Director: Renny Rye.
Starring Devin Stanfield, Robert Stephens, Patrick Troughton. UK 1984. 180 mins.
The wolves are running in Brighton, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Norwich, York and Central London this Yuletide. Open the Box of Delights and take a wondrous step back in time to Christmas 1984 with Kay Harker, the Punch and Judy Man, Herne the Hunter, Mouse and co. for a vintage television marathon of the complete six-episode BBC children’s series.
Adapted from poet laureate John Masefield’s 1935 magic-realist masterpiece, the BBC’s multi-BAFTA-winning festive fantasy series has become a bona fide cult classic that continues to entrance children and adults alike. First broadcast in weekly instalments, culminating on Christmas Eve 1984, The Box Of Delights takes us on a trippy, freewheeling adventure through space and time as young Kay (Devin Stanfield) is drawn into an epic battle between good and evil. The stakes are high: if he messes this up, Christmas is cancelled.
Masefield’s story, like many late-nineteenth and twentieth-century children’s fantasies, cherry-picks elements from traditional fairy tales. An act of kindness by an honest and well-mannered lad toward a shabby-looking stranger is rewarded by a magical talisman that grants him powers akin to seven-league-boots and other marvels, which he must use wisely in the service of good. It also features unicorns and ginormous talking rodents.
All the same, The Box Of Delights can’t really be called a fairy tale as such. Instead, Masefield’s stage is planted firmly on traditions of British folklore. Though set in contemporary England, there is always the sense of an ancient pagan world lurking just out of sight. From his first initiation by the Punch and Judy Man (a sinister tradition if ever there was), Kay’s forays into the times and spaces of legend and folklore take him from King Arthur’s Camp to the wild woods of Herne the Hunter. Above all, we are reminded that, despite a pincer movement by the Church on one side and consumerism on the other, good old-fashioned paganism has never yet been squeezed out of Christmas traditions.
The influence of Masefield’s evergreen tale is wide. Its folkish slippage of ancient and modern dimensions can be found in a host of later British children’s books and television. Think of Susan Cooper’s menacing The Dark Is Rising quintet, Alan Garner’s Elidor and The Owl Service (both memorably adapted for TV), or Granada Television’s chilling original drama series Children Of The Stones. Angela Carter reportedly revisited Masefield’s classic for inspiration when working on her 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.
But the BBC’s Box Of Delights also brings new pleasures of its own. A distinguished cast includes former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as the Punch and Judy Man (who better to introduce young Kay to time travel?), celebrated Shakespearean actor Sir Robert Stephens hamming it up as the villainous Abner Brown, and Patricia Quinn of Rocky Horror fame. Concealed under a mound of fur as a Pirate Rat, an early career performance from EastEnders stalwart Nick Berry is harder to spot. Also much vaunted at the time were the (then) state-of-the-art digital effects. These delivered some highly imaginative flights of fancy – alongside some bits that frankly haven’t aged too well and which now serve as entertaining contributions to the production’s cult appeal. Splendiferous!
The Box of Delights screens at selected cinemas on Saturday 2 December as part of The Enchanted Screen season. We’re delighted to welcome Patricia Quinn (the definitive Sylvia Daisy Pouncer) to introduce the screening at Picturehouse Central.
With thanks to the BFI National TV Archive.Find your cinema and book tickets.