The Box of Delights is a TV treasure trove of wintry magic
PUBLISHED: 17:30 30 November 2017 | UPDATED: 17:30 30 November 2017
The TV adaptation of The Box of Delights is hard to beat when it comes children's drama and I should know: I've watched it 14 times
There are certain Christmas traditions which are non-negotiable as far as I’m concerned – and many of them involve the TV.
There has to be cheese and Champagne eaten in front of the telly on Christmas Day night, followed by heartburn in the early hours of Boxing Day. There has to be a seasonal outing for Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (“Then the Whos, young and old would sit down to a feasts. And they’d feast! And they’d FEAST! FEAST! FEAST! FEAST!”). The EastEnders’ Christmas edition has to be watched in order to feel better about one’s lot.
And I have to watch John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, a BBC production which enchanted me when I was a child and continues to do so: oh happy day when it was released on DVD in 2004.
This year, I will be stepping back to the 1930s as imagined in the 1980s at a special back-to-back screening of The Box of Delights at Cinema City in Norwich for a vintage television marathon of the complete six-episode series this weekend. Splendiferous!
My Mum loved the book and radio adaptations, so when it arrived as a series in 1984, we would watch it together, an obligatory (but phoenix-less) fire roaring behind us.I fell in love with the bewitching blend of magic, mystery, peril and the kind of freedom that allowed children to go off battling the powers of darkness without anyone batting an eyelid as long as they were back for breakfast and didn’t wake anyone up when they came home.
I watched it as a child in 1984 and was enchanted with how it blended Edwardian Christmas snowy perfection with a dark sense of forboding and dread (the latter is often how I feel before attempting the roast on December 25 and probably how those about to eat it feel, too).
The story sees schoolboy Kay Harker steaming home from boarding school through the snow-bound countryside for the holidays – he is joined in his carriage by two clergymen who are clearly wrong ‘uns - Chubby Joe and Foxy Faced Charles and then meets a mysterious Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, played by the fabulous Patrick Houghton.
Realising that Kay is a spiffing chap, the old man draws him into a magical adventure and, along with his friends Maria, Susan Peter and Jemima, which sees them battling evil in order to save Christmas. Or as Cole puts it: “And now, Master Harker of Seekings, now that the Wolves are Running, as you will have seen, perhaps you would do something to stop their Bite?”
Cole confides Kay that a dangerous magical sect are trying to steal his ‘old magic’ which is hidden in his Box of Delights – before he can say ‘do you know how to make a posset?’ the schoolboy is embroiled in a battle between the forces of light and darkness over the Box of Delights, which contains the secret of immortality. From then on in, it’s like David Lynch Does Christmas for Kids: man-sized rats eat green cheese, cars turn into aeroplanes, children are imprisoned in dungeons under lakes, there are portal pictures, boys trapped under waterfalls and crystal balls hidden in globes. It’s brilliant.
I loved it so much I named my son Cole: what better tribute to a brilliant piece of children’s television than to name your boy after a tramp who hassles children at train stations?
10 Reasons Why You Should Watch The Box of Delights
1) The theme music: Just hearing a few bars of the third movement from Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchinson instantly transports me back to childhood – it is quite the most evocative piece of music. Hely-Hutchinson was born on Boxing Day 1901 and wrote his Carol Symphony in 1927. This third movement is based on the Coventry Carol and The First Noel – it’s Christmas in a single theme tune.
2) Celebrating that Pagan sense of dread as winter closes in: While we may not have quite the same worries as our Pagan forefathers, this time of year is still when most of us retreat indoors, stay close to a heat source and keep the outdoors and all its dangers at bay. The Wolves may be running, but we’ve got Chocolate Fingers and the central heating is on.
3) Nick Berry is one of the pirate rats which (shrunken) Kay encounters: Long before he was love rat Wicksy in EastEnders, Nick was a playing a rodent of a different kind: one with whiskers and a tail. Every Loser Wins. And while we’re at it, Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Patricia Quinn) plays Abner Brown’s wife, the brilliantly named Sylvia Daisy Pouncer.
4) And on the subject of Abner…He’s a proper old-school villain. Played with unrestrained unpleasantness by Robert Stephens, Brown is a terrifying wizard who swans about in satin dressing gowns and natty swimwear and can transform himself in to a wolf at a moment’s notice. He also operates a taxi service which kidnaps real clergy and children and is prone to deranged and diabolical rants in which he commands a series of demonic minions called things like ‘Waterfall Boy’. Best line: “I have it on the authority of my Pouncer that the boy is an idle muff.” Quite.
5) Maria kicks butt: “Christmas ought to be brought up to date,” she says, “it ought to have gangsters and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.”
6) The special effects are old but charming: episode six (Leave us not Little, nor yet Dark) is where things really kick off, but before that there’s a phoenix rising from a fire, Cole disappears into a painting on the wall and wolves fight Romans on a snowy plain. It was the most expensive production on British TV at the time with a £1 million budget and used a whole range of innovative techniques at the time including matte drawings, blending human and animated characters together and extensive use of blue screen and digital effects. Don’t get me wrong, it looks a bit clunky these days, but since when was perfection ever interesting?
7) Because it speaks of a more innocent age: Kay is put on a cross-country train on his own, talks to strange clergymen and gambles with them and then tells his name and address to a tramp at a railway station. And that’s before we start mentioning the scant regard there is for missing persons: Caroline-Louisa goes missing at night and everyone just accepts they won’t bother doing anything about it until morning.
8) Because it is SO Christmassy: The Box of Delights is ridiculously Christmassy – there are endless drifts of snow, carol singers, posset with treacle and nutmeg, sparkling Christmas trees, twinkling stars, steam trains powering through snowbound landscapes, log fires, Christmas feasts and a sense of utter wonderment and magic throughout.
9) It’s hot right now: Wilton’s Music Hall in London has adapted John Masefield’s novel into a stage adaptation of The Box of Delights which begins on December 1 until January 6. Matthew Kelly stars in a production which looks so amazing that I can’t believe I haven’t got tickets yet. Find out more at www.wiltons.org.uk. Although it’d be good if you waited for me to secure my seats first.
10) Because you could have written the ending yourself: Genuinely, I don’t want to talk about it - on the plus side, it’s only two minutes long.
* For more information, visit www.picturehouses.com. The Box of Delights is available on BBC DVD.