Britain's TV Times: Telly tells us much about the state of the nation

Britain’s TV Times: Telly tells us much about the state of the nation — which for the post-war generation meant Daleks and disasters. Now, 50 years on, we are obsessed with period dramas and an aching nostalgia for the past

  • The export market for television drama is currently worth an annual £1.34 billion 
  • Rob Young claims television has always enshrined our recurring psychic dread
  • Author reveals how shows such as Doctor Who thrived in the era of the Cold War  



by Rob Young (Faber £20, 500 pp)

When I was growing up in Bedwas, South Wales, where it steadily rained soot, the television was my window on a wider world.

Coming through what author Rob Young calls ‘a blizzard of whirring white dots’ were 143 episodes of The Adventures Of Robin Hood (‘bugle fanfares and school-play jousts’), the incontinent baby elephant on Blue Peter, Fanny Cradock’s kitchen, Open University lecturers ‘in all their flared-trousered, chunky-sweatered, formulae-chalkboard tedium’, which put me off maths for life, the coloured paper, string and glue of the puppet menagerie constituting Fingerbobs and Baroness Floella Benjamin, as she then wasn’t, acting the giddy goat with Brian Cant on Playschool.

Before the invention of the video recorder, let alone DVDs and Blu-ray discs, YouTube, streaming services and iPlayer, ‘television contributed to the national conversation’. Everyone had to be sitting down watching the same programmes at the same time, something that no longer happens when 209 million subscribe to Netflix.

Rob Young has penned a book revealing how British television has always enshrined our recurring psychic dread. Pictured: Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who

I was particularly delighted to be reminded of a vanished breed of men. ‘Loamy-voiced’ Jack Hargreaves pottered about rural idylls, examining dry stone walls and fishing for chub.

Who of a certain age can forget Fyfe Robertson, a ‘wizardly uncle adrift in a rowing boat’ on the River Severn? Fred Dibnah enthusiastically presented programmes about our industrial heritage, ‘all pumping pistons and brick dust’. John Betjeman eulogised branch lines, tea rooms and church bells.

If Young has a thesis, it’s that underneath ‘the innocent surface of things’, television has always enshrined our recurring psychic dreads — even the cosy-seeming Betjeman and company were warning about the destruction of the environment, rising population numbers, bulldozers destroying woodlands, wildlife and half-timbered barns, in favour of concrete roads, shopping malls and slum housing estates.

Young’s area of expertise is horror and science-fiction, which, in an era of the H-bomb tests and the Cold War, represented ‘fearful fantasies of the world being turned upside-down, the nation being invaded’.

Hence, from 1963 onwards, we had Doctor Who, about ‘a shape-shifting folk hero in an age of space travel’, although Jon Pertwee — who played the Doctor from 1969 — was later to metamorphose into Worzel Gummidge, a talking scarecrow.

Young discusses the plots in Quatermass, where Hemel Hempstead was ‘swamped with irradiated goo’, and he argues that this symbolised, as did Dad’s Army, ‘the phobia of conservative Britons trying to protect their sovereign shores’ from every kind of alien.

It is true that even in the Seventies, World War II was still a powerful memory — many of our schoolteachers were old soldiers; unexploded German bombs were always turning up in building sites — but I think Young overstates the case to say Daleks and Cybermen ‘provoked memories of Panzer tanks and stormtroopers with flame-throwers’.

While, I confess, I hid behind the sofa, it’s hard now as an adult to see why I was scared by monsters made from ‘a bathroom plunger and an egg whisk’ who couldn’t cope with stairs.

Rob Young claims the export market for television drama is currently worth an annual £1.34 billion, mainly thanks to Downton Abbey (pictured) 

What definitely is the case — and nostalgia buffs must beware — is that the quality of mid-20th- century telly could be pretty poor, with bad acting, stilted scripts and ‘accents seesawing between Somerset and Glamorgan’.

Sixteen-millimetre outside film footage clashed with grainy video-based interior scenes. Shoe-scuffed studio floors were visible, reflecting the lights and exposing the trails left by cumbersome camera cables.

If there was an air of make-do-and-mend, the government’s Protect And Survive information film about how to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack was laughable — whitewash your double glazing, fill buckets with tap water and stockpile baked beans.

Television drama, according to Young, was keen to imagine what would happen when ‘the stability of the local community was pushed off a precipice’, with either an outbreak of black magic, witches and anarchic cults — as in the ghost stories cramming the schedules — or industrial action and ‘economic meltdowns’ (which did indeed afflict Seventies Britain) inspiring prophetic alternative-history scenarios.

One such was an Englishman’s Castle, with Kenneth More and Nigel Havers, in which National Trust properties were converted by the totalitarian government into psychiatric hospitals for the torture of dissidents.

THE MAGIC BOX by Rob Young (Faber £20, 500 pp)

A Very British Coup (1988) also picked up on the paranoia, with civil liberties suppressed in ways that actually just happened with lockdown.

Young says the export market for television drama is currently worth an annual £1.34 billion, mainly thanks to Downton Abbey. The obsession with class snobbery is nothing new. Granada’s Brideshead Revisited, with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews baring their bottoms, was a global success in 1981.

The British have always been good at costume drama — I have formative Seventies memories of Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R and Keith Michell in The Six Wives Of Henry VIII. Jane Austen regularly does wonders for bonnets, as do Poirot and Miss Marple for Art Deco.

Antiques Roadshow, running since 1979 and devoted to the ‘appeal of buried treasure’, suggests we, the British, are happiest rummaging for old relics. Television, Young implies in conclusion, pines for the past and sees little good in the future.

Viewers like me, snug on the sofa with our plates of custard creams, are ‘prisoners of dreams’, who may yearn to be eternally childlike, like Tom and Barbara in The Good Life, ‘living a bohemian dream of eco-self-sufficiency’. But really and truly, most of us turn into Margo and Jerry, anxious about jobs and mortgages and keeping up appearances.

Young tells us The Magic Box took ‘a good ten years and many hundreds of hours of viewing’ to complete. With respect, that is its problem. It is rambling and repetitious. Chronology is all over the shop. Cinema requires a separate volume.

Nevertheless, the image of Jack Hargreaves sitting contentedly in his tool-shed will always make me smile.

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