Dec 04

“In my box are such delights…”

Blog 71 comment • 553 views

“In my box are such delights…” (Part 3 of 3)

It may be a conservative programme that’s responding to a vanished world, but that doesn’t mean The Box Of Delights is bad television. In my view it sidesteps its potential pitfalls and stands as one of the most charming and engrossing children’s programmes ever.

Why? The glossiness of the production is part of it, but only a minor part. TBOD is a hotch-potch of effects – live-action, animation, CSO, animal costumes, primitive computer graphics – not all of which have aged well and not all of which work together. The whole thing still looks expensive, but it’s the lush location work and attention to period detail that carries the scent of money, not the cartoon phoenixes and flying sequences.

No, what really sets Box apart is, simply, the acting and direction. The story has a lot of adult characters, and what’s more, adults who have a narrative life beyond simply befriending/chasing/antagonising the children (the villain is laid low not by the forces of good but by in-fighting and betrayal among his henchpeople). This creates plenty of space for meaty, melodramatic acting – and that’s exactly what we get. A wonderful bunch of character actors get to ham their parts up and the whole production has a stagey, pantomime feel (which is probably why the occasional effects lapses don’t seem to matter much). Glorious pick of the bunch is Robert Stephens as the villain, Abner Brown, in perhaps the fruitiest performance ever seen on the small screen. Stephens plays the villain like a cross between Dick Dastardly and Oscar Wilde – switching between manic and louche in the course of a sentence or a gesture.

Crucially, two of the three most important child actors are also good (the general strike rate in these productions being zero). Devin Stanfield as the hero is indeed outrageously posh (“But where were the servants?” he cries after a burglary) but also has a good line in confused decency and manages to convey wonder rather well. The girl who plays gun-obsessed Maria manages to make her one-note character amusing rather than annoying. Only best friend Peter strikes a bum note and he spends most of the serial kidnapped.

The direction is superb throughout. It’s very easy to aspire to making something “magical” or “Christmassy”, but in practical terms how do you achieve it? Renny Rye does it by giving us long, indulgent scenes of snowscapes, midnight Mass, lavish Christmas parties…he’s pressing buttons very obviously but it is effective, and it gives TBOD a sense of event, of being something richer than just an ordinary drama serial. Rye can switch up the pace too, and is particularly good at dropping in a sudden, almost subliminal image to shock or frighten the audience (his dream sequences are wonderfully creepy, too). The best example of how well he understands the material is his use of cliffhangers, which you can only enjoy on the new DVD. He doesn’t generally stop the action at the most exciting point – instead he chooses a moment that’ll give his young audience something to think about for a week, a stimulating situation or image that’ll get their minds working and drag them deeper in. It worked for me back in 1985, anyhow.

The reviews of the serial on amazon.co.uk split two ways – a majority of people who love it and a few who say that you can’t go home again, and that happy memories should stay just that. As the less-than-proud purchaser of the complete run of Blakes 7, I’m not unsympathetic to them, but The Box Of Delights really is just as special and enjoyable as I remembered it being. A lot of the Amazon respondents claim that they watch it at Christmas every year, and I can see us following their example.


  1. 1

    nice! [IMG]http://rich-niche.info/cookie/img/smilies/happy.gif[/IMG]

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Dec 04

“In my box are such delights…”

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 172 views

“In my box are such delights…” 2 of 3. (following this)

It’s easy to forget that the cosy children’s classics the BBC adapted in the 1980s had, when written, acute psychological relevance to their audience. OK that audience was a well-off one, but the situations and fears these fantasies dramatise were genuine. In the Narnia books, the Box of Delights, and most E Nesbit novels the action hinges on English children being removed en masse from their families and sent to live with Guardians, or to strange schools, or to old houses for the holidays – and that’s before the magical stuff gets going.

The sundering of children and parents was the device to get the narrative going – it rarely formed part of the narrative itself, the kids weren’t usually working to be reunited with their families. But it was a credible device in a world where the pressures of war, Empire and school made the concept of ‘home’ for middle-class children more fluid than it might be today. By the 1970s and 1980s, when I read the stories, these set-ups seemed contrived. I accepted them as part of the furniture of children’s books, but the more they pushed in on the story the less I enjoyed it.

The fantasy books being written in the 60s and 70s had to take a different line. Books by John Christopher, Peter Dickinson, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner all located the fantastic within the English landscape or folklore. Shades of Kipling’s Puck – but the fantastic elements in the 60s/70s classics weren’t confined to the safe past. They had the power to threaten, warp or overturn the modern England they were pushing into. In Dickinson’s Changes and Christopher’s Prince In Waiting, the near-future England has already been altered when the story starts – the device of opening with a scene-setting rupture remains but the possibility of returning to ‘normal’ is considerably more remote.

These stories are all responses to rapid social and technological change – to me as a reader they made a lot of sense and their power came from how close to home they could strike. Garner’s Elidor opens in standard Narnia fashion with kids travelling to the other world – but now the traffic is two-way, and suburban Manchester and the childrens’ families are threatened by the children’s actions.

It’s interesting to me that these books haven’t such a history of high-profile TV and film adaptations. The Changes trilogy and Elidor made it to the screen, but not so far to a reissue, and the recent revival in kidlit film talk has left these stories untouched. But maybe their assumptions – essentially nuclear families, a core of ‘Englishness’ to be defended – would translate as poorly now as plus-fours and picnic hampers did in the 80s.

(The third post in this series will appear later in Blog 7)

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