Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Back to the future

Last week I said that my current spate of columns was leading to something momentous. I should have clarified. I meant that it was leading up to something that is momentous to me. Apologies to those who have been waiting breathlessly, thinking I was about to divulge future winning lottery numbers or something.

To put this in context, let me review. Longtime attentive readers (assuming that there actually is one or two) will recall that one of the hardest things for me to leave behind when I moved from the US to Ireland (apart from the usual things, i.e. friends, family, Starbucks, easy right turns) was my TiVo. I was an early and avid adopter of the technology usually abbreviated as either PVR (personal video recorder) or DVR (digital video recorder). I wrote lovingly about my own DVR starting in October 2000. Within a short amount of time, I was a convert. I had been liberated. Finally, I controlled the television broadcasts rather than the other way around. All of that ended in September of 2002, when I bequeathed my TiVo to my brother and emigrated to the Emerald Isle.

In Ireland at that time, there was no equivalent to TiVo. Becoming DVR-less was merely the most prominent of several of out-of-era experiences I had in living in the west of Ireland. Along with having to negotiate occasional flocks of sheep and herds of cattle while driving on the road, I also had to deal with television as it existed in the old, scary 20th century. I was back fiddling with videocassettes and programming a VCR if not actually (shudder) watching television real-time. No live pause or rewind. No longer being able to exert some reasonable control on the Little Munchkin’s video adventures. People who haven’t experienced a DVR have trouble “getting” what is so great about it. On hearing a description (video recorded to a hard disk instead of to tape), they usually say, “Isn’t it just a glorified VCR?” The only analogy I can think of to explain the difference between a VCR and a DVR is one that is really appreciated only by people who bought the first Commodore 64s. Going from a VCR to a DVR is like going from a computer that saves its files on tape to going to one that has a disk drive. There, that’s the best I can do.

Anyway, I was DVR-less in Ireland for the better part of a year. Then the moment I was waiting for: Sky+ became available in the Republic of Ireland. Sky+ is a DVR available from Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Digital, which has come to dominate satellite television in the British Isles. Sky+ was rolled out in the ROI sometime over the summer (the exact moment seems to have been obscure), but I didn’t bite right away. The bloodsuckers wanted 15 euro a month for the service. TiVo charged a monthly fee its service as well, but there was an option to buy a lifetime subscription, which at $250 (I believe it was) was quite a bargain, assuming the boxes lasted long enough to make it worthwhile. I was opposed in principle to being locked into an open-ended monthly subscription. Apparently, quite a few other people felt the same because people were slow to upgrade their satellite digiboxes to Sky+.

Then in October there was a breakthrough. Sky announced that it would waive the subscription fee for Sky+, but only under a certain condition. You had to be spending more than a certain amount per month on premium channels. Now, it may surprise people to learn that I had never paid for a premium cable or satellite channel in my life. Never subscribed to HBO or Showtime or any other movie channel. My interest has always been in seeing movies in the cinema rather than on the small screen, and besides I knew I would haven’t time to watch many movies on the telly anyway. But now things had changed. By subscribing to a movie package (or a sports package, but that was never in it) I could get a DVR subscription for “free”! (Still had to pay for the box and the installation.) This was too good to be true. Sure it meant that I was paying more than if I had just broken down and paid the Sky+ subscription, but this let me off the hook psychologically. What’s more, it gave me permission to do something I had always wanted to do anyway but couldn’t justify: get movie channels. Sign me up!

That’s where the frustrations started. And people who are actually trying to follow all this by now are wondering: how were the previous columns “leading up to” this? Well, last week I talked about a favorite kiddie show of the Little Munchkin, which is produced by BBC Scotland, Balamory. If you spend much time with the characters of Balamory, you start to go a little crazy. They are all so nice and gentle and, well, I guess condescending. And they have the cutest Scottish accents. To American ears, these lovely, lilting voices bring up sinister things like the village in The Prisoner (which was actually in Wales). In dealing with Sky, which is located in Glasgow, I felt I had become trapped in my own private Balamory. The earliest installation appointment I could get was in 10 days, which seemed fair enough. But the guy didn’t show up. I rang to find out what was going on and was told that all I could do was make another appointment, which would be in another 10 days. To confuse things, the installer (who had a nice Scottish accent) rang the very next day to say that there had been “a mix-up” and that he would come out that day. Then he rang in the afternoon to say that he wouldn’t. Ten days later no one showed up again. I called to complain. I was told that the engineer could not find the house and that our phone had been “engaged.” (I think we had used the phone a total of five minutes that day.) Despite my ranting, the soonest next appointment I could get was for two weeks later. No one showed up. I rang to complain again.

Now you have to understand that, even though anger and indignation are what is called for in a situation like this, it is impossible to be mean to the Sky phone people. For one thing, they all have lovely Scottish accents and they are all so polite and understanding (like the people in Balamory). One young woman, after receiving some of my venom, said chirpily, “I understand, sir. I will definitely put a note in the file that you were miffed.” Argh! This time, however, I got somewhere. The phone person actually called the contractor in Dublin and found that the work order had never arrived. The phone person kept emphasizing that everything looked fine on her own computer screen, but I insisted that it would be nice if the person who was actually doing the work knew about my installation as well. In the end, she faxed the work order to the contractor, and I got an appointment the very next day.

The next day was a miserable one, weather-wise. As it got to the end of the day, and it got darker outside, I despaired that the installer would actually show up and be able to go on the roof to make the necessary changes to the satellite dish. (Sky+ has two receivers instead of one.) Finally, he did show up. But he didn’t have a ladder tall enough to go up on our roof. So he left again. He promised he would be back the next day with a taller ladder. I wondered. The next day went by, and there was no sign of the fellow. It was another miserable day and it was getting dark. Then suddenly, there he was. “I wouldn’t leave you in the lurch,” he said. He went up on the roof in the wind and the rain. He waited ages while a trainee in Glasgow arranged for the right signals to be sent from the satellite to activate my service. Then he was gone.

Now, would the darn thing actually work?

-S.L., 4 December 2003

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