The Box of Delights
6: Leave us not Little, nor yet Dark
The final episode exhibits many of the strengths and flaws of the previous instalments. The first half wonderfully ups the stakes, only to have them effortlessly blown away. It’s a more serious error than releasing Joe minutes after he has been locked up because, even given Abner’s poor choices, he needs to be demonstrated as an effective villain.
But, during the first ten minutes at least, he is at his peak. First of all, he draws an upturned pentacle on a stone wall to produce a hidden door before moving onto summon demons. The set he enters is superb, a florid temple for his dark deeds.
Abner: Why are you rolling your eyes?
Head: You’d roll your eyes too if you were upside down.
The effects for the bronze plinth head are also top notch, and Nicholas Chagrin’s performance is, following the Waterfall Boy, suitably insubordinate (none of Abner’s slaves much like their lot, and look forward to his downfall). Head is unconsoling regarding Abner’s errors (“You have given them time to act against you”) and takes pleasure in disrupting his master’s plans (directing the watching Kay to his mislaid box). Abner further punishes his minion by placing Head upside down (leading to an amusing point-of-view shot).
The summoning of the demonic host is perhaps the serial’s most obvious display 0f willingness to traumatise the little ones. The animation is as consistently strong as hitherto, but this time requires integration with the live action. Abner, set on preventing the service from going ahead, calls on “Slave of the Night”, “Creature” and “Animus” to (respectively) dislocate railway traffic twenty miles around Tatchester, make every road impassable and fill the countryside with a blizzard of snow. Curiously, Head instructs Abner, “You can’t do that. You cannot take life”. Do even the practitioners of the dark arts have a code in Masefield’s world? It isn’t quite Crowley-esque, but suggests there are certain boundary points even for one of such unfiltered intent as Abner.
Kay opts not to right poor Head, who may still be in that sorry upturned state. Instead Master Harker heads for the dungeons, and like a dozy dreamer drops his box again. We see the Bishop and his boys accompanying the fake curates and Sylvia; it’s certainly peculiar to find Sylvia playing the nominal good guy, even if reluctantly. Abner, in the distance drags his box.
Abner: I will sell you the Box of Delights in exchange for your elixir of life.
Abner’s confrontation with Cole raises a few questions. Is he serious? Is it a ploy (he’ll keep the box when he’s got the elixir)? This is the first we’ve been told of his desire for immortality; the entire quest for the box is actually revealed as a means to an end? Fair enough, if so, but why does he think it will make the slightest bit of difference to Cole’s resilience? Wouldn’t he be better to torture the bishop and demand the elixir, on pain of the Tatch Bish’s demise? Almost anything would probably be a better scheme. If he really wants only the elixir, holding Cole is the key and he can determine how to unlock the door later (hence his plans to abscond in the previous episode appear hasty). Is he serious?
Abner: Will you deal?
Cole: No, because you’re a greedy scoundrel. Unfit to have long life.
Cole’s general motivations remain murky, which is well and good. But in a few minutes, we will witness that, though his powers may have faded by the account of some (including himself), they seem more than sufficient to have enabled his escape long before now. Was his confinement at least partly agreeable to him, as it would allow Kay to complete his initiation
Along these lines, there is a reappearance from the Waterfall Boy, looking even slimier than before. The Boy waves Abner’s failure under his nose (“You had it under your hand today and you didn’t know”). Cole uses his magic ring to stay Abner’s punishing hand and free the boy (“Squish to you!”); Cole makes him a real boy. If Cole can do that, how powerful is the new magic as opposed to his old magic?
As for the drawing of the key (complete with Cole’s Cyclops laser vision), all the materials are Cole’s and he does all the work (despite Kay’s “That’s the best drawing I’ve ever done”; not so splendiferous). By implication, the lazy old duffer’s just been having a nap for the past few days. Shortly after he will compound this magical dexterity by turning his hat into a boat and use his Yoda-like powers to surf up the sluice. He’s incredible!
Bishop: “Tush, Abner”, he said. “Tush.”
The idea that Abner’s plan was never all that, in spite of the magical resources at his command, is emphasised by the daft manner in which he gives up. This isn’t a Bond movie, but he nevertheless decides to blow everything up. Abner sets off explosives to deter the recently arrived police and intends to drown Cole and any other captives. So he not only leaves the box, but Cole too.
And then, the worst indignity, he is felled by an (expertly targeted) bag of flour that hit its him on the noggin and sends him plunging into the moat. Where he memorably drowns in slow motion (anyone who has seen the last two Doctor Who stories Roger Limb scored will recognise the musical scream effects employed here). One might have hoped for some sort of good-versus-evil confrontation between Cole and Abner, rather than his perfunctory demise.
The escape of Kay and Cole sees them release both Peter (true to form, he gets his signature line “If that place isn’t the purple pim!”) and the beguilingly giddy Caroline Louisa. He also picks up the baffled bishop and his flock of choirboys (did all the other imprisoned clergy drown?) The location work adds suitably to the extravagant look of this episode, making up for the polystyrene snowdrifts to come.
It’s interesting to see Charles and Sylvia get off Scott-free (Joe at least showed a soft heart) and it’s a small saving grace for the puzzled police that the Chief Constable has a change of mind regarding Kay’s story and decides to investigate the college after all.
So, it’s a quarter to midnight and time for a last dash for the cathedral to make the date with the thousandth Christmas Day service. Unfortunately, Animus has well and truly filled the studio set with fake snow. It’s a little disappointing that no footage for this sequence could have been shot during the Aberdeen location shoot, but the logistics would likely have been too much of a pain in the arse.
Old Lady: Herne the hunter, keep your lions away from my unicorns.
Aside from the flying sequence and the additional cast members required, there’s the little matter of Herne the Hunter and the Old Lady’s animated sleighs. Prior to their handy arrival (the bishop seems remarkably unfazed by this manifestation of pagan wizardry, and opportunistically does not turn down the ride.
As for Kay only now realising that using the box might be a good idea, his usually quick mind must have been weighed down by the drama (he could have used it way back at the college too). There is an indication that his abilities with the box now exceed those of Cole, who protests “one little box and so many people” when Kay tells everyone to hold hands to go swift.
The whimsy of the climax, with the realisation of Christmas Eve and the cathedral in darkness, recalls the “This is how it was then” re-enactments of the third episode. But in this case, the unhurried preparations for the service have an infectious cheer. It doesn’t feel so much a triumph of Christianity as of a peaceable season’s celebration.
Nor is the Bishop the type to have his mind on spiritual matters (“Where in heaven’s name’s my mitre?”) Cole is serenity itself, Maria has brought her gun (just in case), and the flocks waiting outside for the service seem like a complete fantasy this side of the 21st century.
It’s at this point that Rye and Seymour choose to validate the most controversial aspect of Masefield’s novel. The “It was all a dream” epilogue was added at the behest of his publisher (there was no suggestion that The Midnight Folk took place in Kay’s mind). Such a move can be the cop-out of an author who doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, or used to excuse a variety of inconsistencies with internal logic (it is rarely used well). The box carries Kay away from the Cathedral, and we see the spinning effect from his dreams (within his dream) before he awakes on the train.
Greeted by Caroline Louisa, he disembarks. There is no sign of Cole Hawlings, but a couple of suspicious looking curates are seated on the platform waving at him. His governess asks if it was a bad dream and he replies that it was a wonderful one (where his slumbering knowledge of occult symbols and incantations derive from is anyone’s guess; boarding school?) As the camera takes in the station a snow flurry blows into frame.
The presence of the Charles and Joe lends a sliver of doubt to the ending (although we’ve seen the device of “real” figures inspiring those in a dream in any number of stories). Kay has awoken “within his dream” several times already, with similar effects employed. IMDB trivia suggests this is an indication that the box has reversed time to the beginning. But presumably not in the sense that Abner now lives and Cole has yet to be caught; that would be like a Children of the Stones loop about to begin again. Rather, now that Kay has helped return events to their “natural” path, unhindered by darkness, all is right with the world and the festive season may be fully appreciated. In addition, he has passed his initiation successfully – although it seems that there is a final stage whereby he masters the distinction between illusion and reality, even if this was not part of Masefield’s design – but does not yet know it. Maybe Cole is set to return the box to him, or his guardian/Old Lady will in time steer him towards his destiny?)
I’d always seen the curates as signifiers of ambiguity, but had no particular concerns with the “dream” ending spoiling the overall effect. That might be because those final scenes are so well filmed that they add to, rather than subtract from, the whole.
(Overall rating reflects that of the final episode) It would be tempting to give The Box of Delights the full ***** for reasons of nostalgia, which sees it through its occasional rough patches. And also for its charming atmosphere and winning performances, effects both accomplished and scrappy, and evocative music. It is the rare BBC children’s serial that holds up, and one in which the surprisingly uncensored Masefield vision of Christmas survives intact. It might not quite sustain itself for today’s youngster, and it certainly sags during the “second act”, but this classic retains an irresistible seasonal magic.