Graeme Thomson

When family viewing was full of creeping menace

Rob Young’s survey of postwar film and TV finds Britain obsessed with dark, disruptive forces, alien invasion, magic and the supernatural

The eerie enchantment of early television [Getty Images]

Strange, really, that the scheduled output of traditional broadcasters became known as ‘terrestrial’ television, given that TV is an etheric medium and nowadays exclusively a digital one. Or perhaps it’s not so strange at all. Television is ‘bonded to the earth’, writes Rob Young, whose roving survey of small and silver screen creativity between the 1950s and 1980s seeks to connect those airborne signals to the soil beneath our shoes.

Young’s first book, the excellent Electric Eden, rummaged around the untrimmed hedgerows of the British psyche via the medium of folk-related music. The Magic Box has a similar aim. The intention is to ‘gorge on a huge cross-genre feast of moving pictures that… express something about the nature and character of Britain, its uncategorisable people and buried histories’.

Britain appears as a darkly magical place: fearful, shimmering, violent, bewitched, enduring

‘Gorge’ is the word. In a series of themed sub-divided chapters Young trawls through thousands of hours of programming. Though the joy of digesting countless condensed plot lines concerning alien invasion and 17th-century diabolism palls somewhat over 500 pages, this is a work of deep research. Its reach encompasses classics such as Doctor Who, Quatermass and Brideshead Revisited, as well as grainy obscurities preserved only on ancient home-recorded VHS. Young explores the work of Hammer Films, the screenwriter Nigel Kneale and the dusty, melancholy lost-worlds of Bagpuss, Bod and Fingerbobs, programmes which introduced children ‘to the adventure of living’. Fixating on the almost unfathomable significance of reclaimed artefacts, they were benignly anarchic enchantments in the age of the three-day week.

This is a reclamation, not just of a visual ‘golden age’, but of Britain as a darkly magical place: fearful, shimmering, violent, bewitched, enduring. The connections made are often enlivening, revealing ways in which television and film commented on paganism and witchcraft, right-wing coups, cults, class revolt, geomancy, mythology, science, sexual permissiveness, politics and post-colonial jitters, Americanisation, the supernatural — for what is a ‘magic box’ but a ghost in the corner of the room? — ‘the persistence of the irrational’ and, not least, nuclear dread: few things are more evocative of the shadow of the Bomb than the unremitting nihilism of Threads and Edge of Darkness.

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