If your Christmas tradition is anything like mine, then this is the time of year when you have to start rewatching the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights. Originally broadcast in 1984, this is the weekend where, if you want to watch the six episode series at a rate of one per week in time for Christmas, that you need to get cracking. If you start on the 19th November of every year, that times the last episode for Christmas Eve.
So, with that in mind, over the coming weeks, I’m going to chart my annual revisit of The Box Of Delights, and ultimately ask whether it falls foul of rose-tinted spectacles syndrome. Is it one of those where you insist to all and sundry that it was great, until you sit down and watch an episode of it?
Over the next six weeks, we’ll find out if The Box Of Delights really is worthy of its reputation.
To get you in the mood for it, here is the marvellous opening credits sequence. Feel free to hum the tune.
The opening episode, then. It’s by turns charming, engaging and – bluntly – utterly puzzling.
It ends with a pack of wolves running after young Kay Harker, who is riding a pony, which suddenly starts flying, and lands in the middle of a camp that hasn’t existed for centuries, which happens to be on fire.
I could try and explain to you how the preceding half hour has arrived at this point, but When The Wolves Were Running isn’t really keen to let anyone in on the secret.
It’s a pretty relentless opening episode, really, continually asking you to take stock of what it’s telling you, while rarely letting you in, even a little bit, on what anything means. It also, to keep you on your toes, throws out baffling lines like “When the wolves are running, that’s more than anyone knows”, and then swiftly moves on.
The thing is, I don’t remember being bothered about this when I first watched the show, and I’m not utterly bothered about that now. I do suspect that a more contemporary script edit might clarify one or two elements (and it certainly wouldn’t have Kay Harker left by himself so often in such a Social Services-attracting way), but the ambiguity certainly does the episode little harm.
Also, let’s be honest, the actual core of the story isn’t too hard to hammer down, even by the end of episode one: young Kay meets old Cole Hawlings, played by the magnificent Patrick Troughton. Hawlings has a magical box that lots of nasty people want, so he gives it to Kay to keep it from them. There’s clearly a lot more to it than that, but that’s the fundamental heart of the narrative.
You simply can’t accuse it of pandering to its audience at all, though. Take the opening five minutes here, where we’re introduced to Kay, then to two creepy-looking people who play cards with him on a train – Chubby Joe and Foxy Faced Charles (like they’d get away with those now) – and then to mysterious Punch and Judy man, the aforementioned Cole Hawlings.
Throw in a woman with a strange glowing ring on her finger, and a few sentences that don’t seem to make much sense, and you’re in the throes of things exceptionally quickly.
Now, I’ve got no intention of going through the plot for each individual episode in great detail, and not just because I don’t understand it all. Part of the joy of The Box Of Delights TV adaptation is letting the story unravel on the small screen, rather than squinting at words on a web page. But I do want to pinpoint some of the things in this episode that already give an idea as to why the show is quite so special.
So let’s take a look at the effects work. Made in an era of British children’s television where the spreadsheet was less prevalent, there’s been some clear and obvious financial investment been put into the series. The length of the cast list is a major clue as to that, and you can easily imagine roles being amalgamated in the current climate, to keep the budget down. It’s the cleverness and ambition of that effects work, for 1984 remember, that’s staggering, though. Comparisons with that era’s Doctor Who do not favour the Time Lord.
In particular, I’m talking about the marriage of hand drawn animation and live action that The Box Of Delights deploys. We were still four years away from the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit at this stage, remember, so to even attempt what they did here was staggeringly bold. But because they chose animation over too many more ‘traditional’ special effects, it holds up more strongly that you might imagine.
The sequence of the phoenix in the fire, in particular. Credit to Ian Emes, whose detailed animation work is really exceptionally strong.
I’m not blind, though, and it’s as possible to see the joins here as it was back in 1984 (the moment where the picture comes out of the frame on the wall, and Hawlings steps in, for instance, although it’s a great sequence). But still, the production values are resolutely high (the amount of location shooting alone in this episode is something to cherish). And let’s not forget too that plenty of effort has been made to inject a Christmassy feel and flavour, too.
The cast we’ll inevitably come to in more detail in the episodes ahead, and it’s taken as a given that Patrick Troughton anchors it superbly. Also, Devin Stanfield makes me care far more about a posh boy in a posh house at Christmas than I ever would have expected.
But step forward the late Robert Stephens, deliberately held back for most of the episode as the sinister Abner Brown. There’s an old-style villain for you right there, and while he may not quite hold the menace that he had for my younger self, he’s surprisingly unrestrained in his nastiness. Particularly considering the age of the target audience.
When The Wolves Were Running, looking back, doesn’t make as much sense as you might recall, and for an opening episode, any modern day adaptation would perhaps ground in some of the basics a little better. But if my mission is to find out if the show is still holding up, 27 years after it first appeared, then so far, it very much is.
And one last thing for now: I’ve yet to find a piece of music that makes me feel anything like as Christmassy as Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s arrangement of The First Nowell, playing over the end credits. I’ve been humming it constantly while I’ve been writing these words.
Next week, we’ll take a look at Where Shall The Nighted Showman Go?. With a title like that, the episode is bound to, er, be a bit more straightforward. Isn’t it?