Deborah Allison: Your career encompasses a huge variety of work – from children’s television back in the 70s, to episodes of what many consider to be the definitive version of Agatha Christie’s Poirot (starring David Suchet), three acclaimed Dennis Potter adaptations (Lipstick on Your Collar, Karaoke, Cold Lazarus), the ever-popular Midsomer Murders, and a whole load more besides. So you’ve made your mark on some of the best British television drama of the past 40 years – but in terms of enthusiastic fandom, The Box of Delights really seems to stand out as one that has made a huge and lasting impression on its viewers. Why do you think it still resonates so strongly with so many people?
Renny Rye: Well, it is a particular generation of people because obviously it was a children’s programme that ran in the mid-’80s, and it particularly impacted the audience between five and fourteen. So it’s people who are now in their forties who feel really attached to it because it had a very big impact on them – just as, in my own childhood, the thing that impacted me was Quatermass, the horror series I sneaked downstairs to watch as an eight- or nine-year-old.
I remember chatting one day with a new crew and happening to mention the first thing I ever directed was Rentaghost. Two of them just went apeshit because it was their favourite thing on TV ever. All the serious work I’ve done since diminished in response! Box is very much the same. I did it in my mid-thirties and the audience then now remember it very, very fondly.
But, in more direct answer to your question, it’s because it’s magical. The things that happen to the hero boy are pretty spectacular. Even though (as I fear the audience may see) the effects are very out of date and look a bit clunky these days, it was very novel at the time and people weren’t used to seeing that sort of show on the television screen.
DA: How did you get involved in the production?
RR: I was on staff in BBC Children’s at the time, but I’d been working in the BBC Plays department that did the serious drama. Because I had that background, the head of the department, Edward Barnes, just selected me, I suppose, as his favourite drama director who was used to working with children.
DA: You had a really terrific cast to work with. Were you involved in choosing them?
RR: Yes, because in those days at the BBC you didn’t have casting directors, so you had to do it all on your own. I’m amazed that we got who we did!
The magic casting I really remember was Robert Stephens. I was a big fan from his Royal Shakespeare Company days. I’d seen so many of the RSC shows that when I read the script, and read Abner Brown, Bob just came straight to mind. Being a bit young and callow, I just thought I’d offer him the part – even though it was not a great Shakespearean role, and children’s television.
It happened that was the first year ever that the National Theatre had decided to do a panto. Very famously, they were doing Cinderella, and Bob was playing an Ugly Sister. I don’t think he was quite ‘Sir Robert’ then, but he was a very great Shakespearean actor and it was a big joke he was doing this. I got a message from him to go and see the show. In fact, I didn’t, I cheated and just went to see him backstage at The National. At the stage door, they said, “He’s just finished. He’ll come and meet you. Go into the bar.” About five minutes later, as I sat in the ‘thesps’ bar’ with lots of very famous actors around me, Bob came across the room, still in full regalia as an Ugly Sister and with a full slap of make-up on. He came straight up to me, said, “Are you Renny?”, and gave me a full kiss, smack on the lips! That was my first meeting with Bob Stephens, which was just absolutely extraordinary!
So that was the casting I really remember. Pat Troughton, who had been Doctor Who (and who was my favourite Doctor Who), had a quality that is unsurpassed, I think, as someone to pull you into a tale.
As for the boy – in those days, I refused to take children from stage schools. My purist notion was that children’s imagination was so great they could do it better if they hadn’t been tutored. So I went round lots of schools and saw children from many, many schools. But I don’t remember quite how I found Devin.
DA: Were there any particularly memorable moments on set?
RR: Oh, many! Some unrepeatable!
There was a big sequence at the end of the last episode where we set fire to Eastnor Castle (near Hereford). The stunt man did a jump off the walls, and, as we were filming him sail down, you could see his bright blue cycling shorts underneath his cassock. I said he’d have to do it again, and he refused to repeat the stunt without another payment. I got so angry I threatened to jump myself just to show how easy it was! Luckily he conceded and I survived unscathed.
In another stunt sequence, when Abner (Bob Stephens) is supposed to fall into the canal, again, the stunt man would only do it once. I suppose I always wanted retakes, and I didn’t realise you paid by the take. Bob agreed to jump in himself. He was always going to go in the water for close-ups (to prove it was him), but he did the fall as well. It was bitterly cold at night, but he swum the canal and back just to prove it was very feasible.
I think the classic was a sequence that was always destined to be a nightmare. The boy, Kay, walks out of the back door into a snow-covered landscape, where a white horse stands underneath a tree. Kay walks over to the horse, climbs on, and gallops across the countryside. Then the horse takes off and flies. It flies back in time, and descends into a stockade full of wolves and a battle between the ancient warriors and Romans. I remember reading the script and thinking, “How the hell can you do that on a children’s television budget?”
The sequence was scheduled to start around the end of January. We arranged to shoot somewhere near Aviemore (the skiing place in Scotland) because that was the most guaranteed place to have snow. We went for a tech recce just after Christmas (which is when you take the lighting man and so on up, and go to look at the locations) and there was still no snow. As usual, all the locals said, “We’ve never seen anything like it; there’s always snow at this time of year.” And we panicked about a week before the actual shoot, and I booked a snow machine at a great expense to travel up from Pinewood to Scotland.
I flew up on the Saturday to start shooting on the Monday, and the crew were all going up by road with the trucks. My plane was the last to land in Aberdeen because the snow hit on the Saturday night, and it was so deep that all the crew got stuck at Carlyle. They didn’t make it until Wednesday, so I only got two-and-a-half days filming out of my first week. We could hardly use any of the locations I’d recced because we couldn’t get out of the hotel. Nearly all the locations were unreachable because the snow was so thick (which is why it looks quite magical in the film), so virtually all of it was shot in the hotel gardens.
Because I’d lost those days, I shot the sequences of Kay riding across the snow, but when he lands inside the encampment the wolves were all filmed in artificial snow in June in Reading because, despite having built the stockade, we didn’t have time to shoot them in Scotland. So that was pretty hairy. At some point, Devin (the boy) got chicken pox, so shooting was delayed again. By June, he was five months older and an inch taller, so between the beginning and end scenes he grows an inch in the sequence!
DA: The special effects were, as you’ve mentioned, a really big deal at the time. Can you tell me anything more about them?
RR: Well, yes. Everyone now knows about green screen, I think, and in all the movies everyone shoots green screen. Back in 1984, BBC called it ‘colour separation overlay’ (CSO) – all shot on blue instead of green. You’d prepare your background (whether it was a still or whether it was a filmed background) and then you shot your foreground character against a blue screen. When I started making this show you had to do that live in the camera. In other words, you had your actual video camera pointed on the foreground, against a blue screen. At the same time, you had to feed though the desk in the studio the live footage or background still. You couldn’t do it in post-production, which was incredibly restrictive.
Then, literally in the middle of the shoot, my effects designer suddenly realised that if we took a ‘black and white key’, as they call it, (that is, when we took our image of the foreground person against a blue screen we’d also take a black shape of them against a white background) we could actually put the two images together in post-production. This was the biggest leap forward technically at the time. It meant that a lot of the things I couldn’t work out how to do I could suddenly do.
In post-production, when we were putting the show together, we had six months, luckily, because the BBC were developing an effects studio. It hadn’t been finished; they were still laying cables to all the parts of Television Centre. I managed to get in there while it was still in development, so it wasn’t actually costed to the children’s department – otherwise we could never have afforded the hours we spent. I was in there with the people as they were developing all the equipment. Our budget was good for a children’s show, but it was minimal relative to what we had to do.
I sat in that effects studio for getting on six months. Even one month in, someone came through the door and said, “We’ve got a new machine called an ADO [Ampex Digital Optics].” That meant that with one of our video sources we could actually zoom – in the flying sequences you could use a zoom, which you hadn’t been able to do before. So the effects at the time really were cutting edge.
I remember one shot (I think it was straight after that wolf fight) of Kay standing with Cole Hawlings in a sort of nebulous space, which had snow, and the wolves have just disappeared, and there’s a swirl going around them, and stars, I think. In order to do that, we had to link up eleven separate inputs into this video studio. Seven or eight of them were video machines, which were downstairs. We were taking machines away from Match of the Day Highlights and Top of the Pops, which were being made at the same time, to feed images in to create one image. It was very different to how you do everything now.
DA: Some years ago, there were rumours of a feature film version.
RR: When I started as an assistant director, I did a couple of shows with one of the great directors of the time, who was very much my mentor – Michael Apted, who directed a Bond film and then became a producer in Hollywood. Many years later, I bumped into him in London. He told me that Mike Newell (one of his mates from Granada days, when they both directed Coronation St., and who I’d also worked with as 1st assistant director) was all set to remake The Box of Delights as a big-screen movie. I thought, “Well that’s the end – my Box will disappear, and won’t get all the repeats any more.” But it never got made, and I haven’t seen Michael since to find out why.
Two or three years ago, encouraged by the Box of Delights Appreciation Society, I got the series out and watched it again. One of the problems I’d forgotten (which is maybe one of the charms) is that it’s quite difficult for modern day kids, I think, because we didn’t change the language at all. We took the language directly from Masefield’s book, and much of it is quite arcane. These days, I’m sure they would modernise it, whereas our version is much purer in those terms than a modern script would be, and I wonder if that’s one of the reasons they left it. But, my God, what they could do nowadays with all those effects! We were pre-digital, on good old-fashioned video. What you could do now in digital would be probably even more magic.
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.Read more Find your cinema and book tickets