Out with a friend one snowy December morning, you spy the Punch-and-Judy man across the field. The one you met on the train platform, the one who performed at your house last night, the one who warned you, “The wolves are running”. His eyes as old as the mystical powers that dwell within the small, precious box he entrusted to you.
All at once, a gang of men, including those sinister curates who picked your pockets on the train home, set upon him! A sack thrust over his head, ropes tied around him, he is scrobbled away and bundled into a car. You give chase, but when you arrive, the car is nowhere in sight. It couldn’t have got away so quickly, could it? And what’s that peculiar-looking plane overhead…?
It celebrated its thirtieth birthday last year, but The Box of Delights carries a lasting sense of magic and wonder. Plenty keeps it precious in my mind, beyond the happy memory of discovering it during my first childhood. Quite aside from that nostalgic attachment, there’s much to admire, from its stellar cast to its ambitious production. The Box of Delights strikes me as well remembered for its collisions of young and old. This is not only in its combination of live action with animation, nor its fusion of orchestral and electronic music, but in the varied kind of story it tells. Differing genres and ideas bounce off each other in a piece of Christmas television that is more daringly experimental, and perhaps more rewarding, than we are used to today.
Adapted from John Masefield’s 1935 book, the serial follows Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield), a boy who, after encountering a mysterious and impossibly old Punch-and-Judy man (Patrick Troughton), is plunged into a web of yuletide intrigue. Stanfield acted very little following this, and it’s a shame, given what a find he was. To carry a six-part series is an unenviable task for a thirteen year-old, but Stanfield manages it with aplomb, and the look of delighted awe that often springs to his face characterises the programme for me.
Stanfield is bolstered by the excellent cast surrounding him. There’s a consistently high quality, but two names stood out for me as a child. Patrick Troughton is perfect as Cole Hawlings, bringing to the role the same paradoxically alien cosiness that he brought to Doctor Who. While only appearing in three of the six episodes, his presence is felt throughout, thanks in part to the atmospheric opening titles, and he leaves a lasting mark on the programme. Robert Stephens also deserves the highest praise, a towering actor who gives menacing authority and sickly charm to the villainous Abner Brown. His performance is as vital to the series’ momentum as Stanfield, with grandiose and subtlety in equal measure, aided no end by the rich depth and power of his voice.
An extremely able cast is one thing, but the programme’s ambition in its storytelling, and its use of different forms to serve its own enormous scale better, is particularly striking, even by modern standards. This serial is at once a seasonal period run-around, a children’s morality tale, a dual Pagan-Christian myth, a historical fantasy, all within a kind of Boy’s Adventure story. The hints of espionage and spy tales that come with the transforming aero-car add to this, and so does the healthy comic streak of James Grout’s oblivious police inspector. Most important to the story, though, is its all-pervading sense of wonderment.
This is the story of Kay’s eyes being opened to a world of magic, and the fantastical characters that inhabit it. Jeopardy at Christmas and intrigue in the clergy (more fun than it sounds) are central to the plot, but at the heart of the programme itself is this new and exciting realm, driven by Kay’s encounters with enigmatic figures of legend, along with a host of animals. Exemplifying this is the serial’s second episode, as he explores the powers of the Box of Delights he has now been entrusted with. He starts the half-hour having gone backwards in time and protected an ancient village from a wolf attack, and ends up flying through underground passages with a mouse to spy on his antagonist Brown (dodging a pirate gang of rats along the way).
Much of these sequences does little to advance the plot in itself, but their thematic significance to the narrative is indisputable, and such a virtue is seen no clearer than in Kay’s experiences with Herne the Hunter in the same episode. In a four-minute sequence, Kay ventures into a forest within the box, transforming with Herne into a stag, then into wild ducks, then again into a fish, always eluding the sinister animals hunting them. There is nothing here for plot, but everything for theme, style and tone, and it lingers in the memory. Something to be said for a longer series, then, and the greater room it allows a story to breathe.
The sequence, like many others, displays the innovative use of animation made by director Renny Rye. While it is used frequently alongside the live action pictures as well, it seems to me most effective when taking up full sequences in its own right. The same applies with the television adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy three years earlier, and with CGI today. The Box of Delights makes very clear how storytelling can be enhanced by such a bold combination of visual tools, occupying their own space within the programme, yet such an adventurous approach seems sadly less likely to me today. If CGI is to be used in sci-fi and fantasy, it will largely be integrated within a live action narrative, and not used in its own right to feed a psychological dimension. It’s an idea I hope will come to inform programmes one day in the future.
As well as visual style, the serial’s use of music is distinctly effective. Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop provides an innovative score that combines real instruments with synthesised sounds. It adds to the heady mix of ancient and modern, of reality and fantasy, and builds on the atmosphere we are prepared for as viewers by one of the best choices of theme music in the history of British TV: Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony. Limb frequently quotes the extract played over the opening and closing titles, itself based on The First Nowell, further helping to anchor the contemporary sounds in a period world. The carol itself appears in the programme too, and if one thing consistently calls The Box of Delights to mind, years on from first watching, it is hearing The First Nowell.
Nothing seems so instantly to conjure the same sensibilities I experienced watching for the first time as the music of The Box of Delights, nor compels me so strongly to watch it. My emotional memory of the serial is bound inextricably to its music, but it is once I start watching, and rediscovering, the programme once again, that I remember all the different elements that make it such a special, such a remarkable piece of television. It stands as an example to all that follows (whether they choose to pay it any attention or not), and remains essential Christmas viewing.