Barry’s very bad day: bye, bye Blockbusters

blockbusterAnd so it was finally fade to black, eject, roll credits for Blockbuster UK which closed its return boxes for the final time ever last weekend.

You Only Live Twice

It had seen more back from the dead endings than Freddy Krueger and its final gasp was almost as drawn out as the end to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King as it had gone into receivership twice this year alone.

I’d had two stints working for Blockbuster, once in around 2001 – 2004 over in Kent and then again in Essex in 2012-2013. It was a store that had changed in some minor ways, but at the same time it hadn’t in most, which is probably what saw it hurtle toward its final destination.

Barry, and his bad day, just in case anyone is wondering, is the name of a training video infamous with employees as it was that old, had generally poor acting and was laughably bad. Barry of the title role was played by the bloke in charge o the market on EastEnders and onetime voice of the CoCo Pops Monkey! Yes, we’ll we’d rather have had a bowl of said turning milk choclatey cereal as well…thankfully there wasn’t a sequel!

I’d only ever worked part-time at Blockbuster so I always found it a fun way for some extra money, you got seven free rentals a week and money off games and films to buy…as a film buff what wasn’t there to like! As a (still) budding screenwriter the video store worker leap by Tarantino to script doctor and film director wasn’t entirely lost on me either.

My first interview for Blockbuster was also probably the most fun I ever had at an interview, having to explain why Jaws was my favourite film.

There were distinct side effects to working at Blockbuster though and you got spot the signs of an employee a mile off! Mine manifested itself as lacking the inability to open a VHS, DVD or Bluray if someone hands me one (outside of blue uniform) to check if it is there/the correct one, and ordering my DVD collection in genres – I didn’t quite go as far as having a top ten!

Ah, the top ten, if you just didn’t know what you wanted you would look at the top ten, well you did in my first stint but by my return they had done away with it – fools! There was also blocking, nothing to do with The Karate Kid, but more on that later.

Star Wars

Sometimes my first stint at Blockbuster could by fairly surreal as we had several famous people come and use it. I remember serving former javelin thrower Steve Backley (no he didn’t chuck his rentals at me) and Craig Fairbrass AKA Dan from EastEnders as he was at the time ( also see London’s Burning, Cliffhanger – we had it on our shelves but he never rented it I checked – White Noise 2 and The Sarah Conner Chronicles).

I even remember having to say to him once that he had an unpaid fine on his account (gulp) and I half expected the duff duffs to kick in when I’d made the announcement.

Of course they weren’t the only celebs to use Blockbuster. It wasn’t my store but famously in 1999 (I’m sure it was then) when Tom Cruise was filming Eyes Wide Shut he tried to rent a film from Blockbuster only to be asked for his ID or membership, of course he didn’t have any, apart from the countless films lining the shelves…not deemed sufficient proof he was denied rental and left bored on the 4th of July (perhaps). A true Mission: Impossible for the A-lister but far from being in a daze of thunder he seemed to take it all in good humour. Cue smile.

Be Kind, Rewind

Oddly at my first store they also trialled selling wine and beer, a hit with us in store but it didn’t seem to last very long or make its way across all stores.

That first store was also very much VHS, sure DVD was on the shelves but the tape was still the dominant species, which meant sore hands from pulling out and whacking in the yellow plastic sticks that tried to thwart thieves. And we had to rewind the bastards each time someone never rewound a tape back…I’ll never get that time back as I stand between two tape machines as they insistently scream back in fast rewind – it always sounded like the speeding simulator that Roger Moore gets trapped in Moonraker to me.

Lost in Translation

And because we had VHS (boo hiss pan and scan full screen at that) that meant that when we got films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon we got them in both the subtitled and dubbed version and not only did people not know it was a foreign language film (really?) but we had to double-check that they knew when renting at which point people look repulsed. Okay, so the title is in English but the German Das Experiment (the clue is in the title) had exactly the same problem…it’s not about a fricking washing powder! And despite it having a German flag on the back and the blurb, language from country of origin, didn’t seem to matter one jot! I didn’t know what the German flag looked like was the common reply…of course with DVD you often have language and dubbing options.

My personal fave has to be the Jean Reno films, which are made in French but he even re dubs himself!

So, the video may have well and truly vanished when I started my second spell at Blockbuster but I still have a soft spot, more of a fond memory , of big box video. Of course by then it was both DVD and Bluray and although you always had tracking or sound issues with the odd VHS, DVDs could often be found to be scratched to buggery as if people have worn it on the bottom of their shoes performing a tap routine on their way back to the store…or perhaps cos it isn’t theirs, people don’t look after it.

Certainly one of the few perks on buying ex rental DVD as an employee was that you were able to tell how many times something had been rented and compare and contrast the 20 or so copies that may have gone to ex-rental.

With the move to Bluray, this I largely found was not a problem. The only problem was that if you weren’t careful you could have quite easily spent half of your wages on items in store as it was a little bit like being a kid in a sweet shop. A bit like when major incidents have taken place in earth’s history and paleontologists can tell just by looking at layers of soil when there was an ice age or a great flood, the same can be said with my film collection which probably features more films from the #Blockbuster periods’ than any other.

The Box

The constant enemy of any Blockbuster employee was the drop box, a fiendishly simple device that acted as a post box for returned films…unless it was taped over…I say constant enemy as on nights through the weekend and after the weekend, especially if it was three for three nights or three for £10, there would be a river of films to scan in.

There was only so many you could humanly carry at once, cue tower of films crashing to the floor when being a tad over ambitious, but I always found it worse when it had been raining and the boxes were wet and ended up practically sticking together.

Um, talking of things sticking together, first time round at the store Blockbuster merrily stocked soft core porn, but porn nonetheless. This always seemed a little odd to me with its strong links to children’s charities but certainly second time round that sort of thing wasn’t on the shelves.

I can’t imagine that it really rented that well as it all looked bloody awful, not that I’m an expert or anything, in fact I think we only rented them to two or three people, but then with titles like Lord of the G Strings and Illegally Buxom Blonde I don’t think the main film studios had anything to be concerned about.

On a final note before I lock up the store, quick now before the smokescreen system goes off and fills it completely like something out of a James Bond film – funnily enough this happened the first night upon my return to Blockbuster, with the smoke billowing out of the store anyone would have thought that the store was on fire!

I’m sure all Blockbuster employees have encountered the following…

  • A customer will always ask to rent the latest film…that has just been released at the cinema/isn’t even out at the cinema yet!
  • Even though you are closed, it clearly states what time you are open until, people will still try and return items/rent something because your lights are on. Note, cashing up is much harder in the dark, although I wasn’t much better at it lights or no lights.
  • Blocking – the term given to the task of correctly laying out how the boxes are displayed and that they are done neatly so and in the correct order. Whenever visiting your store when you aren’t working, another store or just any shop with a similar setup you will inexplicably be drawn to blocking like you have really bad OCD. Sorry HMV!

And so that’s it, another familiar name vanished from the high street. The reasons for that are a whole new article, that wasn’t the aim of this, the aim of this was to merely celebrate of sorts the life and times of Blockbuster employee.

Is is a shame though that you now can’t pop in and rent a film of your choice in person, I know you can do that on demand etc, but it just doesn’t feel the same for me, plus I like to read the box when vowing the film. Ho hum. I guess the follow up question now is just how long can HMV hold on for?

End of Days

As Buggles famously sang, video may have killed the video star but several factors killed the video store…of course it all really boils down to what killed Woolworths really, it was an outdated model and couldn’t really compete with online prices or, in the case of Blockbuster, postal rental services – it had one as well – but especially download services. People weren’t bothered about a physical DVD or Bluray (I am, I still love the extras and commentaries) nevermind a physical store.

I don’t know what has become of my first store but the one in Essex is now a cafe and my local rental stall now simply stands empty. I drive past it most days to work and its said to see it empty of people and all those dreams, now only memories remain.

My three year old daughter even liked running round the store and picking a Scooby-Doo, Pixar or Blue Sky title off the shelves. Growing up my local independent video store was Video Magic, back in those days we had Betamax, and I used to love browsing the titles on the giant video boxes, the artwork (it was practically an art gallery for me and although I didn’t see them until much later the artwork on the likes of Fright Night were ingrained in my memory, which may go some way to explaining my collecting of classic movie posters) and the cardboard standees.

Isabelle will never have that experience and that is exactly what it felt like, an experience, it was a real thrill to have to go to the video store and not know just what you were going to come back with, or ask the person who was working there ‘which is best?’ or ‘Have you seen?’. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than introducing someone to a film that they had never heard of that was brilliant, or perfect for a fan of this or that genre or averting a rental disaster when they go to rent a film that was terrible. People got to know you and trusted your valued opinion or knowledge, even if it was for only 90 mins we had helped improve someone’s day.

And that was all part and parcel of the fun of it all, no matter which side of the counter I was standing…

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