The Magic Box- Rob Young (Faber 2021)

I can’t resist a chunky well-researched book about British television and Rob Young’s latest certainly ticked these boxes for me.  Subtitled “Viewing Britain Through The Rectangular Window” this is a thorough work within its scope even if it is not quite the book I had thought it was.

Young examines Britishness through what we have watched for entertainment over the decades but this is not the social history I was expecting – this is more a guide to folk history.  The focus is evenly on film and television and the author is happy to divulge plot spoilers occasionally to prove a point (I admit this grated on me even if the likelihood of me watching many of his examples is minimal).

To be honest, I realised quite early on, after the first few chapters, that most of the productions Young focuses on I hadn’t ever seen, and that was because, in a lot of cases they wouldn’t have appealed at the time they appeared.  I would have written a lot of it as too weird or too rural or elemental, although with the passing of time many do hold a greater appeal to the me of now.

He is very good on British folk horror and cites three films as being vital in the development of this genre, “Witchfinder General” (1968), “Blood On Satan’s Claw” (1971) and,unsurprisingly, “The Wicker Man” (1973) all hugely influential in Young’s study.  I found the author’s observation about threats in horror film fascinating.  In British productions it often came from the ground whereas in the USA it was more likely to come from the air.

The land and our response to it is present from “Quatermass” to the recent revival of “Worzel Gummidge”.  As children we were often presented with the weird and Young cites cult and ground-breaking (often in more ways than one) programmes which offered dystopias, ghost, alternate histories and parallel times set within our land which is not always , through the eyes of TV and film-makers, a green and pleasant one.

The author has sat through a lot of material to produce this work from slow-paced rural documentaries and information films to Plays For Today, which in itself has provided rich pickings.  This was a long running strand on television which I remember being so diverse that you always had to give it ten minutes or so to know whether you were watching a future classic or needed to change channel.  It’s scope was broad in that it offered something for everybody although rarely within the same play. 

The book is tightly-structured and always readable and as I was reading it I was aware of the people I could recommend certain sections to.  I personally did not end up with a massive list of things I wanted to watch as I had anticipated when starting it but these are insights into our past the like of which we will never see again.  Young is right in his statement that in the times of streaming services, Netflix and viewer algorithms there is no way that most of the works featured in this book would ever be commissioned.  It felt good to be informed and reminded of them.

The Magic Box was published in both the UK and US by Faber and Faber in 2021.

Dear Blue Peter – Edited By Biddy Baxter (2008) – A Real Life Review

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This was a great idea for a book.  To tie in with children’s TV show “Blue Peter’s” 50th anniversary Short Books published a selection of viewers letters from over the years, selected and introduced by legendary producer Biddy Baxter with proceeds going to the John Hosier Music Fund for impoverished young musicians.

Practically everyone who has grown up in Britain during the last 50 years    ( 57 as of 2015) will have their own special memories of Blue Peter and this book is marvelous at recreating them.  For me it succeeds on many levels, as a blast of nostalgia, as a record of the time and as great examples of  letters inspired by the blast of impetus resulting from watching some item on the programme. 

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In her introduction Biddy Baxter sets the scene on what most have been a phenomenal amount of work and one which explains the relationship this programme has with its viewers.  She writes than when she was a child she penned a letter to Enid Blyton and was thrilled by getting a response.  So much so, that she wrote another one and got another one back- only this one was identical to the first. “She doesn’t remember me,” I sobbed as I ran to my mother. From the very beginnings of Blue Peter Biddy was determined that this should not happen to her viewers and set up a Correspondence Unit and an intricate card index and stored the letters so that each correspondent could feel that they were having their own dialogue with the programme.  Badges were awarded for the best letters- these badges became coveted items.  By the late 80’s the programme was receiving an average of 7,000 letters a week and this selection spans the years.

Some patterns emerge- the children’s love for the presenters and heartbreak when any change is introduced, the complaining of adults who hark back to the golden days of “Blue Peter” (usually when Val, John & Pete were the presenters), the enthusiasm of the children for the “makes” and for collecting for the famous Blue Peter appeals.  These letters are heart-warming and often laugh out loud funny.  Biddy doesn’t try to hide criticisms.  Over the last 50 years the programme has had to deal with a fair number of “scandals” and these are mentioned.  It really is delightfully nostalgic and as a Blue Peter viewer myself for quite a number of these years it was amazing how clearly I remembered something being referred to in one of the letters.  I read it quickly and with much enjoyment.  I’m delighted that these letters were kept- as they are more of a record of the programme and its times than the “time capsules” that were planted in the Blue Peter garden a couple of times over the decades so people in the future would know all about us.  You also cannot help but be amazed by Biddy Baxter’s work ethic as letters were answered by her personally to become treasured possessions for the recipients.

The section that made me laugh out loud the most was about or written to the Presenters.  Here is just a small selection;

1969- to Peter Purves

Dear Peter

I liked it when you tried to ride a killer whale.  I would like to see you try to skin dive and kill a shark.  I have liked everything that Blue Peter had done especially that fort that Val made from lollypop sticks.  

Your faithfully

Ronald, Falkirk

1971- to Valerie Singleton

Dear Miss Singleton

We have all been watching Blue Peter.  What a pity you don’t do something about your hair.  Your face if I might say is far too plain to wear such a style.  Can’t you do something about it.

Yours faithfully

Mrs Townsend, London W14

1984 – on Peter Duncan

Dear Ms Baxter

Having watched Blue Peter on Monday night and observed Peter’s attempts at making pancakes, I would be most grateful if you would in future keep him far away from a cooking stove.  His travesty of trying to make pancakes was a disgrace and has set my daughter’s cooking back at least six months.

Yours sincerely

H. Cunningham, Sunderland

1987- From a grandmother watching Caron Keating with her grandchildren;

“….Also, I don’t wish to appear a miserable old lady, but my darlings and I cannot understand the Irish girl on Blue Peter and therefore we miss quite a lot of dialogue.  Is there any chance of replacing her with an English girl who speaks the same as we do.  I’m sure you could easily fix her up in an Irish programme.  I would certainly not like do to her out of a job.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Love from Granny Dot 63, Russell, Phillippa 5

And to finish a lovely letter and its follow-up from Philip Danielson of Huddersfield.  Those of my generation will remember Valerie Singleton leaving the programme with her replacement Leslie Judd initially presenting alongside her.  This clearly sums up the suspicion of youth and the belief in the power that their letter-writing should give them!

Dear John, Peter and Biddy Baxter

What’s the big idea.  Whats matter with Val why was she not on the programme on Monday 5th of June and that Leslie was and you never said eny thing about it.  I think I know your little game nothing is the same without Val there will be nobody to make good things.

Well I no what your going to do your going to get rid of Val arnt you well if you do you have lost a high grade in children’s television.

PS: Leslie must not here about the letter

And then a couple of days later

Dear Val John Peter and Leslie

I am sorry about the mean things I said about leslie you see I dident now that Val had gone of on a holiday whiteh the camera team because just after I posted that rude letter I rembered that I had not seen the last two programs and my friends told me.  So please forget the letter with the mean things in I am very sorry for what I said please don’t say anything on the programme don’t even mention my name.  I am realy one of your great fans.  But I was angry because thort val was going off.

PS: I’m sher leslie will understand

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For countless gems like these, this book is a great read!  I never had a Blue Peter badge – how about you?  What are your childhood memories of Blue Peter ?  Maybe someone’s written a letter about it……….I’ll let you know.

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Dear Blue Peter was published in 2008 by Short Books