In 1984, the BBC produced one of the most memorable and ambitious children’s television programmes of all time.
Based on the novel by John Masefield, The Box of Delights was a tick-all-the-boxes psychedelic alchemy that combined captivating story, superb ensemble performance and special effects that transcended the clunky, pre-digital technology of the age to create something timeless and magnificent.
Exactly 30 years on from the original transmission, CultBox will be looking back at every episode of this groundbreaking and much-loved festive serial.
(If you’re a newcomer to The Box of Delights, it’s best you don’t read this article until you’ve seen Episode 1. There may be spoilers ahead.)
Synopsis: Schoolboy Kay Harker is heading home for the Christmas holidays when he meets a peculiar old Punch and Judy Man, Cole Hawlings, who tells him the wolves are running: evil is afoot and a gang of powerful crooks want to steal a magical device known as the Box of Delights.
Frights: ‘It’s a kids’ show from decades ago,’ cynics might say. ‘Based on a book that was published in 1935. What could possibly scare a modern audience?’
Well, it’s hardly Insidious, but The Box of Delights contains plenty of dreamlike creepiness – and some genuine, jump-out-of-your-seat shocks. One of the biggest jolts comes right at the beginning, when Kay (Devin Stansfield) is sitting in a railway carriage with two dodgy-looking clergymen. After losing his money at a game of cards that seems rigged, Kay looks up in surprise at the vulpine-featured curate next to him and finds a giant fox looming over him.
It’s only a brief glimpse, as the train rushes into a tunnel (which is just as well, because the realisation of the creature is more fluffy than frightening), but it’s authentic enough to set a suitably spooky tone for things to come.
Famous Faces: Although he drops out of the story after the second instalment and doesn’t reappear until episode six, the most illustrious actor among The Box of Delights’s coterie of stars is Patrick Troughton. (We’ll discuss the others in the weeks to come.)
Still prominent in the collective consciousness as Doctor Who‘s Second Doctor (thanks in no small part to his reprisal of the role for ‘The Five Doctors’ the previous year), Troughton’s Cole Hawlings is a shaggy, sparkly-eyed showman, charming and compelling in every scene and positively reeking of wizardry and wonder.
If there was ever a missing link between Gandalf and Professor Dumbledore, Hawlings – who sets the story in motion by giving the titular box to Kay for safekeeping and also mentors the boy in magic – fits the gap perfectly. The scene in the Drop of Dew pub, where he conjures up a phoenix from the fireplace, is Potterish in the extreme.
Into the Mystic: There’s enough supernatural sorcery in the opening episode to fill an entire season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yet amid the flashing rings, pagan icons, transmogrifications into wolves and donkey-mounted disappearances into pictures, the most enchanting moment – in all senses – comes right at the start, when Kay tells Cole Hawlings his name before dashing off to catch his train. ‘Yes,’ mutters the old Punch-and-Judy Man in the first hint that his talents run deeper than puppetry and silly voices. ‘I do know …’
Into the Music: The adaptation of ‘The First Noël’ from the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony that opens The Box of Delights remains one of the most evocative television theme tunes of all time. Constructed around a cyclic motif that’s simultaneously comforting and eerie, it builds to a joyous crescendo before ending on a dark note of synthesised foreboding. Simply stunning.
The Purple Pim: To the consternation of governess Caroline Louisa, Kay and his cousins the Joneses (Peter and Maria in particular) frequently lapse into slang that she considers inappropriate. In episode one, she is scandalised when Kay asks for a loan because ‘… I haven’t a tosser to my kick.’ Modern parents should note it’s a reference to being skint rather than anything less salubrious.
Cliffhanger: Chased by wolves, Kay rides up to the site of a former medieval fortress, King Arthur’s Camp, where a fully-intact castle has mysteriously appeared. Just as he feels the bite of the pursuing pack, his pony changes from Desert Orchid to Pegasus and carries him over the ramparts … only to find a raging battle going on inside the walls.
Next week: ‘Where shall the ‘nighted Showman Go?’