Wednesday 16 January 2019

The Cult of Digging Through Old Video Tapes

I've been searching through piles of old video tapes and uploading them to YouTube for about three years now. The objective of scouring this redundant technology is very simple: I want to find old footage of British TV which is long forgotten. For the majority of the population, however, this quest barely raises the pulse rate. It's the epitome of a niche interest, but I'm not alone in this curious pursuit of the past. In fact, YouTube is packed full of people dusting down miles of magnetic tape and sharing the contents with the world.

I currently use this Panasonic SVHS player coupled with
a DVD recorder to capture footage from old tapes

Who are these people, though, and what are the methods behind their madness? I'm clearly one of them, so that puts me in a fantastic position to begin orating to the world about the beauty of a 1982 TDK video tape. However, it would be ridiculous to suggest that my singular and idiosyncratic viewpoint is indicative of this hobby/pastime/dangerous obsession. So, I decided it would be a good idea to rope in a couple of fellow tape diggers to see what makes them tick and the various ups and downs they've experienced.

Tapey goodness

First up was Greg Molloy who runs the KillianM2 channel on YouTube which collects together a mixture of Irish television alongside plenty of British television. And, due to Irish channel RTE taking down a significant amount of his content last year, Greg briefly brought a glimmer of publicity to the world of ancient video tapes. Next on my list of tapeographers to chat to was Neil Miles, a man whose self-titled YouTube channel frequently turns up slices of television I've been waiting a good 30 years to rewatch. Where, though, did we all start?

Personally, I came to this oddity of a hobby thanks to a book I was writing on forgotten children's TV. Struggling to track down copies of these programmes was severely testing my enthusiasm and I was hours away from throwing a nasty hissy fit. And then, with all the brilliance and ecstasy of a last minute goal in the cup final, one of my Twitter followers suddenly remarked that they had several of these programmes nestled on some aging tapes. Borrowing these tapes, I not only managed to get my book written, but I was also able to bathe in a nostalgic glow of long lost memories. And it got me thinking, wouldn't it be fantastic to start sharing these unbeatable shots of nostalgia?

Greg's mammoth storage space

After all, whilst the majority of these shows are safely preserved with the original broadcasters, the relatively low interest in them means that the chances of repeats or commercial releases are virtually zero. Small pockets of the population do, however, want to rewatch them. So, through a series of methods I'll talk about in a bit, I started to pick up more and more tapes. Greg and Neil followed slightly different paths, but we all share a common goal of wanting to get this old footage out there:

I originally just wanted to digitise a few of my own football tapes around 2006 to share with friends and on fan message boards/Facebook. Once I had the YouTube channel up and running, I just decided to start uploading other stuff from my own tapes. And it was clear people were enjoying the content. In the early days of YouTube I was a bit naive in relation to what I could get away with from the copyright end of things. I was picking up a few 'copyright strikes' but soon got to grips with what I could and couldn't post without putting the channel in danger of being taken down.

I’d always been interested in TV presentation and adverts from a very young age. When I first started using the internet I found sites such as MHP & TVArk that had pictures and clips of idents and shows from other regions that I would never have been able to see when I was younger. Later on, YouTube came along and you started to see lots of old clips uploaded there, so I very much appreciated other people’s efforts in sourcing and capturing them. It was a natural progression from there to sourcing my own clips.

Getting hold of these tapes isn't necessarily easy and therein lies the pursuit aspect. Growing up, I was far from an ardent recorder and about 99% of my family's tapes went down the tip in the mid-00s. It wasn't the end of the world, though, as I'd have been rather limited sticking to mine and my family's tapes which consisted of railway documentaries, WCW wrestling and Doctor Who. Anyway, it turns out that, thanks to the twisting, turning uncertainty of other people's tapes, going after their collections is a lot more exciting and varied.

Ebay is most people's first port of call and I've dug into my coffers several times to exchange hard-earned cash for a box of tapes shrouded in uncertainty. And one of the main obstacles of archive tape digging is the 'pot luck' element. You never know exactly what will be on the tapes. And half the time the people selling them can't remember either. That's why one of my first purchases from Ebay - 50 tapes for £30 - felt like a waste of time and money. Out of 450 or so hours of footage, I found a paltry 40 minutes of vaguely interesting content. And 30 minutes of that was taken up by one programme.

A typical scene at Neil's house

Sites such as Gumtree and Preloved, though, often have much cheaper offerings and even free pickups in many cases. These have, for me, proved much more fruitful. One purchase of around 60 tapes for £10 yielded footage going back to 1983 and a few hour's worth of decent content. That's the kind of find that really grabs my attention. The further back you go, the stranger and more distant the archaic presentations become and the more chance there is of finding something thought lost to the mists of time.

You're still likely to run into disastrous collections though. One box of tapes I got via Gumtree looked highly impressive with around 120 tapes from the early to mid 80s lurking inside. Searching through them revealed, rather unfortunately, that they were full of late 80s archaeology documentaries and early 90s holiday programmes. With bad picture quality throughout. To say that sifting through these was a dreary grind would be a massive understatement. Thankfully they cost me nothing more than a few pounds in petrol.

Luckily, running this blog and my Twitter account gives me access to a large community of like-minded people who understand the importance of preserving television. This shared devotion means that I've been the recipient of several amazing donations. Donations that have quite literally made my jaw drop. These dusty boxes of even dustier tapes have yielded recordings going all the way back to 1980 and include not just programmes, but also idents, in-vision continuity and regional news. As you'd expect, Greg and Neil operate in a similar manner:

Like most collectors I'm always on the lookout for tapes on all the 'selling sites' online. I always used to keep an eye on charity shops and car boot sales, but they've become more difficult places to find tapes - charity shops often refuse to take video tapes nowadays. Because of Twitter and the YouTube channel itself, I have recently started to get offers of tapes from followers. This is great, and some of those followers act as eyes and ears for me and alert me to tapes available in various places.

Most of my finds come from eBay. I've also had some success putting requests of Freegle - a freecycling service - and sometimes I've been lucky enough to turn up collections just by chatting with people about old tapes.

As I said earlier, it's a very niche hobby and not for everyone. Family and friends aren't exactly blown away by it and it's true that it doesn't hold a candle to nude abseiling with an equally nude Roy Hattersley hitching a piggyback. And, occasionally when I go to pick up tapes from random punts on Ebay, I get the impression that people think I'm some VHS throwback who rejects modern technology and defiantly continues to record TV onto video. It's a trifling indignation, though, and most people are generally interested in what I'm up to, an experience shared by Greg and Neil:

Often, when I collect tapes from people who just want rid of them to declutter their house, they look at me as if I have two heads and can't understand why I would possibly want them. Other times, though, I get people who offer me tapes that are aware of the YouTube channel and are totally fascinated by what I do. So, a mixture of reactions, but mostly positive by people who understand the cultural importance of what can be found on old tapes.

It's certainly true that some people think it's a bit weird. But often I've found that people get a bit of a nostalgic glow. This mostly happens when they start remembering some of their favourite things from childhood and I've already uploaded them to YouTube.

What exactly do we find on these tapes? Well, yes, we do find porn. It's a mixture of adult cinematography from the 1980s and 90s, so the changing attitudes to body hair make for interesting viewing, but we're not really here for that sort of titillation. Instead we concentrate on British (and Irish) TV.

The obligatory porn tape

The whole breadth of television presentation is covered, so it's impossible to list each and every aspect of this. Some of my favourite finds have been pre-Premier League football coverage, continuity links from children's TV, this particularly low-rent presentation of the weather by Anglia and a marvellous drama featuring Pat Phoenix's final performance. These are highly subjective choices, of course, so what gets Greg and Neil perspiring when they search through their tapes?

Because I'm an Irish youtube channel, It's rare and lost Irish TV that interests me most. RTE had a ruthless wiping policy right up to the mid nineties, so there's no shortage of lost TV to search for. So, when anything from the early 80s turns up it's almost certainly 'lost or wiped'. It's major world and sporting events covered by RTE I most enjoy finding, I've managed to track down analyses of World Cups that no longer exists in the RTE archives.

I've also managed to find other long lost music performances from shows like Anything Goes (Irish Swap Shop/Superstore). The full 14 hours of RTE coverage of Self Aid 1986 (Concert/telethon for unemployed) was a big find too. The Irish version of Superstars was something I had been looking for many years as little of it survives, I recently found two full episodes from 1985, possibly the only known full episodes.

Some very strange local ads - one was for a place called Smithy’s Kaff which was very enthusiastic about you going there but wouldn’t tell you where it is. Others were a series of ads for Barrett’s Liqourmart shown on Channel 4 in the London area in the first couple of months it was on air which pretty much defy description!

And there are also the 'holy grail' finds that we hope against hope will be hiding on each and every tape we reverently pop into our tape machines. Rarely do these little gems burst into life on our screens, but when they do it's the video tape equivalent of a Christian finding the image of Jesus Christ burnt onto the bottom of a crumpet.

Another great box of ancient tapes

For me, I'm always on the lookout for rare pieces of comedy such as sketch show Pushing up Daisies and the LWT-only standup show Pyjamarama. Any children's TV from before 1987 is ornately gilded with a nostalgia I can't resist and coverage of British football always gets me excited. I've also become increasingly interested in the early days of cable TV in Britain during the mid-1980s; it's tough to find due to its limited takeup, but I have managed to find some of the oldest known - and missing - Sky Channel footage from 1985. Greg and Neil, again due to subjectivity, have very different bits of footage they dream of finding:

It's Irish content I hope to find and the older the better. Because I only work-off VHS and Betamax tapes, realistically I'm not expecting to find anything pre-1980. We don't really have any 'Dr Who' style iconic shows that have a big fan base of people hungry to find episodes, so with me it's just the era of the very early 80's Irish TV that I really hope to find regardless of the actual content. It would be nice to find early music shows on RTE like 'Non Stop Pop' from 1982. It was Ireland's first answer to Top of the Pops, with live bands and videos. I've never found anything from it, so If I was to pick one as a 'holy grail find' I'd say that.

I’d like to find some clips of the three ITV regions that lost their franchises at the end of 1981 - ATV, Southern & Westward - so far all I’ve managed is about 7 seconds of a Southern continuity announcement. Other than that there’s Jools Holland’s infamous Tube promo from 1987 where he swore at unsuspecting CITV viewers. Plus there’s the time that Coast to Coast came to my school that I’ve never seen which would be amazing to find.

However, it's not all fun and games when it comes to sifting through old video tapes. One of the most frustrating elements is the mental fatigue that accompanies lengthy sessions of wading through fuzzy footage of Police Camera Action and the neverending onslaught of Bond films. There's also the archive tape nightmare of mould on the reels, this builds up when tapes haven't been stored in stable temperatures or dry environments. They can be cleaned, but it's a fiddly affair and the payoff is rarely worth it unless you know there's something very special on the tapes.

Some particularly old VHS tapes I picked up

Perhaps the biggest kick in the tape spools, though, are the missed opportunities which frequently rear their ugly head. Sometimes you'll stumble across an amazing piece of footage - such as a regional oddity - but after a few seconds it breaks down into static and then transitions into yet another recording of Live Aid. There's nothing wrong with Live Aid, but it's freely available elsewhere and has little curiosity value. It's not always Live Aid, either, sometimes it's Diamonds are Forever. Or The Spy Who Loved Me. Or Digby the Biggest Dog in the World. Greg and Neil have also come across numerous frustrations in their time:

For me it's maintaining the machines, in particular the Betamax. It's no problem with the VHS machines because they're easily found and replaced. The Betamax machines can be very expensive to replace and having to ship them from the UK also carries the danger of damage in transit. I've bought at least three machines that have arrived 'not working' or damaged, so It can be an expensive problem too. Storage space for tapes is also becoming more and more of a problem, I'm lucky in that I live in a rural area and I have the storage space in the form of a converted attic. I'm not sure I could continue the hobby If I was ever to move to somewhere where I didn't have the luxury of a 'spare room'.

People who cut out the ads from their recordings! Also, having done this for a while, you do notice the same things cropping up over and over again. Raiders of the Lost Ark from Christmas Day ‘84 seems to have been a very popular film to record, as was Ghostbusters from Boxing Day ‘87. Finally it’s frustrating to find tapes that have good stuff on, but have been poorly stored so it’s nigh on impossible to get a decent quality capture.

Despite these frustrations, they're not seismic enough to discourage us (and many others) to continue salvaging these curios of television. As long as the technology remains viable, the world of archive tape preservation will be here for many years to come.

If you've got any questions then please add them to the comments below and I'll try to answer them as soon as I can!


  1. This is mine:

    ... although so far I'm about two and a half years behind schedule!

  2. Nice to be reminded of the Christmas treat of a three-year-old film having its "network TV premiere" :)

  3. Great blog! Bringing back lots of good memories...

  4. I envy you! After several moves I've lost my VHS collection almost completely. Still have Watership Down recorded in 1982, though, and a few very strange movies aired on C4 when it was worth watching!
    Transferred them onto DVD when I could.
    Always loved tapes, like fuzzy logic - at the end of a tape you never knew what was recorded from years ago

  5. As someone who is disabled and an insomniac, I spend a lot of time on You Tube, searching for rare tv shows, ads and continuity, even before Lockdown was a thing. Several times I've been disappointed when a channel has been removed because of copyright or content issues. You guys are heroes, keep up the good work xx