It’s the 29th Anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of the BBC TV adaptation of ‘The Box of Delights’.
All those years ago. Just six episodes. But episodes that I’ve watched many times over. A serial that looks a bit ropey now, to modern eyes, maybe – with its blend of live action, animation, camera trickery and Kirby wires. At the time, of course, the makers were very proud of the mind-boggling effects they’d achieved. Taxis turn into aeroplanes, boys become stags, toy boats run rapids and phoenixes appear at the calling of an old Punch and Judy man.
It’s one of those TV shows that seem to have magic trapped inside it. Somehow sheer glittery magic dust is caught up inside the very frames. Masefield’s is one of the most loopily illogical stories and, faithfully adapted, sometimes it’s hard to follow. I’m still not sure if all of it makes sense, but I think it mostly does. Perhaps its opacity is why it stands up to repeated viewings? Years and years after, it’s still yielding up echoes, connections and obscure plot points.
The other thing that repays the constant viewer – besides the crackle and dazzle of the mechanical effects and the strangeness of the storytelling – are the wonderful characters. Everyone in the cast gets their moment to shine and do a star turn. Each year I feel like applauding them when they arrive – especially Robert Stephens and Patricia Quinn as the horrible villains, both relishing every second of it. And especially Patrick Troughton as the old Punch and Judy Man – kindly and frighteningly ancient all at once.
I look forward to starting it again, one episode a week, each year at the end of November. It never grows dull. And there’s something about that eerie, tinkling theme tune – from Hely-Hutchinson’s ‘Carol Symphony’ - that summons up for me the very essence of the season.
So, really – I should be starting episode one tonight. But not yet, I think. First there’s the Doctor Who Anniversary to consider – and tonight it’s all about William Hartnell. A not-too distant relative of the wizardy wanderer Cole Hawlins with his box of magic tricks…