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Cult classic: The magical Box of Delights

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Cult classic: The magical Box of Delights

This is how Box of Delights has earned its place as a magical cult television show. 

For those who don't know, Box of Delights was a BBC TV series for children, derived from John Masefield's novel and originally televised in 1984. And let's be clear about this, viewed today, more than 30 years on, its failings are all too obvious.

If we're guided by the strictly rational, then magic doesn't exist. But magic, almost by definition, must transcend reason: it is something utterly intangible, inexplicable. And if magic doesn't exist, then why are we still talking about Box of Delights?

The special effects—which were once so special that they featured in a segment of Blue Peter—look somewhat less than special now.

It’s set in a decent evocation of the 1930s with the artistic choices of the mid-1980s, most obviously in the delightfully cheesy synthesiser music.


“As all that suggests, it is a story full of magic. But the real magic is in the telling.”


You could understand why those of us who saw it when it was first transmitted might hold it tight in our hearts—I am one of them (and where has the time gone, eh?).

What's less explicable is why it might appeal to younger generations to whom it must seem as crude as Muffin the Mule did to us. And yet, at least according to anecdotal reports and mentions online, appeal to these whippersnappers it does. Why should this be?

Box of Delights
Image via: BBC

Magic doesn't explain itself easily but if we look closely perhaps we can see something of how the spell was cast.

It is the story of a schoolboy called Kay Harker, played with winning seriousness by Devin Standfield. On his way home for the holidays, he befriends an old-timer called Cole Hawlings.

Hawlings (Patrick Troughton) is a showman of sorts, and not just a purveyor of Punch and Judy shows: he possesses a box—a box of delights, no less—that can do all sorts of wonderful things.

Others want this box too, chiefly the villainous Abner Brown (Robert Stephens) who believes the box can assist his devilish schemes.


With his own safety at risk Hawlings entrusts the box to young master Harker who must use it—and his own considerable wits—to stop the wicked Abner Brown and return the box to its rightful owner.

As all that suggests, it is a story full of magic. But the real magic is in the telling. Since it was a BBC production of the 1980s, it hardly needs to be said that the production team had insufficient resources.

They had something much better: a total faith in what they were doing and it's that conviction that makes Box of Delights so compelling.

Even if the effects are a bit shonky, they still succeed in conveying the intended wonder because of the way that the cast, marvellously guided by director Renny Rye, react. No actor in one of today's CGI-infused blockbusters believes in their work more than the performers do here.

Regardless of age or experience, the entire cast persuades us that we need to take this seriously, and so we do.


The box of delights
Image via BBC

As good as the youngsters are, the most important players are the veterans Troughton and Stephens. Both were celebrated actors—Troughton was the second Doctor Who while Stephens had been arguably the most acclaimed young actor since Laurence Olivier, until he'd hit personal problems.

Both could have thought Box of Delights was a bit beneath them but instead, they give themselves up to it completely. Troughton twinkling as the otherworldly showman and Stephens ferocious as his nemesis.

It says a great deal about the success of their collective endeavour that neither the BBC nor anyone else have tried remaking Box of Delights in the years since.

Sure, there are certain superficial elements that might be improved, but it would be nearly impossible to better the alchemy that makes this production so precious. Magic like that is rare indeed.

You can re-live Box of Delights with The Box Of Delights (BBC Radio Collection), available on Amazon.

Buy Box of Delights on DVD in our shop for £7.99

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