“In my box are such delights…”: 1 of 3.

The Box Of Delights DVD does itself no favours by opening with a montage of adverts for other BBC “children’s classics” – The Chronicles Of Narnia, The Borrowers, Five Children And It. This puts the show firmly in a genre, and not a very flattering genre at that.

These serials were a dovetail of two cosy styles – televisual teatime costume drama and old-school children’s fantasy literature. The former was always a comfort zone for the BBC – I’ve written before how actors on Dr.Who would visibly relax when the historical dressing-up box came out – but has largely vanished now. The latter has been revived via Rowling, of course, but modernised too: Harry and co may still be broadly middle-class, but at least they’re recognisable as modern kids, bar the curious lack of swearing.

The children in the Narnia books were more like aliens – pre-pop, pre-TV kids who spent their days climbing trees, scoffing buttered eggs and staunchly standing up to beastliness. As characters, they – and the BoD’s Kay Harker, and most Nesbit children – were cyphers: any personalities they had arose from awful flaws which would be sorted out by story’s end. From a reader’s point of view this was irrelevant, the wonders they encountered were more important. From a television adaptor’s point of view these living, breathing cosy kids must have been a nightmare.

The people in charge of the BBC adaptations could have made concessions to the 80s. But they didn’t. The children stayed period piece characters – posh, colourless and cloying (quite how they found even a stage school child as infuriating as Narnia’s Lucy mystifies me). The problem was that the contrast between the ordinary kids and the extraordinary magic they met was lost: to a modern viewer a child in tweed plus-fours is quite as strange as a talking beaver.

You don’t have to be Robin Carmody to notice that these productions surfaced as Thatcherite wolves were running in hard pursuit of the BBC – it’s hard not to see their conservative style as a sop to notions of wholesome entertainment and perhaps even “Victorian values”. But by the 80s the foundations of these children’s stories had become thoroughly undermined and adapting them for the screen exposed this in the most brutal fashion.

(To be continued in the Brown Wedge and Blog 7)