Television tome that needs tuning

The Magic Box is Rob Young’s impassioned, occasionally impenetrable, psycho-history of the TV of his youth

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One day in January 1983, Rob Young volunteered to appear on TV. Along with hundreds of other wannabes, he was instructed to take up position within a giant GOOD MORNING BRITAIN logo that had been pegged out on Bristol’s Durdham Downs. With a helicopter in position overhead, everyone was ordered to scatter aimlessly before coming together to reform the logo. “Beautiful!” blared an assistant through a megaphone. “The director wants you all to know he’s having orgasms up here!”

The Magic Box: Viewing Britain Through the Rectangular Window by Rob Young, Faber, £20

Rob Young, it seems fair to say, has all his life been similarly excited by something on the telly. Like many a child of the sixties and seventies, he was almost as close to the TV as he was to his mother and father. At once minder and mindscape, it looked after him while giving him things to look at.

Half a century on, he returns the compliment. The Magic Box is his impassioned, occasionally impenetrable, psycho-history of the TV of his youth.

Not that Young is a mindless square-eyes. A bright lad, he went to a good school where he had at least one inspiring teacher. But who could demur when he argues that, “for the post-war generation, the television had replaced the village storyteller” as repository of imaginary wisdom? “In those far-off days of two or, at best, three channels,” he says, “everyone had the same stories to discuss … television contributed to the national conversation and collective memory.”

It’s not a new line. We all know that in 1977 fully half the country’s population (then 56 million) sat down to watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. But that was — and remains — a record. None of the shows Young discusses got audiences anything like as big.

Indeed, for every familiar serial or movie, he discusses three or four that will have you scratching your head. It turns out that even when there were only the two Beebs and ITV to tune into, there was already more drama than you could turn on to.

For every familiar serial or movie, he discusses three or four that will have you scratching your head

Our fondly remembered moments of shared cultural experience are as much dream as memory. The blurb claims the book offers a “televisual and filmic self-portrait”, to which the only answer is Irene Handl’s immortal, “who of?”

That gag comes from The Rebel, a movie spin-off from the Galton and Simpson-scripted Hancock’s Half Hour. You will find no reference to the show or the film or Galton and Simpson’s other masterpiece (Steptoe and Son) here. Nor do John Esmonde and Bob Larbey (Please Sir!; The Good Life) or Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais (The Likely Lads; Porridge; Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) rate a mention.

In fact, sitcoms hardly feature in The Magic Box. True, “Arthur Lowe at his most bumptiously patrician”, crops up — not, though, for his work in Dad’s Army, but for his appearance in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! To be sure, Anderson’s facetious and facile anti-capitalist rant has much to tell us about the infantile state of the Left in post-war Britain. But if it’s post-war Britain you want to understand, then Lowe’s trumped-up Captain Mainwaring — and John le Mesurier’s laidback Sergeant Wilson — ought to be on your agenda.

If comedy isn’t Young’s thing, nor does he go in much for thrillers or cop shows. No Department S or Dixon of Dock Green here. What really floats his boat is a mini-genre he calls “folk-horror”. No, me neither, and matters don’t become clearer when Young quotes someone called Adam Scovell’s definition of folk horror as “a type of social map that tracks the unconscious ley-lines between a huge range of different forms of media in the twentieth century”. Like Steve Martin said to the heckler, “I remember when I had my first beer”.

Still, reading between the ley-lines, it seems that folk horror — a genre so mini it consists of three movies and a couple of Plays for Today — is scary stuff set in the sticks. Forget the stately homes of Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein. Folk horror transplants the iconography of dread on to the transcendental tweeness of the country cottage. It’s Hammer Horror in Hampshire, the Wolfman meets the Wurzels.

For all the bucolicism, Young claims that folk horror offers a way into the political unconscious of the nation. Take Witchfinder General. Gawped at drunkenly on a Friday night on Talking Pictures, Michael Reeves’ Civil War torture-fest might seem little more than a platter for a slice of Vincent Price’s most succulent ham. For Young, it’s a parable of the burgeoning insurrectionism of the sixties counterculture.

The movie’s denouement, in which Ian Ogilvy’s hitherto peaceable soldier “transform[s] himself into an axe-wielding butcher”, is, Young says, metaphoric. It’s a reimagining of the anti-Vietnam War protest outside the American Embassy in London on 17 March 1968 which “ended with a mounted police charge and two hundred arrests [after which] English flower power woke up and realised it had to take direct action”.

Except, of course, it isn’t. I take Young at his word when he tells us that Reeves (a boozer and user who was dead within the year) was indeed present in Grosvenor Square that day. But, as Young admits, Witchfinder General had been shot six months previous, in the autumn of 1967, and Reeves had finished editing the movie before he joined in the demo.

Anyway, even if we allow for the synchronicities of the zeitgeist, man, what really dismembers Young’s reading is the fact that Ogilvy’s soldier isn’t a fun-loving Cavalier. He’s a fun-loathing Roundhead. Far from being up for a riot in Westminster, he’d have slaughtered anyone as decadent as a sixties dropout.

But if it’s full-blown historicist flimflam you’re after, get a load of Young’s reading of Mary Poppins Returns. I’ll confess I haven’t seen this 2018 picture, but apparently it has a scene in which our heroine sends Big Ben into reverse in order to turn back time. Guess what. This means that the real subject of the movie — a movie written by a guy from Flint, Michigan, and directed by a guy from Madison, Wisconsin, — is “the unsolvable conundrum of Brexit”.

Like the Beatles’s “girl with kaleidoscope eyes”, Young sees patterns everywhere. Nothing is random, everything is preordained. Back in 1970, we learn, Roddy McDowell directed a scary movie called Tam Lin. Way down the cast list was a young actor called Bruce Robinson. A decade and a half later, Robinson wrote and directed Withnail & I.

But get this. In Withnail, there’s a scene set on the M1 — and it was “foreshadowed” by a scene set on the M1 in Tam Lin! Hmmm. By the same token, I guess that the scene in Goldfinger in which Q explains the workings of the in-car ejector seat to Bond foreshadows the scene in which Bond works the ejector-seat.

For all the bucolicism, Young claims that folk horror offers a way into the political unconscious of the nation

But Young is off again. “Is it a coincidence”, he wonders, that the villain’s cardigan in the 1975 BBC play The Breakthrough is the same “solar yellow” as Christopher Lee’s polo-neck in the 1973 movie The Wicker Man? The answer is yes, it almost certainly is a coincidence — but even if it isn’t there’s nothing spooky about it. Either the designer of “The Breakthrough” had seen The Wicker Man and — consciously or not — aped its colour scheme. Or — more likely — there were a lot of yellow woollies in the shops back in the early seventies.

The book isn’t all horror. Young has sections on historic dramas, British Transport Films, the goings-on at Brideshead and Downton, Dr Who and Quatermass.

He’s at his best with sci-fi — even if his readings of the Quatermass serials as reflective of Cold War “Britons trying to protect their sovereign shores” are persuasive if only because they’re so bleedin’ obvious.

But, on the whole, he has spread his dreamcatcher too wide. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, the book is a speckly tour d’horizon. It’s as if the grainy images on the coffin-sized tellies Young grew up with had infected his prose. On the one hand, there’s enough material here to jump-start a dozen PhDs. On the other hand, nothing ever quite comes into focus.

Meanwhile, anyone who worries that TV has dumbed-down whole generations will find much in the book that supports their case. H G Wells did not write a novel called Half a Sixpence, though David Heneker and Beverley Ross did base their musical of that name on Wells’s novel Kipps. I hold no brief for Enoch Powell, but calling him a “fascist” is like calling Jeremy Corbyn an intellect. The Eagle Has Landed may or may not be “jingoistic pulp”, but it was written by Jack Higgins — not Frederick Forsyth. And while I can think of painters — Goya, Rembrandt, Caravaggio — whose work might be labelled “tenebrous”, I’m not convinced that Vermeer, with his startling clarity, belongs in that group.

Could it be that all those crepuscular horror stories have clouded Young’s eyes? As he says after YouTubing his moment of stardom on Good Morning Britain, “it looks sunnier than I remember”.

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