Christmas: the season of goodwill, regrettable parties, endless chocolate – and binge-watching movies and TV. Everyone has their own favourites: Doctor Who, Star Wars, Bond, Harry Potter – all shows and films that feel almost custom-made for the holiday season. But, for me, there's one show that feels more Christmassy than all of the above: The Box Of Delights, the BBC's '80s adaptation of John Masefield's novel of the same name.
Originally broadcast on 21st November 1984 (and repeated a few years later), the serial aired once a week with its final part going out on Christmas Eve and, for several generations of kids and adults, it's lodged firmly in the memory. Viewing the series on DVD, either one episode a week in the run up to Christmas or binge watching the whole thing in one go, has become a regular event for fans.
The story is simple. Young Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield) is travelling home from school for Christmas. On the train he meets a pair of sinister clergymen – Tristan and Charles – and, shortly afterwards, Cole Hawins – a shabby old Punch and Judy man played with a wizardly glint by former Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Before too long it becomes clear that Kay is caught in the middle of a battle between the forces of light and dark over the titular box, which contains the secret of immortality.
Right from the start it's clear that there's something about The Box Of Delights that makes it feel very different to other fantasy shows from the time. Partly that's the show's innovative format – it's a live action series, but some of the sequences are fully animated, others using more traditional green screen effects. A snarling demon and a rising phoenix look like they could have come out of a Disney film from the time. The result is a surreal and magical experience that, at times, comes off as a cross between The Chronicles Of Narnia, Alice In Wonderland and David Lynch. The opening titles – a mesmerising mix of sinister animals faces, twinkling stars and the mysterious box – hint at the magic to come.
But, more striking is the tone. The first episode in particular shimmers with a crisp, snowbound enchantment, with an ancient darkness lurking just beneath the surface. When Kay meets Tristan and Charles he thinks there's something a bit off about them, but he can't quite put his finger on it. Then we get a sudden, brief glimpse of Charles's true nature – a leering, fox-faced monstrosity merely hiding in a human skin. Animals are a recurrent image in the story. “The wolves are running” is a repeated phrase throughout, and indeed they quickly beset our hero. It adds to the sinister-yet-magical atmosphere. There's something rich, mythic, pagan going on here, buried beneath the icons of a Christian holiday.
The series was made, in true BBC style, on a tight budget and timescale. Filming was made tricky – snow was needed, but hard to find. Eventually they booked in a week's location filming in Aberdeen, only to find no snow. Panicking, an expensive snow machine was ordered, only for the heavens to immediately open. The result was that an already tight schedule was reduced to just three days. Still, those snowy scenes look absolutely wonderful. Luckily, the show had the benefits of a strong cast. Devin Stanfield was more-or-less a newcomer, with only a few previous roles – non-leading – behind him, yet he makes a likeable lead. Patrick Troughton is, of course, wonderful. He's playing another long-lived time-traveller of sorts and it's not hard to see the links to Doctor Who. Chasing them down is Robert Stephens as the elegantly evil Abner Brown.
There's certainly a degree of childhood nostalgia at work for me in my love of The Box Of Delights. When I first rewatched in on DVD, the sequence where Herne the Hunter transforms himself and Kay into stags and they race through the wild wood brought back a rush of forgotten memories and a tear to the eye. And sure, it's entirely possible that newbies may look at it and just see the sometimes creaky joins between the live action and the animated sequences. And yet, the quality of the writing still stands up, I think. There's depth here, as well as jokes and scares. And as a seasonal tale, it's perfectly judged. Full of wintery wonder, festive warmth, food, jolly carol singers and a theme tune that's an arrangement of The First Noel, it couldn't be more Christmassy if it tried.