By Mike Hickman
I can remember the plastic and polish and warm dust smell of the Radio Rentals VCR. Betamax. Piano keys. A spring-loaded eject mechanism that would have your arm off if you weren’t careful. It existed for the watching of things we were tuned into and yet didn’t take in. The machine watched it all for us, at least until Benny Hill came back on.
And Mum had kept the tape. Sixteen packing cases, not a one of them opened in years, and there, in the very first one, was the Scotch video tape. The only tape we’d had in my childhood. The Scotch skeleton on the TV advert had promised it would “re-record, not fade away” and, until the Radio Rentals man came to take the machine back again after those final three months of missed payments, we’d put his claim to the test.
There was no sense looking any further. I had the tape and, thanks to Lanky Dave in Snooper’s Warehouse, the house clearance specialists, I had a machine, too. I’d lugged it all the way to the old house on the bus. Or “The Pauper’s chariot,” as mum used to call it. A woman who had never learned to drive, married to a man who we only knew could drive when he turned up the day after the Decree Nisi in a green Ford Capri with bald tyres.
“It’ll work,” Lanky Dave had told me. “Of course, whether the tape does is another thing entirely. Are you sure she’d have kept it?”
She told me she had. The Radio Rentals man should have had that back, too, really. But I remember us watching it through the whole way the night before the machine went. I remember unsetting the tuning dial and I remember pressing record. I hadn’t told Lanky Dave about that.
I uncovered the 4:3 CRT television in the corner of the room that Lanky Dave had said wasn’t even worth skipping. I threw the dust sheet still covered with Dad’s paint splatters onto the plastic wrapped sofa behind me, and I hooked up the recorder via the aerial lead Dave had thoughtfully thrown in after charging me an extra fiver. It was more touch than go for a moment as the machine whirred into being.
Back in the day, we would watch Benny again, sometimes immediately after broadcast as Yakety Sax faded out and the girls wearing Not Very Much failed to catch him. There was no record/pause for the adverts, and no fast-forwarding through them on replay, either. Just because the machine could, didn’t mean we did. So, there’d have been the orange and brown adverts for Le Piat D’or and Paul Masson’s California Carafes and the Fiat Uno. We’d have heard the smiley-smiley woman tell us what we should do when we next crossed the Channel and what brand of dishwasher was best for the dishes still stacked by our sink until 3 in the morning most days. Those warm, mono, close and claustrophobic words would encourage us to make use of the microwave we didn’t have for more than just reheating pizza when the nearest to pizza we ever got was cheese on toast with Heinz tomato ketchup. Ideal couples would take coffee in cafés and restaurants and kitchens with hobs and cooker hoods, and I know we must have seen them all because I know we taped them. Just as I know we must have watched them back again and again, even more often that we might have done without our dutiful machine taking them all in for us.
It was YouTube that spurred the memory. A whole hour of adverts circa 1984. All advertising the life the world thought we should have had. “What’s it matter if they are on that tape?” Lanky Dave had asked in lieu of other things he could have asked about YouTube viewing at 3 in the morning.
“I just wonder,” I lied in return, “whether she ever saw any of them – I mean, I remember us never fast forwarding. And it’s not like she moved from that sofa. If all that stuff is on there, it means, she saw it.” Or, I thought, she chose not to see it. “I’m watching these ads for Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port and Mumm Cordon Rogue champagne and Zanussi’s Appliances of Science…”
“Ha, like it,” Lanky Dave laughed, before admitting he’d never got the double meaning before.
“…and I’m thinking, I don’t remember this stuff and we saw it every day. But I was a kid. I’d notice the Coco Pops adverts. What did she see?”
Had she never wanted any of it?
“YouTube’s been responsible for some mad things, my friend,” Lanky Dave said, “but post-hoc analysing your mother via her attention to commercials is a new one on me.”
The tape was in a bad way. The image rolled, the screen a static-filled, scratched, drop-out ridden mess. But, with a bit of fiddling with the tracking, I got it to play. I got Benny Hill back on the screen. I got to that first ad break.
And the picture broke up into nothing.
As it did at the next ad break, too.
And the next.
Each one taped over with white noise, all the way through the L-750 tape. Over three hours of Benny and then The News at Ten and then Minder and then Benny again. Nine ad breaks before I stopped counting them. And, each one, blank.
Precisely as I’d remembered doing for her one night. When Dad had gone. When she’d first decided to tune out until Benny Hill came back on.
“Hey,” Lanky Dave had asked me as I’d heaved the Betamax VCR off the counter. “When was he last on telly, ol’ Benny? It’s been a while, isn’t it?”
“1989, I told him. “1st May,” I told him. “But I don’t need a tape to tell me that.”
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. His co-written play (with Mark Wakeman), “Lonesome Pine”, progressed to the second round of the All England Theatre Festival, 2011. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and the Daily Drunk.