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The Magic Box by Rob Young review – a spirited history of television

I grew up in the West Country but spent much of my adolescence peering at the Sheffield Crucible theatre. Like millions of other Britons, I was glued to championship snooker. Back in the 1960s, BBC Two’s controller David Attenborough had promoted the sport as a showcase for the wonders of colour TV; two decades later, I was still watching it on my parents’ black-and-white set. This should have been absurd, an inferior experience. In fact, my mind’s eye was more powerful than my actual eyes. My imagination transformed the grey balls into pinks and reds and blues. Were all programmes, broadcast on equipment probably less sophisticated than a pair of modern trainers, envisaged as much as seen?

Rob Young’s The Magic Box, an exploration of British television from the late 1950s to the late 80s, seems to think so. It portrays its subject as an experimental educational centre that offered an alternative national curriculum. Television in those days harboured deviants. It was spectral, a dreamscape. This may have been inevitable: a key figure in the development of the cathode-ray tube was William Crookes (1832-1919) who was interested in spiritualism and also served as president of the Society for Psychical Research. (In 1890, he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.)

Young writes of television as a spirit medium, its programmes transmitted through “the dreamcatcher aerial bolted to chimney pots”. He is brilliant at evoking the sheer oddness of these “ghosts of movement”, of otherworldly images emerging from “a hissing void, a blizzard of whirring white dots” to flood the living room. At the same time, he points out, television then was also “terrestrial”, broadcast on “channels”, and often made at rural-sounding production centres such as Maida Vale and Pebble Mill. It was “bonded to the earth”. Its ability to challenge, even deconstruct received narratives about landscape, nation and history lies at the heart of this book.

Dystopian vision … The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968). Photograph: BBC

Not a few of the landmarks of this era (even if they weren’t immediately hailed as such) stray from a social realism template. The Stone Tape (1972), written by Nigel Kneale, who had authored the equally remarkable Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), deals with scientists who land at a new research facility only to discover the building is a recording device, its walls archiving horrors that had been committed there centuries before. John Prowse’s The Changes (1975) is a 10-part children’s series featuring deranged adults who smash up 20th-century technology, featuring a young girl wandering across southern England before being taken in by a band of Sikhs, and witch trials and sentient lodestones.

Many programmes Young discusses were broadcast only once; they couldn’t be frame-frozen or rewound, far less circulated. Some no longer exist. Did we hallucinate them? It still beggars belief that HTV Wales even commissioned Michael Bakewell’s Fat Man on a Beach (1974), in which avant-garde novelist BS Johnson traipses across the bay of Porth Ceiriad in North Wales while discoursing about bananas, happenstance and female deities. Then there’s the time-travelling science fiction series Sapphire Steel (1979-1982), which Young calls “one of British television’s most tantalizing enigmas”, though it had “none of the elements that a modern viewership would call ‘entertaining’”. Almost everything in his book would be dismissed by today’s streaming behemoths as “too quirky, too local, too slow, too dry, too difficult, too weird”.

“Spells woven against forgetting” is a beautiful phrase Young uses to describe the train travelogues of poet laureate John Betjeman. It’s true of so many of the dramas and documentaries here: in their tang and texture as much as in their subject matter, they were spells against forgetting – reanimating pre-Christian Britain in Alan Clarke and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen (1974), British imperialism in Colin Luke’s citric The Black Safari (1972) and Molly Dineen’s Home from the Hill (1987), the Highland Clearances in John McGrath’s extraordinary The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974), directed by John Mackenzie. If, as the cultural theorist Mark Fisher has claimed, postwar public broadcasting represented a form of “popular modernism”, this was often a modernism against modernity.

The Magic Box isn’t solely about television. Young writes eloquently about cinema directors such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Lindsay Anderson, Derek Jarman – heretics all, lifelong members of the awkward squad – who cocked a snook at the nation’s shibboleths and fantasies. While I wish he had tracked down and spoken directly to more of the original programme-makers, it’s also the case that many of them are no longer alive. Young is no nostalgist, but there’s an unmistakable plangency to his observation that, these days, “the medium has had to focus on story and forward drive over ambience and atmosphere”. Television is hi-definition, louder, branded, portable, privatised. It’s everywhere but often nowhere. What it increasingly lacks is filigree and shadow, ambiguity and ache, ghosts and spectres.

The Magic Box: Viewing Britain through the Rectangular Window is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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