An Unlimited Supply: The EMI Video Catalogues

The pioneering home video offerings from one of Britain’s biggest entertainment companies.

Continuing our occasional resurrection of old British pre-cert video catalogues, here are a pair from EMI, once a major name in the UK entertainment industry. Already well-established as a record label – one of ‘the big four’ in the British music industry, they were home to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Kate Bush and countless others – EMI also had its fingers in film production and distribution, and so an early move to home video was inevitable.

The early EMI releases were a mixed bag of back catalogue titles, and packaged in a curiously minimal way – while the front covers made some effort to sell the film, the backs featured a review of said film by one of several leading British film critics including Alexander Walker, Alan Frank and Marjorie Bilbow, all of whom had to try to put a positive spin on whichever title they were writing about – sometimes this was clearly a struggle. Quite why EMI thought that punters would have the time or patience to read a full film review while trying to decide what to rent or buy is anyone’s guess.

The films were split in the catalogue into various categories, including the always problematic ‘classics’ (after all, if all the movies on offer are old, it does rather imply that anything not in the ‘classics’ category is a bit throwaway), and also included a selection of TV programmes from Thames TV. Like most major labels, EMI was either reluctant or unable to release recent titles and so much of their catalogue consists of material already shown on TV several times. In the days before overnight rental became the norm, hiring (or worse still, buying) one of these films would be a gamble – would it turn up on the telly a week later?

By 1983, the company had been rebranded Thorn EMI and had adopted a more commercially appealing style of packaging – notably, all the EMI releases were housed in the small boxes that would later become associated with sell-thru titles. By this point, they had more recent films on offer – though still, by and large, not exactly major releases. Interestingly, the company was also experimenting with the idea of retail rather than rental titles – though these ‘affordable’ tapes still cost £19.99 – a sizeable outlay back then. These tapes were mostly music titles – the sort of thing that people might be realistically expected to want to own and watch again and again.

1983 also saw the label facing the embarrassment of being the most respectable company to be caught up in the Video Nasty hysteria, when their inadvertently uncut release of The Burning was declared obscene. The film was quickly withdrawn and reissued in a BBFC-approved version, and Thorn-EMI was so panicked by this that they began to make additional cuts to rather innocuous movies like Children of the Corn and the 15-rated Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, as well as pulling titles like Suspiria and Emmanuelle IV for additional editing.

In 1986, Thorn EMI sold all its film interests – including the ABC cinema chain and the video label – to corrupt businessman Alan Bond, who then sold the lot to the Cannon Group. The rebranded label lasted a year before collapsing. The EMI library is now owned by StudioCanal.

Help support The Reprobate: