The unexpected places nostalgia can strike

Ever had the odd experience of finding old ads on a VHS cassette taped off the television? It’s a nostalgia minefield…

It was a dark brown mug with pale brown stripes. Tall, with an oval handle and a rim as smooth and solid against your lip as a thumbnail painted with two coats of polish. It was meant for coffee, but used for hot chocolate or cherryade or Lemsip. It was my childhood mug, and Wendy Craig on the TV was drinking from it. 

When people on TV use your crockery, it makes your crockery famous, and that makes you feel a little bit famous. Television seemed unbelievably glamorous to me as a child. It still does, for the most part. The thought that my mug, mine, had a twin on the set of a TV show was like finding out someone I knew had been to space.

After that first glimpse of my mug on TV, I wanted more. Drink something, Wendy Craig! I urged. Aren’t you thirsty, Wendy? Dry of mouth? Eventually, having demonstrated altogether more interest in Carla Lane sitcom Butterflies than might be reasonably expected from an eight-year-old, I gave up. Wendy Craig was clearly some species of camel, able to store a month’s supply of liquid in her secret hump. My mug had had its moment. It was time to let go. 

I did let go of that mug, with accidental flair from the top bunk of a bunk-bed. The handle broke, and so it went wherever it is that mugs go when they die. (A farm maybe, where hot beverages flow like streams, they sleep tucked up under novelty tea towels, and all the surfaces are bouncy.)

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I’d have forgotten all about it—the mug, the excitement—had I not seen it again in a Google image search for a different 1970s sitcom. There it was in Wendy Craig’s hands, a brown ceramic wormhole straight back to my olden days. It instantly fizzed other happy bolts of memory back to life. The stack of lunch trays in the school dinner hall. The ink stain from a leaky cartridge pen on our hall carpet. My friend’s mum filling her car with ‘kangaroo petrol’ then braking hard all the way home to our delighted shrieks. Our dog. My dad. 

Nostalgia’s a sneaky bastard. It waits in odd places. At the very top of cupboards and folded in half at the back of a drawer, it’s there in trinket or photo form, primed to suck all the air from your lungs. It’s in your loft in a box marked ‘Xmas decorations.’ In junkshops and at car boot sales. It lays flat under your carpet, a twenty-year-old local newspaper full of adverts for shops that no longer exist and birth announcements for babies who must have their own kids by now.

One of nostalgia’s favourite lurking spots is between the spools of a VHS tape. (It’s particularly keen on that little button at the side you press to open the cassette and inspect at the glossy reel. Press one of those buttons today and be warned, it will suck you into a time portal from which you will have to battle your way back armed only with an amulet given to you by a witch and the help of three magical companions.) 

Specifically rich in nostalgia are things taped off the telly. On a VHS cassette of a film or TV programme you taped off the telly you’ll find the film or TV programme in question, obviously. That’s there. That’s grand. That’s Hot Shots! Part Deux or Emmanuelle or an episode of Pebble Mill featuring Gordon Kaye or whatever it was you wanted to keep – nobody’s here to judge. Put the cassette in the machine and press play and it’s what you were expecting.

Around the edges though, is where the nostalgia ninja waits to strike, especially when you’ve taped something off the telly on a channel with adverts. Watching TV adverts from decades ago is like seeing someone take a dramatic fall – hilarious at first, and then the dread swoops in. Ha! Oh, they’re not moving. Are they hurt? Are they okay? Ha! How old is this? How old am I? Am I okay?

The superstar ads—the Chewits Godzilla monster, the Scotch video skeletons, Saucy Clifford the Listerine dragon, Russ Abbott hawking a cigar called Hamlet—mean little. They’ve been reminisced about and replayed in the years since. Discovering one trapped from the wild on a VHS cassette is fun but there’s nothing harrowing or timeholey about it. 

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The real magic comes from the boring ads you haven’t seen since they first aired. Town and Country car rental. The all-new Renault 5 (“What’s yours called?”). A girl chasing a flock of geese through a bucolic idyll to promote Golden Vale butter spread. These are the forgotten. Smeary windows into the past nobody will clean. Paddy McGuinness won’t keep them alive on a late night Channel 4 talking heads show. They won’t be revived for cash-in irony’s sake. Nobody’s going to use the logo from the Redditch Kingfisher Shopping Centre ad as their Twitter avatar. Nobody’ll sing that song about defrosting pizza in a microwave to their children as they tuck them in at night. 

The forgotten ads are where the real memories lurk. Days and details you’d carelessly let fall from your mind are tucked like notebooks inside them. I’ve probably seen the Smash Mash robots on TV once a year for two decades; they’ve been emptied of undredged childhood memory. ‘Cornflakes crispy, tasty, wakey wakey wakey’ and ‘G-G-G got to get down to Our Price’ and ‘Lucozade with the great taste of real orange and barley’ though, set off unexpected bombs. Their having been accidentally preserved in glitchy, wobbly amber can make an old VHS tape a minefield. 

Press play at your peril.