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The tale of the tape... how the home video recorder opened my eyes to reel life

As the last VHS player leaves the factory, Paul Hopkins takes an affectionate look at the everyday inventions that time forgot

Published 29/07/2016

A stack of video tapes
A stack of video tapes
Classics like Easy Rider were brought into living rooms through VHS
Classics like Once Upon A Time In America were brought into living rooms through VHS
Relatively simplistic items like typewriters were prevalent before the advent of the digital age

On a recent trip to Manhattan I found myself down on the Lower East Side, strolling along Mulberry Street, when I chanced upon an art show run from an abandoned video rental store that was bringing back that big, black brick of culture, the VHS tape, and giving it a modern twist. Inside New Release a slew of contemporary artists - among them New Jersey-born of Irish descent Leo Fitzpatrick, also an accomplished actor - created their own art videos, transferred them to VHS and screened them in a room recreated to look like that local video store many of us spent most of our weekend nights in over the last three decades browsing for a good movie to accompany the takeaway and bottle of cheap Chenin blanc.

New Release is a social watering-hole of sorts, bringing people into a community of recommendations and new releases before the age of streaming movies from the solitude of our bedrooms and before Netflix could ascertain our tastes and supply a few, rather bleak, movie options.

Remember perusing aisles of VHS covers, or trying to steal a peek inside the adult-only section? Or the phrase "be kind, rewind", so the tape wouldn't snag in the player, as it occasionally did? These memories have long been filed under deep nostalgia, the debut of DVD saw to that, but are now definitely a done-and-dusted thing with the news this week that no longer will we be able to debate the video quality of VHS­­ versus Beta, for the end of the VCR is well and truly upon us.

Japan's Funai Electric, which claims to be the world's last VCR manufacturer, said at the weekend it would cease production of the video cassette recorder at the end of this month.

Anoraks apart, I am most likely in the minority, but I still own a VCR along with dozens of VHS tapes, both commercial and home-made.

Though it is ages since I last dropped the black brick into the uploader, these tapes touch a sentimental nerve.

There's a handful or two of those movies which entertained me on wet Saturday afternoons back in the late-1980s as I lay sprawled across the couch in front of the TV screen and marvelled at the wonder of Hollywood blockbusters delivered into the comfort of my living room.

Among them the marvellous Once Upon A Time In America, the 1984 Italian-American epic crime directed by spaghetti western filmmaker Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods - that actor with the intense eyes and suspicious grin - and which I discovered only recently is based on a penny dreadful (Harry Grey's The Hoods) I surreptitiously bought in Woolworths when just 13 and which contains a touching sex scene that still fuels my fantasies to this day.

There also gathering dust is The Godfather trilogy, Klute (Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland), Defence Of The Realm (Gabriel Byrne), Lamb (Liam Neeson) and the one that formed the backdrop of my earlier hippie years, Easy Rider (Peter Fonda and the great Jack Nicholson).

Lots more, too, that fired my imagination, but also, and more importantly, is that collection of home-made videos - my first and only hand-held recorder broke my bank balance - which captured forever the formative years of my three children and early married life, christenings and communions and assorted family gatherings drawn magically to that magnetic tape.

VCRs and the video tape changed how we watched TV and films and were a catalyst to the future world of home entertainment.

Beta was long ago confined to the bin, the VHS overtaken by the DVD and that, too, now has all but given way to online screening and "scraping" sites, as evidenced by the closure of the giant retailer Xtravision, its Belfast store now the sole remaining outlet on this island.

So, farewell then the VCR player. It joins a host of other gadgets (if that's the word) which down the years entertained us, or made our working or leisure life much more convenient and manageable, each opening, as they did, another door into a brave new world that today can be held in the palm of your hand or tucked away in a pair of goggles pinched on your nose.

The LP; the EP; the single; the eight-track tape; the cassette music tape; the CDR; the mini-disk; the DAT tape; the Polaroid camera; the Filofax; the Psion organiser; the Sony Walkman, the iPod and a myriad others have eyed our advance and marked memorable moments in time in the evolving world of technology that today sees the originally intended finished product or outcome online, in a cloud, or tucked away in a credit card-size piece of hard plastic - and all called into action in an instant, if not sooner.

Take the typewriter, for instance. When I was a young - struggling and desperate - correspondent covering the Rhodesia war in the late-1970s I banged out my daily dispatches to Dublin, Glasgow and elsewhere using my proudly possessed portable Remington typewriter. It was black and amber in colour and, though sturdy and generally reliable, the odd key - ironically, the letter Z (for Zimbabwe), I recall - oft-times stuck. When I had finished my report I would take the wad of typed paper to the general post office in Salisbury (now Harare) and, using my international telex card (defunct), would send the story on to the GPO in Dublin, say, who would then pass it on to Des Kavanagh in the wire room of the Irish Press and, eventually, it would land on foreign editor Julian de Kassel's desk.

The whole episode, wait for it, could take up to 12 hours, effectively reducing my chances of competing for breaking hard news with the international agencies like Associated Press, United Press International (long since gone) and Reuters.

How outdated and antiquated the whole process was back then. Nowadays, with email and instant messaging, Twitter and its ilk, any one of us can send a story to any far-flung corner of the globe, and all in an instant.

The instant camera? As recently as 2012 Eastman Kodak stunned the world by announcing it was putting paid to its camera business and accompanying negative film. By June that year the company had phased out its digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames.

No more the week's waiting to pick up your snaps from the chemist and hope you hadn't, again, cut the top off your favourite aunt's head in that Christmas family photo. Kodak's inkjet printers are just about all of its once-inventive technology that remains on store shelves.

When you consider the achievements and advances of just the past 20 years in gadgets and gizmos, you can only begin to imagine what a mere other decade will bring.

Down the years I spent a fortune on these now-redundant goods, not surprising for a guy who still has his train set up in the attic. But I perhaps pine most for those wet Saturday afternoons watching Bobby De Niro and Jimmy Woods come alive from the confines of my couch, trusting I could get the video tape back to the rental shop before incurring an "overdue" fine, or having the darn black brick snag and coil up, rendering it useless for the next customer anxiously awaiting the return of that must-have, must-see Hollywood blockbuster.

And, as for my home-made tapes of those wonder years, well, they are proof if proof were needed that those moments in my memory once played out in real - as opposed to reel - time in front of my very eyes without the aid of any gadget, black brick or otherwise.

Belfast Telegraph

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