Thursday was a bit crap, one way and another. I had a job interview in the morning, at which the panel spent far too long asking me about something I had pronounced myself largely ignorant of on the application form. When the expected ‘No thanks’ phone call came in the afternoon, explaining that my deficiencies in this particular area were what had cost me the plum role, I was momentarily too flabbergasted to do anything but say “Thanks for letting me know so quickly” and hang up. After a moment’s consideration, I sent a moderately fuming e-mail to my interviewer explaining that these deficiencies were obvious from the application, and that they had wasted an hour of my time and their time bringing me in for an interview. I’ve been freelance for 6 years now, and this was only my second job interview in a decade, so maybe I’m just out of practice. Maybe it’s simply down to making the right noises, and that’s something I was never too keen on or good at. Or could it possibly be that some people in recruitment have trouble with reading comprehension? Who knows? Who cares?
Thank heavens, then, for Friday. Schloss Barfe is the home of redundant technology, and, alongside the impressive array of open-reel tape recorders, sits a Sanyo VTC5000 Betamax VCR. Well, I say Betamax. Being a Sanyo, it’s more properly known as a Betacord machine. For a brief period in 1982, shortly before VHS was declared Victor Ludorum, it was the best-selling VCR in the British Isles. Rather perversely, it took until early 2005 for me to go Betamax, after I found some interesting tapes in a charity shop – we were a VHS family from the moment we entered the VCR market in 1984. I found a chap selling reconditioned machines on eBay, who, on closer inspection, turned out to live around the corner. I bought one, got it home, transferred my tapes and then bought a further job lot of tapes off eBay. I got part way into this hoard when the machine stopped working. I took it to my local TV repair shop, who claimed that it was caused by a part that was no longer made, and that they’d be happy to dispose of the machine for me. Being a hoarder and a naturally suspicious type, I put the machine in the loft and forgot about it. Just recently, however, I posted a message on a Beta enthusiasts’ site, asking for any thoughts on what might be wrong with my machine. The chap who sold it to me got in contact, clearly regarding any non-functioning Sanyo machines as a challenge and a personal insult. Within a week, he had it working again. The obsolete part story was proved to be utter balls – it was no more or less than a screw-fixed catch in the loading mechanism that had worked loose. Being a perfectionist, he also checked that just about everything else was as it should be too, with the result that it’s now running better than ever. To him, and enthusiasts like him who keep these machines running, the hat is well and truly doffed.
Now, throughout the years, I had heard the Betamax faithful saying that the picture quality knocked VHS into a cocked hat. Natural suspicion came into play again. Having seen quite a few Betamax tapes, I’d thought the picture quality to be about the same as VHS. However, I’d never seen a fresh recording on a new, clean tape. When I came into possession of some factory-fresh Scotch L750s, through the kindness of a Mausoleum Club member who wanted to reclaim some space at his house, I thought I’d make a test recording. The results were astonishing. When I still used VHS as a recording medium, I always thought my Sharp VCR lived up to its name in terms of picture quality. Despite being 20 years older and having spent nearly a year in a loft, the Sanyo – without the advantage of any of the picture processing circuitry present in the Sharp – matched it. The better system lost the format war, and the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD stand-off suggests that the lessons of the VHS/Betamax pagga haven’t been learned properly.
Anyway, on Friday, as an accompaniment to work, I thought I’d dip into the Betamax box and see what I could find. Most of the tapes were, very helpfully, labelled, and most have off-air recordings of feature films that you can now find just about anywhere on DVD. However, a couple of tapes were unmarked. Here a 1992 edition of Horizon, there a 1988 Tom Bower documentary on the US bombing of Libya, everywhere some nice BBC1 globes and things from the early days of UK satellite TV, including a 1994 edition of Trivial Pursuit with Tony Slattery taped off the Family Channel. All fairly interesting, particularly the Slattery game show, in which he is quite clearly on the verge of the breakdown that took him off telly for far too long, making jokes that probably weren’t actually jokes about presenting the show under the influence of horse tranquilisers. Meeting the contestants and confronting them with interesting facts about their lives, he reveals that one chap had a dog who jumped off Beachy Head. Where exactly does one go from there in a light daytime quiz show? It’s like (the unassailably wonderful) William G Stewart introducing a ‘Fifteen to One’ punter with the line “So tell us about the time you murdered a nun”.
As interesting as my finds were, I was disappointed to find no proper old-fashioned light entertainment shows. In went another unlabelled tape. “Here we go. It’ll be a 1987 Panorama on Northern Ireland or a copy of The Music Man that cuts off 5 minutes from the end,” I thought. Suddenly, I was greeted with music that said ‘This is a variety show’ and the face of Roy Hudd. I tempered my hilarity with a modicum of reserve. Years of playing back old, unlabelled tapes has taught me that the moment you find something you actually want to watch, it will cut off after 5 minutes in favour of 3 hours of snooker ‘highlights’ from the Reading Hexagon, with David Vine. Fortunately, Barfe’s 2nd Law of Archival Playback (and for that matter, the 1st, which states that anything you really want to see will have become mildewed and may bugger up your heads) was not in operation on this occasion. I found that I had four complete editions of a 1984 series called Halls of Fame, in which the great Hudd visited a different variety theatre each week, talked about the venue’s history and introduced a rip-snorting bill of entertainment excellence. From the Victoria Palace, we had June Whitfield singing Marie Lloyd (Very well too – is there no end to her versatility?), Chas and Dave singing Harry Champion and Max Bygraves giving of himself. Bristol Hippodrome brought forth Acker Bilk and Dame Anna Neagle. Sunderland Empire gave us Alan Price and ‘the little waster’, Bobby Thompson. This hoard of jollity arrived just in time to warrant a mention in my history of light entertainment, which is currently going through the corrective process.
The best was saved until last, though. In the final show on the tape, from His Majesty’s in Aberdeen, there was a whole glorious spot from Chic Murray, Billy Connolly’s mentor and the greatest ‘droll’ comedian who ever walked the earth. I had left the tape transferring, with the plan of watching it later, but at the mention of Murray’s name, I just sat down with a cup of tea, and tried to avoid dampening the sofa. In a spirit of show, don’t tell, here’s what I found:
So, thank you to Betamax, Barry Bevins of BBC Manchester – who produced the series, Roy Hudd and Chic Murray for rescuing me from the doldrums.
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