“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.