‘The Box of Delights’ Episode 3 revisited: ‘In Darkest Cellars Underneath’

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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 three episodes. There may be spoilers ahead.)




Synopsis: Kay discovers that Abner Brown’s girlfriend is his hated former governess, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. Worse, Maria Jones has become entangled in the gang’s activities and may be involved with the robbery that ruins the Bishop’s Christmas party. After Kay takes solace in a hallucinogenic hot drink, he and the other Jones children find themselves cut down to size…


Frights: On the advice of the garrulous police inspector, Kay asks Ellen (the Seekings maid) to make him a strong posset: a comforting drink made of hot milk, eggs, treacle and nutmeg. Judging by the deranged nightmare Kay subsequently suffers, Ellen may have added liquid LSD to the mix.

After seeing Herne the Hunter dressed as a Roman soldier and the Old Lady metamorphose into Caroline Louisa, a gleefully malevolent Abner Brown looms out of the darkness, followed by a giant wolf. Given that this remains spooky even on repeated viewings, newcomers to The Box of Delights may require a change of underwear.


Famous Faces: It’s high time we talked about Robert Stephens: father of Toby, onetime husband of Maggie Smith and best friend of Jeremy Brett who plays dark wizard, fake vicar and master criminal Abner Brown.

Switching from whispers to booms like a totally tonto Tom Baker, Stephens imbues Abner Brown with a mixture of bad kebab oiliness and genuinely unsettling demented rage to create a character that is as charming as he is chilling – and always compelling.

Abner may not be as clever as he thinks he is (failing to countenance the idea that Cole Hawlings would trust a mere schoolboy with the Box of Delights is a bad mistake; not realising his girlfriend and goons aren’t as loyal as he believes turns out to be even worse), but he’s a deliciously watchable villain.

Stephens doesn’t so much steal every scene as wrestle it bodily from his co-stars and leave them gasping on the ground. There’s nothing wrong with their performances; they just can’t compete with this booze-fuelled force of nature. Only Patrick Troughton and Patricia Quinn, who plays Sylvia Daisy Pouncer (and later became the third Mrs Stephens in real life), can hold their own.


The Box of Delights 3


Into the Mystic: The episode begins and ends with Kay using the Box to go small, but the majority of the episode is more concerned with the ordinary (i.e. boring) party at the Bishop’s, which even charisma vacuums like Susan and Jemima seem to find tedious. It’s no wonder Maria ends up hanging out with Abner and the baddies.


Into the Music: To emphasise the monotony of the Bishop’s bash (cough), the only music the old buffer puts on for the kids is a bizarre fairground organ version of ‘I Saw Three Ships’. Even for 1935, this is fuddy-duddy in the extreme. One almost expects the Bishop to break out some Dad Dancing.


The Purple Pim: ‘Oh, bother that!’ scoffs Maria when Sylvia suggests (quite kindly, for a witch and criminal) that she call Seekings to advise that she won’t be back until teatime. ‘They know I can look after myself. I’ve generally got a pistol or two on me and I’m a dead shot with both hands.’

Later, Peter muses whether his sister has joined Abner Brown’s gang. ‘If she has, I think that’s the purple pim!’

The police inspector’s use of the word ‘jorum’ in reference to the posset sounds bizarre, but it’s a genuine word: meaning a large bowl or jug used for serving drinks.


Cliffhanger: To evade Foxy-Faced Charles and Chubby Joe, Kay and the Joneses (minus Maria) use the Box to go small and sail off down the river on the toy boat they were playing with. It’s an ingenious means of escape … right up until the moment they find themselves bearing down on some dangerous rapids.


Next week: ‘The Spider in the Web’!


> Buy The Box of Delights on DVD on Amazon.


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