❉ What makes those wonderful adventures of Kay Harker and that magical Box of Delights such a festive tradition?
I was 13 in 1984 when I was first captivated by the magic of John Masefield’s wonderful story ‘The Box of Delights’. Every year since its much-awaited release on DVD, it has become a custom in many households to watch an episode a week of the TV series on the lead up to Christmas week itself.
Kay, a young school boy going home for the holidays, meets the mysterious magician Cole Hawlings, an old Punch and Judy man with a magical box, but all isn’t as it appears. “The wolves are running”, evil is afoot and, with the box in his protection, young Kay is about to experience the most amazing things he’s ever seen.
With the story’s time travel aspects, and reminiscent of the mystery of Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton was perfectly cast in the part of Cole Hawlings, a 700 year old magician with a glint in his eye, who could use the powers of the box to travel in space and time. Presenting examples of its hidden powers, Kay uses the box to great effect, and realises that he can go swift, go small, and travel into the past. Experiencing what the box is capable of, it helps Kay to see exactly why the evil Abner Brown and his gang of criminals want The Box of Delights for themselves.
During his travels, Kay encounters many elements and characters drawn from English folklore and pagan mythology, including the memorable Herne the Hunter, one of Kay’s allies. Determined to see a solution to the whole situation and to save Christmas, Kay battles against evil all along the way. At one point towards the climax of the story, even Father Christmas turns up to help save the day, emblematic of ‘The Box of Delights’ recurring motif of the intertwining of paganism and Christianity – a motif that is also prevalent in the work of C.S. Lewis’Narnia chronicles and Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’.
The evocative feel of the lustrous, colourful characters created by Masefield completely awakens the imagination, and the special effects utilised in the series were quite something for its time. The series was mainly live action, but includes animation and green-screen sequences which were impressive for the time it was made. Matte drawings blended with live action action created magical scenes that brought the story to life, and there was also extensive use of Paintbox and Quantel digital effects. ‘Blue Peter’ featured ‘The Box of Delights’ on their programme and showed how these groundbreaking effects had been produced. There is some great footage of this on YouTube, featuring interviews with Patrick Troughton and Devin Stanfield who played Kay Harker.
A Christmas theme is evident throughout the series in the form of Tatchester Cathedral, its thousandth midnight Christmas service, the singing of the choir and snowy scenes throughout. The series also recreates the childlike wonderment, magic and spirit of adventure of the season. One of my favourite scenes is where Hawlings escapes into a painting on a donkey, and appears in a dream to entrust Kay with the box. There is even a moment where the adventure takes a bit of a detour whilst we learn from James Grout’s Police Inspector exactly how a posset is made. The story is full of Christmas cheer with dark undertones running through it in the form of the avaricious criminal and evil magus Abner Brown played by Robert Stephens, and his partner Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, who is also Kay’s former governess, played superbly well by Stephens’ real-life partner Patricia Quinn.
It’s a story of light versus darkness and Kay’s journey to return light back into the world. During the series we discover that ‘The Box of Delights’ is connected to alchemist-philosophers Ramon Lully (a real-life medieval mystic) and Arnold of Todi, and dates back to the Middle Ages. Arnold is lost somewhere deep in the past, but how is Kay going to get back home if he does manage to use the box to travel back in time in order to find him?
All these fantastic elements of the plot create a wonderful fantasy adventure that leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. If Kay’s adventures were really a dream as we are lead to believe later on in the narrative, then I think the magic element of the tale is Kay himself making sense of the world. Was it a dream though? We are left to decide, but what I do know is that this fantasy adventure will live on in the eyes of children and adults alike for years to come. The theme music, Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony incorporarting The First Nowell, was reworked by Roger Limb of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It is still one of the most beautiful television themes and whenever you hear that arrangement it makes you remember all of those wonderful adventures of Kay Harker and that magical Box of Delights.
❉ ‘The Box of Delights’ was released on DVD in 2004 as part of BBC DVD’s Childrens Classics range.