Putting On The Ritz

Friday, February 5 2016
Putting On The Ritz

The Duke Mitchell Film Club, a monthly shindig dedicated to all things weird and wonderful from around the world, never fails to disappoint. From helping host DVD launches and working closely with distributors and events such as Film4 FrightFest, as well as hosting its own regular themed nights, it has built a reputation as one of the capital’s finest – and oddest – nights and organisations around.

It’s work often touches the world of video beyond just helping provide a platform for new releases and independent distributors to help reach audiences.

For its founders, Alex Kidd and Evrim Ersoy, are keen collectors of film oddities and rare VHS (and Betamaz and even U-matic and other long-dead formats) on tape, helping chronicle a long-gone world, the gold rush days of video when anything and everything made it to tape.

Its annual VHS night is a showcase for those halcyon days and a must for anyone’s calendar. Kidd and Ersoy spend the entire 12 months from one to the next pulling together rare cassettes, scouring ebay for trailer tapes, bidding on auctions from long-defunct outlets.

The 2016 VHS night was no exception. Trailer tapes from the USA and UK, highlighting the days when any film from any era was released to rental, instructional guides for stores, and, best of all, a haul they hadn’t even looked at from  a rental store that had shuttered, its owners doing a runner, leaving the stock untouched behind closed doors for years, until its haul was unearthed. “Just give us everything that’s behind the counter,” Kidd told the VHS collector who’d got the keys to the Aladdin’s Cave of the closed rental store. “Preferably on VHS. The older, the better.”

Each tape brings with it a story, not just of how The Duke Mitchell team discovered it. The Hollywood Nites franchise operation through failed wholesaler and distributor Parkfield was, it noted in its promotional VHS, a potential goldmine – within months of the promo pack being made, Parkfield had crashed owing millions, with a tsunami of cassettes being schlocked out, sloshing around the industry for years, its ripples being felt for years.

The highlight, for us at The Raygun, was a 1990(ish) training tape from 20th Century Fox, or, rather, CBS Fox.

Aimed at getting dealers to improve their stores and make them more customer friendly, it was, to the trained eye, quite clearly filmed in an old Ritz Video store, a fact highlighted by shout out given to Cityvision plc, the parent sold to Blockbuster in the early 1990s as the US rental giant took it over in a ice deal. But what’s that also on the end credits? Names mentioned include Cheryl Hutchinson and Mike Preece. The former is still in and around the industry, most recently at Paramount’s home entertainment arm; while we were still in touch with Preece, now resident in New Zealand, with the industry veteran having contributed to our piece on the history of Manga and the birth of anime in the UK.

“Fox had won distributor of the year several years running during that period,” says Preece now, from the other side of the world. “We were customer care mad, mainly because I was an avid fan of In Search Of Excellence by Tom Peters, the biz guru of the day who was passionate on customer focus.”

But it wasn’t just that. For all the laughs and smiles that the old training tape may raise, and for all the stating-the-bleeding-obvious advice it profers, you have to remember just how shabby a lot of rental stores were. As Preece notes: “There were some really professional video libraries like Ian Muspratt’s, Gabby Burt’s, Fil Adams and so on, but remember, this was pre-Blockbuster and there were some utter flea pits.”

He continues: “I remember I had a presentation slide I used to show of a video store near Birmingham who had actually put his store-sign on upside down and left it like that for months on end

“Obviously the You Tube thing is cringe-making but back in the day, it was the one and only attempt at showing the dealer what might possibly be important for the punter. I think we probably should’ve stuck to selling videos and left the market to developing itself.”

Star George Layton, from the Doctor In The House series and much more, had become friends with Preece after meeting him on holiday. (His son, Preece adds, ended up working at Palace with Robert Jones and Stephen Woolley, but that’s another story for another day.)

Layton was the bi name, alright and watching him, looking at the store, meant we didn’t even spot Hutchinson in the clip originally, more just her name at the end. Her reaction at being “rediscovered” was one of complete surprise.

After a series of exclamations and phrases in capital letters, she recalls the filming: “From what I remember, it was an industry initiative to guide the many independent video stores on good customer service. I think it followed a video rental survey identifying that customers felt dissatisfied with customer care, choice, ambience and so on.  It probably would have been Mike Preece and Stephen Moore that championed it and I think a copy was sent to all stores across the industry.”

And while the message may have been serious – and any regular renter, one who had membership of more than one shop, would have known there was plenty needed doing in some rental stores – the making if to showed the do it yourself ethos of the industry in the old days. Even the studios, such as Fox, were writing the rulebook as they went along.

“For my part, I was roped in pretty much,” recalls Hutchinson, “as I always seemed to be back in the day. It was my voice you heard on Fox’s Out of Hours message, I had to dress up as Miss Santa to give out the staff Christmas presents… and appear in that video, amongst other things no doubt. Not willingly I might add, it was probably that I was the youngest at the time.  All I really had to do was what you can see, act moody and uninterested in the first half and stack shelves in the second (certainly not the start of a fledgling acting career that’s for sure).”

But, as the Duke Mitchell Film Club knows only too well, each new discovery leads throws up another clue to to another potential treasure. Concurring with that “anything goes” philosophy of the old rental business, Preece recalls something he says is far, far worse. “The worst ever for cringing embarrassment was when Gilly Hewlett (nee Miller) thought it’d be a good idea for me to intro the timecodes [rental preview cassettes] with a sales pitch. I think I did Die Hard and a few other big hits Fox had at the time. They were shot in the boardroom at Perivale and were just awful… Luckily, down in New Zealand no one could possibly have seen one.”

The search has begun…

• If anyone reading this, any long-term or former video industry staffers have any old trade VHS cassettes, trailer tapes or anything created for rental dealers, let us know at the usual address…

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