Book review: The Magic Box, by Rob Young

Taking in everything from dystopian thrillers like Quatermass to unlikely-sounding dramas such as The Year of The Sex Olympics, The Magic Box is a highly entertaining romp through the eccentric history of British TV, writes Aidan Smith

Rob Young

An occupational hazard for the junior goggle-box fiend – back when your parents warned that too much would leave you with square eyes – was the TV set blowing up. It happened to Rob Young and it happened to me.

“It occurs in a nanosecond, like a smack of fear at the back of the cerebral cortex,” he writes, “a shooting vertical triangle of pale blue flame, smeared against the wallpaper, touching the ceiling… this is how a television gives up the ghost: a fleeting glimpse of its electrostatic soul.”

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You can tell the incident left its mark on Young. In my case the set melted. The devastation looked like the aftermath of an indoor fireworks display, as if the valves had turned into black snakes. In my memory I’ve conflated the cathode-ray conflagration with the scariest programme my younger self ever witnessed. The name of that show – the horror-struck face of a policeman is all I remember – has intrigued for half a century and now I’m convinced it’s lurking somewhere in Young’s fabulous treasure trove.

The Magic Box, by Rob Young

Young normally writes about music and his Electric Eden is the set text on folk’s progress through the 20th century. He has retained the mossy, mulchy film on his lens for much of The Magic Box and identifies many programmes which are the televisual equivalent of the Incredible String Band – bold, eerie, lost in their world, incredible.

The key chapters focus on the small-screen of the 1960s and 1970s, such as The Changes: “There will come a day… when my mother will grasp her Kenwood Chefette and her Tandberg radio, rip them out of the wall and dash them to the ground,” he writes. “My father will smash the Bush 1122 colour TV with the Hoover, hurl the Flymo against the garden wall and, with the aid of our neighbours, overturn his Triumph 2000…” Hughes was witnessing a depiction of “paranoid techno-fear”. The Changes was positioned between Jackanory and The Magic Roundabout. “I know how civilisation will end,” he declares. Aged seven, he was just home from school.

The queen of paranoid TV-fear, Mary Whitehouse, must have missed that one. If the public information film from Young’s childhood warning about playing near water was produced today, Health & Safety would have gagged Donald Pleasance for his creepy voiceover. Young, though, was enraptured: “Alarm bells are occasionally raised about children’s attention spans being diminished [by] too much TV. In my experience, it was precisely the opposite.”

Television could be no less risk-taking, questing and downright astonishing for grown-ups. The Year of The Sex Olympics, a Wednesday Play from 1970, had “grinning couples compete against each other on circular beds in a debauched travesty of Strictly Come Dancing or The Great British Bake Off”. The writer was Nigel Kneale who’d previously adapted 1984 – which alarmed many viewers but apparently entertained the Queen – so he’d gone from George Orwell’s Big Brother to presaging Channel 4’s Big Brother and reality TV.

Responsible for Quatermass and other dystopian thrillers, Kneale is a towering presence in the book but has suffered the fate of many TV visionaries, with a lot of their work “wiped, lost or stored in the bottomless archive,” laments Young.

Some gems, though, have been preserved. My DVD of Robin Redbreast is already in flight from Amazon. This Play for Today belongs to a genre much admired by Young: folk-horror, where Britain’s pagan past is mocked by the metropolitan elite, to their considerable cost.

I may be able to correct Young’s listing of the director as John McTaggart: it’s James, the great Glasgwegian remembered every Edinburgh TV Festival by the keynote address. But, believing I could quote extensively from all of the work by the great Greenockian Peter McDougall, I’m grateful to my guide for unearthing Tarry-Dan Tarry-Dan Scarey Old Spooky Man. What a title. What a time to be young, when television had “replaced the village storyteller”.

The Magic Box: Viewing Britain through the Rectangular Window, by Rob Young, Faber & Faber, 512pp, £20

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