Rob Young on ‘The Magic Box’

❉ The author of ‘Electric Eden’ talks to We Are Cult about ‘Viewing Britain through the Rectangular Window’.

It’s been over ten years since Rob Young wrote Electric Eden, his acclaimed, wide-ranging survey of distinctly English music – folk, some might call it – of recent times. He’s since collaborated with legendary German musician Irmin Schmidt on the Can history All Gates Open, but now Young has returned to the weird, ancient byways that brought forth Electric Eden.

The Magic Box: Viewing Britain through the Rectangular Window details British television and film that fits into particular, peculiar cultural traditions – partly what’s been called ‘folk horror’ – and the ways in which they reflect the identity of the land which forged them.  Across 500+ pages and 21 chapters, The Magic Box follows a whole assortment of echoes and threads, from apocalyptic threats, dystopias, alien incursions and supernatural goings-on to pageantry, country houses, social unrest and historical drama. Present and correct amongst the many shows and films covered within are Psychomania, The Innocents, The Owl Service, The Wicker Man, Detectorists, Death Line, Jubilee, Peterloo and Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, to name just a few.

Here Rob talks to We Are Cult about the pleasures, dilemmas and pitfalls of writing the book…

Rob Young.

Is it fair to say that The Magic Box evolved out of Electric Eden?

Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of references in Electric Eden to films and TV and literature, all sorts of things which just felt like necessary triangulation points in that story. While getting to the end of writing that book, it definitely felt like there was potentially another whole book to be done here. I proposed it in the year after Electric Eden was published.

Typically, the end result went a lot further than the initial idea. That was focus on what a lot of people refer to as ‘folk horror’, which I’ve felt increasingly dissatisfied with as a term. The book just naturally evolved. It led me along lots of different paths and became a lot broader than I originally imagined, but the parameters are similar to Electric Eden in that it’s generally focused on stuff that’s connected with the rural side of Britain. So yeah, on lots of levels, it is absolutely a kind of companion-slash-extension to Electric Eden.

Folk horror has been written and talked about so much over recent years. Did you feel there was still more to say?

Over the course of writing the book, there were loads of conferences and stuff about folk horror. It’s really crept into the academic world in an interesting way. There’s been a lot of magazine articles and documentaries too, and increasingly filmmakers and TV programme makers who are obviously inspired by the feel of those sorts of 60s and 70s folk horror films. But just like I didn’t want the word ‘folk’ in the title of Electric Eden, I didn’t want ‘folk horror’ in the title of this book!

Because… I don’t reject it, but I feel like it’s only really useful to describe quite a small selection of things. I mean, some people include a lot of stuff in there. To take an example, the documentary Requiem for a Village – is that folk horror? It has elements of a horror movie, because it has the undead rising up, but it’s also a very pastoral sort of thing.

I feel like folk horror is a useful orientation point, but I also really wanted to write about costume drama, or the more sort of muddy side of historical drama and revolutionary movements portrayed on film, and so on. There is a big section of the book where I was trying to understand for myself what you can call folk horror and how you can break it down. It’s to try and provide a set of tools to think about folk horror, but also to see that it’s a small sub-section of the bigger Venn diagram..

But you know, it has currency. The nice thing is, the idea of folk horror has allowed for more mainstream media to engage with a lot of the material that I’m writing about in the book. That, for me, is just great. It’s been a useful term in that sense, and the interest is only seems to be growing.

In some ways it could hardly be more current. Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which was released only last month, would fit perfectly in The Magic Box.

Yeah, I feel like there’s going to be a lot more coming out in the next few years that would sit fair and square into this book. But it shows that this is a subject which is expanding rather than contracting. It’s not just a nostalgia industry, it’s not a box that you have to take out of the attic. It’s like a well that’s still being refreshed and that’s brilliant.

The book covers a great range of shows and films, but did things get left out, maybe because they didn’t quite fit the brief?

There are some weird ITV teatime kids’ dramas like Sky and Raven and so on that I didn’t really go into in huge detail, but they do get name-dropped. A difficulty with a book like this is that, when you’re writing about a film, you’re balancing how much simple plot re-telling you’re doing just to place the film in the text, how much description of what the film looks like, who made it, and then what it’s about. You’re balancing all of those elements, and it can start to feel a bit like one plot after another plot after another. It was hard to fit all of those different series in and talk them through, in a way.

But inevitably things got left out. I guess it’s just the kind of book about which a lot of people will say ‘well, why didn’t he write about this? Why did he include that?’. You can’t escape it. One of the frustrations with writing something this is that there’s no clear line, no boundary you can draw around it.

Almost everyone I have spoken to about this book in the last ten years has recommended something I should see, often that I’d not heard of, and it’s like, arrrgh! It’s great, but it’s also like ‘oh God, I’ve got to sit down and watch another series from Anglia Television from 1974’. It makes a project like this quite a big mountain to climb.

Given that there is this degree of thematic kinship between The Magic Box and Electric Eden, are you finished with such things now or might there be another book to come exploring similar territory?

Hmmm, I’m not sure. I haven’t specifically planned anything else, but I think the idea of nostalgia is quite interesting in relation to British culture. That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, maybe exploring something to do with the role of nostalgia in national self-image, through a lot of different media and so on. It’s a very vague, unformed thought at the moment, but it’s definitely quite a strong theme in both those books – the strength of the illusion that is generated around the sense of the nation.

As we know, it’s an interesting time in terms of revisiting British history and the history of empire and so on. There’s a lot of things that we’re seeing now more clearly than ever, perhaps for the first time, about the nature of Britain and how it got to be where it was. I think the answer’s been lying there in a lot of this material!

You’re currently living in Oslo. Does that sharpen your interest in English culture, being at one remove from it?

Yeah, I think possibly it helps. I wrote Electric Eden mostly in Hackney, although some of it was actually written while I was temporarily living in Norway, because I’m married to a Norwegian. We took a year out and that was when I was writing about Incredible String Band and a lot of folk rock. I sort of felt then, and I guess I feel now, that living outside of Britain, it’s possibly easier to zoom out and get a sort of bigger perspective. I mean, it’s such a difficult society to generalise about, which is what’s so wonderful about it. But perhaps you start to see more of the wood and less of the trees and I think for a book like this, that was important.

For The Magic Box I’ve watched hundreds of hours of TV and film, some things three, four times or more. It’s been a lot of viewing, but it’s been brilliant. I don’t regret a second of it and I’m not sick of it. But it’s funny, watching all that material was a great way to still feel connected with British landscape, which I love so much. One of the main things I miss living in Norway is the landscape of Britain. Villages, pubs…

❉ ‘The Magic Box: Viewing Britain through the Rectangular Window’ by Rob Young is published by Faber & Faber, 5 August 2021. RRP £20.00 (Hardcover). ISBN: 9780571284597 . Click here to pre-order.

 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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