VHS tapes

I would like to get hold of that Scotch skeleton and wring his neck-bone (by Scotch, I mean the now-defunct makers of videotape who used a skeleton in their ads to imply – to promise, I would say – that videotape would last forever, or at least a life-time, whichever was longer, not obvious at a time when Reagan was President).

The culprit, no longer with us ...

Videotape was regarded with some horror by the TV industry when it took off. There was even a proposal, which reached an early stage of the parliamentary process, to make it illegal to watch something taped off-air after three months. Austin Mitchell, the agreeably maverick Labour MP for Grimsby, and a former TV presenter, stood up and said that this was ridiculous, couldn’t be policed, and besides, he had some unwatched telly stashed on some VHS tape, and he had no intention of watching it just yet. That crushed the idea.

I am fairly sure that some of the stuff I’ve taped and put away for a rainy day has now endured several monsoon seasons, but the labels on the front of the serried ranks of boxes have faded, sometimes almost completely, so I no longer always know what’s in there. Some of it is material I would and could happily watch repeatedly (Otis Redding singing live with Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe; a late-night interview in which Christopher Hitchens wastes the Kennedy mythology – “Like everyone else, I can remember exactly where I was the day John F. Kennedy tried to kill me”; Peter Cook improvising on a Clive James chat-show, and recounting the tale of a Majorcan holiday in which he paid for all the next day’s sun-loungers one night so that he could watch the discomfited German and Nordic sun-bathers when they rushed the beach before breakfast).

Still, the time has come to transfer it, whatever it is, to DVD. It’s the archivist in me (isn’t ‘archivist’ a good definition of ‘hoarder’?). And the space-saver: because, when you look at a video-tape now, what is immediately striking is just how much space it takes up – and also what a strange, awkward and even ugly object it is. It looks as if it has been designed for an early episode of Star Trek (the pilot of which, whose only survivor was Spock – originally without the pointy ears – showed new-fangled things like mobile phones and fax machines).

The problem with transfer is that it has to take place in real time. There are of course companies who advertise this process, and they must be among the very few who are still laughing all the way to the bank, because all they are doing is copying. The overheads must be practically nil. And the trouble with real time is that you have to keep an eye on the process, and in doing so, you inevitably wind up watching the thing you are saving up to watch, thereby making the process of switching its format just a little redundant.

Nobody really remembers, well, nobody my age, that is, what VHS stands for. I think this is because of the similarity of the initials to VHF – so a VHS tape looks like Very High er Something. Logic tells you that the V is for Video after some mental struggle, which leaves you with HS. The answer is Home System. Surprisingly, DVD – one intuitively surmises that the V must be Video – has meant two things: Digital Video Disc, and Digital Versatile Disc (because it can record sound only). In fact, the spokespeople for the industry now say that it doesn’t mean anything. It just means DVD.

History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. So said Marx (Karl, although it sounds like Groucho) of the Bonapartes. Looking at the stash of weary VHS tapes and the spanking blank DVDs, I think the same could be said of translating video formats.


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