Sky TV began broadcasting in the UK in February 1989. My parents signed up to it almost straight away, which I’ve always considered to be strange. They’re by no means what I’d call early-adopters, but for some reason they were at the front of queue on this occasion. We had a big overseas trip to the USA in 1988, and then we were the first household we knew to get Sky, so maybe things were just really good financially around then.
As well as watching The Simpsons from the very first week it aired, Sky also introduced me to WWF when it broadcast Wrestlemania VI in April 1990. But the biggest effect Sky had on me was through its movie channels.
Prior to Sky there was only the four terrestrial TV channels and the local video shop (the most magical of which was Azad Video at the bottom end of Yorkshire Street in Oldham). Nothing else. No internet, no streaming services, just a barren wasteland of entertainment. If you missed a film on TV, or couldn’t find it in the video shop, you just didn’t see it. Full stop. VHS cassettes seemed to be this mystical thing that somehow brought the magic of Hollywood into your living room. I can’t even remember people owning films on VHS. We had a couple – The Sands Of Iwo-Jima and It’s A Wonderful Life – but these didn’t interest me at the time.
Enter Sky Movies. First included for free as part of the initial subscription, the channel then became encrypted in February 1990. From memory, I seem to remember us getting the decoder before we paid for Sky Movies, and so there was a period of time when I would land on the channel and just hear the audio with no image. The magic was there, but it was behind a curtain, just out of reach. The scrambled image was a strange, new version of white noise, unlike anything you could normally see through the TV aerial if you landed on any channels other than 1, 2, 3 or 4.
When we finally got the smart card, which decrypted the channel, it was like the floodgates opening. I watched films all the time. And when I wasn’t watching them, I’d tape them to watch later. Blank VHS cassettes quickly became an expensive commodity; gold-dust when you had to decide between which film to keep and which to tape over: Sophie’s Choice or Rambo III. My parents even bought some of those tacky cassette covers that made them look like hardback novels on your bookshelf. Hmm, is that a first edition of Nicholas Nickleby? Oh, no it’s Three Amigos followed by Spies Like Us.
I’d get home from school, and watch films I’d taped over the weekend. I have a strong memory of sitting at my parents’ awful wagon-wheel coffee table, watching Lethal Weapon while I dunked McVitie’s digestives into a massive mug of coffee. That’s the thing you really need when you’re 11 or 12 years old: caffeine and the best of the current action movie genre. Who needs sleep?
Another time, I remember getting up early one morning to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. My older brother had watched it the prior night, but way past my bedtime. But it was taped for some reason, so I simply woke up at 7am on Saturday morning and watched it. My Mum walked in during the family-friendly scenes when Schwarzenegger is eating peanut-butter sandwiches with his daughter, and so she didn’t seem to care that I was watching a film well above my age. Thankfully she missed the opening credits when the bad guys, posing as garbage men, assassinate one of Schwarzenegger’s old army buddies with Uzis.
Not every film I saw in those days was a winner. There were plenty of turkeys, and the number of films they showed at any one time was pretty limited. So films would be premiered and then repeated often. But what a problem to have: your own private video shop. Happy days!
The films weren’t all blockbusters, and some of my favourites were the smaller productions that Sky had obviously picked up on the cheap: yes you can have *Batteries Not Included and Innerspace, but you have to take The Manhattan Project, Supergirl and Howard The Duck. I’m just annoyed I somehow missed 1989 duffer Collision Course, starring Jay Leno and The Karate Kid’s Pat Morita, until I caught it recently with a big smile on my face.
Of course, I watched all the Schwarzeneggers and the Stallones, but I also watched the lesser-known Chuck Norris and Rutger Hauers. In no particular order, here are ten early Sky favourites that resonated with an 11-year old finally able to feed his addiction to film:
1. Three Men And A Baby (Leonard Nimoy, 1987)
It’s probably the biggest hit on this list, and not particularly a favourite, but it’s one of my earliest Sky memories where I can recall hearing the audio over the encrypted white noise picture. How cruel, being able to hear Steve Guttenberg, Ted Danson and Tom Selleck trade wisecracks, but not being able to see the horrific pastel colour-scheme of their apartment. It’s a nice little film, and the irony of the film being directed by Mr. Spock, on the subject of babies – usually the field of Dr. Spock – is not lost on me.
2. Feds (Daniel Goldberg, 1988)
Former U.S. Marine Rebecca De Mornay turns up to FBI training academy to find her roommate is the bookish wimp Mary Gross. The pair help each other out in their attempt to become FBI agents, until they eventually outwit the privileged male chauvinists in their class. I recently showed this film to my wife, and she really enjoyed it. It’s aged quite well, genuinely funny and doesn’t feel steeped in the 1980s too much.
3. License To Drive (Greg Beeman, 1988)
In the greatest film starring both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman (yes, I’m looking at you, The Lost Boys), Corey Haim fails to get his driving licence, which he was counting on to impress a girl at school. He decides to take her out for a date anyway, in his Granfather’s classic car, and hilarity ensues. It’s not the greatest film in the world, but the two Coreys have such a chemistry, it’s hard not to like them. Craving mashed potatoes while pregnant, and driving to the hospital in reverse gear are both deserving of a mention.
4. Men At Work (1990, Emilio Estevez)
Another one that got a recent re-watch, to an enthusiastic reception from the wife, who had been oblivious to its charms. Emilio Estevez writes and directs himself and brother Charlie Sheen in a dark comedy about two Californian garbage men who get into trouble with a local gangster. Excellent performances all round, not only from the two leads, but from Keith David in a role that is tailor-made for his angry, anti-establishment attitude. This, for me, has the same hit-rate of one-liners as classic comedies like Some Like It Hot and This Is Spinal Tap, and the small-town plotting provides an enjoyable rollercoaster ride with a similar feel to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
5. Invasion USA (1985, Joseph Zito)
After the Missing In Action films, Chuck Norris seemed to carve out a niche for himself in the 1980’s action hero market. Unlike Stallone and Schwarzenegger, he’s not a massive bodybuilder, instead possessing the kind of body you might expect to see on a friend of your Dad’s. In Invasion USA he, you guessed it, single-handedly prevents an invasion of the USA from Communist Latin-American guerrillas. This, to me, is the archetypal Chuck Norris film, leading to bigger productions like The Delta Force, Braddock: Missing In Action 3 and Delta Force 2: The Columbian Connection. And given the state of the world these days, and the ongoing threat of terrorism, it’s a wonder that this film hasn’t been remade in the post-9/11 world.
6. Runaway (1984, Michael Chrichton)
Tom Selleck’s the good guy, Gene Simmons from Kiss is the bad guy. There’s loads of scary robot spiders, and bullets that can now follow you around corners. Ropey sci-fi films were ten a penny throughout the 1980s, but this one always seemed to have a bit more charm than others. Set in a near future where cops track down runaway robots (sound familiar?), Tom Selleck and his moustache must battle their fear of heights in a finale that takes place on a skyscraper construction site!
7. Stakeout (1987, John Badham)
Quite a few of the films we watched in the early days of Sky were chosen by my Dad. And he seemed to enjoy this action comedy, where two cops (Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez) stakeout a pretty girl’s apartment, a bit too much. There are plenty of hi-jinks between the pair, and with their police colleagues, and the threat of ex-con Aidan Quinn to Madeleine Stowe provides the dangerous element of the film. The concept of pairing a mature star with a younger actor was very popular around this time (The Colour Of Money, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon), and the success of the film led to a less-celebrated sequel in 1993.
8. F/X2: The Deadly Art Of Illusion (1991, Richard Franklin)
Another wildcard action hero in the ‘80s was likable Aussie Bryan Brown. Finding worldwide fame in 1986 as Tom Cruise’s mentor in Cocktail, followed by another key supporting role in Gorillas In The Mist led to Orion Pictures investing in a sequel to 1986’s slow-burner F/X. Brown plays Rollie Tyler, a special-effects artist, who uses his creations to outwit bad guys with his cop buddy Brian Dennehy. It’s the perfect action film fodder for an 11-year old. Special effects in films at that time were heralded as an art-form in themselves, and the concept of including these effects as weapons in an action film seemed very clever at the time.
9. Deadly Pursuit (1988, Roger Spottiswoode)
Known in North America as Shoot To Kill, this is a film we first rented on video and then watched many times when we got Sky. Tom Berenger, riding high from his cold-blooded turn in Platoon, partners with Sidney Poitier’s FBI agent to track a killer hiding amongst a group of fishermen in the forests of Washington state. The film currently has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (from 14 reviews) and is deserving of a rewatch. I remember showing this to the wife about ten years ago and it didn’t land with any weight, but I’ll give it another go.
10. Adventures In Babysitting (1988, Chris Columbus)
Another film with an alternate title (A Night On The Town), this might have been the film I watched the most on Sky Movies. It seemed to be playing around the clock and so its combination of hi-jinks and mild peril made for an accessible film for young and old. In Chris Columbus’ directorial debut, Elisabeth Shue plays the titular babysitter, trying to keep everything together as she takes her adolescent charges into downtown Chicago to pick up her best friend. There are a few parallels between this film and Columbus’ eventual masterpiece, Home Alone – both films have a similar tone with children operating in an adult world, and both feature those children foiling bumbling criminals. Home Alone is easily the superior film but this one’s worth checking out.