Time travel and
The Box of Delights
Robert Edgar celebrates the enduring warmth and weirdness of the BBC’s 1984 Christmas children’s series, The Box of Delights…
I am writing this in early November with a fast-approaching deadline. This is not a publishing deadline but rather the 21st of November, the date when the wolves start running. This is a landmark day as it is when the first episode of The Box of Delights (Renny Rye, 1984) was shown on BBC1. Approaching the writing of an article on this particular adaptation has been a terrifying prospect, the programme is so embedded in the psyche of a generation, standing beyond the boundaries of the TV screen, becoming itself as much a signifier of Christmas as anything conjured by Dickens.
Like Victorian evocations of Christmas, there is something eerie in the intermingling of the pagan and the Christian and this is at the heart of John Masefield’s story and at the heart of the 1984 adaptation. The Box of Delights is foundational in doing what a great deal of children’s fiction does, creating a sense of horror. As Filipa Antunes notes, ‘Horror can be found at large in children’s culture, in nursery rhymes, fairy tales and other literature, in games, everywhere …’ and given that it appears in this foundational moment it likely stays with us all our lives. This is attested to in and via the encyclopaedic Scarred For Life, which covers the dark popular culture of the period and is the most authoritative source on this subject. In the 2017 introduction to his own stage adaptation of The Box of Delights the inestimable Piers Torday comments on the foundational nature of Masefield’s work. The original serves as an ur-text to some of the great works of children’s literature; these texts drawing on similar references (folklore, magic, etc.) to those used in The Box of Delights (1934) and its precursor, The Midnight Children (1927).
The unsettling quality of Masefield’s story is in part due to its mixing of the past and the present via its links to myth, folklore, and historical figures. The central character, Kay Harker literally travels in time, although with much more of a feeling of slipping through time or to a different dimension; his journey is much more Sapphire and Steel than it is HG. Wells. Due to the remarkable work of everyone at the TV Museum and via a Youtube link it is possible to travel back in time to 21st November 1984 and bear witness to Richard Straker’s warmly familiar voice introduce the first-ever episode of The Box of Delights whilst the blue and yellow BBC1 logo circumnavigates the world.
‘Now prepare to be thrilled and chilled as we begin a six-part dramatisation of John Masefield’s magical mystery adventure tale, The Box of Delights.’
This statement precedes a slight pause as Roger Limb’s haunting music begins to play over an image of the night sky; the title sequence outlining the main aesthetic and narrative themes of the story. The blurring and integrating of references from throughout time, and beyond it. A star, (perhaps a biblical reference), sweeps into view before splitting and becoming the eyes of a wolf, snow gathering on this face morphs into a suddenly receding Mr. Punch which swiftly turns into a clearly human figure. Even the briefest glimpse afforded by the titles show this to be a chimera, a humanoid rat before the transition becomes complete and manifest and we are faced with an animal. This then gives way to the dissolving image of a solider, a glam rock-esque Herne the Hunter before we meet two of our protagonists. The merest tantalising glimpse is given to the slick black hair and dog collar of evil incarnate, Abner Brown, before landing on the crinkled face of Cole Hawlings, himself looking like Father Christmas and/or a living evocation of the Green Man. Hawlings’ twinkling eye becomes the Box itself. (Part of the excitement of watching the series in 1984, when VCRs were still largely the preserve of the relatively wealthy, was to return to the title sequence for close scrutiny from the week before). At this point, the eerie music gives way to a rendition of the First Noel, familiar to a young audience from countless Christmas Carol concerts and primary school nativity plays.
The aesthetic of the opening establishes a battle which is central to Masefield’s text and thus to its 1984 adaptation, the battle between that which is ancient, magical, pagan and the modern, enlightened and Christian. This battle, that would later be identified as a central trope of folk horror, is at the heart of Masefield’s narrative; the quest to defeat Abner Brown and his aim of stopping the 1000th Christmas service at Tatchester church. This narrative provides an ideal form for the TV serial, each week building on the previous to the climax on Christmas Eve which had to be watched on that day. The programme bears that trace memory for a generation many of whom still watch the series in the lead up to Christmas, sharing the series with our families as we put up the Christmas tree and wrap presents.
In his book Opening the Box of Delights, leading Masefield and Box of Delights expert Philip Errington charts the release of the various releases of the show, the first on VHS in 1985. From its outset the technology of reproduction allowed this adaptation to inhabit the homes of its audience alongside copies of A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens, 1843); the ability to reproduce the original TV show then furthered its magical aura and firmly embedded it as part of a Christmas tradition. The mythic and the modern sharing equal space in our homes. In 2019, the writer and broadcaster Julia Raeside interviewed the journalist Sophie Harris about the adaptation of The Box of Delights for her podcast (this is an expansive and wonderfully eclectic series on TV history is also called The Box of Delights). The two-part Christmas edition captures the importance of the series for a particular generation, its role in the festive season and that this is passed down the family line alongside other traditions. Interestingly, this production used some of the music from the television series; despite the originality of Torday’s adaptation the TV series has such a presence that the music has to feature as a signifier. The details of the production and the story more widely are beautifully chronicled by The Box of Delights Archives.
By way of time travel, I occasionally dip into a pristine copy of Tomorrow’s World Looks to the Eighties. This book, featuring chapters from all the iconic presenters of the series, and presumably written earlier, predicts the future with scientific glee and wonder in equal measure. I picked up this book sometime in 2010 and remain impressed by how many of their predictions came true in some form or another. (The more I return to the Usborne Book of the Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond, the more I realise how wonderfully and equally prescient these were.) In the early 1980s, the future seemed ever more present. The presence of technology and the aesthetic of consumer technology speeding up, ever faster in those early years of the twentieth century. This was nowhere more evident than in home computing, that in itself a form of magic. In 1982, my father took me to Boots in an Arndale Centre to buy a Dragon 32 computer, eschewing the myriad others on offer; the Jupiter Ace, ZX81, Fotran, etc. (My brother would get a Spectrum 16 around a year later). The Dragon 32 bore the beige square design synonymous with the futuristic aesthetic, a strange utilitarian mystique and promise. This computer took pride of place in front of the living room TV, side-lining a Binatone Pong machine that had been given to me in late 1979 by my grandparents. My grandfather was taken with technology which must, to him have seemed magical, having been born in 1902. He was already 32 when John Masefield published The Box of Delights and I can only assume knew instantly what buttered eggs looked like and where to find a posset. It is this connection across time that is crucial to our understanding and appreciation of this story. The present for Masefield and the temporal location of the programme in the 1930s felt in 1984 closer than memory might now allow or suggest. The immediacy of the past makes the events portrayed equally possible. It was 50 years between the publication of the book and it is now 36 years since its iconic adaptation; time takes on strange dimensions.
The use of technology in the presentation and distribution of the programme is important to how it was received and how it continues to endure. As Arthur C. Clarke famously stated, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ However, the presence of magic within the programme bestows a sense of the mystical on the use of the technology present in the programme. The blurring of the magical and the technological is furthered by the nature of the programme itself and the use of the Quantel Paintbox; an early form of computer-based television effects that had only launched in 1981 and was yet to be widespread. Quantel’s V-Series quickly overtook the earlier models in 1989, leaving their blocky graphics firmly in the past and firmly in the 1980s. The Box of Delights then shares an odd and rather intangible aesthetic with other Quantel products of the time, such as the Dire Straits video of Money for Nothing. However, The Box of Delights did not step wholly into this world of new technology. The moments when Kay Harker goes swift and flies relies on Chroma key technologies seen and culturally remembered from the John Tulley adaptation of E Nesbit’s novel The Phoenix and the Carpet, screened by the BBC in 1976; many people of a certain age still refer to Chroma Key as ‘the magic carpet’ or ‘flying carpet’. It also uses animation that feels as if it belongs to an Edwardian world, perhaps by association with Mary Poppins. The connection to its BBC forbear is clear in the opening of the first episode when Kay Harker is shown a Phoenix by Cole Hawlings: although this appears as an animation rather than an animatronic.
The interplay between the novel and its adaptation becomes blurry as the text breaks out of its fictional boundaries, starting to take on the status of the folklore it uses. The writer and broadcaster Bob Fisher (thankfully) recently tweeted his discovery that the novel of The Box of Delights was abridged to fit the TV series. My own introduction to the novel via the screen meant that I had never fully appreciated the longer Masefield original. My own edition was a lovingly purchased copy with Patrick Troughton and John Gilpin on the cover; something I long held to be an original or at least a facsimile of an original.
However the text can be adapted there are aspects of the story that remain across time and form and are themselves part of the foundation of the story, where the past and the present collide. Nowhere is this more evident than in the presence of the flying car, something which has yet to materialise in the form Masefield imagined it. Here we have the villains, led by an ancient warlock embracing modern technology to complete their dastardly work.
‘Oh, that’s rot.’ Peter said. ‘How can a car go up in the air? And a Tatchester taxi! Poor old crocks tied together with bootlace!’
‘This wasn’t a taxi,’ Maria said, ‘I don’t know what it was: it was some marvellous invention, but it was an aeroplane or a car that became an aeroplane. And there we were, lurching through the air, going lickity-spit in absolute darkness – I hadn’t a ghost of a notion in which direction we were heading: we were making hardly any noise, too.’
Given these various slippages in time it is impossible to discuss this programme and this form of popular culture without some discussion of the hauntological. Masefield’s story bears a trace memory of the past through its embedded use of folklore and the evocation of a mythical British past, this lending a strange legitimacy to the fiction through the use of ‘real’ folklore and associated figures such as Herne the Hunter. Where the TV adaptation took the Edwardian novel into the 20th-century, social media has taken the 1980s into the 21st century: Masefield in cyberspace. You can not only become a member of The Box of Delights Appreciation Society on Facebook but follow most of the major characters on Twitter – they tend to get more active from around November but you can also pick up the occasional tweet most times of the year. These playful social media feeds which continue the legacy but also move the series from the real to the hyperreal. The adaptation encapsulates the hauntological as discussed by Merlin Coverley where this ‘… is not a nostalgia for the past but one directed towards the lost futures it encapsulates.’ This is certainly true of aspects of the aesthetic and the promise of a particular computer-generated future. In these terms, The Box of Delights is as forever trapped in its particular time as Kay Harker is trapped 50 years before. This starts to strike at the heart of the enduring appeal of the story as written by Masefield and as adapted by Seymour. This is a story which ultimately works across time and where the possibilities presented by the modern are turned, so they exist in the same form as the mythic or the folkloric. This is as true of the conception of the flying car as it is of the terrifying image of the boy in the waterfall. On-screen this is clearly a person in make-up, but they are as affected by the presence of technology as magic as surely as if they were Jeff Bridges in Tron. As Mark Fisher defines, ‘… a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here.’
The embedding of the text in a recognisable popular culture is furthered by the use of actors who have broader intertextual relationships. This is particularly notable in the lead actors, with Patrick Troughton known for Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-) and Robert Stephens regarded as amongst Britain’s finest stage actors. Some of the other performers, however, have much more of a role in Box of Delights trivia. Julia Raeside comments how evidently Stephens said he would perform Abner Brown for free; her podcast goes on to wonderfully discuss the relish with which Stephens throws himself into this most evil of characters. The most memorable of these is, of course, erstwhile Eastenders and ’80s pop chart sensation Nick Berry in an early career moment. Lesser remembered, perhaps for being less kitsch, is the cameo appearance of Julian Sands, later known for A Room With A View (James Ivory, 1985) and Arachnophobia (Frank Marshall, 1990), portraying a Greek Solider. At that stage, Sands was already an up-and-coming actor with appearances in Oxford Blues and the Killing Fields. Perhaps the most significant supporting actor is Patricia Quinn who played Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. At the time of filming the accomplished actor (Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)) was the partner of Robert Stephens; they married in 1995. There is narrative poetry to the connection between Pouncer and Brown outside of the show.
What is vital in the narrative is that in the end, Kay Harker beats Abner Brown and the 1000th carol concert at Tatchester Cathedral takes place. Kay saves the day. The saving of the carol concert and the associated bringing of light to the world is achieved through ancient magic and though direct association with the pagan. Ultimately this is something that, as Jenny Shirt observes, is the intertwining of the pagan and the Christian. In the church, on Condicote Station, in the VCR and now online the ancient, the modern, the mythic and the familiar co-exist and it remains wonderfully unsettling, truly eerie and suitably weird.
 The origins of Father Christmas in the Green Man are well debated by many authors. For example see Bowler, Gerry (2007) Santa Claus: A Biography, McClelland and Stewart & Thomas, Andy (2019) Christmas: A Short History from Solstice to Santa, Ivy Press
 Scovell, Adam (2017) Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Auteur
 Errington, Phillip, (2020) Opening the Box of Delights, Darton, Longman and Todd. A hugely informative and entertaining interview with Phillip Errington can be found at Jim Moon’s podcast Hypnogoria, https://hypnogoria.libsyn.com/hypnogoria-161-opening-the-box-of-delights
 Gatland, Kenneth & Jeffries, David, (1979) The Usborne Book of the Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond, Usborne
 Clarke, Arthur C., (1972) ‘Hazards of Prophecy’, cited in Toffier, Alvin (ed.) The Futurists, Random House, pp. 133-150
 A visit to Bob Fisher’s website https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/ is highly recommended. The Musty Books section contains a wealth of information and hours of exhaustive reading and research.
 Follow @scrobbled, @EllenHousemaid, @KayHarker4, @tatchester, @foxyfacedchar11, @chubbyjoe1, @BlessedMariaJ, @Condicote7000, @brown_abner and, of course, @ColeHawlings1,
 Coverley, Merlin (2020) Hauntology: Ghosts of Future Past, Oldcastle Books, p. 14
 Fisher, Mark (2016) The Weird and the Eerie, Repeater, p.15
 Shirt, Jenny The Magic of the Box of Delights. http://wearecult.rocks/the-magic-of-the-box-of-delights-198