Opening The Box of Delights
Dr. Robert Edgar reviews Philip W Errington’s new tome, Opening The Box of Delights...
I grew up in a provincial Northern town in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. A major treat was heading to WHSmith, the only bookshop in town, to be bought a book.
Many of these were published by Usborne, or looked like they should have been; beautifully illustrated volumes, each complete packages, the entirety of knowledge on a subject. Often these were texts on how to be a spy or The World of the Future, but sometimes my purchases would spill over into fiction; flock covered hardback editions of the complete Jules Verne or Conan Doyle. These books are still prominent on my bookshelves, evocative, timeless and compelling. Despite my first glance of Phillip Errington’s book being in an electronic format, there was an undoubted Proustian rush driven by the aesthetic. This is a majestic book which comprehensively covers the Box of Delights from its origins through to the many adaptations on screen and radio. There’s a lot going on in the sub-title of Errington’s new book, ‘A Stunning Visual Celebration of John Masefield’s Christmas Classic’. The title is however far from hubris.
The book itself is written in clear and accessible language but the level and detail of research is evident throughout. The chapters are short and to the point, each building on the next but at the same time they can be consumed on their own. The appeal of the colour images and two-column formatted text means it is impossible not to dive straight in wherever the book falls open. However, despite this accessibility one of the further strengths of the book and its depth of research is that it would sit equally well on the desk of the academic who was seeking to study Masefield, The Box of Delights, or related subjects.
Many of us will have first encountered The Box of Delights from its haunting 1984 BBC adaptation in the way that I did and as is noted in the foreword to the book by the prodigiously talented Piers Torday. Our connection to The Box of Delights is through the TV and the eerie oddity of this adaptation makes it stand out, itself adding to the myths used and shaped by Masefield in the story and its preceding text, The Midnight Children. Even now I can feel the rustle of my Parka as I rushed home in the bitter cold to watch the next episode, itself drawing me ever closer to Christmas. At the time I was edging into middle teens and in theory, this form of ‘kids TV’ should have been ever more alien. But there was something compelling, strange and even dangerous in this adaptation. As much as Masefield drew on folklore in telling a contemporary story the BBC adaptation adapts this folklore and a 1930s sensibility into the 1980s. This comes through from the very outset with the haunting music and the images of some of the central characters appearing on the screen. It is the mix of clear artifice with the presentation of Herne the Hunter set against the nascent computer technology used in the presentation of these images that makes it so memorable. Part of the spectral quality of the programme is that it is lost in the midst of time in its eclectic use of references to a mythic archaic past whilst at the same time being forever trapped in 1984.
Being drawn into a mythical world is something that Errington captures in his discussion of his own fascination with the story and thus his longer engagement with Masefield as a writer. His passion as a researcher shines through the book and the attention to detail is detailed but never overpowering nor pushed to the forefront; rather it draws out the passion for the story, especially from a reader of a certain age. There is an evident humility both in respect of the subject and in respect of the reader and this is impressive given the depth of knowledge that is evident throughout.
Errington’s book carefully and meticulously traces the development of the Box of Delights and we spend a lot of time understanding the author and his influences before moving to focus on the adaptations. The detail on the early radio adaptations is most welcome as they are lesser-known and information is hard to find. The 1995 BBC Radio 4 adaptation rightly receives detailed attention and this impressive version is still readily available.
Errington spends the majority of the adaptation section on the 1984 BBC TV adaptation. The prominence of this adaptation as a significant moment in youth broadcasting is recognised and the cover image of the book places Patrick Troughton alongside Masefield himself. Errington notes how Masefield’s children’s fiction is what he is now remembered for and this is echoed in this image. The 1984 adaptation is where many of us want to be as readers, but the structure employed means we have been taken on a journey where we understand so much more of the themes and characters which are already so familiar.
Given the title of the book, naturally we focus on the Box of Delights. Errington doesn’t shy away from the popular cultural impact of the book and TV series amongst Masefield’s oeuvre. Part of the deftness of the book is the way it draws us from our primary reference of the TV adaptation into the world that Masefield created and the myriad adaptations that followed. For example, there are some poignant and captivating discussions of Masefield’s daughter’s illustrations for the original book.
This completeness is carried over into the detailed discussion of the adaptation itself and there is a wealth of contextual material that is drawn on for research but also for illustration, including old editions of the Radio Times, themselves haunting time capsules. Errington doesn’t shy away from his own status as a fan and enthusiast and there are photos of locations and copies of the various versions of the VHS tape and DVD covers before comprehensively running through the audiobook and stage adaptations, one by Piers Thorday himself.
There are a couple of mentions of the popularity of the Box of Delights Facebook group and it is worth noting that there is also a Box of Delights Twitter feed. A CD of the theme music was released last year and remaster DVDs are now available. The popularity of the story shows no sign of dissipating. This book provides a great deal of information on the story and on Masefield as a writer and is a welcome and valuable addition to material on The Box of Delights. I would highly recommend getting someone you know a copy for the joy it will give you in seeing their face when they rip open their copy on Christmas morning. Just make sure you get a copy for yourself as well. I think I’m going to have to return home and nip to WHSmith with my Mum so she can buy me a copy
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