Video Nasties (or the Rape of the Video Age) Part 1

Baird 8940
The Baird 8940, my first love…

Looking back its hard to believe, and some of my younger colleagues sometimes look at me with wide eyes when I recount some of the tales from the collectors of the time; and what happened to them. I feel like a character form Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome recounting the Old Times, the times Way Way Before and I smile at this; but this smile is tinged with genuine regret and the memory of real fear.

Video started to appear on our shores in the first years of the 1980’s, perhaps even before in larger cities, at a time when I was nearing my teens. Video was an exotic item for most back then and few households had the means to play them. It caught on quickly, and before you knew it groups of friends would gravitate from house to house in an attempt to play something forbidden.

Immediately I fell in love.

I really can’t put it any other way.

The allure of these rectangles of plastic threw me into many after school jobs, the money earned passed onto my Grandmother for safekeeping. For months this was my mission, my Grandmother counting the money I’d amassed until it reached a point where I could afford a second hand, reconditioned video recorder. These were clunky machines, practically steam powered, some with lever like buttons that took some force to press. I did not buy one immediately, no, but I took my time to find the very model I required. The reason was that I was searching for something that my friends and family thought foolish and unnecessary.

I was looking for a machine that could play Stereo tapes.

Anyone who lived through though times would almost certainly remember the make of video recorder I ended up buying, though probably not the model itself. It was a rebadged JVC, sometimes referred to as a Ferguson Videostar 3v30 (or 31, I’m unsure) but in my case it was a Baird 8940. The Videostar range were easily the most popular brand of video recorder of the early 80’s, and they were all rebadged machines from other manufacturers (all JVC I believe, though I may be wrong).

The Baird was a wonderful machine, built like a breezeblock and impervious to any kind of harm. It was the superhero of video recorders, it was Alien, Godzilla and Jason all rolled into one… It was a machine to contend with.

Coupled with a Pioneer stereo amp, and later a Teknica Surround breakout box, the sound the unit produced was impressive and people would come from miles around to sit and listen to movies with genuine wonder. The first video release of Blade Runner, purchased sometime in 1983, became my show piece and I could sit and listen to it four endless hours marveling at the spinners whooshing around my room.

The early 80’s were like this for movie fans; it was a moment of wish fulfillment that has never truly been surpassed. In the UK we went from three channels that never catered for us to having what felt like a world of entertainment at our fingertips.

Of course, for many of us this was not to last.

In July 1983, the Daily Mail launched a campaign with the front-page headline “Ban Video Sadism Now” and set into motion what can only be described as a Witch Hunt that strafed the film going community, sending people to jail for owning films that, thirty years later, you could buy over the counter in any high street store.

The panic that ensued was similar in many ways to the modern paranoia about child abuse, but it was much, much worse. We were already into what became known as the Satanic Panic paranoia and the Video Nasty fears seemed to slip in neatly beside this already growing groupthink.

Very quickly those of us who purchased and watched horror films slipped from victims of unscrupulous distributors of filth to perpetrators. One minute I was a 13 year old child who they wanted to protect from this imagined abuse and the next I was a purveyor of the abuse. In their eyes I was complicit in a sickness, I was somehow taken over by it and ceased being a child, or even a person anymore.

Rationality had broken free from these people. Imagine this happening now in the child abuse scandals that populate the press. Imagine the children themselves becoming a part of the problem, somehow becoming the purveyors of their own abuse.

This is what happened in the popular press.

Those of us who watched these films, this “filth”, knew there were merely films (though sometimes, admittedly, filthy ones; but always just films), but to those who wrote these inflammatory articles the films were conscious entities that infected and overtook the people who viewed them.

The discarding of rational thought in the common media struck true horror into many of us, but when this started to infect the general population we started to see this horror realized.

This is the irony; those who were suggesting this mass infection of the youth through film were in fact themselves infecting the general population with their own ideologies.

The BBFC, a private organization formed way back in 1912, became the arbiters of all this video violence and along with their accomplices the Department of Public Prosecutions, they started taking a one sided war to the streets of our country.

To truly appreciate the absurdity of this situation we have to take a harder look at the British Board of Film Censors, and also a look at the Cinematograph Act of 1909 that gave them their powers.

It is absurd to think that something decided nearly a hundred years before would start putting people I knew in prison, especially when that 1909 decision is shown to be an amendment to little more than a health and safety ruling.