The Box of Delights
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare does not age well, but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be viewed through a flattering gauze.
The Box of Delights novel is John Masefield’s sequel to The Midnight Folk (1927), the first adventure for his young hero Kay Harker. The novels share a number of the characters, on both the sides of light and darkness. In The Midnight Folk, Kay embarks on a search for his grandfather’s treasure. He soon discovers that his governess, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, is also after the stash. She is a member of a coven of witches lead by one Abner Brown. Both characters will return for the sequel, of course. And, while many of the animals are distinct (Rat excepted), the books share anthropomorphised creatures that both aid and hinder Kay on his quest. Caroline Louisa becomes Kay’s governess at the end of the first novel; earlier in the proceedings she appeared as a magically endowed helper on the boy’s quest. Ellen the maid and the plinth-like Head also recur.
Masefield’s early adulthood included a spell as a sailor, which doubtless informed the nautical elements of the novels. Three years after The Midnight Folk was published he was appointed as Poet Laureate, a position he held for the next 37 years (until his death). While Christian themes and motifs are common in his works, it appears that he didn’t quite walk a party line; certainly not to the satisfaction of all within the Church. I suspect that, as an accomplished beekeeper, Masefield had an at least informal attachment to the old traditions. It is certainly a theme that manifests throughout The Box of Delights, and one that carries through intact into the TV adaptation.
It appears that the Dean of Canterbury, George Bell (later the Bishop of Chichester), was none too agreeable to the suggestion that Masefield should write a play to be performed at Canterbury Cathedral. He regarded the poet’s view of Christianity as on the suspect side. A N Wilson’s Telegraph comment piece highlights a number of aspects of Masefield’s outlook that have occurred to me over the years in respect of The Box of Delights. Indeed, it’s ironic that this is a piece of fiction that seems to get the approval of many Christians (ones who didn’t go on to become the Bishop of Chichester at any rate) as it has the semblance of ultimately restoring everything to the (Christian) God given order of things.
The series reproduces a period version of England where the forces of our pagan heritage are just as, if not more so, strong as the Christianity that supplanted it. As such it identifies itself more demonstrably with the arcane trappings the “new religion” dragged with it when it appropriated the festival.
The plot of Box follows a similar quest format to The Midnight Folk. On this occasion Kay encounters mysterious old Punch and Judy Man Cole Hawlings, and his Barney dog, on the train journey home from boarding school. He also meets a couple of suspect clergymen en route (interesting to note that the first exemplars of religious rectitude we see are impostors and charlatans). Cole Hawlings has something the fake clergy’s employer wants; a magical box allowing the user to go swift, go small, or enter its mythic/imaginary/historical realms. If the box is the MacGuffin that fuels the tale (albeit one with much more substance than the standard MacGuffin), the object of Abner’s desire is not ultimately the box itself. Rather, it is the prize of immortality known only by Cole (an elixir of life). When Cole is “scrobbled”, Kay must secure the aid of a variety of individuals large and small to help old Cole. These include various representations of Herne the Hunter, the Old Lady at the Drop of Dew (I’m unclear precisely who she is intended to represent), a friendly mouse, the “blasted Joneses”, the “bloodhound of the Law”, and the less than welcoming Arnold of Todi (the original owner of the box).
There have been a number of radio adaptations of the novel over the years, most recently a less-than-stunning 1995 version. There were rumours that the BBC intended to mount one-off adaptations of both books a few years back, but they came to nothing. Nor did Mike Newell’s feature version. Off the back of his foray into big budget spectacle with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Newell had Box in development but it ultimately ran aground. This was, according to Newell, down to the desire of the studio to bend it into the vacuum-formed shape of the average family blockbuster. Credit to Newell for sticking to his guns (I’m surprised that the chap responsible for Prince of Persia had any guns left to stick to, but good on him for wanting to see the story told in something resembling its intended design).
Box was produced by Paul Stone and adapted by Alan Seymour, both of whom went on to tackle the BBC’s prestigious Narnia series about five years later. Unlike Box, and perhaps a testament to Rye, the budgetary limitations in putting CS Lewis on TV were immediately transparent and crippling. Rye went on to collaborate with late-career Dennis Potter during the ’90s. Box rightly received a brace of BAFTA nominations, and walked off with three awards; most significantly that of Best Children’s Programme.
Informing the serial’s tone are wonderfully evocative opening (and closing) titles and music. The adoption of synthesiser incidental music had mixed results during the ’80s. At their best, these scores stand the test of time as well as cinema scores of the same period (starting at A Clockwork Orange and pitched forward by way of John Carpenter). At their worst they succumb to the mire of a toneless aural dirge. One need look no further than Doctor Who at this point to see both the highs and lows. Roger Limb’s contribution to Box appears to have extended to the slight embellishment of the existing piece used for the main theme (an arrangement of The First Nowell, from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s The Carol Symphony). These touches are eerie and magical, including the tinkling music box intro and the synthesiser horns as the action fades in. Limb was responsible for some fairly awful scores on Who, and a couple of great ones, so perhaps he just needed quality material to suitably inspire him.
The title images expertly reflect the tone of the music. Various characters and creatures are seen accompanying the tinkly opening, before the score takes on a full flourish; a wolf, Mr Punch, Rat, the mouse, a Greek soldier, Herne the Hunter, Abner Brown, and Cole Hawlings (his appearance akin to a tramp version of Santa Claus; the camera tracks into his eye which dissolves into the box). We then see the titular box rotating (a music box?) and finally it’s opening heralds the beginning of the episode. Combined, they are a gorgeous marriage of sound and image. The end titles also deserve mention. There is a reprise of the theme, and the box is again briefly on show. Time lapse photography of rolling clouds accompanies the main credits, but the final image is of a wolf’s head leering towards and filling the screen; the stuff of bad dreams mask is. Yet in a good way (the design of the wolf mask, which appears as a hallucinatory omen to Kay at intervals during the serial, is superb; slightly exaggerated so as to be disturbing, rather than cartoonish). Throughout, Limb’s incidental music has just the right instinctive handle on using electronica to accentuate a period setting.
1: When the Wolves were Running
I should probably admit going in that the first episode is my favourite of the six. It’s a not unfamiliar criticism that stories establish far more potential than they can pay off, both in source material and adaptations (The Fellowship of the Ring is easily the best of Peter Jackson’s trilogy). Box has such a peerless set up, there’s little chance that what follows can quite equal it. It also has the lion’s share of Patrick Troughton, which immediately puts it ahead (it’s difficult to choose between him and Robert Stephens for the most vibrant screen presence, so I won’t; one exudes benevolence, the other is deliciously dastardly).
In part, the first episode’s success is down to a familiar symptom of any not-quite-there narrative; it is at its most beguiling when bursting with mystery. Revelations of what is behind it all very rarely meet expectations, so neither Masefield nor Seymour should come under particular scrutiny. The presentation of Foxy Faced Charles (Geoffrey Larder) and Chubby Joe (Jonathan Stephens), the friendly-yet-unsettling curates, is somewhat punctured in later episodes when they are revealed as not very imposing at all (slightly buffoonish even). As such the threat Abner is warned of, as early as his encounter with Rat in this episode (“Them’s the two to watch. Like to be chief”), diminishes him in spite of his evident occult powers later instalments.
The two clergymen pressure Kay (Devin Stanfield) into a game of cards, with pecuniary stakes (“For the poor box”), adopting the double bluff of warning him first (“Let nothing tempt you into playing cards with strangers on a train”). The Church can do what it likes under the banner of divine mandate, it seems… Larder makes the strongest impression, with a nervous tick of verbiage (“Ha ha, what?”) and the stirring moment when the carriage is darkened (a passing tunnel?) and Kay sees his “true visage”; he has the head of a fox.
Later, on disembarking, Kay sees the curates walking up a nearby field. Distracted, he looks back to see two wolves running from the same spot (hence the title of the episode). It’s left ambiguous if/how the two have such metamorphosing powers. There is nothing to suggest such feats in later episodes, as if pulling back from the villains’ potential. What of the animal symbolism here? Charles will later be referred to as foxy faced (but Kay doesn’t know that), so why does he then turn into a wolf? Because he is acting at the grand wolf’s (Abner’s) behest?
Since he is (by his own attestation, as interviewed on the DVD release) on screen for much of the proceedings, The Box of Delights stands or falls on the performance of its lead child actor. Fortunately, Rye showed wise judgement in choosing Stanfield. This was one of only two roles (the first being in Chocky, but not as the lead) taken by Stanfield, who moved to work behind the scenes as an adult. The posh kid thing can at times be unbearably grating in period pieces but this is never a problem with Kay, who is winningly genuine throughout. Indeed, Rye’s assessment is insightful when he observes that Stanfield’s ability was to “express, visually, wonder”. In a frequently effects-driven piece such a skill (innate or otherwise) is essential. He also manages to make you laugh with Kay, again never so easy as children ever run the risk of teetering into precociousness on screen. Kay, even when he’s nursing privileged Little Lord Fauntleroy-isms (he has a chauffeur, Old Jim, to drive him around, so he can do some last-minute Christmas shopping “for those blessed Joneses”), never loses our sympathy.
Cole: The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?
It’s interesting that Seymour makes no attempt to make Kay out to turn this into a standalone story; Kay has clearly had adventures before. He is not surprised at the existence of the supernatural (“Is it… magic?” he asks Cole of his box) and he and Abner have evidently crossed paths before (“Meaning the boy! If he should get in our way… “) This sort of extended universe, without the need to fill in every detail, is such a rarity now. We are so relentlessly self-plundering that we must elucidate the backstories of the tales that most inspired us. Yet they provoked our imaginations for the very reason that they were so murky (be it Star Wars or Alien or The Thing). There’s a perverse self-destructiveness about the whole process.
Kay is also a boy living in an age where parents (or guardians; the presumption is, as with the novels which are inconclusive, that Kay is orphaned) considered it perfectly safe to let their children out roaming villages in the dead of a winter night. And visit the local pub unchaperoned, where strange old men will show them something delightful.
Cole: Only, I do date from pagan times, and age makes joints to creak. Or doesn’t it?
Kay: I think it does.
Talking of pubs, where else would you expect to find an ex-Doctor Who? This point in time felt like something of a TV renaissance for Patrick Troughton. It’s not as if he had gone anywhere; he was rarely without a role, but his profile had been raised considerably by his return to Doctor Who for The Five Doctors the previous year, and this was as about as glamorous as a children’s television role got (it was even lavished a Radio Times cover). With his big bushy beard and devoted Barney dog, Troughton’s Cole Hawlings exudes a generous wisdom and mystery. His cadence is not quite of the era, bathed in near-verse and the mists of distant past (“That’s the time likings are made” he comments of Barney making friends with Kay at first sight). The intentional vagueness of his speech, as with the Manimal clergy, serves to emphasise the heightened environs in which Kay finds himself. And his “magical” retrieval of Kay’s ticket (“You must have slipped it out as you rampaged”) may or may not have been engineered by Cole to secure Kay’s help in the coming escapade.
Cole: You must get home to Seekings. Time, and tide and buttered eggs wait for no man.
Almost every line of Cole’s is quotable, and Troughton delivers them in a rich far-off tone, as if sampling the possible meanings of each and drawing from centuries of travel and experience as he does so. It appears that, as with criminals dressed as curates, the guise of a Punch and Judy Man is an open invitation to cross the thresholds of the great-and-good. But Cole must check himself to conceal that he comes from times before Christianity held sway (Abner’s records of Ramon Lully identify him with the Middle Ages but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t already centuries old at that point). It’s an unmistakable intent that Cole, whom we identify as the chief mentor figure and upholder of decency (he’s the wise old man, the Hermit, or Yoda), should have no great truck with the form and flavour of organised religion. If Masefield cast his bad guys as witches in The Midnight Folk, the sort of choice one might expect from a stalwart Christian fellow, everything about the construction of The Box of Delights is skewed to ambiguity in terms of religious identification.
Cole: Oh right gladly I will come, your Grace. For I played a Christmas play upon that night ever since pagan times.
Cole: In a manner of speaking.
There it is again; Cole is a pagan, and thus those Kay consorts with are of pagan disposition (Herne the Hunter). There is no suggestion that the lines of good and evil are drawn less clearly as a result (“May Punch be good, and Judy fair, and evil vanish into air”) but the Church has no exclusive right to arbitrate on such matters. Indeed, the Bishop as played by John Horsley is a supremely dotty old bird; he encapsulates the notion of a church structure populated by slightly silly arses. He can’t see what’s going on under his nose, with a blinkered and baffled appreciation of the world, whereas Cole has his eyes wide open. Can it be a coincidence that the men of the cloth in the story are thieves and charlatans or genial fools?
That isn’t to suggest Masefield has any intention of expressly maligning the Church. Rather, that its edifice is just another component of tradition that has arisen, each of which has its place. We are told that this Christmas Eve will celebrate the 1000th such service at Tatchester Cathedral. Yet, with all that righteous history behind it, the Church lacks the far-seeing abilities of Cole, who predicts the events to come (“We shall be there, your grace. Whatever happens in between, we shall be there”).
Rye and Seymour waste little time in showing off a taster of “my box of such delights”. After all, Kay is a “good kind boy and you may see something of my box”. A visually-not-dissimilar box would appear in Hellraiser a few years later, but one with much less agreeable properties. If certain elements of Box look rather rusty now, Ian Emes’ animation remains something special. It is shown off at its most exotic during the second episode, and its most disturbing in the finale, and here it wends exactly the effect intends; the promise of magic.
When Kay meets Cole in The Drop of Dew (the pub), he shows young master Harker a phoenix. Which is exactly the sort of thing you would want to see if you were a lad with an active imagination. In part this identifies more clearly what the Dean of Canterbury should have realised; Masefield is writing to appeal to the unbridled minds of the young, who have no need to be limited by doctrine or dogma. (As noted, I remain unsure who the Old Lady with the ring, played by Anne Dyson, is intended to represent in mythological terms. She later transposes with Caroline Louisa in Kay’s dream, before appearing in the last episode with a sleigh drawn by unicorns; I assume she is of non-specific magical bent.)
Kay: What do they want?
Cole: My old magic. Their new magic is sometimes too powerful, for there’s… here something they want.
If the phoenix is the animation taster, the main course of the episode is Cole’s escape from Seekings following his Punch and Judy show. I mentioned Hellraiser, and again its curious to see and idea used in a children’s series later employed by decidedly adult fare. David Lynch probably never saw The Box of Delights, but the nightmarish vision of a painting come alive is one of the most striking moments in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Cole’s canvas exodus is the very antithesis of this, as he makes a painting of a mountain in Switzerland come alive. A friendly donkey walks along a mountain path to greet him, he climbs on and retreats along the path with Barney dog. How he releases himself from said painting in order to meet Kay the next morning at King Arthur’s Camp is unanswered, but it’s one of those clarifications we don’t really need; there are magical devices in fiction that cause dissatisfaction and there are those that promote wonderment. This is in the latter camp.
As soon as it grows dark, the barely suppressed supernatural happenings are unleashed. Kay sees Herne the Hunter, and then that there Old Lady with the ring. Glyn Baker’s physically unimposing Herne (he’s a bit on the doughy side) might be reason for the augmentation of his voice, lent an electronic echo much more memorable than Baker himself.
Herne is another manifestation of the pagan heartland of Britain, the antlered spirit of the woodlands. His historicity (both real and literary) may be the source of much speculation (Shakespeare is his first reference in literature) but in Box he is wholly benign, steeped in nature and the landscape. If Cole suggests the learning of ancient ways, Herne tutors Kay in the realms of the animal kingdom; the oldest of lore.
Since Kay’s alighting in the Camp (“It’s just a big lump of Earth in the middle of nowhere”, protests Peter) is more substantial in the second episode I’ll leave discuss it then, but it’s notable how economically Limb and Rye suggest Kay’s pursuit by wolves (necessity being the mother of invention); a few cuts of animals and a breathless pace on the soundtrack work wonders.
Caroline Louisa (Carol Frazer) makes an appealingly laissez-faire governess, whom Frazer injects with a jolly vivaciousness. She lightly chastises Kay’s use of slang (“I haven’t a toss to my kick!”) but has few concerns about leaving him and the Joneses alone while she goes to tend to her brother who is “ill again” (is he an alcoholic?) At this point there is no suggestion of any magical aspects to her, as per The Midnight Folk (and when they do arrive they are suitably oblique), and she’s shown to be fairly wide of the mark when she assumes “nothing can go wrong” in her absence. To be fair to her, she leaves them with Ellen the maid (Helen Fraser)
The blessed Joneses are Peter (Crispin Mair), fond of announcing “This is the purple pim!”, Jemima (Heidi Burton), Susan (Flora Page) and most memorably Maria (Joanna Dukes). Something of a tomboy, Maria is less than keen on the Christmas spirit, much more interested in being held hostage by a “gang of robbers” (which proves very nearly prescient). They are all frightfully well-to-do, of course, but like Kay manage not to prove irritatingly so. Only Dukes would go on to further screen roles, appearing as a regular on Press Gang (with another former child star, Dexter Fletcher).
Rat: You got any green cheese for me?
It’s after leaving the pub that Kay first spies Abner, meeting with Charles and Joe in a dank sewer. Where we also find Bill Wallis’ Rat. Rat is a marvellously grotesque creature, an avid consumer of green cheese and bacon rind (“That and marrow bone the day after makes your fur shine!”) One feature of the series is the as-fits-the-moment approach to the fauna encountered by Kay. Wallis’ features make-up is nominally rodent-like, and he is the same size as his human counterparts. In the next episode Kay encounters a mouse (when he has “gone small”) and pirate rats, all of which have full suits (including face masks). But as with so many aspects of the series, it just isn’t something we question as anomalous.
Stephens is a malignant joy as Abner, alternately using charm (“Brave rat, beautiful rat”) and threats to get his way. We are given a sketchy insight into his plans to hamper the Christmas Eve service, announcing him as directly antagonistic to the forces of good (in contrast to Cole’s “live and let live” disposition). The bad guys, thanks to Rat’s scurrying investigations, are remarkably well informed on the movements of Cole, Kay and the Old Lady; they even learn of King Arthur’s Camp (from thence comes a scrobbling). And most significantly, we learn of the value of the box; for Abner it is a means to “Power over all!”