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.

The Good People- Hannah Kent (Picador 2017)

goodpeople

Having only very recently read another Picador publication “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue it is easy to see parallels between that and this book,  Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel.

Both are set in nineteenth century Irish villages and feature the highly questionable treatment of a child as central.  In both novels belief overshadows rational thought.  In “The Wonder” it is religious fervour which proclaims a child not eating as a sign of the miraculous, in “The Good People” religion is itself at odds with the lore of fairies and the superstition of deeply entrenched folklore.  The local priest can only speak out about this, his influence upon it is limited.  In many ways this makes for a book that is darker than Donoghue’s but both are equally effective.

When the son of Nora Leahy’s recently deceased daughter fails to develop in the way he should the locals believe that he is a changeling and that the real Michael has been swept away by the fairies (the “good people” of the title). It is when Nora seeks the help of the isolated local wise woman Nance (described by some as the “herb-hag”) that Nora begins to believe they can get the real Michael back.

The evocation of life in this Irish valley a day’s walk form Killarney, Co. Kerry, is very strong.  Is there currently some masterclass about recreating the hardships of nineteenth century rural life dominated by peat, mud and potatoes that both Kent and Donoghue attended as they both manage to get this over very convincingly.  It is a tough existence where the survival of the community is so much to the fore that superstition provides a strong grounding for luck or lack of it.  Kent has used a real incident as her starting point and has developed believable characters and highly plausible situations. At times this can make for difficult reading as misery is heaped on the unfortunate child “to put the fairy out of it.”

Anyone expecting tweeness so close to the realm of the fairies would be wrong.  What you get from this book is the real sense of how important folklore was to this village’s everyday existence.  This suggests seamless research as the book is saturated with the feel of the times.  It is dark, has a strong sense of foreboding, with inevitable tragedies and is a very involving read.

fourstars

 

The Good People is published in the UK hardback by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan  on the 9th February.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for an advance review copy.