by Fiona Underhill
What my local video store meant to me, growing up:
My relationship with my local video store (or shop as we call it in the UK) was absolutely formative for me. It completely shaped who I was as a teenager and who I am today. I was lucky enough to live in a small village that had a video shop, which was part of the off-licence (a liquor store!) and for one or two pounds, I could rent a video for 24 hours. I remember spending much of my summer holidays in the video shop, where they got to know me. When they finished displaying their movie posters in the window, they would let me have them for free. The lady who worked there used to let me have about 200 penny sweets for 50p (and reader, I went on to marry the son of the lady who had provided me with movies and candy – which tells you everything you need to know about me!).
One of the many ways in which I was an unusual teenager was that I was very into period films and TV shows. I turned 13 in 1993, to give you a gauge of my age while watching these films. Particular favourites were Howards End (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993), Little Women (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Jude (1996) and The Wings of the Dove (1997). My friend (the appropriately-named) Helena and I couldn’t get enough of the costumes, the romance and Helena Bonham-Carter’s face.
The recently-retired Robert Redford connects three of the most fundamental video rentals for me. I rented them multiple times and I clearly remember getting the video shop poster for each of them; Sneakers (1992), A River Runs Through It (1993) and Quiz Show (1994). Redford was the star of the first, directed the latter two and I dearly love all three. A River Runs Through It is vastly superior to Legends of the Fall, another Brad Pitt period film from the same era, but doesn’t seem to be as popular. Sneakers is a really fun heist film with a phenomenal cast which time-capsules the technology of the day, as followers of the writer Priscilla Page can attest. Quiz Show is an extremely well-acted unbelievable true story set in the late 1950s.
It is only really now that I am realizing that my taste in films was probably quite unusual for a young teenager. The video shop was certainly key to giving me access to these movies, along with Empire magazine which I started subscribing to when I was 15, which also helped make me aware of a wide range of films. Browsing endless options on various streaming services just does not give me the same sense of excitement and anticipation as going to the video shop when the new titles had come in. I will always look back on it fondly and appreciate the love the film it has given me today.
Video at Home:
I was 12 when we first got a video recorder, I believe our first one may have been rented from ‘Radio Rentals’, which was a popular option at the time. If anything went wrong with it, an engineer would come with a bag of tools to fix it! Before that you could only watch a film if and when it popped up on one of the four TV channels.
We only owned a few select films on VHS when I was growing up as a teenager and as a result of this, they became much re-watched and beloved. One of these was Top Gun and let me tell you, that volleyball scene was paused and rewound many, many times by my sister and I. Another was Thelma & Louise – my parents were pretty strict about us not seeing 15 or 18 rated films until we were that age, but they didn’t seem to think about the videos they left at home. So, again, I saw Thelma & Louise at a young, impressionable age, when topless Brad Pitt probably made more of an impact than the feminist themes. Another slightly more niche video we had was Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, about a policeman who goes to live in an Amish community to protect a young boy who has witnessed a murder. It has an amazing score by Maurice Jarre and is a grown-up, romantic film that is worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it.
As VHS technology evolved, the tools to be able to set timers for multiple films became more sophisticated. A big change came with ‘video plus’, which involved scanning the TV Guide for codes which you could program into your video recorder. The success rate of this was extremely variable, to quote my friend, the focus-puller Mani Blaxter-Paliwala; “setting the video recorder overnight was like leaving lobster pots out. You’d have to wait till the morning to see if you’d caught anything.”
So, like many people growing up in the 80s and 90s, video was a fundamental component in the formation of who I am today. It certainly contributed to my eclectic and idiosyncratic taste in movies and means that I hold a lot of affection and nostalgia for certain, bizarre films. There was definitely something about being able to hold that chunky object with its cover poster and blurb on the back, a tangible product, that gave a feeling that cannot be replicated by browsing streaming sites. Going to a friend’s house to watch a video was an exciting event – they might have things that you weren’t allowed to watch. I miss the days of VHS to be quite honest with you.