LOOKED at from a certain angle, maybe what follows is a ghost story.
In 1975 Rob Young was a seven-year-old English schoolboy who watched an awful lot of television. Didn’t we all back then?
That year he can still recall coming home from school and catching the first episode of a new children’s TV series, lodged between Jackanory and The Magic Roundabout.
Adapted from a trilogy of young adult novels by Peter Dickinson, The Changes imagined a world turned upside down. In a bout of destructive madness adults destroy every bit of machinery and technology they can find, and Britain eventually reverts to a pre-industrial agrarian society.
As Young writes in his new book The Magic Box, “I am seven years old and I know how the world will end.”
That programme stayed with the author – haunted him, you might say – into adulthood.
And it was not a one-off. It was merely one of a number of dystopian visions of the nation that filled British television back in the days when there were only three channels and they all still shut down at night.
It is that moment and how it stretches forward to the present day that is at the heart of Young’s new book. Subtitled “Viewing Britain Through the Rectangular Window”, The Magic Box is an attempt at reclamation and, perhaps, mystification. It wrestles with what can be described as a golden age of television and film, but also looks at the darkness and danger that frayed the edges of it.
Young made his name with Electric Eden, his epic account of the British folk revival of the late 1960s and The Magic Box could be seen as a mulchy, mildewed side dish if you like.
Like folk music, he points out, so much of what he grew up watching was obsessed with a sense of the past in the present, the tensions between progress and nostalgia and the town and the country. Again and again, British TV and film has looked backwards rather than forward.
In The Magic Box Young examines everything from costume dramas (Brideshead Revisited, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Wuthering Heights) to folk horror (The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man). Children’s telly (the aforementioned The Changes and Children of the Stones), sci-fi (Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel) John Betjeman documentaries and adaptations of MR James’s ghost stories are all covered, and even McKenzie Crook’s recent sitcom Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge get a look in.
In doing so, Young teases out “how the past refuses to be forgotten” in British TV and films and, also asks what that might tell us about ourselves.
The result is a spooked vision of Weird Britannia, an alternative history if you like, soaked in the memories of childhood and strobing black and white television sets that stretches all the way forward to our Brexity present.
These days Young lives in Oslo. He has spent 10 years on and off working on The Magic Box, watched hour after hour of old television serials, buried himself into the subject.
Which is rather appropriate given how often the programmes and films he describes are obsessed with the digging up or unveiling of the past. Even when it comes to science fiction. Nigel Kneale’s TV series Quatermass and the Pit, in which a Martian spaceship is discovered underneath a London tube station after being covered up for thousands of years, is a perfect case in point.
It’s uncovering reveals something about the innate brutality of humanity, Young suggests. Or is it the innate brutality of the British?
Kneale’s four Quatermass series were landmark TV events between 1953 and 1979 and he is one of the key people covered in Young’s book.
“For me,” Young suggests, “he is a writer who is on a par in 20th-century terms with George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and JG Ballard. As a screen writer for TV, the signature medium of the 20th century, he is so important.
“From the early fifties when he started as a screenwriter for the BBC, he just seems to come in with a sense of how you could imagine science fiction that would work on the TV medium.
“Those early Quartermass stories are full of this idea of alien infiltration of the country, either as a disfiguring disease or, in the second one, Quatermass II, this unseen alien presence infiltrating government and manufacturing.
“These are quite complex and chilling ideas to bring onto BBC television in the 1950s.
“And he was of that generation, along with a writer like John Wyndham, the author of Day of the Triffids, in the aftermath of the war, clearly saturated with ideas of apocalypse.”
Well, yes, we do have to mention the war. What is striking when reading The Magic Box is how often a fantasy of the UK being invaded by Nazi Germany or the imposition of a hard-right government recurs.
“I’m sure it’s a reaction to the fear of that happening,” Young says. “What’s often so scary is they really do show that in a lot of sections of the society it’s welcomed and embraced.
“It’s about the fear that those impulses are potentially in any society. But they’re often not discussed openly and what I do feel is interesting, looking back at these programmes, is it’s almost like psychoanalysing the nation. You can see these things recurring like a psychosis in a way, and the therapy is the enactment of them on the screen.”
The past is always with us in the UK then, on screen and off. “I think it’s to do with the landscape in Britain,” Young suggests. “It’s always so charged.
“I think wherever you walk, even if you are out in the deep countryside, you’re reading it in some way. You’re not just experiencing it in itself. The landscape is so freighted with historical events. I think it’s just so deeply engrained. You can’t go far without seeing a plaque telling you a battle happened here.
“It’s a sense of the past really makes the British who we are. But I think it’s also a handicap in many ways as well. Writing the book, I became very aware of the danger of nostalgia. The sense that things have been better in the past has really held us back and is certainly a factor in the chaos that we are experiencing at the moment.”
It should also be said that the history we remember, that is presented to us on the screen is often selective. Large tracts of it – whether that be colonial history or the contested histories of the four nations – rarely surface.
Young points to a director like Steve McQueen, the man behind last year’s Small Axe dramas about the Black British experience in the 1970s and 1980s as a rare recent corrective.
Yet in a sense the point of The Magic Box is itself an unearthing of the unusual, the unheimlich, the “other” in TV and film history, a reminder that there are other narratives apart from the official British history of kings and queens and military victories.
In The Wicker Man or even Whistle and I’ll Come To You, Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of the MR James classic ghost story, visions of our pre-Christian, pagan past are conjured up. TV and film are mediums for the return of the repressed in other words.
The repressed, it should be said, tend to be English. Some critics have pointed out that The Magic Box is actually more interested Weird England than Weird Britain. But perhaps that’s more a reflection of the inequalities of TV production in the UK. When it comes to Scotland Young does examine the likes of The Wicker Man and Peter Watkins’ 1964 docudrama Culloden among others.
Indeed, The Wicker Man is a key text for the book. And a reminder that fiction is never purist.
“It’s obviously made and set in Scotland,” Young points out, “but it feels like a cornucopia of folk traditions and costumes and music from all around the British isles. That is what makes it so fascinating. It’s very soaked in the feel and atmosphere of a Scottish island, but it is also a microcosm of the British folkloric psyche. You’ve got hobby horses that look like they come from Cornwall.”
We are a mongrel race, then, who create mongrel visions. And are still doing so. Young says that in the decade he has been working on The Magic Box, its subject matter has felt “more and more timely.”
And indeed, the influence of those old films and TV programmes has been reignited. Young cites a film maker like Ben Wheatley, who has made such contemporary folk horror classics as Kill List and A Field in England. And even the aforementioned Detectorists is an example of this revival of Weird Britannia tropes.
“In the period in which I was writing it kind of opened up from being a sort of archival trawl to actually reflecting new trends in British film-making and television making.”
Who are we then? Who are we now? Surrounded by ghosts, it seems. Which makes the box in the corner our very own haunted house.
The Magic Box by Rob Young is published by Faber, £20
What to Watch: Rob Young guides you through a crash course in The Magic Box:
The Changes (1975)
“I never forgot it,” says Rob Young. “I knew I was watching something significant. It has that double-edged sense that it’s exciting to reset society and start again, and it’s also horrifying as well.
“It’ s not a perfect series. Like a lot of TV from the 1970s, you can see the creaks and the rough edges. But as children’s television it’s still pretty powerful and sometimes shocking stuff and it is definitely one that has stayed with me ever since I saw it.
Quatermass and the Pit (1958 & 1967)
Nigel Kneale’s TV series and the subsequent Hammer film adaptation concerns the discovery of a Martian spaceship under a London tube station, where it has been buried for thousands of years. It’s uncovering reveals something about the innate brutality of humanity, Young suggests. Or is it the innate brutality of the British?
Penda’s Fen (1974)
Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, better known for his hard-hitting social realist dramas such as Scum and Made in Britain, Penda’s Fen is a strange, pagan-inflected contemporary drama that takes in the seventh-century Mercian king of the title, Edward Elgar and the odd angel.
“It’s a fascinating one that connects one individual coming to self-awareness to a haunted landscape and the spirits of ancient English kings. It’s a remarkable script and an amazing piece of work,” Young says.
The Wicker Man (1973) and Requiem for a Village (1975)
“I probably have to put The Wicker Man in there even though it is boringly obvious,” Young suggests. “Not so well known is a film called Requiem for a Village directed by David Gladwell who was a prolific film editor. He made this film in the mid-seventies. It’s an essay film, but it has elements of horror movie. It has deeply pastoral imagery and it flits between the past and the present. It’s about how we look after the heritage of a village in the face of progress. It’s very William Morris-y in spirit. It has a lot going on in it.”
Worzel Gummidge (2019-2020)
Young’s final choice is Mackenzie Crook’s recent remake of Worzel Gummidge, which managed to capture some of the sense of wonder to be found in earlier children’s television programmes. “It has an interesting ecological message about the English countryside and a sense of magic. I could say a lot of the same things about Detectorists as well.”