The VHS Mountain

Back when I was doing my A-levels in 1991, I filmed a short documentary about film censorship. As the opening shot, I stacked up a selection of my VHS collection and made a wall out of them, so that I could crash through the wall, sending them tumbling, and deliver the line “In the UK, movies are big business” straight to camera. This anecdote will probably lead you to conclude a few things about me.

1) I have a flair for the over-dramatic which is probably better suited to fiction than documentary
2) I am no longer able to describe myself as being in my early 30s.
3) I had a VHS collection big enough to build a wall out of in 1991.

Buying movies was my thing, from the mid 80s onwards. It’s easy to forget nowadays, but the retail market for films was non-existant back then; the tapes stayed on the shelves of rental shops until they snapped or got stolen. Very, very occasionally somewhere would sell off some tapes; in 1986, when I was twelve, my parents bought me an ex-rental copy of Gremlins for £56 because I had been renting it nearly every week since the film’s release the previous November and it was bound to work out cheaper in the long run. The other early additions to the collection were also ex-rentals, which included Ghostbusters, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment and Spies Like Us.

Then, something strange happened. My family were on holiday one summer (presumably 1987) and a batch of feature films were for sale in the local WH Smiths. All Warner Brothers titles, and all brand new. All priced at £14.99. The video market in the UK had launched the idea of ‘sell-through’ pricing, where the units were priced for consumers to purchase rather than for rental shops. The market had caught up with me, and my insatiable desire to own movies, and suddenly the idea of building a collection became an actual possibility.

To say that I spent all of my money on videos would be an exaggeration. I also bought cheeseburgers, whenever I went into town at the weekends. To buy videos. Once the water had been tested and the public got the taste for buying rather than renting their movies, suddenly you could buy them everywhere.

And I did.

By 1991 I could, as previously mentioned, build a decent wall out of my collection. That was just the beginning. By this point, video stores selling off ex-rentals was the norm rather than an oddity, so I was not only assembling a collection of sell-through (“small box”) titles, but a collection of ex-rental (“big box”) and the collection just grew and grew. In 1992 I headed off to University, which meant that the collection had to be broken in two. A select couple of hundred titles accompanied me to Exeter, the remaining thousand or so stayed put at my parents’ house. Like mythological beast or a simple earthworm, both sections of the collection continued to grow post-split, meaning that both my shared house in Exeter and my family home in Essex were groaning under the weight of eclectic videotapes by the time I graduated in 1995 and reunited the collection.

DVD killed it, of course. The arrival of the new format, so perfectly pitched at film fans like myself who had long dreamed of seeing deleted scenes, hear directors talk about their work or simply watch a movie in a format that didn’t crop a third of the picture off, meant that my collection went from prized possession to retro throwback more or less overnight. Ebay was the other nail in the coffin, of course; it takes all of the damn fun out of collecting. My decade plus of rummaging around in second hand shops and car boot sales for titles was rendered meaningless by the takeoff of Ebay; there’s nothing impressive about owning an obscure original pre-certification release of The Evil Dead when any bugger with a thick enough wallet and a little bit of patience could pick one up from Ebay any day of the week.

That’s one of the reasons that my DVD collection has never grown to the size and diversity of my VHS one, too.. Collecting stuff just seems a bit pointless in the on-demand age.

My Blu-Ray collection numbers less than a dozen discs.

With apologies to Stand By Me, I never had a film collection later on like the one I had when I was twelve.

Jesus, does anyone?