Fireball XL5: A Big Small Screen Adventure

October 22, 2021

By Tim Beddows, Managing Director, Network Distributing Ltd

Long before the convenience of Blu-rays, DVDs, downloads or even video cassettes, the sixties equivalent of mod-con home entertainment was a format that would probably be viewed by contemporary audiences as charming, possibly eccentric, certainly clumsy and barely conceivable.

Back then, one either visited the cinema or watched two (with the introduction of BBC2 in 1964, three) live television channels – and there was no point in being late for either. Turn up, tune in or miss, say, Fireball XL5 this week. Of course, there was always next week but that feeling of loss was maddening – in those days one never knew if these things would ever reappear, 

The advent of 8mm film (or ‘bootlace’ as it was affectionally known) expanded those do-or-die options, becoming the first global home entertainment format, and opening up huge commercial opportunities in the process. Consumers were soon busy shooting their own movies on easy-to-load, point-and-shoot cine cameras, albeit those ‘movies’ consisted mostly of stultifying holidays at the seaside and even more stultifying family weddings. The more adventurous took to steam trains or became actual industry creatives (like a certain Mr. Spielberg).

The latent 8mm movement also opened front doors to the joys of home cinema, as studios breathed new life into old catalogues and began distributing their most popular titles on the new format. There were catches, of course.

You first had to invest in the equipment, most notably a projector as a pre-requisite: Standard 8mm or Super 8mm? ‘What?’ Dual gauge? Silent or sound? Both? (There was a difference; silent films were intended to be projected at a slower speed although this was a bit of a con in real terms, because you got no more footage in a commercially released film – just a slower-moving film).

Next? Well, a reasonably-sized tripod screen wouldn’t go amiss, nor an external speaker if you were planning to show sound films. For the truly professional touch, your soundtrack should be played back through a speaker sitting below the screen, rather than from the projector’s innards, complete with the added sound effects of clattering machinery; albeit the sound of sprocket holes churning through machinery did lend a certain charm if you didn’t have the luxury of a separate projection room (some do, to this day).

The requisition list goes on: a splicer and some splicing tape, in case the film mangles in the mechanism (a common occurrence, which in its worst-case scenario treated the audience to an altogether different film show as the seized film frame melted before their very eyes, in a kind of Pink Floyd lightshow effect, with added smell-o-vision). The enthusiastic amateur projectionist would also benefit from a reel of white leader (blank, sprocketed film allowing your epic to be safely guided into the projector without mishap), a lens cloth, head demagnetizer, plastic bits that transform your spindles from standard 8 to super 8… the paraphernalia turned one into a fanatic. I mean, er, it could turn one, if you let it…

Half an hour of unpacking all the pieces, setting up, lining up, titling up, titling down again (not so much this time) and with cables trailing unsafely across the carpet, a screen slightly askew and the dining room chairs carefully re-arranged so that no one’s head gets in the way of that magical 100W beam of light, and you’re almost ready to roll. Your willing assistant, sorry, stooge, kills the lights and there on the screen, in all its flickering glory appears the legend: ‘A Walton Film’. The thrill of the cinema is instantly conjured. It’s like being at the Odeon without leaving the house.

Congratulations. You’re now fully equipped. But now you need something to actually show. Thankfully, by the mid-sixties everyone was in on the game, from the majors like Disney, Columbia and Universal to independents, like our friends here, Walton Films. Not that this plethora of content equated to a huge choice of actual titles. And nothing contemporary, you understand, so you could put those plans for a Bond-themed evening on hold until… well, indefinitely. Although commercial home movies were available in every town and city in the land, the selections were limited in the extreme. You also had to learn the strangely arcane language of 8mm:

Good morning, do you have the 400ft colour sound version of The Guns of Navarone in super 8?’

I’ll just check the stock room………… I’m afraid not, sir, but I can order you a copy. It’ll be in the week after next. Or we do have a 50ft silent version in standard 8 in the drawer.’

Ok, thank you I’ll leave it. Oh, is that Fireball XL5 on the wall?’

Yes sir. That’s the 2 reel sound version of Planet 46 but it’s only a display box. I can order you a copy or we have this 50ft silent version. We are rather a small branch.‘

I didn’t even know you could buy television programmes. Do you have The Avengers?’

Maybe in about twelve years, sir. Perhaps.’ 

A vastly exaggerated fiction to illustrate the difficulty in obtaining these things: films could rarely be bought on a whim, and it was a racing certainty that even the most solidly reliable of retailers like Sherwoods in Birmingham would never have exactly what you wanted in the shop on the day of your visit.

Whether in store or shopping via mail order, you needed to sharpen your 8mm lingo too. (A.353) (1 reel) Std8 Snd B/W is actually 10 edited minutes of Planet 46 in standard 8mm with sound, to the trained eye. Super 8mm versions were introduced in the mid-1960s and were superior to their standard counterparts because of the smaller sprocket holes and increased picture area from essentially the same amount of film. Higher quality in any language.

Finally, for these first steps into home entertainment, like pursuing any moderm-day format, you needed lots of money. Actual film was never really cheap and it’s eyebrow-raising that it ever took off with the masses. Just like Fireball, however, take off it did.

Fireball’s commercial success, paved the way to 8mm glory for Gerry Anderson’s next series, StingrayFireball was, in fact, so successful that in a move unheard of today, electrical retailer Dixons released two episodes of their own under sub-license from Walton, at a time when exclusivity didn’t seem to faze anyone in business. What was relatively unheard of then was releasing television material at all and Walton can legitimately claim that trophy.

Despite all the expense, crankiness and faffing about seeing Fireball XL5 on a biggish screen at a time of one’s own choosing (rather than waiting in the never-neverland of TV scheduling), was a thrill that’s easily taken for granted in 2021. We’ve tried to recreate that experience here on our new Fireball XL5 Blu-ray release without so much expense, crankiness or faffing about. Check out our 8mm films special feature for a taste of the home entertainment experience 1960s-style. For maximum enjoyment, watch it in a darkened room…

We couldn’t close a chapter about this bootlace malarkey without mentioning the late, legendary Derek Simmond,s founder of Derann Films (Der as in Derek, ann as in Ann, his bookkeeper wife), the only other major independent distributor of any note in the business and based, not in London or Buckinghamshire as one might expect, but in Dudley in the Black Country.

A former cinema projectionist with a love of the Hollywood greats, Derek took 8mm distribution to new heights by releasing fully uncut feature films such as Psycho and Dracula Prince of Darkness for the first time. It’s fair to say that Derann and Walton were closely aligned, friendly competitors. Each complemented the other in the marketplace, and when Walton finally reached the end of the picture in 1982, Derek bought what was left of the company and its stock.

His business, the last bastion of 8mm, extended way beyond Walton’s ambitions, continuing into the early part of the twenty-first century, and his influence is still felt today by this founder of Network. Archive TV fans can be particularly grateful to him for filling his catalogue and rental library with, among a shopful of wondrous oddities, The Avengers, available to watch at a time when the series had been long absent from UK television screens… but let’s leave that story for another day, not least because Derek deserves of his own book.

Television on the big screen! There’s a novelty.

 



Comments:1

  1. Mike Rhodes Reply
    21/11/11

    I love super 8 movies. I have a small collection of homes movies and pre made films from the likes of Derran and Walton. There is something quite magical about setting up the projector etc. Yes its expensive. yes its noisy but its wonderful. Unfortunately I got in the game a little late but if you want to make films there are lots of types of super 8 film still available and still being produced. sadly pre made films are a thing of the past but it makes collecting the titles a great hobby. My prize possession so far has to be laurel and hardy the music box. It’s amazing. oh. And a reel of adverts I’ve spliced together.

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