Shiny Shelf

SHINY ADVENT: The Box of Delights

By Jim Smith on 23 December 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

For me there’s only one annual ‘must watch’ and it’s this 1984 BBC TV adaptation of former poet laureate John Masefield’s utterly peculiar seasonal children’s novella ‘The Box of Delights’. Set at Christmas in 1934, in the fictional shire of Tatshire, England, Masefield’s story follows young Kay Harker (the hero of his earlier book ‘The Midnight Folk’) and his battles against a gang of crooks-disguised-as-clergymen (who fly around in a taxi that transforms into a plane) who want to seize from him the titular magic box, with which he has been entrusted by an immortal magician/tramp who also happens to be the philosopher Ramon Lully

Now, as you might have guessed from the above brief précis, the plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This is something which Alan Seymour’s script and the TV production don’t worry about. Instead they embrace it. Directed by Renny Rye (who went on to the only TV director Dennis Potter was prepared to work with in the last years of his life) the TV production is a little like how you might imagine a David Lynch kids series might be. There are dream sequences, flashbacks and flashforwards. Things (such as Kay’s pony suddenly acquiring the ability to fly and then vanish) happen just because they’re visually interesting. There are anthropomorphic rats and mice that no one feels the need to comment on while at other times characters go out of their way to question the peculiar magical happenings around them. There are werewolves, Roman legionnaires, Greek soldiers, time-travel and Herne the Hunter. Beyond the through line of the struggle over the box it doesn’t add up or make a lick of sense. At times, particularly in the dream sequences, it’s actually quite disturbing.

Such a nonsensical plot and peculiar atmosphere you need to be grounded somehow and here it’s the case who perform this function. The juvenile leads are all perfectly acceptable but it’s the all-star adult cast who make the series what it is. Patrick Troughton plays Cole Hawlings with an avuncular charm and wisdom and it’s certainly the performance of his career. John Horsely, Patricia Quinn and James Grout turn up in the kind of roles (kindly Bishop, cruel vamp and blustering country Constable) that they can do in their sleep, while Sir Robert Stephens essays the role of the villainous Abner Brown (alias the Reverend Doctor Bottledale) with a kind of apoplectic conviction; there’s a boiling fury hidden just underneath every word he says. It’s the sort of precisely calibrated scenery chewing that you need to be one of the best actors alive to pull off (see also McDiarmid, Ian) and fortunately Stephens was. This was a man who could use the smallest movement of his lower eyelids to change the entire meaning of what he was saying and frequently did.

Demonstrating the kind of lyrical and conceptual invention of which J K Rowling and Chris Columbus couldn’t even dream the production is best described as a sort of triangulated midpoint off of ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’, CS Lewis and ‘Lost Highway’.

One final thing; ‘The Box of Delights’ is additionally smothered in fabulously seasonal music created by the very odd blending of Victor Huley-Hutchinson’s Christmas symphonies with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. If nothing else, watch this and you’ll never think of ‘The First Noel’ or ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in quite the same way ever again. And that’s a bit of Christmas innovation worthy of investigation, surely?

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