Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View
A Christmas children’s classic right from its opening theme – a spooky and hugely effective reworking of “The First Noël” – right through to the climax at a Midnight Service on Christmas Eve, this is about as festive as you can get. Millions of families will forever associate an annual rewatching of this six part BBC adaptation as being as much a part of the fabric of Christmas as mince pies and roast turkey. Unfortunately it also belongs to that category of stories that you really have to be enchanted with as a child if the same warm fuzzy feelings are to last into later years. It’s not really something you can truly pick up later if you missed out on growing up with the tale, as I sadly did. By the time this adaptation first aired, I was already far too ‘grown up’ to waste my time with such ‘childish things’ and it seems that at some point the possibility of visiting this magical land became a lost opportunity to me.
To me as an adult, the early episodes of this adaptation of the classic 1930s children’s fantasy novel by John Masefield verge on the annoying with their amateurish plotting, which relies far too much on being able to explain away any development as “it’s magical” and in so doing recuse itself from any responsibly to make any logical or coherent sense. Chance meetings happen and lead character Kay Harker (played actually quite commendably by 13-year-old Devin Stanfield who does a good job anchoring the entire story) happens upon key incidents at just the critical moment time and again to a degree of narrative laziness that no modern production could ever allow itself. Adult characters are shuffled out of the way as quickly as they ever were in an Enid Blyton tale so that the children have to fend for themselves, and there’s a total lack of believability in the responses of any remaining adults: police are disinterested in Kay’s pleadings even when children start to go missing for extended periods, something that would today provoke amber alerts, mass searches and media frenzies in no time. Other scenes (such as a visit to the past at King Arthur’s camp) seem thrown in just to provide a random supposedly-enchanting diversion. Whether these are all issues with the source book or is just something poorly conveyed by the television adaptation is something I can’t tell.
At some point, either I gave into the “well, it’s fantasy so anything can happen” philosophy or else things distinctly perked up. The turning point was the introduction of the arch villain Abner Brown, played in deliciously over-the-top style by veteran star Robert Stephens, a high camp scenery-chewing performance every bit as richly and darkly textured as Alan Rickman’s similarly superb turn as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. The presence of Abner and his comically inept gang allows the story to pick up pace as we get to learn the purpose and shape of his evil machinations, which drives the narrative in a more efficient and engrossing manner over the second half of the series.
Abner also starts to fill in some of the background of the history and capabilities of the titular box of delights, which has been entrusted to young Kay by the mysterious Punch and Judy performer Cole Hawlings, played by former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton – and given that his role here is of an eccentric 700-year-old man with special powers, one would be forgiven for expecting Troughton to be reprising former glories. In fact, the biggest disappointment is that the delightful actor is in the show for such a short amount of time – just a handful of scenes – before he goes missing. When he does reappear near the end, it’s clear why Cole Hawlings is sidelined for so long: his magic powers are so overwhelming that it’s hard to see why there was any peril for him at all, when one can escape danger merely by throwing one’s cap into the water and having it instantly transform into a rather natty state-of-the-art (for 1935) speedboat. At least the box of delights itself is commendably limited in its abilities (basically the ability to fly, shrink or access scenes from the past) – even if this does make its desirability as the serial’s McGuffin rather odd by comparison with the other powers on display from Abner and Hawlings.
The show’s production is about as quintessentially 1980s Children’s BBC as it’s possible to be. The period detail is lovingly recreated both in the sets and on location (vintage 1930s cars and steam trains are always a delight.) The scenes set in genuine snowy vistas are truly wonderful (less so the later scenes when the snowy tundra has to be recreated in a studio.) It’s also impossible to separate it from contemporary Doctor Who serials, given its reliance on then-fashionable and highly distinctive Quantel Paintbox and chromakey techniques supplying reasonable FX for the day but which have aged poorly, and the unmistakeable work of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop on the musical soundtrack. The serial also makes use of traditional animation for certain effects, scenes and characters, and I reckon you’d have to be a very young child indeed to find these remotely effective or engaging in any way.
The final episode features some unexpectedly big-budget action work with the destruction of the villain’s lair resulting in explosions, flames and flooding in real underground and exterior locations which demonstrate that this was indeed a prestige production for the BBC in its day and given an unusually big budget for a children’s drama (compared with the way the corporation was simultaneously throttling funds to Doctor Who at the same time, for example.) But the final part of the series ends oddly – for no stated reason, the holding of the Christmas Service becomes the most pressing matter even over and above thwarting Abner Brown’s evil plans. And then in the very final scene, there is the sort of ‘twist’ that even in its day is the most disrespectful overt thing any production can do in undermining all that has gone before, and makes one feel that the last three hours have been a total waste of time.
It’s not really a waste of course; there’s plenty to enjoy in the six episode journey despite the final destination, especially if you disengage critical facilities and even better if you can view it through appropriately rose-tinted spectacles. But I couldn’t help but think that with its fabulous opening theme and the intriguing core concept of the magical box of delights, there was so much more that it could have done and that it could have therefore been so much better. But then I started to think that maybe some other series heretofore mentioned in this review might already have ownership rights to the idea of telling the ongoing adventures of an eccentric mad man with a magical box …