Steam trains, wise men with beards who know magic, flying cars and characters transforming into an array of animals. So far, so Harry Potter, right? Wrong.
Christmas television, for me, meant many things. It of course meant the perennial Bond movie and usually the odd Sinbad or Doug McClure epic along with Digby the biggest – if not the most convincingly so – dog in the world. But for me one programme that will always evoke fond childhood memories and have the power to transport me back some 25 years, how fitting as that is exactly what ‘The Box’ can do, is the BBCs classic adaptation of The Box of Delights.
Harry Potter and those kids who went to Narnia might have thought they had cornered the market in middle class school kids having rollicking adventures that beggar belief, but they’d be wrong. Based on the children’s book of the same name by John Masefield, this six part adaptation is set in England in the 1930s, it tells the adventures of Kay Harker as he returns home from school for Christmas. On the train he meets a mysterious but kindly old man who gives him the Box of Delights, a magical box which gives the holder the powers of flight, physical transformation, and the ability to travel through time. Of course, the forces of evil, led by members of the clergy, are out to steal the Box, and it’s up to Kay and his friends to stop them.
Produced prior to but to an equally high standard as the BBCs Narnia adaptations this production his Christmas written all the way through it and even concluded on Christmas Eve, which is when the last episode is set, on its original airing, something which it should be done every year and turn it into the seasonal classic it deserves to be. If America has the traditions of a Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch (the animated short) then we should certainly be able to deliver more than The Snowman – although of late this seems to be the Patrick Stewart/ Hallmark Channel reworking of A Christmas Carol over the last few years.
The programme still has an epic feel about it with amazing location work and cinematography; remember this was also the same period that the BBC splashed the cash on other children’s drama such as The Tripods. The special effects, which mostly featured animation and primitive blue screen, have dated badly but are somehow in keeping with the period it is set and just give the whole proceedings a further feeling of nostalgia.
The three pillars that have allowed ‘Box’ to stay long in the consciousness of those who saw it when young are its music and titles and two amazing performances from two of its cast.
The titles showed several key images from the show and were almost quasi-doctor who like, quite fitting with the second doctor, Patrick Troughton, making an appearance as one of the key characters. Indeed as in classic Who we even see his face travel towards us in the titles. The accompanying music, The First Noel, was also something else and managed to be both enchanting and sinister at the same time.
Troughton may only appear in three of the six episodes but his presence is felt throughout and for an actor who has played so many memorable roles in everything from Robin Hood, Doctor Who, a villain in Sinbad and a doomed clergyman in The Omen, this is perhaps his greatest legacy as the Punch and Judy man who is as lovable, wise, cunning and likable as Dumbledore.
And then we have the Reverend Abner Brown, the late Shakespearean actor, Robert Stevens, who admirably chews the scenery up and spits it back out in every scene. Never has the term mad man for a character seemed so fitting. He and the range of characters he surrounds himself with are genuinely creepy, even today.
Also well worth a mention and the things of many a youngsters nightmares no doubt were the rather sinister pair of ‘clergymen’, “Foxy Faced Charles” and “Chubby Faced Joe” who are two agents working for the villainous ringleader, ‘Abner Brown’. They also had the ability to change in wolves and even give chase after Harker in some wonderfully shot snow scenes. The pair remind me somewhat of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever, a pair who also gave a feeling of unease and are rather unsettling whenever they appear.
Unsurprisingly, the rumour is that ‘Box’ is set to delight a whole new audience as it makes its leap to the big screen under the helm of a former Harry Potter Director, Mike Newell. Here’s hoping it loses none of its magic or indeed its darkness in its journey. Even if it does it will only increase the respect for the original adaptation.
It has to be said that the casting directors will have to go some to match anyone as good as Troughton, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who associates him with this over his role as The Doctor, as good and memorable as it was. Some feat you may think, but he pulls the character of Cole Hawlings off so convincingly that it really is hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
To my knowledge it has only ever been screened twice in the UK, so the campaign to annually rescreen ‘The Box of Delights’, starts here. Even if not on BBC1 or 2 surely it’s a perfect fit for BBC4, so let’s turn it into the institution it deserves to be.