Raiders Of The Lost VHS: ‘Star Wars’ Original Trilogy

A few years back, somebody asked me about my first viewing of Star Wars and I mentioned that I had been five. Clearly looking my age, this person then went on to say, “Oh, you’re of the prequel generation.” This wasn’t a question. I had to explain to him that no, I was part of the original trilogy generation through and through, that I had watched those movies over and over again. More shocking to him was the fact that I had had the original vintage toys and looked down on my class mates who thought their Power of the Force 2 figures were better. But this set me thinking. There is a generation of Star Wars fans, stuck in the middle of the original and prequel releases, who didn’t engage with Star Wars on the big screen, at least at first. We considered ourselves original fans, but when asked when we went to the cinema, it was with an embarrassed reply that we had to say we had never seen Star Wars when it was first released.

So how did we view them? For some fans, they would have purchased the VHS, betamax or laser disc release and enjoyed Star Wars in good (at least for the time) quality. However, for me it was somewhat different. My dad had recorded the original trilogy onto VHS off the TV. This meant that it was from ITV, and living in the Midlands, from the Central region. I was very lucky to have a father who had been able to cut the adverts out of A New Hope with grace, so that the film seemed to flow flawlessly. Alas, with the onset of children, my dad wasn’t able to take such care and so both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi were recorded with adverts included. With VHS players being expensive and society not being of the disposable variety it is now, I was not allowed to control the player. Instead, my dad would start the film and my younger brother and I would sit through the entire thing till the end, adverts and all.

This made our Star Wars viewing different from other generations. The first, which I never realised at the time, was that ITV used their own 4:3 ratio for the films. With widescreen not being readily available in the 1980s, most films were cropped to fit the TV of the day, the 4:3 ratio. For the Star Wars films, ITV created their own ratio that was unique to their broadcast. This meant that the British fans saw a slightly different version of the film compared to those who saw it at the cinema or who had bought the home release (I did always wonder what Luke was on about when he said he could see two Tuskens!). I remember my shock years later when I saw a widescreen showing of the films and the added detail that I had missed for so long.

The second difference was the adverts. Although these had nothing to do with the film, they made part of the viewing experience, at least for Episodes V and VI. My brother and I would know when the breaks were coming, which advert followed the next. We watched these films hundreds of times; we also watched the adverts hundreds of times. Did we pay full attention to them all the time? Of course not, but even the background noise of them would still register on our subconscious. This was part of our Star Wars experience.

As the years passed, the price of VHS came down, the economy strengthened and things were more easily affordable. With the Special Edition releases in 1997, so came new VHS. I was one of the first to get a copy and oh wow, the quality of the picture. It was so clear. The old copies, showing significant signs of wear (particularly with Vader entering the Tantive IV with a billow of scratchy distortion around him) were left to one side. Then soon came DVD, and again the quality of the films was astounding. Then Blu-ray. With each release the picture quality improved and the VHS tapes that had introduced me to a galaxy far, far away were forgotten…

A couple of years ago, my parents informed me that they had had a sort out of the family house and decided to finally throw all the videos out. This made a lot of sense, they didn’t even own a VHS player anymore, who did these days? But my first thought went straight to the Star Wars videos, “You’ve obviously kept those, right?” I should have perhaps realised what their response would have been, because they hadn’t kept them, why on earth would they, the quality was awful, they were scratchy from so much wear, they had adverts all the way through and, seriously, no one owns the hardware to play them anyway. I felt like a bottomless pit had opened up underneath me, swallowing my childhood memories up and threatening to draw a tear out of my eye from the loss. With desperation, I asked where had they taken the tapes? The tip. Well let’s face it, those weren’t being found again!

And so began my own personal quest for the TV broadcasts that had introduced me to the Star Wars galaxy. Surely, someone, somewhere must have a copy of these films with the adverts? I scoured the internet for any hope of tracking down these elusive videos. The answer I kept finding was that, like my parents, most people had slung their video recordings to for the improved digital formats so readily available to us today. Yet, communities had sprung up on the internet, with people wanting to find the version of Star Wars they had watched. People, like me, in search of their own personal versions of the films.

I was at least able to find some information of when they were broadcast. Knowing that my dad had gone with my nan to see A New Hope as soon as it had been released, knowing that he had loved the films, I was quite certain that as soon as they came onto television he would have recorded them. This made life somewhat easier. A New Hope had first been shown on ITV on 24th October 1982, The Empire Strikes Back on 25th December 1988 and Return of the Jedi on the 26th December 1989. It was somewhere to start and for the latter two movies I knew I remembered lots of Christmas adverts when I watched them. (On a side note, this is probably why I’ve been very happy with the Christmas release dates for the new set movies, as I was use to having a Christmas theme when watching Star Wars, as I imagine a few fans do).

Even with this information, I was hard pressed to find anything, people just didn’t seem to care about some old recordings with adverts. Over a year passed before somebody out of the blue messaged me on one of the forums I had placed a post about my search. He said he had a copy of The Empire Strikes Back that he had tapped off ITV in 1988. To make my heart skip another beat, he said it had been recorded in the Central region! It all seemed too good to be true. Yet after much messaging, he sent the file over and I eagerly pressed play. Everything was exactly how I remembered. The ratio, the film’s place card for the pauses between adverts, the adverts themselves. I was taken back to my younger self, sat enraptured by this film with the adverts. There was the Scotch tape with the skeleton, the Quavers advert with the dog, the Weetabix characters animated with live footage. I couldn’t believe my luck! If nothing else I was over the moon just to have this copy. I even took it to my younger brother. Not telling him what it was, when it started up on screen and I jumped it to the adverts, I could see his eyes well up. This wasn’t just a copy of some recorded film for us, this was an important part of our childhood that we had thought lost forever.

Contented for the moment, it was only a month later that someone said that they had copies of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Lightning striking twice after a year of nothing? I didn’t care! The region it was recorded was different, but I didn’t expect too much change in the adverts or film. The files were sent over and I played A New Hope. The adverts meant nothing to me, but the grainy quality and the aspect ratio did. I didn’t think it would have such an effect on me, but again I was thrust back to the early 1990s and watching this film. I then eagerly started Return of The Jedi, and the ratio was right. I watched in anticipation as the film’s place card came up just for the first set of adverts…. and….wait…it had the image of one of the posters but it had in big letters, ‘’Premiere.’ I didn’t remember that. The video continued to play and went onto some adverts that I didn’t recognise. I knew the first advert (or at least one of the first) should be the Milky Way advert with the red and blue cars, but this was no where to be seen. Certain adverts I remembered but I knew that premiere label was wrong. Conferring with my brother, we both agreed, this wasn’t the broadcast.

Turns out, my dad didn’t record the premiere for Return of the Jedi, and from my research, he must have recorded the transmission from the year after, on the 29th December 1990. Thanks Dad! Who in their right mind would record the second transmission of Jedi and keep the adverts? Now don’t get me wrong, having the original broadcast isn’t all bad, the timings of the advert breaks are the same and the film’s aspect ratio hasn’t changed. But I still long for the copy that my brother and I would sit down to watch when we were younger.

I don’t think I am alone out there in my enjoyment of the Star Wars films with adverts. Even when I had received the files, people commented on the enjoyment of rewatching these older copies, that they remembered sitting down at Christmas with their families to watch them when they were first shown. All this improvement in sound and high definition is wonderful and lets us experience the films in new ways, but, dare I say it, I think I will always prefer my VHS copies to the latest format that the films are available on. People say they remember when they first went to see Star Wars at the cinema, but I love having actually copies of how I first watched Star Wars all those years ago. For some fans of my generation, it was the only way to enjoy the films, but we were still Original Trilogy fans through and through.

And so my search continues for the 1990 broadcast of Return of the Jedi. I doubt I will ever find it now. As technology moves on, people dispose of their old technology without a second thought. But heed this warning, before you throw too much away, have a careful think of what memories might be held in the so called ‘rubbish’ for once gone, it could be lost forever…