‘The Box of Delights’ Episode 2 revisited: ‘Where Shall the ‘nighted Showman Go?’

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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.

> Buy The Box of Delights on DVD on Amazon.

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 the first two episodes. There may be spoilers ahead.)




Synopsis: Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton) is abducted by the crooks who want his magical Box – but the Punch and Judy man has already passed it onto Kay Harker (Devin Stansfield) for safekeeping.

Fearful for the old man’s safety, Kay reports the kidnapping to the police, but the local inspector dismisses his concerns in favour of chatter about rabbits and conjuring tricks. Instead, Kay turns to the Box itself for help.


Frights: There’s something curiously creepy about the random voice that Kay overhears on the police telephone when trying to talk to Cole Hawlings. However, the most unsettling moment in this episode comes right at the end: whilst ruminating over Kay’s interference and his plans to neutralise him, gang boss and dark magician Abner Brown (the sublimely malevolent Robert Stephens – more on him next week) runs his fingers over a lit match.


Famous Faces: James Grout, best-known for his portrayal of Chief Superintendent Strange in Inspector Morse, plays the kind-hearted but brainless policeman who fails to heed Kay’s concerns about Cole Hawlings. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Nick Berry (Wicksy from EastEnders) as a pirate rat.


Into the Mystic: Episode 2 is a mixture of sorcery and more earthy thrills. Having travelled back in time to an unspecified fight against wolves, Kay is given a sword and mucks in with an enthusiasm that’s as off-putting to anti-violence campaigners as it is to animal rights activists. Although no blood (animal or human) is seen to flow, it’s a scene that seems unnecessarily ferocious.

The kidnapping of Cole Hawlings by those human wolves Foxy-Faced Charles (Geoffrey Larder) and Chubby Joe (Jonathan Stephens) is similarly physical and surprisingly ordinary. We’ve already seen that Abner Brown’s lieutenants have powers of their own – unless their transmogrification into wolves is conjured solely by their boss’s sorcery.

Even so, with the new magic supposedly being more powerful than the old, why can’t it be used against the old Punch and Judy Man? Presumably Brown and company suspect the Box, which is apparently stronger than both the old and new magic, will protect its owner.

Later in the episode, Kay journeys inside the Box to a world that’s part Watership Down, part When The Wind Blows. Here, he meets Herne the Hunter and evades evil by metamorphosing into a series of cartoon creatures: a stag, a duck, a fish, a stag again. Then the Box helps him to go small (press to the right) so he can venture under the floorboards of Seekings, where he meets a cowardly but friendly rodent named Mouse.

When they encounter the gang of drunken pirate rats, Kay presses to the left to go swift and they fly off to the Prince Rupert’s Arms pub to spy on Abner Brown’s meeting with the Rat. It’s faster and cheaper than getting a cab.


The Box of Delights 2 a


Into the Music: The hunting horn-led, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’-inspired refrain that plays as Kay and Peter trudge across the snow-covered countryside towards Bottler’s Down complements the beautiful but melancholy landscape perfectly. The demented prog rock synthesiser workouts that accompany Kay’s animated voyage with Herne the Hunter are similarly impressive.


The Purple Pim: The most enduring and amusing example of Masefield’s slang gets its first – but not last – airing in Episode 2.

Peter is horrified by Kay’s plan to visit Bottler’s Down at dawn and protests: ‘Getting up before it’s light … on the first day of the holidays? I think it’s the purple pim.’ Later, after learning that Cole Hawlings has been kidnapped, he exclaims: ‘They’ve scrobbled the old man!’


Cliffhanger: Kay listens, aghast, as Abner Brown talks about him in ominous tones: ‘As for the boy … that interfering, overreaching boy … reporting to the police … talking on telephones … What I won’t do to that boy …’


Next week: ‘In Darkest Cellars Underneath’


> Buy The Box of Delights on DVD on Amazon.


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