The Box Of Delights
At least seven television channels, seven national, one international and a host of regional radio stations, a website that's amongst the best in the world, an early adopter of digital television, of widescreen and of on-demand services, all of which are entirely free of advertisements, and The Box Of Delights. Is it any wonder that I'm more than happy to continue to pay the licence fee for what is not only the UK's best broadcaster but the world's when they are capable of such television as this, not only once but with last year's Fungus The Bogeyman, their earlier adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Enchanted Castle, time and again. And in an age when the wolves are running, from those who would seek to privatise the BBC, it's time to stand up for the Corporation and admit that no else could ever have produced The Box Of Delights, a magical story of Christmas, of villainy, of public school and of adventures through time quite as well as our national broadcaster.
And few television shows have quite captured that feeling of Christmas as well as The Box Of Delights, which is set in 1934 and opens with a flurry of snow outside the window of the train carriage within which Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield) travels on his returning home to Seekings for the holiday from school. On the journey, Harker meets an old Punch And Judy man, Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton), who's travelling with his dog as well as two clergymen later revealed to be Foxy Faced Charles and Chubby Joe (Geoffrey Larder and Jonathan Stephens), who con Harker out of a shilling with a card trick. As he leaves the train to meet his guardian, Caroline Louisa (Carol Frazer), he notices that his wallet has been stolen by, he thinks, the two clergymen but in seeing old Mr Hawlings, he brightens up to ask him if he will come by later to perform at Seekings. That afternoon, though, Kay calls into the local village for some last minute shopping for gifts for the Jones children, who are visiting for Christmas, and there he meets Hawlings once more, which is the beginning of a magical journey that will see Kay given the box before the evil Abner Brown (Robert Stephens) can use it to perform one last great wickedness before Christmas.
First broadcast in 1984, again in 1986 and then off our screens until CBBC showed it a couple of days before Christmas in 2002, The Box Of Delights really out to be as much a tradition of Christmas as mince pies, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and the hanging up of a stocking on Christmas Eve. It isn't so much that The Box Of Delights concerns itself with the story of Christmas, as such, more that, like a selection box, it's a concoction of Christmas events and traditions brought together in a sweetly nostalgic package. There is not, for example, any mention of Santa Claus, no elves to rescue, no story that runs parallel to the Nativity and no birth of a little baby boy as the first snow falls on Christmas Eve night. It is, though, unforgettably of the season and uses the high adventure of a chilling story of fantasy, black magic, kidnapping, paganism and devilry with which to mix up a posset full of Christmas wonder.
The actual narrative is not, then, all that is most magical about The Box Of Delights but neither is it awfully shabby either. Set in a time when the word of adventurous and high-spirited boys was trusted by the local constabulary, The Box Of Delights builds on the pickpocketing of Kay Harker by having him delve deep into a nefarious world of the kidnapping, or scrobbling, of the dear old vicars and bishop of Tatchester as Abner searches for the box. At first, there's only mutterings of, as in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, new and old magic whilst the box itself doesn't appear to do very much other than to make the one who bears it go swift or go small. But soon, by the light of a full winter's moon and the soft crunch of snow underfoot, Cole Hawlings transports Kay Harker back into the past when the wolves ran wild across England and a small settlement was defended with the wielding of swords. Soon, via a trip into the box with Herne The Hunter (Glyn Baker), Kay learns that millions of years of the Earth's history are accessible through it and that Cole Hawlings is an alchemist some five hundred years old, Now with an understanding of why Abner Brown so desires the box, Kay knows that he must not let it fall into Brown's hands but with clergymen going missing and Cole Hawlings being bundled into the back of Chubby Joe and Foxy Faced Charles' car-oplane, he also knows that he doesn't have long before he might lose the box and with Christmas only days away, that might be the time Brown is aiming for. As Kay gets closer to Brown, avoiding the common thieves and criminals as well as the rats in the sewers, all of whom appear to be working for him, he finds that Brown has access to dangerous magic and as Christmas Eve enters its final hours, Kay is in a dungeon in the theological college and Brown is calling on the help of demons in his final wickedness.
In some respects, this makes The Box Of Delights sound much more exciting than it actually is. Not that it's ever dull, simply that it tends to wander down various diversions to the plot, spending time, for example, on explaining the making of a posset (a bedtime drink containing egg, warm milk, treacle and sugar, it would appear), the local constable's magic tricks or a Christmas party in the Bishop's palace. And yet, like Christmas itself, which the early Catholic Church created out of the festival of Saturnalia, The Box Of Delights is a rather wonderful coming together of the feelings and sensations that one might associate with Christmas. Be it the journey home, snow outside the window, the shopping for gifts in town, the heavy snowfall that blankets the countryside or the church choir gathered outside a window to sing The First Noel. These come and go throughout the series but come back for an ending that confirms that magic of all that preceded it, with Kay Harker having rescued Cole Hawlings, the Bishop and others in time to make it to Tatchester Cathedral for the one-thousandth Christmas celebration to be held there. In a darkened Cathedral with midnight fast approaching, a mass begins to welcome the birth of the Christ and although The Box Of Delights is never explicitly religious, it does know that, in 1934, a midnight mass was as much a part of Christmas as the night-time arrival of Santa Claus himself.
And so it should prove now, with The Box Of Delights being as much a Christmas tradition in my own house as the decorating of the tree. Yes it may not be thought of as much more than one more example of the BBC producing a children's drama set in Edwardian or Victorian times with a well-spoken cast of young English actors but there's a sense of wonderment that runs through The Box Of Delights and not only in its depiction of the ideals of Christmas but also in its use of religions both old and new, the rich dialogue written for Cole Hawlings and Abner Brown and its being a hugely entertaining adventure. That so very few of us would, I'm sure, not want to take the place of Kay Harker speaks volumes about the place adventure has in the life of a child and The Box Of Delights taps into that better than any other BBC adaptation. It's a remarkable piece of work and so very assured for children's television but proves that there's nothing like the BBC for such quality drama as this.
The Box Of Delights comes from a time, which is really only in the last year or so, when the BBC finally realised the commercial and archival opportunities afforded to them by DVD and so much care was taken with The Box Of Delights. This has resulted in the picture looking bright, clean and, above all else, alive with action. There are, though, points when the picture has dated, such as the animation, but in all other respects The Box Of Delights has aged remarkably well. It is, though, too soft to be outstanding but that does appear to be dependent on hardware - on my main setup, the picture was fine but the PC on which these screenshots were taken left The Box Of Delights looking blurred, which, on a big bigger television set, it was not.
The 2.0 Mono soundtrack is perfectly acceptable with a nice, clear audio track for the dialogue and effects to work out of. Being what it is, there's no use of the rear channels nor is there any panning between the front speakers but neither is really missed. The series is subtitled throughout.
The Box Of Delights Reunion (27m05s): Director Renny Rye and star Devin Stanfield are reunited in a quiet back garden in July 2004 for a half-hour chat, which takes in their introduction to the story and to the production, Stanfield's casting and the production. Rye has a good memory, Stanfield less so but given his age, that's not surprising but he does recall the reaction about the town in which he was living to his role in the drama. Both, though, are happy at The Box Of Delights coming out on DVD, which is the point at which they end this reunion and although it's not terrifically detailed, it's a nice extra.
Behind The Scenes Archives: Given that the BBC advertise no one but themselves, this extra rounds up some of the cross-promotional activities that surrounded The Box Of Delights, including Blue Peter (19/11/84, 11m47s), Pebble Mill At One (21/11/84, 10m10s) and Take Two (29/12/84, 8m07s). Given the nature of these interviews, there is some repetition, notably on the Pebble Mill (Devin Stanfield, Visual Effects Supervisor Robin Lobb and writer Alan Seymour) and Take Two (director Renny Rye) interviews. As for the selection from Blue Peter, it begins very well with having Janet Ellis introduce The Box Of Delights before Deven Stanfield and Simon Barry (Mouse) fly down from the ceiling in character before being joined by Patrick Troughton.
The Box Of Delights Quiz: There's no prize, apparently, other than the feeling of pride associated with getting a 5/5 score but this has the feeling of being directed at children more than adults.
Photo Gallery: Thirty-three images are included here, which are a mix of behind-the-scenes shots, stills from the completed series and promotional material.
Finally, there is a Profile of John Masefield, which provides a short biography of the writer of The Box Of Delights over seven pages of text. The BBC should also be extended a note of congratulations for ensuring that all of the extras on this DVD are subtitled.
Why a year late in reviewing this? Until earlier this year, I was on a short break from the site and the release of this on DVD coincided with that, leaving it until now before reviewing it. That said, it's still available on DVD from most online retailers and indeed the BBC still have a section of their Cult pages devoted to it - the Introduction to the section is here, whilst the RealPlayer Title Sequence is here.
The DVD describes itself as being a Children's Classic and, really, that's quite what it is. The use of Victor Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Concert invokes wonderful feelings of Christmas whilst the main narrative of "a tosser to my kick", scrobblings and nobblings is perfect family viewing. A Christmas DVD doesn't really get much better than this other than It's A Wonderful Life but, even then, it's a close run thing. The Box Of Delights is just a marvellous, marvellous adaptation of a wonderful children's story and with the BBC having finally given it the release that it deserves, this is a very welcome DVD at this time of year. This review might well be a year late but with the DVD still on release, there really is no reason not to pick up a copy of The Box Of Delights.
163 mins approx
English 2.0 Mono