‘The Box of Delights’ Episode 5 revisited: ‘Beware of Yesterday’

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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 five episodes. There may be spoilers ahead.)




Synopsis: With the help of Herne the Hunter, Kay travels back through time in search of Arnold of Todi, original owner of the Box of Delights, hoping to persuade him to take it back and stop all the trouble. Arnold refuses and tries to blast Kay even further back into history.

Fortunately, the cries of Herne and the Jones girls summon our hero back to the present. Meanwhile, an increasingly crazed Abner Brown locks up Chubby Joe in the dungeons with the scrobbled clergymen and choirboys, only for treacherous Sylvia Daisy Pouncer and Foxy-Faced Charlies to let him out again – and pinch all of Abner’s loot into the bargain.


Frights: Arnold of Todi’s fury at Kay is vaguely unsettling, but there’s little of substance to spook the average viewer. Even Abner’s insane ranting isn’t as powerful as it was at the beginning of the series.


Famous Faces: Philip Locke – who played the unfortunately-named Bigon on the Peter Davison Doctor Who adventure, ‘Four to Doomsday’ – gives a suitably deranged performance as Arnold of Todi, flashing from maudlin, scarcely comprehensible ramblings about the nature of time to full-on murderous rage.

A young, pre-Arachnophobia, pre-Dexter Julian Sands has a brief cameo as a Greek soldier.


Into the Music: The music during Kay’s journey through the snowy wood is haunting, a fusion of the Obitus computer game theme and hunting horns with oscillating John Michel-Jarre bleeps. Then he flies off into the past to the sound of a classic, Look and Read-ish BBC Radiophonic Workshop refrain.


The Box of Delights 5


Into the Mystic: The trip in time is a hallucinogenic nightmare freakout on a shoestring budget. From hand-drawn renditions of the Ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations to a sea that looks like something out of the original Tron, the cheapness outweighs the weirdness to give everything an air of town hall am-dram.

Worst of all is the brightly-lit studio set recreation of the island where Kay finally meets Arnold of Todi. Neither realistic nor surreal, it’s just a bit … rubbish. It’s only when Arnold goes bonkers and starts zapping Kay with lightning, Emperor Palpatine style, that it drags itself out of the mire of meh.

More impressive – and certainly more bizarre – is the Waterfall Boy: a foliage-and-slime-slathered youth with the gift of extrasensory perception who is essentially Abner’s slave. ‘You will have the Box under your hand today,’ he advises his master – a deliberately ambiguous statement that will come back to bite Abner on the arse.


Into the Past: It seems that Cole Hawlings (aka Ramon Lully) may have stolen the Box of Delights from Arnold of Todi when they were acquainted during the Middle Ages, which adds a bit of steel to his super wizard status, even if it is at the expense of his kindly old Punch and Judy Man image.

Arnold doesn’t seem to bear a grudge: he is impressed that Hawlings is still alive in 1934 and apparently doesn’t care that the box was taken from him, dismissing it as a silly little toy. Then again, he is entirely off his gourd.


The Purple Pim: ‘I have it on the authority of my Pouncer that the boy is an idle muff,’ Abner Brown says of Kay, painfully unaware of the word’s future meaning. Dirty modern minds will also enjoy the unintended implication of Jemima’s remarks after Kay opens his bedroom door to her, looking dishevelled and red-faced: ‘What a lot of groaning and yelping. Were you having a bad dream?’


Cliffhanger: Kay is left unconscious, miniaturised and without the Box of Delights, in Abner’s secret dungeons beneath Chesters Theological College.


Next week: ‘Leave Us Not Little, Nor Yet Dark’!


> Buy The Box of Delights on DVD on Amazon.


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