Like Cult TV fans everywhere, I was delighted to learn in the early 1990’s that ITC Home Video were planning to release selected episodes from some of the classis British television series that I’d been a fan of since childhood.
Following on from the tremendous success of the earlier ventures into the home video market of The Prisoner, and children’s favourites, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, I expected that the release of The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Saint and, more importantly from my stand point, department S, would’ve been welcomed by fans like old friend but, seemingly, that wasn’t the case.
Whilst the hard-core fans demanded more examples of their favourite programmes on tape, the powers-that- be at ITC Home Video complained of poor sales, stating that the fan base for the old ATV/ITC shows were comparatively small compared to those of, say, Doctor Who and Star Trek.
The went on to explain that the process of releasing episodes from Department S and Jason King, for example, was an extremely long and complicated one, since the original master tapes were, at the time, stored at the Technical Services Department at their U.S. base in Los Angeles.
The cleaning and transference of the original film on to a 1-inch master tape, which was then flown out to the United Kingdom for duplication onto video, was said to be very expensive – the money for which was taken straight from the marketing budget.
Since they claimed sales for these tapes weren’t excessively high, the coffers for promoting the next batch of releases remained low., and thus a vicious circle began to form, with ITC leaving much of the marketing in the hands of the individual retailer.
With advertising restricted mainly to specialist publications such as TV Zone and Empire ITC, it appeared, were merely preaching to the converted and little, if any, advantage was taken of the success of Sixties and Seventies retrospectives on both BBC 1 and 2, and Channel 4 during the early to mid-Nineties.
There also seemed to be a noticeable reluctance by ITC as a whole to cooperate with the respective fan clubs, which had sprung up as a result of these programmes and their stars.
Fellow club secretaries reported that their attempts to obtain promotional material from ITC’s Marketing Department often proved futile and, on occasion, it was even said that professional journalists were purposely thwarted in their effort to report on a particular show.
In the meantime, certain greedy retailers – namely Our Price Video! – were seizing the opportunity to rip-off Cult TV fans by raising the price of ITC product by £1.00, from the Retail Recommended Price of £10.99 per tape to £11.99, in the mistaken belief that the compulsion of fans to maintain his or her collection would drive them to pay that little bit extra.
Needless to say, this tactic was to prove disastrous for all concerned, as video store owners were left more often than not with unsold stock, and a reluctance by fans to buy new product. This in turn forced fans to travel to neighbouring towns (or further) to obtain the latest releases.
Once again, ITC scored a costly own goal with its half-hearted attempt to revive the public’s flagging interest in their video catalogue by releasing a collection of compilations, featuring a cocktail of various episodes under the banner, ‘A Night in TV Heaven’; ‘Action Classics’, and ‘Classic TV Heaven – the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s’.
Some fan clubs felt that, whilst compilations videos might work well as a teaser for the public in a similar vein to the BBC’s highly successful, ‘A Day in the Sixties’ retrospective, many collectors may be put off by the fact that they were being forced to buy one episode twice in a single series format, just to get a second instalment.
Meanwhile, The Avengers, which were being distributed by Lumier via Sony, were seemingly going from strength to strength. But why then were The Saint, The Baron and Jason King (to name but a few) appeared to be faltering?
The answer was simple: The principle difference between ITC’s video release policy and that of Lumier (The Avengers), CIC (Star Trek) and BBC Video (Doctor Who) was CONSISTANCY!
Fans of the aforementioned series, as with those of The X Files, Red Dwarf and Quantum Leap (amongst others) were able to establish a pattern of release days – usually the first Monday of every months, which allowed them to budget for their purchases, and to settle into a kind of ‘rhythm’.
Followers of the various ITC series, unfortunately, were never afforded the opportunity to form any sort of pattern. Releases any kind of order, and some fans were left reluctant to start a collection that might never be completed. It was as if ITC Home Video were dangling the proverbial carrot on an unfeasibly long stick!
Communication between the distributors and the retailers was virtually non-existent, with individual shops basically having to telephone ITC’s Marketing Department themselves on a semi-regular basis in order to obtain details on forthcoming titles and their proposed release dates.
Promotional material such as posters and cassette sleeves were scares –so scarce in fact that one retailer said that ITC actually called HIM to ask if he could return some posters to them to use at the Action ’93 convention at Shepperton Moat House near London!
By their own admission, few of those working for the company knew anything about the series they were selling, and episodes for release were often chosen at random, or because it featured a recognisable actor or actress in a guest role – i.e. ‘Toki’ was selected for Volume 2 of the ‘Classic TV Heaven’ compilation for no other reason than Felicity Kendall’s name appeared on the credit list! Photographs for the video sleeves were plucked out of the archives at random.
In spite of the shortcomings of ITC’s video release and marketing policy, at least it gave genuine fans an opportunity to gain limited access to television series which had long since disappeared from our screens.
Having sold on their entire treasure house of British telly to Polygram Television UK, it seemed inevitable that both Department S and Jason King, along with their ATV bed mates would become the property of satellite and cable channels, denying them to all but those who could afford the subscription fee.
It took the Australian company, Umbrella Entertainment, to issue the first decent, Department S complete series DVD box set in 2004, followed several years later by Network’s Department S and Jason King Box Sets – all of which have gone on to become collectors’ items (in the case of the Umbrella release) and best sellers around the world.
© The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/