The UK’s infamous “Video Nasty” list – implemented following a hysterical moral campaign led by scourge of free-thought Mary Whitehouse and her censorious National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association – contained films believed to be in violation of the Obscene Publications Act 1959. Until 1984, there had been no legal requirement to submit films for BBFC certification prior to video release, which consequently encouraged the glut of violent, gory and sexual material that had caused Whitehouse’s original campaign throughout the early 1980s.
After the prosecution by local authorities of various titles, released on the then-novel video cassette, for obscenity, in 1983 the Director of Public Prosecutions compiled a list of 72 films the office believed to be obscene. Confusingly, the DPP’s list included some films that had already obtained BBFC certification or that had been previously acquitted of obscenity in certain jurisdictions. This uncertainty (and confusion as to what exactly constituted obscenity in the first place) caused subsequent revisions to the Video Nasty list, leading Parliament to pass the Video Recordings Act 1984, forcing all video releases to be first certified by the British Board of Film Classification. Moreover, the Board could therefore now also refuse to allow certain problematic titles to be released at all.
Accordingly, there was now created a wider market for forbidden visual fruit! Whether sourcing their banned goods by means of swapping with their friends, ordering from the Netherlands, a man-with-a-van, or in a pub or elsewhere, the UK’s determined citizens still managed to watch what they wanted – albeit most often via a very bad copy of a copy of the original tape.
Enter our trusty pre-Internet era vendor of pirate Video Nasty, smut, pre-release and generally weird movies! I know a guy who used to make some money distributing harder-to-find pirate material in the early 1990s, who generously spared his time to share some of his memories on the subject…
Interview with a Video Nasty seller
Can you tell us a bit about how and when you got into selling Video Nasties and other banned/ pirated films? How did you get hold of the films in the first place?
Well, I was already really into films of all kinds by the first year of secondary school, but during the second year – 1995 – I started trying to source some of the more well-known banned movies, particularly the so-called ‘Video Nasty’.
Originally, I dubbed nth-generation copies of films borrowed from friends, including the banned ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and the (at the time) pre-release ‘Se7en’. Concurrently, I started to order lots of the Video Nasty list films and other banned titles from underground traders first contacted via advertisements placed in various independent horror and other subculture magazines.
After a while I had built up a large list of trading contacts and realised that I could therefore swap titles missing from the collections of each, removing any further financial outlay from my side. Having by now amassed a big collection, I began to charge acquaintances for copies of my library, ploughing much of the profit back into purchasing more videos. As I was a student at an all-boy’s school, I also sold a fair bit of porn to my customers – generally 2nd or 3rd-generation copies of cheesy Euro-hardcore such as episodes of the long-running ‘Seventeen’ series.
Were you a particularly successful vendor? I imagine it was more difficult to gain reach, given that you were operating clandestinely and prior to the Internet bringing digital piracy to the masses?
Remember, I was but a schoolboy, but at its peak, the operation was running seven or eight linked VCRs 24/7 and so made me a fair bit of pocket change… I mainly sold by word of mouth and people purchasing multiple copies for themselves and their friends too. I stepped up from many sellers of the time in that I often supplied a high-quality full-colour copy of the film’s cover too, sourced via another underground seller who specialised in offering only the covers for literally thousands of obscure and controversial films. I also offered competitive pricing and always did my best to source the best quality masters that I could – I think I may have done some bulk-discounts too!
Was there any ideology involved in selling the films, or was it purely for financial gain?
I would certainly say admit that the money was helpful – especially considering that I was a schoolboy from a family possessing very little disposable income – but the ideology was always my main driving force. I’ve instinctively loathed censorship and other forms of social control for as long as I can recall, so it seemed natural (still does) to play a small role in its circumvention!
I despised the BBFC so much that at one point I actually spent several months writing to them at least once a week, requesting a whole plethora of pointless information I knew they would have to spend time compiling for me. My intention was purely to waste their time, with requests ranging from full explanations of what exactly each age rating meant (as they’re obviously very confusing!) to lists of all cuts suggested for every film since the board’s inception and minutes of their meetings too. Until a few years back, I still owned an eight-inch thick wedge of BBFC-sourced material, so I like to think I caused one or two of their employees some small annoyance!
Who was your average customer and what were your most popular titles?
As I said earlier on, most of my customers came from my social group and their extended contacts (via word of mouth), so let’s say the average was a white male aged 14-25. Off the top of my head, my best-selling titles would have been (in rough order of popularity) ‘Natural Born Killers’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Driller Killer’, ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, ‘Don’t Go in the House’, ‘The Toolbox Murders’…
Can you name some of your personal favourites from the films that you sold?
Well, here’s a few I used to sell that I’ve enjoyed many times over the years:
- ‘Bare Behind Bars’ (1980) – A truly perverse Brazilian porno-exploitation sleaze-fest! Directed by Oswaldo de Oliveira, this violent and utterly degrading women-in-prison crime flick is an absolute riot. Mad props to Maria Stella Splendore for her demented turn as the prison’s Head Warden/ sadistic lesbian!
- ‘The Burning’ (1982) – A grossly-underrated summer camp slasher, directed by Tony Maylam, the man who also brought you 1992’s surreal Rutger Hauer-vehicle ‘Split Second’. A classic Video Nasty.
- ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980) – The epitome of the Video Nasty! Unforgiveable real-life animal torture and rape scenes aside(!), I genuinely adore this shocker by Ruggero Deodato – especially the lush soundtrack from genre-stalwart Riz Ortolani.
- ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979) – One of Lucio Fulci’s best! So many great set-piece scenes: zombie-vs-shark, splinter-in-the-eye… One of three Fulci titles (the others were ‘The Beyond’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’) that made the BBFC’s original Video Nasty list, it wasn’t released uncut in the UK until 2005.
What made you decide to stop selling Video Nasty’s? Were you concerned about the legal ramifications should your business be discovered?
There were several factors involved in my decision to withdraw from my role as vendor. The first would be when my Head of Year teacher called my mother in for a meeting, where she told her “not to tell ([me]) anything”, but that she had discovered my video piracy business and intended to inform the police the next morning…needless to say that I promptly began to wind things down, starting by immediately ending all sales carried out on school grounds, etc.
As I was also widening my interests somewhat around the time (I believe I would have been fourteen or so) – discovering girls, etc. – it seemed like a natural time to make my exit from the stage. I’d never been unduly concerned previously regarding any legal repercussions, but conversely, I didn’t want any trouble either!
One thing that particularly galls me about the ‘Video Nasty’ hysteria is the fact that many individuals and businesses suffered harassment and prosecution over the films, with some unfortunates even being sent to prison for their possession or sale. However (reflecting the actual nature of most of these films; very obviously fake, low-budget effects, etc.), you can now buy most of them in uncut collector’s editions over the counter, as the board’s stricter censorship requirements have been toned down.
Is there anything that you miss about your days of selling Video Nasty’s?
You know, it’s funny – I’ve not really thought about my time trading for years, but now that I think about it there are many things that I miss from those days! The early stirrings of my youthful rebellion, the easy money made without any serious harm to society, a sense of empowerment at being able to view and share these films with similarly-minded people despite the censure of the law, interacting with the various traders, checking out the often hideously explicit video catalogues from the Netherlands (oh my God) … Glory days!