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When family viewing was full of creeping menace

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

The Magic Box: Viewing Britain Through the Rectangular Window Rob Young

Faber, pp.500, 20

Strange, really, that the scheduled output of traditional broadcasters became known as ‘terrestrial’ television, given that TV is an etheric medium and nowadays exclusively a digital one. Or perhaps it’s not so strange at all. Television is ‘bonded to the earth’, writes Rob Young, whose roving survey of small and silver screen creativity between the 1950s and 1980s seeks to connect those airborne signals to the soil beneath our shoes.

Young’s first book, the excellent Electric Eden, rummaged around the untrimmed hedgerows of the British psyche via the medium of folk-related music. The Magic Box has a similar aim. The intention is to ‘gorge on a huge cross-genre feast of moving pictures that… express something about the nature and character of Britain, its uncategorisable people and buried histories’.

‘Gorge’ is the word. In a series of themed sub-divided chapters Young trawls through thousands of hours of programming. Though the joy of digesting countless condensed plot lines concerning alien invasion and 17th-century diabolism palls somewhat over 500 pages, this is a work of deep research. Its reach encompasses classics such as Doctor Who, Quatermass and Brideshead Revisited, as well as grainy obscurities preserved only on ancient home-recorded VHS. Young explores the work of Hammer Films, the screenwriter Nigel Kneale and the dusty, melancholy lost-worlds of Bagpuss, Bod and Fingerbobs, programmes which introduced children ‘to the adventure of living’. Fixating on the almost unfathomable significance of reclaimed artefacts, they were benignly anarchic enchantments in the age of the three-day week.

This is a reclamation, not just of a visual ‘golden age’, but of Britain as a darkly magical place: fearful, shimmering, violent, bewitched, enduring. The connections made are often enlivening, revealing ways in which television and film commented on paganism and witchcraft, right-wing coups, cults, class revolt, geomancy, mythology, science, sexual permissiveness, politics and post-colonial jitters, Americanisation, the supernatural — for what is a ‘magic box’ but a ghost in the corner of the room? — ‘the persistence of the irrational’ and, not least, nuclear dread: few things are more evocative of the shadow of the Bomb than the unremitting nihilism of Threads and Edge of Darkness.

Themes rise up and linger like a haunting. The most persistent is Britain’s troubled relationship with its past, ‘the problem of progress’ and our ambiguous inter-action with the land. The power of ‘folk-horror’ — a notion Young interrogates via three films, The Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man, ‘the Stonehenge of British film archaeology’— relies on the eruption of forgotten things, the imprint of trauma on a physical place and the inevitability of some dreadful atavistic destiny bearing down on a Ruritanian idyll. History can be evaded but never escaped. As Young puns, ‘I fought the lore, but the lore won.’

A primal and enduring fear of the Other has also dominated British screens. For Young, it’s little surprise that ‘this well-preserved emerald isle should expend so much of its cultural imagination fretting over its own downfall and destruction’. Whether from space, underground, overseas, the big city or the nearest village, the creeping menace of the unknown is a recurring obsession. Contemporary political resonances are noted but not overstated.

Young is alive to the ‘sweet, seductive sickness’ of nostalgia and the lure of fake authenticity, where the supposedly traditional is simply one more invention (often, ironically, copied from the television screen). Connections to present-day film and television are duly maintained throughout, but there’s no disguising the sighing sense of loss in these pages, a yearning for a time when television was an active agent of disruption in the room rather than a passive entertainment hub accessed on an LCD screen. The Magic Boxromanticises pre-digital television as a village oracle, knocking on the door to whisper often uncomfortable stories about ourselves.

These stories, Young argues, amount to ‘an alternative national mythology’ — but which nation? The Britain of the title is, in fact, almost always England, albeit a Celtic, pre-Christian England. Despite brief forays into Scotland (Tam Lin) and Wales (The Owl Service), and passing mention of the ‘mongrel British condition’, the challenge of exploring diverse strands of nationhood and ethnicity is largely ducked: ‘The sharp edges of events that have defined the union and its discontents … remain too sensitive to commit to film.’ This, to put it mildly, is open to dispute.

What really intrigues Young is the screen’s connection to ‘weird old Albion’. The book’s panoramic final chapter sweeps from Chaucer to Worzel Gummidge in its blossoming evocation of ‘English magic’. Here Young scopes out similar terrain to Jim Crace’s Harvest, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Pentangle’s Basket of Light. ‘There is no end to the great game of imagining alternative Englands,’ he writes. The Magic Box plays that particular game very well.

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