at the Odeon, where, in exchange for ten bob, we got a morning of cartoons, Fifties adventure serials and maybe a re-run film, along with a carton of drink and a packet of crisps. This was the Saturday Kids Club.

Then mum got a car and started doing the shopping at Asda, so no more trips to town and no more Saturday Kids Club, but around the same time, TV started to provide an alternative source of Saturday morning entertainment for kids in the shape of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Tiswas.

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Inspiral Carpets’ “Saturn 5” for Christmas No.1

If you’re upwards of 40, the Madchester movement may well have defined the person you are today. For the baggy aficionado around 1989-’90, there were four bands that filled our musical Champions League places: New Order, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets, with, perhaps, 808 State, Paris Angels, The Farm, Intastella, Northside, World Of Twist, The Bridewell Taxis, Flowered Up and The High trailing behind. (And yes, we realise it was the European Cup back in 1989 and only the League champions were permitted to take part – as it should be today!)

Back then, Monday mornings would naturally be spent in local independent record shops searching for indie-dance-crossover nuggets, while the rest of the week, your purchases would supply the soundtrack for everything you did, even taking a bath or fixing a motorbike, repeatedly playing the vinyl until you’d absorbed every word, bassline and beat. Heck, those were exciting times.

Over 25 years later, Madchester fans are not what you’d call particularly “old”, which was why the death of Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill has struck hard. Gill started playing with the Inspirals when he was 14 and was only 44 when he passed away on 22 November. He’d have been 45 on 5 December.

In many ways, Inspiral Carpets were an undervalued force. The band’s emergence in 1989 coincided with the multicoloured, cartoon japery of their peers, meaning that the spotlight was never theirs for long. Despite this, the Inspirals can count a number of tracks that are every bit as mighty as their Sixties, organ-grinding sound-alikes The Doors. “Dragging Me Down”, “Joe” (those drums!) and “Move” may even surpass the finest moments of Jim Morrison and his mischief-makers. And check out the Inspiral’s little-known version of “Tainted Love” – it’s epic.

To mark Gill’s passing, fans have launched an audacious campaign to fire the Inspirals’ 1994 Top 20 hit “Saturn 5” to the Christmas No.1 spot. Getting the Inspirals to No.1 would, under normal circumstances, be a huge task given the dominance of the charts by major labels, but at Christmas, there’s a different market. Inspirals’ supporters believe this could work to their advantage.

A spokesman for the fans’ campaign explains: “Firstly, the song is not being re-released. No major labels are involved. So there’s no need to speak to other labels and come to an agreement as to when to release the song again and start the airplay. It’s simply a case of asking anyone who has ever loved the band to download ‘Saturn 5’ – preferably multiple times – between 16-22 December.

“Streaming the song won’t make an impact given the artist and labels we’re up against. The way we’ll do it is by getting the message out nationwide for people to download in that one week, one giant hit. It would be utterly amazing in this day and age to see a record come from absolutely nowhere to go straight in at No.1. We’re calling on Stone Roses fans, Oasis fans, fans of Madchester music, in fact, anyone with good taste in music anywhere, to hop on board and get us over the line.

David Bowie and Prince died this year and both artists had various songs in the Top 40 in the weeks after their deaths. Not a No.1, though, because fans picked various different songs. If they’d have all picked the same song, they would have had a No.1, definitely. So there’s the template. Make sure people are aware of why we are doing it and make it easy for them to get access to the single. We will also become the anti-X Factor single in many people’s eyes, too.”

If you’ve never heard “Saturn 5” before, it’s somewhat poppier than the aforementioned Inspirals tracks from the Madchester era but it featured all the prime ingredients of the band at its best. There’s the hard-edged organ, the distorted guitars and the almost tribal pounding of Gill’s drums, coupled with Tom Hingley’s ever-assured vocals – the man really had range. Records like this ought to have made the Inspirals a much bigger deal than they were.

“There will be no bottles of champagne if we do it,” the spokesman adds. “It will just be the fans saying, ‘There you go, Craig, that’s for you.’”

What “Saturn 5” lacks in sleigh bells and festive sentiment, it makes up for in power and it’ll sound like a monster at your office Christmas party. “There’s a popular misconception/Says we haven’t seen anything yet”, state the lyrics. Who knows, maybe the next chapter of the Madchester story is about to be written.

Find out why: visit the campaign Facebook page: Saturn 5 for Christmas Number 1 in Honour of Craig Gill.


The generator game: a visit to Drax Power Station

Despite the industrial ravages of the Eighties, the landscape of Doncaster in England’s unfeasibly flat north-east is still one of railway sidings, chimneys and canals. There is, however, a recent exclusion from the horizon. Colliery winding gear, so long a feature of the terrain, has vanished, although from the window of a Hull-bound train you’ll still see the odd slagheap sprawled out like an oversized, fast-asleep Labrador. Coal, which powered the industrial revolution and the engines of the British Empire, is no longer mined in Yorkshire. In 1984, there were 56 pits in the region but the 2015 closure of Hatfield and Kellingley collieries brought to an end an industry that had been active since Roman times.

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I was taping that! A treatise on the cassette

By Alan Gregson

In these days of Spotify and YouTube, it’s difficult to imagine a time when your music stayed at home and the only way to listen to music on the move was on the radio.

The birth of the Compact Cassette, commonly referred to as simply the “cassette” or “tape”, kick-started a revolution in music, and possibly in society as a whole. Now we were no longer forced to simply hum the last track we heard on the radio as we walked to school. Now we could block out the rest of the world and listen to The Clash or New Order on our Walkman, or, if our birthday funds couldn’t stretch to the real thing, a £5 Alba personal stereo from Argos or Woolworths. But we’re running ahead like a stretched tape. Let’s rewind a bit.

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Bills ’n’ thrills and violins: Peter Hook

Clocking in at over 700 pages, former New Order bassist Peter Hook has much to say in his new book Substance, which catalogues, in fan-delighting minutiae, his tumultuous tenure in Britain’s foremost indie four-piece. Intra-group wrangling, love trysts, moodiness, shocking amounts of white powder and hangovers from hell defined the band’s existence. Throw in some jet lag, tax issues and ownership of a loss-making nightclub and you have a story that’s more epic than any film could ever capture (although Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People from 2002 gave it a good try.)

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Down on the farm: an interview with Andy Diagram

By Alan Gregson

Any James fan will tell you that a vital part of the band’s live show is Andy Diagram and his roving trumpet antics. What they might not know is that over the years, Diagram has performed trumpet duties for, among others, Black Francis, Nico, A Certain Ratio, The Pale Fountains and Pere Ubu.

Diagram was one of the first trumpeters to use effects pedals with his instrument and he took the sound to a new level with his own band, Spaceheads, using loopers controlled from his iPhone, along with percussion from his long-time collaborator Richard Harrison, to produce extraordinary soundscapes, usually accompanied by projections from Rucksack Cinema.

We catch up with Diagram on the Warrington farm of his mate Mark Harrison for the 11th annual Mud Hutters Tea Party.

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Tony Garnett: the film-maker with his own epic story to tell

As autobiographies go, Tony Garnett’s The Day The Music Died: A Life Lived Behind The Lens is as gritty, honest and heart-wrenching as the film and television work that he’s known for. In the Sixties and Seventies, his career was entwined with that of director Ken Loach, a producer on such notable dramas as Kes (possibly the finest film ever made), Cathy Come Home and Up The Junction. In the Nineties, Garnett’s BBC projects This Life, about a group of hedonistic law graduates, and The Cops, focusing on a police station in the fictional northern town of Stanton, were both controversial and strong signifiers of their time. Continue reading “Tony Garnett: the film-maker with his own epic story to tell”

Are music festivals the new Butlin’s?

By Alan Gregson

Like most kids growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, before EasyJet made European holidays affordable to most people, we spent our family holidays in the UK, initially at caravan parks, then Pontins in Blackpool and Butlin’s in Pwllheli.

The first holiday I can remember was at a caravan park in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria. My memories are not dissimilar to Fathers Ted and Dougal’s experience of a caravan holiday, although I don’t remember Graham Norton turning up to perform the Riverdance. It did, however, rain so much that the whole caravan shifted overnight. My other memory of that holiday is the Laurel & Hardy films shown every night in the campsite bar, possibly a memorial to Stan Laurel who was born close by in Ulverston.

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