Looking back at Britain’s most outrageous and chaotically inept television channel, the home of sex and violence, banned movies and disrupted broadcasts.
It’s hard to conceive of it now, but from the early 1980s through to the mid-1990s, cable and satellite TV in Britain was something of a wild west, officially regulated in the same way that mainstream TV was, but in practice the home to a collection of channels that were being watched by so few people that they could get away with murder without any comeback. For the most part, this was random programming by schedulers who had either not watched the shows in question or simply didn’t know the rules – hence the Lifestyle channel running Murder at the Wedding – which had been greeted in 1979 with howls of tabloid protest over gratuitous nudity – in a mid-afternoon slot without a murmur. But there was one renegade channel in particular that pushed the boundaries to outrageous levels without anyone noticing. There’s a good chance that this was because you could count the regular viewers of HVC on your fingers, and none of them were telling anyone else about what they’d seen.
HVC – the Home Video Channel – broadcast solely on cable systems and showed four movies a night from 1985 to 1999, for an extra fiver a month on top of your standard cable subscription. A glance at the scheduling in any of the cable and satellite TV guides then being published made the channel look either like a collection of complete rubbish or the most exciting thing on TV, depending on your personal tastes. The films being shown were horror, science fiction, action, soft porn and the odd outlier that you couldn’t quite define. It was all cheap, all trashy. Upon signing up to cable, it quickly became my favourite channel.
HVC was not, by any stretch of the imagination, curated. Just where they got their films from was anyone’s guess, and it was pretty clear that no one involved had watched any of this stuff before scheduling it. Indeed, it very quickly became clear that no one in charge was watching it as it went out on air either.
The films were a mix of the obscure and the outrageous, and had the BBFC been aware of just what was being shown, they would’ve had a fit. Among the more memorable moments were showings of 1992 horror movie Feast (ending with Sharon Mitchell chained to a bed as two cannibals ate her breasts, the inference being that she found the experience erotic) and Skinned Alive, neither of which was the sort of film that James Ferman would’ve approved of had anyone been stupid enough to submit them for classification; Angel of Vengeance, the Ted V. Mikels film that had been recently banned by the BBFC; uncut Troma movies; the sort of edited-down hardcore titles that the British censors were then declaring suitable only for sale in licensed shops; and both of the Australian Fantasm films, uncut (the BBFC-approved versions of these two films are among the most heavily censored video releases of the 21st century). Essentially, no one seemed to be watching these movies to assess their suitability for broadcast – or even their legality. It was a pretty glorious age, and every night, myself and the other five people watching would tune in avidly, VCRs at the ready.
However, HVC was an often frustrating experience. The channel was run on a rather ad hoc nature, and rather than broadcasting in the traditional manner of bouncing signals to satellites and then back to receivers, their broadcast system involved the laborious and uncertain process of sending Umatic tapes of the scheduled content to the various local cable companies, alongside a written schedule. The cable companies would then be responsible for playing the tapes in the correct order. Clearly, this was a system that had potential fuck-ups built in at every point, and so it was. HVC became infamously mysterious – you could forget about what your TV guide said was going to be on because that would only rarely be accurate. Sometimes, you’d get films in the wrong order. Sometimes, you’d get the same film twice on the trot. Sometimes, there would be no film at all, just static. At times, the same damn film – never a good one – would be shown day after day. Often, the sound would be either muffled or completely non-existent, replaced instead by what sounded like a power drill. On other occasions, there would be sound but no picture apart from the HVC logo. And the tapes would seemingly be played until they wore out, resulting in some films having the unmistakable quality of a VHS tape that had been rented out time and time again. There was, in all, a baffling, oddly fascinating chaos surrounding HVC.
The sound problem seemed to definitely be at the HVC end – I once received a screener VHS from them, and that too had the same bafflingly loud and unpleasant noise replacing the actual soundtrack throughout. By and large, though, the problem seemed to be in relying on disinterested local cable TV companies and their staff to remember/care to play the tapes in the correct order – indeed, to press play at all. Had anyone been paying attention to HVC, they probably could’ve got into all sorts of trouble over broadcasting an explicit American porn film – hardcore barely removed – at 8pm in the evening. But who apart from me ever knew? Inevitably, HVC was positioned at the end of the transponder and so only the most devoted channel surfer would have ever stumbled upon it by accident, and that fact that you had to pay more to receive it probably put most people off. Clearly, it had enough subscribers to keep going, but it seems that each of them was keeping very quiet about just what the channel was showing – and with no rival broadcasters, HVC avoided the sort of snitch culture that pervades the assorted adult channels, where each broadcaster keeps an eye on what their opponents are doing, ever ready to report them to OFCOM for the slightest breach.
In 1992, the company behind HVC launched The Adult Channel, which was the first soft porn TV channel in the UK. It caused a lot of fuss, but as a subscription broadcast that only started at midnight, it was difficult for anyone to really criticise it. Oddly, The Adult Channel was run with a professionalism lost on its parent company, possibly due to an awareness that its nature would bring it a much higher profile. Admittedly, The Adult Channel did, in the early years, show content that would never have passed through the BBFC at that time, even at the R18 level – but at that point, there was no clear definition of where the line should be drawn beyond ‘no hardcore’, and R18 back then consisted of material only slightly more raunchy than could be found in regular 18 rated sex films. I got to know the people at HVC/The Adult Channel quite well at this time, and it was clear that they knew exactly what HVC was – when I pointed out that a film recently shown was banned by the BBFC, staffer Ruth’s response was to make a note – not to pull it, simply to take a copy home to watch for enjoyment. At this time, The Adult Channel took a gleeful joy in pushing things as far as it could, especially in showing content that people couldn’t get legally on home video.
In 1994, The Adult Channel and its parent company were sold for the first time, and HVC was given a more professional footing, existing as a non-adult pre-broadcast feeder channel in the hours between 8pm and midnight, moving to satellite for the first time and abandoning the process of sending tapes to cable companies. It became a lot less interesting after that. In 1998, HVC/The Adult Channel bought Playboy TV in the UK, merging the two companies. HVC ceased broadcasting for good in 1999, though no one really noticed – it had long since become just a subsidiary of its more successful offspring. The Adult Channel is still on air, though it is barely recognisable from when it launched.
The glory days of HVC – from 1985 to 1994 – are long gone. The existence of the channel was baffling then and incomprehensible now. Even the most obscure broadcasters seem to have OFCOM’s beady, censorial eye on them. That this obscure broadcaster could get away with such outrageous content and such low standards of quality control beggars belief, frankly. But I’m glad that it existed as a small outpost of anarchy in an increasingly corporatised TV world. We’ll never see the like of it again.
HVC fans – I know you are out there – feel free to share your memories below.
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