A quarter of a century ago, a few weeks before Christmas, this happened…
It has been twenty five years since the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s magical fantasy The Box of Delights appeared and time has not weathered its charm and festive cheer.
If you find yourself shouting the word ‘Splendiferous!’ when opening your presents on Christmas morning, or muttering that Granny nabbing the last After Eight mint is the ‘Purple Pim’ then chances are you’ve seen, and fallen in love with, The Box of Delights. It is a delightful yarn, spun with a love of Boy’s Own adventures and using some innovative animation effects to create a television event that is a treasure trove of nostalgic joy.
It begins with the impeccably posh young boy Kay Harker as he returns home from boarding school with flurries of snow flanking the steam train. The journey involves a run in with two dubious clergymen and an encounter with a traveling Punch and Judy man, who takes a shine to the eager boy and so their adventure begins. Bringing his Punch and Judy show to Kay’s house for a Christmas performance Cole Hawlings confides in Kay that a dangerous magical sect are trying to steal his ‘old magic’ embodied in the titular Box of Delights, and so he entrusts the box to Kay before he is scrobbled by the henchmen of the nefarious Abner Brown. The Wolves were running, and we were caught up in the chase.
Determined to rescue his friend Kay embarks on an adventure that will take in cars which turn into aeroplanes, a dangerous voyage deep into the past and duels with rats and wolves. As the plans of Abner Brown float to the murky surface amidst ecclesiastical disappearances it becomes clear that Christmas itself is at stake.
In adapting Masefield’s novel writer Alan Seymour and director Renny Rye were able to maintain the terrific velocity of adventure in Masefield’s original and bring it to the screen with a visual signature, mixing live action and animation which for its relatively small scale production was able to create a mesmerising and enchanting atmosphere. They retained the dark tone of the evils faced by Kay and his friends and allowed the majestic Robert Stephens as Abner Brown to fuel his performance with a realism that enabled a sinister and a tangible fear to chill the bones of the audience.
Amazing sound design by Ronnie Hazelhurst in the BBC’s radiophonic workshop worked alongside the title music of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s The First Noel from his Carol Symphony to imbue the series with the very essence of Christmas. The modesty of the music and chroma-key effects, which set the standards for children’s television at the time, work entirely in the Box of Delights’ favour and it is hard to imagine Mike Newell’s recently announced remake being able to conjure up a similarly affecting response.
The performances are uniformly impressive, with Devin Stanfield in particular carrying the series on his shoulders with his boyish fervour and considerable ability to meet Robert Stephens and the sublime Patrick Troughton with great energy. Early appearances of Nick Berry and Julian Sands add to the festivity, and Patricia Quinn hams the place up as the arch virago, Abner Brown’s wife and Kay’s old governess Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, to wonderful effect.
In the deep darkness of the early December evenings I walked home from school twenty five years ago, eager to watch the next installment of this wonderful series. Each week the mystery deepened, the magic sparkled and though the arcane magical elements gave rise to nightmares, I was entranced by this fantastical adventure. Even now Christmas has not fully arrived until the DVD has been enjoyed with a roaring fire and a warm posset.
It was able to capture a particularly English experience, and in the rumbustious Christmas markets and illusory visions of the past it weaves a magical spell on the viewer. The pantomime of Christmas is alive and well in its depiction of good and evil as is the warm glow of childish enchantment, and when Kay uses the Box of Delights to shrink to a few inches in height and explore the hidden miniature world around him or to fly across the Chester hills chasing caroplanes it is impossible not to be charmed with the spirit of the series.
If you’ve never seen it I can do not better than to advise you to order the DVD today and revel in this wonderful series. It is truly splendiferous and there is no better way to enjoy a Happy Christmas.