The Box of Delights was a 1984 BBC adaptation of the classic 1935 John Masefield children’s fantasy novel of the same name. It tells the tale of excruciatingly snobbish public school boy Kay Harker who meets an elderly Punch and Judy professor called Cole Hawkins (Troughton) on the train back home for his Christmas holidays. Hawkins has upon his person a mysterious magical box which he needs to keep safe from mad theatrical pantomime villain Abner Brown (Robert Stephens) and his odd selection of minions; Foxy Faced Charlie (Larder), Chubby Joe (Jonathan Stephens) and a man-sized bacon-rind obsessed rat (Wallis). Just before Hawkins is kidnapped by the baddies he inexplicably entrusts the box to Kay with a brief and somewhat abstract set of instructions. Kay then attempts, over the duration of six 30-minute episodes, to track down his new friend while keeping the box safe from Abner and solving the additional mystery of clergymen disappearing from the local cathedral.
The opening credits set the stage well. Beginning with a snowy vision reminiscent of The Old Grey Whistle Test, a medley of spinning Punch dolls, odd mouse faces and human-rat hybrids appears, all enveloped by a staccato melody straight from a Godspeed You! Black Emperor night terror. The remainder of the soundtrack clatters around like Yes covering Mogwai covering Aled Jones with classic Christmas tunes warped into repetitive synthesised horn mutations.
At many points during the six episodes, The Box of Delights makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Kay often arbitrarily turns into animated fish and birds before jumping over mythical barricades on a magic horse while talking to a riddle-ridden man-deer. None of this seems to progress the narrative one bit and comes across as utterly baffling. Never has a children’s programme felt quite so influenced by A Clockwork Orange; the unsettling fairytale nightmare quirkily jolting along with the most eccentrically disconcerting set of characters the BBC ever managed to create.
Anyone who remembers The Box of Delights from its initial airing will quickly acquire the troublesome feeling of being a technological dinosaur when experiencing the special effects at work here. It is quite astonishing to visually appreciate just how far everyday television VFX have come in the past thirty years; the miniaturised Kay flying through the drains with a mouse to the local pub (put the eyebrows down, the nonsense has already been mentioned) looks so utterly awful and dated that it is guiltily laughable.
One of the most stunning realisations while observing The Box of Delights is its total lack of pace. In an age where children’s programmes fly along at the a speed of a whippet with its arse on fire, it’s truly miraculous to sit and watch Abner Brown spend two or three minutes reciting a Shakespearian monologue. This would no doubt result in most kids brought up on Pixar and Spongebob switching to Tiny Pop +1 before the Bard had time to get his ‘Beldams as you are’ out. It’s also a great example of a programme that hails back to a time before children programmes went through multiple layers of educational think tanks. The days when commissioning and development within the Beeb was in the hands of pot-smoking lunatics concerned more with scaring the bejeebers out of the little ‘un’s than educating, informing and entertaining them.
Another interesting insight is how the BBC were still obviously in the throes of developing televisual identity over theatre and radio, as The Box of Delights feels like an extension of the stage. There is hammy over-acting abounds and across-the-board public school accents (count how many awfully’s, jolly’s, frightfully’s and splendiferous’s you can spot the next time you watch Topsy and Tim).
Although tempting to do so, it’s unfair to say The Box of Delights hasn’t aged well. Albeit only thirty years old, it is simply of a different time for British children’s television and is thoroughly incomparable to the broadcasts children are watching today. For anyone who didn’t experience that grim decade first hand as a child it will feel entirely absurd and possibly quite boring, yet for those that did it will act as a quite lovely nostalgic trip to a simpler yet utterly bonkers period of British telly.
Dir: Renny Rye
Scr: John Masefield, Alan Seymour
Cast: Devin Stanfield, Patrick Troughton, Robert Stephens, Geoffrey Larder, Jonathan Stephens, Bill Wallis
Prd: BBC, Lella Productions
Music: Roger Limb
Run Time: 6x 30 minute episodes