Be kind, rewind: life in an Eighties video store

The Hitcher on VHS

Hauer's about that: The Hitcher was popular with Bury's video store customers and staff alike

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.


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