Quick poll: how many VHS tapes remain littered around your house or stuffed into boxes in the attic? If it’s fewer than 100, it means you’re doing pretty well.

You know the ones we mean, those tapes with tattered cardboard cases and labels, already scribbled over multiple times, baring commands like ‘Dead or Alive, Top of the Pops August ’84. DON’T TAPE OVER!’.

[Read more: Betamax VS VHS and three hard-fought tech wars]

Before every piece of footage ever created was instantly available through YouTube, recordable on a set-top box or recallable via Netflix and the iPlayer, the video cassette recorder was a veritable memory box for television, a way for viewers to preserve their favourite shows and catch up on those they missed. It was TV on demand before on demand.

The golden age of the video recorder was undoubtedly the 1980s, but VCRs actually emerged a long time before they first allowed Britons to go out on Wednesday nights rather than staying in to watch Corrie.

The first machine for the home was built in the UK way back in 1963 by the Nottingham Electronic Valve Company. Called the Telcan – which stood for ‘television in a can’ – it cost £60, a small fortune back then, and was only able to record 20 minutes of footage.

Quantity vs quality

Running time was to prove a crucial battleground in the Betamax vs VHS format war that began in the mid-70s. VHS, pioneered by Japanese company JVC, introduced two-hour tapes that could be doubled to record four hours of TV thanks to the long-play setting.

This meant entire movies or sporting fixtures could be recorded and also helped to ensure VHS won the war despite protestations Sony’s Betamax was actually the superior format in terms of image and sound quality.


With new video recorders costing several hundreds of pounds, it was far more cost effective for Brits to rent this new home recording technology rather than buying it. High street stores like Radio Rentals and Granada, which already rented out equally expensive TV sets, did a roaring trade. Users would pay a tariff every month, but the stores would also fix it (eventually) if anything went wrong.

Throughout the 80s and 90s the technology improved, as did the popularity and affordability of VCRs. Users were now able to programme their videos to record multiple programmes on multiple channels as far as three weeks in advance, although a lack of sophistication in remote controls usually meant crawling on all fours to do it (or better still, getting the kids to do it).

The trouble with video…

The VCR had liberated Brits from TV schedules and even achieved the holy grail of allowing us to tape one channel while watching another. However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Most of you will recall recording the wrong channel by accident or seeing the machine chew up the tape midway through a recording and returning home to a mini Spaghetti Junction in that silver metal box.

Who can forget the anguish of someone recording a programme for you on long play, when you only had a regular VHS player? The sheer relief of coming in late from the pub with a fish supper knowing another member of the household had actually managed to tape Match of the Day cannot be quantified by modern metrics.

Many people will have favourite tapes they can recall and still own to this day. In our house, recordings of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Wayne’s World on the same tape was a prized possession I still won’t let my mum get rid of.  An episode of the Roland Rat Superstar TV show that you couldn’t possibly find anywhere now has the same hallowed status.

Every now and then my old man and I will still bust out an old John Denver Live recording and watch it together. It’s meaningful for both of us.

[Read more: Retro tech - the transistor radio]

The tale of the tape

The VHS recorder had a long shelf life, only declining in the mid-1990s with the advent of the space-saving DVD. But even now it’s still possible to buy VHS recorders – Toshiba makes DVD and VHS combo players and many people still use them to record programmes and watch old tapes.

Those home-recorded cassettes have also endured long after people replaced their VHS film collections with the vastly superior DVDs. That’s because, in most cases, they’re irreplaceable.

VHS casette with tape out

Television commercials from the time or the hours of build-up to the 1989 FA Cup final aren’t available on any compilation tape, DVD release or digital download. There’s no Des Lynam or Jimmy Hill. No break for the BBC news. No timeless Grandstand theme music.

These recordings didn’t just capture and preserve moments in time, they captured eras and the memories and feelings attached to them.

Of course, YouTube has become an incredibly rich tool for recapturing bygone shows and footage that may otherwise have been confined to memory.

Hard disk records and set-top boxes make the recording and viewing process a million times easier (you can set up recordings from your phone, for heaven’s sake!), but those only endure as long as their susceptible hard drives and shows will eventually have to be deleted to recover more space, even with the huge 1TB of storage now on offer.

No matter how many cardboard boxes they take up in the attic, getting rid of those tapes would constitute a personal battle akin to Frodo dropping the Ring of Power into the Fires of Mount Doom. They’re that precious….

Read more: Goodbye VCR - Japan to stop making video cassette recorders