Right then. The ending. Perhaps we’d best start there.
Over the past few articles, hopefully you’ve got the entirely correct impression that I really like The Box Of Delights a lot. I love how festive it is, how well written and executed the episodes are, and the sheer commitment to it from all concerned.
But my younger self, when I first saw this final episode, felt enormously let down. The ending, when Kay Harker wakes up and we’re led to believe it’s all a dream, was something I’d been taught by my teacher when I was nine-years old was an absolute cop out. And that’s what it felt like.
Even accepting that there’s a (very) mild hint that things may have been true, with the appearance of Chubby Joe and Foxy Faced Charles on the train platform at the end, it feels scant compensation for such blatant cheating. It’s a real pity, and a disappointing end to such an enchanting story. I still feel that way on rewatching the show.
Cut the last two minutes off, though, and it’s a really good finale episode, that caps a compelling series. So that’s what I intend to pretend I did.
This particular episode picks up from the cliffhanger of last time, which is easily resolved as always, and sees Abner Brown walk into something that, not for the first time, could easily have Doctor Who crossover potential. Abner draws a shape on the wall, and walks into a chamber that has a Tardis-feel to it, and it all at first seems as though something else is involved in pulling the stings here. Even though the strange head thing is subservient to Abner, it’s the first sense that nasty Mr Brown might be in fear of something.
He can’t half summon some good stuff, though. When it becomes clear that he needs to stop the service at Tatchester Catherdral from happening, he immediately summons some fine animation work to solve the problem.
Cue the entrance of assorted creatures, who have the job of basically knackering the transport infrastructure. If Abner had just waited twenty years, it pretty much took care of itself.
Sadly, by this stage, the sinister Abner of the early episodes is long gone, replaced by a pantomime fool. That’s down to the story itself, you’d have to conclude.
After all, why is Abner Brown so decidedly dim? In this episode, even the Inspector finally gets off his backside – with some help – to conclude that Kay was telling the truth. Abner, however, continues to make illogical decisions.
Why isn’t he more concerned that the Box is under his hand? Why, after chasing the thing for five episodes, does he assume when someone tells him it’s close, that they mean metaphorically?
Furthermore, why is he, ultimately, so easily beaten? We saw him in a fetching swimming costume a few episodes back. Here, the water seems to quickly eat him up.
It’s all part and parcel, of course, of an episode that’s wrapping things up, and one that does a lot more things right than wrong. A lot of money, care and attention has clearly been invested in it. We get fire, we get water, and we get the return of Patrick Troughton, the latter of which could inject fresh interest into pretty much any show. The bit where Cole Hawlings, who basically sorts everything out, draws a key, is just the kind of moment the programme has missed.
Cole also frees the boy in the waterfall, thoughtfully making sure that there’s enough foliage covering him to keep the show the right side of the watershed. He’s kind like that.
Still, my favourite moment of the episode comes near the end, as the escapees struggle to get through the fake snow to reach Tatchester Cathedral in time. The answer? To call in an animator again, for the lovely sequence where the animated chums pull the sleighs through the sky.
When people say nobody does Christmas in quite the way The Box Of Delights manages, it’s moments like those that they’re talking about. And the show has been packed with them.
Which brings us, for the last time, to the end credits, and the magical theme tune. I never tire of it, and the warmth of the show radiates through it.
The question I asked at the start, then, back when we looked at episode one: does all of this hold up? And the answer: well, yes, it does.
Inevitably, under greater scrutiny, it’s not hard to see the Sellotape holding it all together in places. There’s also a lull in the middle of the story that’s hard to ignore, and cliffhangers that are barely worthy of the name.
But there’s also a strong drama, with surprisingly broad appeal here. It benefits from such a large cast, arguably the first thing to be scaled back were The Box Of Delights being made now. Also, the ambition of the production, and the weaving in of practical effects, animation, and some computer work, is quite excellent.
Most of all, though, it just works. It has a strange quality, in that it just feels so right, that it doesn’t require being picked at and pulled apart. It is what it is, and in this case, that means it remains one of the most magical Yuletide dramas that the BBC has ever made. Put together at a point where computers were still a way off taking over practical effects work, it’s a lovely meeting place for differing filming approaches, handled with confidence and affection.
And, I’d argue, that’s just one of the reasons why The Box Of Delights remains quite so magical, and such a one-off. Long may it be cherished. My thanks to all of you who followed my revisiting of it…
See the rest of our The Box Of Delights lookbacks, here.