Monday, 25 August 2014

Goodbye, VHS

Yesterday, in a fit of tidying-up, I disconnected my VHS video tape player/recorder, and it's now ready for junking.

It was a 2004 model, by Sony, originally bought by Mum and Dad to work with a previous Sony TV. When they upgraded to a Samsung TV in late 2008, it was wired up to that instead, although by then it couldn't have been getting much use. Dad wasn't watching any taped recordings - he liked to set up things to see later using the facilities provided by Sky. So it had suffered from idleness, if not frank redundancy. It had moving internal parts - motors, tape heads, and so on - which might seize up if never set in motion. When I inherited their house in mid-2009, I did use it very occasionally to view my own ancient collection of VHS tapes. But I didn't do much of this, and its decrepitude must have become even more advanced.

One day, about two years ago, I discovered that it wouldn't play tapes back at all, even though the whirring noises sounded right, and its display showed that the tape was moving. The tapes themselves seemed in decent condition. The obvious wire and cable connections seemed fine. I put a fresh battery in the remote control, just in case. I conjectured that it might have been suffering from some kind of mechanical or electrical failure - the thing was already eight years old - or it might have simply needed reprogramming. I pored over the instruction booklet, but was none the wiser. I did this until I got tired of trying.

I felt that the VHS player/recorder must have been fixable. But I have no gift with machines, no magic touch, no talent for seeing what's wrong and how to put it right.

Not having a video player/recorder didn't matter. I had a DVD player if ever I wanted to watch a film. By 2011 I had in fact replaced the VHS version of my favourite films with a DVD version. As for missed TV programmes, the BBC iPlayer was a perfect solution.

A while back, to create shelf space, I threw out all my old VHS tapes, once a vast collection of over 130 tape cassettes, that required a card index to use. So now there was nothing left to play. But I never actually got round to discarding the machine itself.

Now I had.

It felt like the end of a long, long era. I was slow to use VHS, not buying my first player/recorder until 1984 or 1985. It was a mature and pretty reliable technology by then. It seemed at first miraculous, to be able to watch bought or rented films in one's own home, and to record stuff yourself off the TV.

The magic lasted a long time. The quality seemed quite good enough, until the first DVDs showed what could really be achieved. But by then VHS had become a cheap and cheerful home entertainment solution, and remained so for years and years after DVD players became the norm. The downside of VHS was bulk - a VHS tape cassette was as big as a large paperback, and storing a collection of them soon became a nightmare. No wonder people finally switched to DVDs, and then later to subscription services that avoided all physical storage.

Two things strike me.

First, the amount of money that was, up to the year 2000 anyway, squandered on very expensive bought films, very expensive blank cassettes, and very expensive special furniture to keep the big VHS tapes organised and handy - and yet useless for any other purpose.

And second, the amount of time and effort spent recording and cataloguing at home. To save tape space, one set the recording in motion, and stopped it at the end, personally. This was especially true of non-BBC recordings, to eliminate the TV ads. Recording at home was labour-intensive indeed! And it wasn't as if anything in one's VHS collection was ever particularly rare or important. A lot of it is now available, at the best possible quality, on DVD, or in TV or Internet archives. I recorded lots of Inspector Morse when it came out in the later 1980s. And the entire 1988 re-run of that 1975 TV Cornish classic Poldark. I need not have bothered. The DVDs are readily available in HMV, or from Amazon.

But those 1980s and 1990s VHS recordings did contain nuggets of gold. I mean some of the TV ads. While I could, I played a good many old recordings in order to see whether I'd captured some really classic advertising campaigns. For example, the John Smiths 'penguin' beer ads starring the young Jack Dee. (See for example Or the Guinness ad showing a surfing man waiting for the right moment, before he has the ride of his life on a wave that turns into a lot of huge white horses. (See But no such luck.


  1. Too much time is spent looking at screens these days and too much money is spent on them. None of these things are absolutely necessary in our lives. I endeavour to use them as little as possible and may just leave them all switched off in futiure.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I still have two VHS video recorders! They are integrated into televisions and still work perfectly! Rarely use them, but we have a couple of films that aren't on DVD that are worth keeping them for :o) x


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