Looking Back At THE BOX OF DELIGHTS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE BOX OF DELIGHTS

Tony opens the box…
How do you create a Christmas legend?

A Christmas tradition as immovable and as magical for those who observe it as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or even the Nativity itself?

Well, if you’re going to do a thing like that, it probably helps not to have such lofty ambitions in mind when you start, and just focus on telling a compelling story in the best way possible.

There is practically nothing about the 1984 TV adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights that doesn’t force a compelling story on you, while twinkling with little bits of magic.

People suddenly appear out of nowhere. People suddenly change into wolves, running in the distance. People speak semi-mystical nonsense lines, with enough conviction and gravitas to make them meaningful and pull you into the story (See also, Sapphire And Steel). There’s a gloriously ambivalent but prrrrobably-good mystic who hails ‘from pagan times.’ There’s a church hierarchy that is not by any means what it seems, and a villain who hides his malice beneath a smile of assumed wisdom and benevolence. It has figures from British mythology popping up left, right and centre to feature in what ultimately becomes a battle of perfectly human but strange, mysterious ‘wizards,’ going on under the surface of English society between the wars. And of course, it has a fantastical MacGuffin right at its heart – the box of delights of the title – which can grant its possessor incredible powers, and which becomes the focal point of the running battle between the forces of probably-good and definitively-evil.

But mostly, The Box Of Delights is the story of an ordinary upper middle class schoolboy, Kay Harker, and how he learns that being extraordinary is about just doing all you can, giving every measure of effort in your heart in the cause of goodness and right. It’s not quite “You’re a wizard, Harry,” because Kay doesn’t become personally important at any stage, but it very much lays down the groundwork for that kind of Tolkien-familiar hero quest, where an ‘ordinary’ youngster becomes extraordinary by following – and finding out – the content of his character.
The Box Of Delights had a lot of chances to go wrong – it used a lot of fairly new special effects technology, and not just to bring the effects of the box to life, like flying, miniaturization, and shape-shifting, but also for more standard, relatively throwaway sequences too. Any one of them could have broken the spell that The Box Of Delights was trying to cast.

The music was largely radiophonic too, which had every chance of feeling intrusive in the 1934 setting of the series. As it turned out, it was sensitively composed and interposed, allowing the contrast between ‘normal’ 1934 life and the battle between good and evil a distinct but subtle underscoring.

And perhaps most courageously of all, the role of Kay Harker was played not by an aspiring young actor, but by schoolboy Devin Stanfield, out of a field of 200. He was chosen not because of his acting skills, but because he had the right sort of face for Kay. That’s risky in any situation. When it’s the junior lead role in the most expensive children’s drama ever made up to that point, it begins to look a little foolhardy.

When you read the cast list for The Box Of Delights, it begins to sound like madness on the part of director Renny Rye.

Cast list? Sure. The enigmatic power of probably-good and side-hustle Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings – Gandalf to Kay’s Frodo, or Dumbledore to his Potter – was played by Second Doctor actor from Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton. Troughton’s style was often to layer a morally ambiguous intensity beneath a brittle sheen of goodness, and in Cole Hawlings, Troughton was out to deliver his second ‘likeable but potentially dangerous wizard’ to British children, dialling down the lightness of his Doctor to something rather more dramatic.

The chief villain, Abner Brown, had no less heavy an acting pedigree – Robert Stephens, a towering Shakespearean presence, gave Brown very much an Alan Rickman special, before Rickman was really on the scene. He gave it his all on The Box Of Delights, rarely if ever giving in to camp, but pushing the viciousness of his character till it snarled – and then showing the entranced young audience how such evil could live behind a sheen of respectability and smiles.
Patricia Quinn, probably most well known for her role in the Rocky Horror Picture Show movie and for Livilla in I, Claudius on TV, joined the cast of the Box of Delights too, delivering lurking menace every chance she got. James Grout and John Horsley, both of them with a credit list as long as your arm, took prominent roles, and even a young Nick Berry, before Eastenders, a singing career, and a series-anchoring role on Heartbeat, took a minor part.

There was acting talent coming out of every pore of The Box of Delights, with Troughton and Stephens locking the production into place and giving Masefield’s tale of a mystical, magical battle going on beneath the feet of most ordinary people a real, played-as-drama believability.

It was a precursor to the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series – dramatic, different, and bringing a morality play of magic and power and the effort to be good in a world where evil was easy to the eyes and minds of its young viewers.

Mythological figures like Herne the Hunter, as well as King Arthur and just-possibly-Father-Christmas, added an epic scope to the fantasy, and with rat-people and wolf-people and mystic disappearing people, it really did have a scope and a mythos that woke the hearts of many a geek or proto-geek and made them goggle, and boggle, and sing, as they were introduced to a kind of storytelling they may never have known they were missing, but would instinctively seek out from that moment on.

Stephens as Abner Brown was among the most frightening characters to come across the screens of children’s TV in the course of the Eighties, bringing his powerful stage presence and shooting it right down the camera lens to make you squirm. Troughton went the other way to deliver a dramatic contrast, mostly pulling his performance inward till it had the power of a twinkle-eyed black hole and you could not stop watching him.

And into this grand good-and-evil thespian-fest stepped young Devin Stanfield, chosen because his face fitted.

The weird thing – the almost unthinkable thing – is that it worked. It worked by virtue of Stanfield’s ‘ordinariness.’ He never tried to match Troughton or Stephens in their technique, he just went through the piece like an ordinary schoolboy, because that, at his heart, is what Kay Harker was. And as protector, seeker, and reclaimer of the box of delights, the only magic Kay Harker has is that which could have been instilled at him from his pre-World War II middle class childhood and education – be good, oppose evil, do what you say you’ll do, and do not stop doing it just because it becomes unbelievably difficult.

In many ways, he embodied those who would, over the next decade, go on to fight the Second World War, holding to some principles they’d been taught in the 1930s, but doing the job mostly because a job needed doing and they’d promised to do it.
Watching The Box Of Delights in the Eighties, while those principles had changed radically in the vast majority of households, Masefield’s story, Stanfield’s performance and Rye’s direction brought out something in the character that still felt relevant then – and still feels relevant now. The importance of gut instinct irrespective of the fake smiles and soapy words of authority figures. The determination to do what you promise to do. The understanding that being ordinary in a world of great powers is alright – but that you never know what power you can wield as just one person until you’re called upon to try. It’s all still there, and when you open The Box Of Delights, its truest magic is that however tarnished and heavy and uncertain your world may feel, it can strip you down to those basic, simple things.

To who you are, and what you believe, and to doing the thing you feel is right, whatever comes or tries to stand in your way.

Stanfield’s Kay is absolutely a product of his time and upbringing, but in the 1984 Box Of Delights, he doesn’t feel especially bound into that one time, place, or class. He becomes that most unlikely of things – a likeable middle-class hero who can stand for us all.
As we mentioned, The Box Of Delights has become a Christmas ritual in many homes, as those who watched it when it was first broadcast have introduced it to their children and (*Does a quick bit of mental arithmetic. Weeps, briefly*) even their grandchildren. It is mad, and inventive, and bold in its decisions, and moral without ever being preachy, and once you’ve started watching it, only food and bathroom breaks are allowed, because with Troughton and Stephens both giving it their all in different directions, if you look away, you lose something.

It is also still scary, and baffling, and beautiful, and the Quantel and Chroma Key special effects may be dated now, but importantly, they don’t look dated in the setting and context of the piece. They look magical. Miraculous. Delightful.

The Box Of Delights is an enduring Christmas miracle that – because it’s filmed as character drama as well as fantasy drama - will also reward any non-festive watching. Give yourself a Midsummer Christmas if you like, and re-open The Box Of Delights today.

Watch The Box of Delights today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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