‘The Box of Delights’ Episode 4 revisited: ‘The Spider in the Web’

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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 four episodes. There may be spoilers ahead.)




Synopsis: Having narrowly avoided being drowned, Kay and the Joneses return home to find Seekings has been burgled – by Abner Brown’s gang looking for the Box of Delights. They also find Maria, who was briefly imprisoned by the crooks after refusing to join them.

In search of answers, Kay and Peter head to Chesters Theological College, home of the Reverend Dr Boddledale (Abner’s alter ego), but Peter is taken prisoner. As Abner’s search for the Box intensifies, Caroline Louisa, the Bishop of Tatchester and a bunch of other clergymen are all scrobbled.


Frights: During her incarceration by Abner, Maria Jones is kept in a cell with a door that slams itself shut in the best horror movie tradition. Similarly, the unseen but ominously-named Scrounger – into which Sylvia Daisy Pouncer threatens to put Maria – sounds like something from the Saw films.

Later, Kay has another vivid nightmare in which Caroline Louisa screams from the windows of Chesters before being attacked by a giant wolf.


Famous Faces: Patricia Quinn, who some may recall as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Belazs in the Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who story, ‘Dragonfire’, is superb as Abner Brown’s wife and Kay’s former governess Sylvia Daisy Pouncer.

Oozing smarm and saccharinity, Sylvia expertly plays the doting gangster’s moll whilst secretly working to her own ends. The fact that something is cracking off between her and Foxy-Faced Charles is lost on no one but Abner Brown.

The more witchlike elements of Pouncer as conceived by John Masefield are played down (just as they are with Carolina Louisa: in the books, both of Kay’s governesses have supernatural powers) but she’s more than equal to her horrible husband.

Quinn herself was certainly a match for Robert Stephens; she played his onscreen partner again in the 1987 miniseries Fortunes of War (this time, it was Stephens’s character doing the cheating) and in 1995 they married in real life. Sadly, Stephens passed away later that year.


The Box of Delights 4 a


Into the Mystic: Kay’s hallucination of Carolina Louisa being attacked is not posset-prompted this time; it’s either the power of the Box of Delights or his own latent magical abilities (something that the book and its prequel, The Midnight Folk, hint at but is again all but ignored in the TV series). There’s no doubt that the other magic in the episode that involves Kay – flying around the county, shrinking and re-enlarging pretty much at will – is down to the Box.


Into the Past: In an episode loaded with exposition, Abner reveals the history of the Box of Delights and its links to two ‘philosophers’ (i.e. alchemical wizards) from the Middle Ages: Ramon Lully and Arnold of Todi.

The former created an elixir giving extremely long life, for which the latter was prepared to exchange his magical powers – which were contained in a small wooden box. Soon after that, Arnold disappeared, apparently using the powers of the Box to travel back in time.

‘There are people who believe that Ramon Lully got the Box after Arnold went into the past without it,’ Abner says – but what became of the mysterious Mr Lully after that …?


The Purple Pim: Peter’s grumpy loquaciousness is his defining characteristic and the only thing that saves him from being as anonymous as Susan and Jemima. In this episode, he’s annoyed about being woken up by Kay to go to Chesters (‘If this isn’t the purple pim!’) and then unnerved by the college itself (‘Gives me the fantods …’)

When Kay reports all the kidnappings, the Inspector of Police manages to make himself look even more of an idiot than usual when speaking to ‘Reverend Boddledale’ as if he’s an old friend, blissfully unaware that he’s talking to Abner Brown. ‘You remember … the glee club?’


Cliffhanger: A miniaturised Kay hovers in Boddledale’s office, watching in amazement as Abner ages a picture of Ramon Lully to reveal his true identity: Cole Hawlings. ‘It’s the old Punch and Judy Man,’ Chubby Joe gasps. ‘But he must be five––seven hundred years old!’


Next week: ‘Beware of Yesterday’!


> Buy The Box of Delights on DVD on Amazon.


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