Written in 1935 as a sequel to his earlier novel, The Midnight Folk (1927), John Masefield's enchanting children's fantasy The Box of Delights, tells the story of a young boy whose chance meeting with a Punch-and-Judy man leads him to a world where almost anything is possible.
In 1984 the BBC brought the series to life on the small screen with a (for then) massive budget of one million pounds. Described by some critics as capturing the true spirit of Christmas better than any other children's drama and surpassing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the ultimate winter's tale, The Box of Delights begins with Kay Harker's train journey to Seekings near Tatchester, where he will spend his Christmas holiday from school. On the journey he meets Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton), an old Punch-and-Judy man who tells Kay (Devin Stanfield) that 'the wolves are running' - a warning that evil is close at hand.
Hawlings is the keeper of the elixir of life as well as the custodian of a magic box that has the ability to make the owner 'go small' and 'go swift'. But in order to keep his secret and to stop the box falling into the hands of wrongdoers he has been on the run for 700 years - occasionally requiring the help of a human ally. With the wolves closing in Kay agrees to take the box home with him. And so begins an adventure that takes the young boy back into the past "when the wolves ran wild across England" and to ancient Greece where he meets the inventor of the box.
Producer Paul Stone had come across Masefield's book some ten years before he managed to bring it to television. The BBC then managed to sell it to 215 American PBS stations where it was shown at prime-time viewing hours, the six 30-minute episodes being shown as three 60-minute broadcasts. Most of the budget was spent on special effects which today look very dated but at the time were the best and most ambitious attempted for a British TV series. The stars of the series also manage to keep the series going when at times the plot seems to be plodding along. Although Patrick Troughton is absent for three of the six episodes, young Devin Stanfield rises to the challenge of carrying the series in parts and there is more than enough villainy to maintain the intrigue.
Published on November 30th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.