December 1986. It’s the run up to Christmas and I have become obsessed by the BBC TV adaption of John Masefield’s Box of Delights. It's perfect in every way, from the twinkly synthy rendition of A Carol Symphony: III Andante quasi lento e contabile, to the snowy old English setting that melts into glorious effects laden moments of high fantasy.
I decided to watch it again this year with the kids. I’ve written before about the danger of revisiting childhood favourites in your mid thirties (alright, late thirties). Sadly this was no exception. The effects were terribly dated, the pacing leaden and the child actors horribly wooden (when exactly did child actors get good?) As my son pointed out, as a piece of film making this is no Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups.
But my daughter was somehow enchanted. True, she has a high tolerance for having relics from my childhood foisted upon her, but the series still had the power to cast a spell. ‘I love him daddy.‘ she said of dear old Cole Hawlings, played by Patrick Troughton, the former Doctor Who who is again cast as a centuries old sprightly trickster.
That magic is in large part due to the mesmerising force of the source material. John Masefield wrote the book in 1935, a sequel to his only other children’s story The Midnight Folk. It did what a low budget TV drama from the eighties could never do, mix the fantasy of christmas with high fantasy adventure.
The creaky flights of fantasy of the adaptaton are utterly involving here. Masefield chucks everything at us – a magic box, shrinking, time-slips, fairiy dances, metamorphosis, a flying car, talking animals, dodgy vicars… The list is endless, and by rights should be too much. But Masefield’s writing is so poetic and the plot so brilliantly paced that you suck it all up.
I’d like to issue another of my Bad Girl Warnings for my favourite character, the gun crazed Maria. Expelled from three schools, she faces any situation with the same hard-nosed gangster-like approach. She ingores dire warnings of ‘going with strangers’ and winds up kidnapped by the Abner Brown’s gang of dodgy curate wolves. On her release she shrugs it off with a plate full of ‘underdone chops and a spoonful of Sherry’. What a gal.
The Folio society, who did such a bang up job with Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising, have produced another exquisite edition with illustrations by Sara Ogilvie. They’re a billion miles away from the original line drawings by John’s wife Judith Masefield. The New York review of Books reissued her version a couple of years ago, and although they are crude they served to make the book seem more timeless, feeling like they’d been torn from an old journal. I’d love to see them presented with the handwritten manuscript (if such a thing exists)
We’ve still got two episodes to go – saving those for Christmas Eve obviously. And although it’s been a mixed experience for me, I’m thrilled to have sparked my daughter’s interest. We’ll read the Folio version next year, and sucker for punishment that I am, might even give the TV version of The Children of Green Knowe another look.