Si Shepherd opens up the Box of Delights...
It's been more than 30 years since I first sat down and watched The Box Of Delights.
The story of an upper class boy who discovers the secret of eternal life in a Punch and Judy man's box was adapted for the screen from John Masefield's classic book, and broadcast by the BBC over the Christmas period 1984. It is set in a more innocent age, but that’s a major part of the magic of this story.
The Box Of Delights tells the tale of Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield), a young boy from an affluent family who is travelling by train to spend the
Christmas holiday with relatives. Taking a nap in an empty compartment,
he unexpectedly finds himself in the company of two apparent clergymen - the wonderfully named Chubby Joe and Foxy Faced Charles
(Jonathan Stevens & Geoffrey Larder). They cheat Kay out of a shilling
and then steal his wallet.
Kay then plunges into a wonderful adventure of magic and
mystery as he helps a mysterious wanderer known as Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton), the current owner of the Box Of Delights. An item which allows you to shrink in size, to fly swiftly, to go into the past and to experience the magical wonders contained within the box.
Together they fight to keep the Box of Delights from falling into the hands of a bunch of evil wolves who are pretending to be clerics. They're led by the insatiably evil Abner Brown (Robert Stephens), who in his quest for immortality is taking on the forces on nature and imprisoning whole choirs in the underground vaults.
The six part series used a mixture of live action and animation, combined with chroma key visual effects to create what was a very impressive looking story, and not just for its time. Effects have clearly come a long way since 1984 but it still stands up pretty well. Part of that is because the production values were very high, with a lot of care and attention put into the series throughout. There was extensive location shooting and a large amount of night filming, both of which give The Box Of Delights its own strong
sense of style and imagery - such as the magical scene where Kay and Cole
stand outside time on a snowy plain and discuss history while Wolves
attack Romans soldiers in the distance.
Devin Stansfield is excellent as Kay, he really makes you care for an upper class privileged boy a lot more than you think you would. Stansfield had previously appeared earlier
that year in Chocky but this was most definitely the pinnacle of his short lived career
(he doesn't appear to have acted since so he clearly decided to get out
at the top so to speak). As you'd expect, in the installments he features in it is Patrick Troughton that commands the centre of attention, he brings the same air of mystery to the immortal traveler Cole
Hawkins as he did to that of Doctor Who - in fact there are startling
similarities between the two characters. The other key player is Robert Stephens as Abnor Brown, he makes for a marvelous villain. Old fashioned, sinister and at times with just the right amount of panto about him.
The ending, which I won't give away for those who haven't seen it, seems to divide people. There are those who love the whole series minus those last two minute. Personally I like it, my theory is that what we're led to believe may not be true, especially with the appearance of a couple of characters on the train platform - sorry for being cryptic but you'll thank me if you've not seen it.
I often revisit the series, and try to introduce new people to it every Christmas time, after all this is the perfect time of year to watch The Box Of Delights as it really gets you into the festive spirit. There are very few other shows which have ever looked quite so definitively Christmassy. It's adventurous, fun, a little scary, and perfect family viewing at Christmastime.