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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

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