Monday 24 June 2019

Video killed the censorship tsar: the VCR recalled

When DVDs arrived in Ireland 20 years ago, they meant the end of the transformative era of the video cassette. Damian Corless recalls the magic of the VCR and the dawn of the video nasty

Please rewind: the arrival of Xtra-vision and Blockbuster made staying in the new going out
Please rewind: the arrival of Xtra-vision and Blockbuster made staying in the new going out

Twenty years ago, on June 1, 1998, the DVD format launched in Ireland, sounding the death knell for the video cassette.

Shortly after, as he cleared his shelves of the last VCR machines, one big retailer observed: "We're saying goodbye to one of the most important products in the history of consumer technology."

He was not exaggerating. The DVD provided a better picture quality, and wasn't prone to spaghetti tape snarl-ups, but it was merely an evolution. The VCR which it extinguished had been a revolution, and its impact on Ireland had been more revolutionary than just about anywhere else.

The video cassette was revolutionary in that it transformed viewing habits unchanged since the birth of TV. Prior to its arrival, all viewing was strictly in real time. If you wanted to watch the football, or catch that soap cliffhanger, you had to be perched in front of your TV as it happened. Miss it, and it was gone forever from a world where broadcasters and viewers alike believed that screening repeats was short-changing the public. Offering the ability to record in your absence and watch at your leisure, the VCR was a magical game-changer.

In ways, the VCR was a foretaste of the internet to come. Suddenly, the consumer had a sprawling choice of content beyond that provided by the information gatekeepers. For great swathes of Ireland, that sole content gatekeeper was Teilifís Éireann, which had only added a second channel in 1978.

It could be argued that the VCR had a greater transformative effect on Ireland than the internet because it paved the way for unregulated media like satellite TV and the web. Video brought the walls crashing down on this insulated, cosseted society in one great rush. Thanks to the snail's pace roll-out of broadband, it took the internet 15 years to penetrate much of the country, something that's still unfinished business. VCR achieved 100pc penetration in the twinkling of an eye. From Malin to Mizen, the land was dotted with video stores before you could say "didn't that used to be a drapery?"

In common with the internet, this lightning take-up had much to do with pornography, which bypassed barriers built to meet the threat outlined by the Council of Irish Bishops in 1927. They warned: "The Evil One is ever setting his snares for unwary feet. At this moment his traps are chiefly the dance hall, the bad book, the indecent paper, the motion picture, the immodest fashion in female dress - all of which tend to destroy the virtuous characteristics of our race."

The Free State quickly appointed its first film censor, James Montgomery, who worked tirelessly to turn back the tide of foreign filth. Montgomery proudly boasted: "I know nothing about films but I do know the Ten Commandments."

And so it remained into modern times, with the Nanny State taking a firm hand in protecting the Irish people from themselves. While Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft were being nominated for Oscars for The Graduate in 1968, Irish cinema audiences were watching a version in which the seduction scene between the two - the pivotal point on which the whole movie hinges - was ripped out to protect public morals. The 1980s began with the outright banning of Monty Python's Life of Brian, routinely voted the greatest screen comedy of all time.

Into this Ireland came the VCR and a culture shock the likes of which the country had never seen. The big family friendly chains like Xtra-vision and Blockbuster made staying in the new going out for kids' birthdays and cheap dates, but that was the Disney version of a grittier reality.

For every Xtra-vision there were 10 poky rental stores, or newsagents with screened-off racks, supplying explicit material that skyrocketed national levels of exposure to sex and violence from zero to one zillion with no soft middle ground. There had long been a tradition in some urban enclaves of male-only Sunday morning pub 'stags', featuring scantily clad women gyrating to burlesque ditties.

The VCR changed all that, as a much harder version of the Sunday morning stag mushroomed nationwide. Out went 'Hey Big Spender' and in came XXX hardcore, drawing a lot more punters for the small cost to the publican of a five-quid tape rental.

Ireland's politicians seemed paralysed in the headlights of this juggernaut rolling across the land, partly because censorship had always taken care of itself, and partly because something was going on with their voters that they didn't understand and had to treat with kid gloves.

In the end, it took a storm of moral outrage blowing from Britain to get them moving against the scourge of the 'video nasty' as embodied in the schlock horror of exhibit A, The Driller Killer. The records of 120 Oireachtas debates on video nasties shows understanding was at a premium. Two members demanded measures "to ensure that video nasties are never made in Ireland", seemingly unaware that virtually all came from the US or Italy.

'So-called snuff movies'

Government TDs called on anyone who knew of anyone supplying video nasties to inform the local gardaí, which would have been the final nail in an already crippled economy. One senator alleged, without a shred of evidence, that the appetite for video nasties was fuelling a market for "the so-called snuff movies".

A government committee on crime, lawlessness and vandalism blamed video nasties in part for all three. A Today Tonight special ratcheted up the hysteria. Imported statistics suggested that children aged six were being turned into future killers. Irish troops returning from the Lebanon were fingered as major importers of pirate tapes. Public figures were pressed to comment, with the writer John B Keane declaring: "I don't think the pornographic video is suitable for teenagers."

Precisely when the video nasty storm blew itself out, nobody clearly remembers. Before we knew it, technology had already landed the next threat to civilisation on our laps - the ultra violent console game.

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