…something about the nature and character of Britain, its uncategorisable people and its buried histories. Among the salient features and persistent themes are tensions between the past and the present; fractures and injustices in society; magical and occult notions; and presences and buried memories released from the earth.
THE MAGIC BOX is a personal journey through a period of British culture that left indelible marks on all of us who lived through it. “A telemetric folklore of the British Isles.” The above quote is probably as clear an explication of my own formative influences as you will find, and also the below:
What’s unique in Britain’s case, though, is the way these genres slip and smear into one another. Sci-fi is more often about the past returning to haunt us than about gleaming visions of the future. Horror frequently implicates itself tightly with the British landscape and its eerie, unsettling atmospheres. History invoked via period drama may be scattered with ghostly apparitions. Stories set in the realist present can acquire a mythological underlay. Britain’s self-image as a moated, ‘sceptred isle’ recurs time and again in fascist dystopias and speculative invasions.
I have, on occasion, shown my daughter parts of the things I grew up with — to share them with her, and also, if I’m honest, knowing her sensibilities… to horrify her. I am rarely disappointed, and a constant refrain in this house was the yell of “how did you even live through the 70s and 80s?!?”
This is a book about many of the things that made me, and many of the things that made me a writer.
It covers some cinema too, as Young makes the excellent point that terrestrial tv of the era screened a lot of films. More than it does today, in this time of streaming services and pay per view. There used to be entire themed seasons of films on tv, and curated strands like Nick Jones and Alex Cox’s excellent MOVIEDROME.
(Talking of Alex Cox, there’s a film of his I first saw on tv – it was made first for the BBC, and then expanded for a cinema audience, and it’s exactly the sort of film he would have presented on MOVIEDROME — an adaptation of Borges’ DEATH AND THE COMPASS starring Peter Boyle and Christopher Eccleston. One for you to hunt down.)
Young does a lot on the Hammer horror films, all of which I saw on tv. Hammer horror was, as I’ve mentioned before, my way into CASTLEVANIA when I was asked to adapt it — I understood that material as Hammer horror, and saw it as a way to write “my” Hammer horror films. I mean, if you ever wondered why most of the people in eastern European was speaking with an English accent…. now you know.
The book ranges quite far and wide, but hits the expected touchstones, like the terrifying nature of children’s television in the period – most notably, THE CHANGES, which disturbed the shit out of me as a kid, especially the first episode, but also the Cormac McCarthy THE ROAD-like scenes of refugees pushing carts and shopping trolleys down an empty motorway while the electricity pylons on the adjacent fields emit a haunted hum.
The full opening of THE CHANGES used to be on YouTube, but I can’t find it now. However, this trailer for a DVD collection from the BFI gets some of the flavour across.
For me, this was about revisiting memories and learning a few new things. It’s also a fine introduction to this weird facet of British culture if you know nothing about it. Great book.
‘Television archives store millions of images of the dead, which wait to be broadcast … to the living … at this point, the dead come back to life to have an influence … on the living … Television is, then, truly the spirit world of our age. It preserves images of the dead which then can continue to haunt us.’
THE MAGIC BOX, Rob Young (link)