In 2006 there was a lot of fuss made in the press about how it was the 30th anniversary of punk and how we should all praise punk and what a big deal it was.
However, 2006 was also the 30th anniversary of VHS because the first video ever to be released is generally agreed to be The Young Teacher, a South Korean family comedy originally released cinematically in 1972 which was released on video in September 1976.
So where was the fanfare for VHS in 2008? Nowhere!
What people seem to overlook as they remember VHS with a snide and patronising nostalgia is that Video and, in particular, the scandal over Video Nasties is not only far more important than punk but is actually one of the most important things culturally, sociologically and historically to happen to the United Kingdom in it’s entire history. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s definitely more important than punk ever was or ever could be. And I intend to prove this to you now – not so much with “facts”, but with opinions I have formed myself.
There are four ways Video is better and more important than punk
01. VIDEO HAPPEND EVERYWHERE
Punk was initially a small, self contained London-centric thing that eventually spread. Video was available to all of the British Isles.
02. VIDEO IS WORKING CLASS & PUNK IS MIDDLE CLASS
Video is more working class because it was designed for everyone. I have always thought of punk as a fashion statement. In essence it is an Art School fresher’s week prank that got out of control and was taken far, far too seriously. I do like the music of punk, but the whole thing of trying really hard to upset mummy and daddy is a bit too “Ra! Ra! Hockey Sticks” for my liking. I was always more of an Oi! Boy.
People always love to bring up the subject of Betamax when I talk about how good video is because “Everyone knows that Betamax was better than Video”. And I admit it. It was. However, its superiority was also its downfall. I mean, forgetting of course that Hollywood and pornography embraced VHS over Betamax meaning people therefore wanted VCR’s and ignoring the fact that the first recordable Betamax tapes were only an hour long and recordable Video’s were two hours long, thus making it possible to go out and still tape all the film or the football and forgetting that VCR’s rewound faster…Ignoring all of those factors, the Betamax machine was designed, built and marketed as a quality device for people who could afford, and wanted to pay for, quality. The problem is no one did. All everyone wanted to do was to be able to tape stuff off the TV and go out. It is hard for many of us to remember or even imagine a time where if you missed something on the television, you had missed it and that was that. Pubs and restaurants used to empty as people rushed home to be able to watch certain shows. So when this cheap and cheerful, readily available and easily affordable device came along it was an amazingly liberating time for people who could now live a life not ruled by TV schedules. Video was a glorious technological advancement benefiting The People.
03. VIDEO THREATENED THE INDUSTRY
Punk didn’t threaten the industry. It baffled the industry, but once people realised they could make money out of it they quickly embraced punk and started earning fortunes because it was a fashion statement and a bandwagon easily jumped on, manipulated and manufactured. All punk ever did for the industry was stop songs being 9 minutes long, which I am genuinely thankful for, but I don’t think it’s worth the fireworks display the press afford it at any given opportunity.
Video, on the other hand, terrified the industry. Not since Television had Hollywood been so frightened. Hollywood is always terrified that no one will go to the cinema anymore. When TV came out they thought everyone would stay in to watch TV and not go out to watch movies, so they invented Widescreen to make the cinematic experience different to TV. That is an immense paraphrase, but this is why old films are 4:3 and then in the 1950’s films start appearing in 16:9. It was the same with Video. It terrified Hollywood. This thing had appeared that they couldn’t stop and they felt threatened and they felt that they were being forced to have to deal with the inevitability of VHS as a medium. This is why they accepted Video, but kept it at arms length. They embraced Video so they could control it, so they could keep it away from the film’s run in the cinemas. This is why the Video was always released 6, 8, 12 months after the initial cinema release – not specifically because it would generate a second avenue of revenue, but to stop it interfering with Box Office receipts.
04 VIDEO TERRIFIED SOCIETY
This is the main and most important reason why Video is more important than punk. Punk didn’t terrify society, it bewildered grannies and eventually became accepted without much social shift. You don’t see postcards of VCR’s up in London, do you? You don’t hear American Tourists excitedly proclaiming that they saw two Videos on the tube, do you? No, you don’t. That is because Video kept its respect and didn’t, like Punk, become a mockery of itself, which was, in any case, something pretty stupid to begin with. The sociological impact of Video, and in particular the furore surrounding ‘Video Nasties’ was not contrived like almost everything to do with punk and it was, therefore, completely unexpected and induced hysterical panic.
There is a very brilliant British Playwright from the 1960’s called Joe Orton. He is dead now. It is a tragic story, but it was made into a very good film with Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina called Prick Up Your Ears which I wholeheartedly recommend you see. His plays were thought to be quite risqué at the time and whenever he had a play on in the West End he would write to the Newspapers in the guise of an old woman and complain about how outraged “she” was at the filth being showcased in London. There would be a typical knee-jerk outcry. He would then write in to the papers again, this time as a retired Major from the Army praising the play and suggesting this is exactly the sort of thing British Theatre needs. He was, in effect, both sides of a debate about his work he himself created in the national press in order to drum up some business and gain a media profile.
The reason I mention that is because this was also the tactic used by the distributors of the film Cannibal Holocaust when they sent a copy of their film to Mary Whitehouse. Their logic was that Whitehouse would obviously be outraged by this film, she would make a big stink about it in the papers and everyone would then want to see Cannibal Holocaust. KA-CHING!
What they actually did was appal her so much that they kick-started her anti-filth, clean up Britain campaign spearheaded by the Daily Mail newspaper.
Now, the reason Video caused such a fuss and a panic was because it wasn’t regulated. In the UK films have to be cleared by the Censorship Board. It’s not like in the US where you can release an unrated version. If the Board don’t pass it, it doesn’t get released. You could censor and ban film but because Video was not film, it was not classified the same as film and therefore it could not be edited, controlled or banned. The only way Videos could be banned in the UK when they first came out was under The Obscene Publications Act, which meant that the Chief Constable of a District had to go along in person and confiscate Videos en masse. No one knew what was nasty and what wasn’t and there are numerous stories of distributors having Howard Hawks’ Red River being confiscated because the title suggested blood and terror and well as things like the Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas being confiscated for being appalling and tasteless. And it is, but not in the same way that Cannibal Holocaust is…
So much controversy was there about this that the government were forced to pass a law to combat the threat of Video and Video Nasties. An entire law. There were no laws passed to combat Punk, but in May 1984 the Video recordings act was passed (which came into effect in September 1985) and that meant that Video was now bound by the same laws as Film and could be banned and edited and censored accordingly.
Let me just say that again: The British Government passed an entirely new law to combat Video. That still doesn’t quite sound as impressive as it should, does it? But when you stop and think that ever since creativity has been available as a ‘product’ The Church or The State has always had regulatory control over it. I am not talking about live performances, I am talking about something being created and available for public consumption. Whenever it has been made available, it has been done so under the control of Church or State. Whether The Church or The State has reacted favourably, unfavourably or indifferently to this ‘product’ is a moot point. They have had control and power over it.
The only time this didn’t happen was Video. The only time in nearly 1000 years of creative product was the 8 year period of unregulated Video. For that 8 year period no one could tell you what you could or could not watch. There was no censorship, editing or banning of Videos and the whole moral and ethical choice of viewership was down to you and you alone. Nobody could enforce their rules and inflict their opinions on you. Everything to do with Video was entirely up to you. Video took the element of control from the powers that be and gave it straight to the people. It was such an amazingly powerful and liberating freedom of choice, the likes of which was never seen before and will never be seen again.
And that is so much more important than punk – which was, let’s face it, invented by Malcolm MacLaren to sell trousers.