Skip to main content

“Tush, Abner”, he said. “Tush.”

The Box of Delights
6: Leave us not Little, nor yet Dark


The final episode exhibits many of the strengths and flaws of the previous installments. The first half wonderfully ups the stakes, only to have them effortlessly blown away. It’s a more serious error than releasing Joe minutes after he has been locked up because, even given Abner’s poor choices, he needs to be demonstrated as an effective villain.



But, during the first 10 minutes at least, he is at his peak. First of all he draws an upturned pentacle on a stone wall to produce a hidden door before moving onto summon demons. The set he enters is superb, a florid temple for his dark deeds. 



AbnerWhy are you rolling your eyes?
HeadYou’d roll your eyes too if you were upside down.

The effects for the bronze plinth head are also top notch, and Nicholas Chagrin’s performance is, following the Waterfall Boy, suitably insubordinate (none of Abner’s slaves much like their lot, and look forward to his downfall). Head is unconsoling regarding Abner’s errors (“You have given them time to act against you”) and takes pleasure in disrupting his master’s plans (directing the watching Kay to his mislaid box). Abner further punishes his minion by placing Head upside down (leading to an amusing point-of-view shot).




The summoning of the demonic host is perhaps the serial's most obvious display 0f willinginess to traumatise the little ones. The animation is as consistently strong as hitherto, but this time requires integration with the live action. Abner, set on preventing the service from going ahead, calls on “Slave of the Night”, “Creature” and “Animus” to (respectively) dislocate railway traffic 20 miles around Tatchester, make every road impassable and fill the countryside with a blizzard of snow. Curiously, Head instructs Abner, “You can’t do that. You cannot take life”. Do even the practitioners of the dark arts have a code in Masefield’s world? It isn’t quite Crowley-esque, but suggests there are certain boundary points even for one of such unfiltered intent as Abner.


Kay opts not to right poor Head, who may still be in that sorry upturned state. Instead Master Harker heads for the dungeons, and like a dozy dreamer drops his box again. We see the Bishop and his boys accompanying the fake curates and Sylvia; it’s certainly peculiar to find Sylvia playing the nominal good guy, even if reluctantly. Abner, in the distance drags his box.


Abner: I will sell you the Box of Delights in exchange for your elixir of life.

Abner’s confrontation with Cole raises a few questions. Is he serious? Is it a ploy (he’ll keep the box when he’s got the elixir)? This is the first we’ve been told of his desire for immortality; the entire quest for the box is actually revealed as a means to an end? Fair enough, if so, but why does he think it will make the slightest bit of difference to Cole’s resilience? Wouldn’t he be better to torture the bishop and demand the elixir, on pain of the Tatch Bish’s demise? Almost anything would probably be a better scheme. If he really wants only the elixir, holding Cole is the key and he can determine how to unlock the door later (hence his plans to abscond in the previous episode appear hasty). Is he serious?


Abner: Will you deal?
Cole: No, because you’re a greedy scoundrel. Unfit to have long life.

Cole’s general motivations remain murky, which is well and good. But in a few minutes we will witness that, though his powers may have faded by the account of some (including himself), they seem more than sufficient to have enabled his escape long before now. Was his confinement at least partly agreeable to him, as it would allow Kay to complete his initiation?



Along these lines, there is a reappearance from the Waterfall Boy, looking even slimier than before. The Boy waves Abner’s failure under his nose (“You had it under your hand today and you didn’t know”). Cole uses his magic ring to stay Abner’s punishing hand and free the boy (“Squish to you!”); Cole makes him a real boy. If Cole can do that, how powerful is the new magic as opposed to his old magic?



As for the drawing of the key (complete with Cole’s Cyclops laser vision), all the materials are Cole’s and he does all the work (despite Kay’s “That’s the best drawing I’ve ever done”; not so splendiferous). By implication, the lazy old duffer’s just been having a nap for the past few days. Shortly after he will compound this magical dexterity by turning his hat into a boat and use his Yoda-like powers to surf up the sluice. He’s incredible!



Bishop: “Tush, Abner”, he said. “Tush.” 

The idea that Abner’s plan was never all that, in spite of the magical resources at his command, is emphasised by the daft manner in which he gives up. This isn’t a Bond movie, but he nevertheless decides to blow everything up. Abner sets off explosives to deter the recently arrived police and intends to drown Cole and any other captives. So he not only leaves the box, but Cole too. 




And then, the worst indignity, he is felled by an (expertly targeted) bag of flour that hit its him on the noggin and sends him plunging into the moat. Where he memorably drowns in slow motion (anyone who has seen the last two Doctor Whostories Roger Limb scored will recognise the musical scream effects employed here). One might have hoped for some sort of good-versus-evil confrontation between Cole and Abner, rather than his perfunctory demise.



The escape of Kay and Cole sees them release both Peter (true to form, he gets his signature line “If that place isn’t the purple pim!”) and the beguilingly giddy Caroline Louisa. He also picks up the baffled bishop and his flock of choirboys (did all the other imprisoned clergy drown?) The location work adds suitably to the extravagant look of this episode, making up for the polystyrene snowdrifts to come. 



It’s interesting to see Charles and Sylvia get off Scott-free (Joe at least showed a soft heart) and it’s a small saving grace for the puzzled police that the Chief Constable has a change of mind regarding Kay’s story and decides to investigate the college after all.


So, it’s a quarter to midnight and time for a last dash for the cathedral to make the date with the 1000th Christmas Day service. Unfortunately, Animus has well and truly filled the studio set with fake snow. It’s a little disappointing that no footage for this sequence could have been shot during the Aberdeen location shoot, but the logistics would likely have been to much of a pain in the arse.



Old LadyHerne the hunter, keep your lions away from my unicorns.

Aside from the flying sequence and the additional cast members required, there’s the little matter of Herne the Hunter and the Old Lady’s animated sleighs. Prior to their handy arrival (the bishop seems remarkably unfazed by this manifestation of pagan wizardry, and opportunistically does not turn down the ride. 


As for Kay only now realising that using the box might be a good idea, his usually quick mind must have been weighed down by the drama (he could have used it way back at the college too). There is an indication that his abilities with the box now exceed those of Cole, who protests “one little box and so many people” when Kay tells everyone to hold hands to go swift.


The whimsy of the climax, with the realisation of Christmas Eve and the cathedral in darkness, recalls the “This is how it was then” reenactments of the third episode. But in this case, the unhurried preparations for the service have an infectious cheer. It doesn’t feels so much a triumph of Christianity as of a peaceable season’s celebration. 



Nor is the Bishop the type to have his mind on spiritual matters (“Where in heaven’s name’s my mitre?”) Cole is serenity itself, Maria has brought her gun (just in case), and the flocks waiting outside for the service seem like a complete fantasy this side of the 21st century.



It’s at this point that Rye and Seymour choose to validate the most controversial aspect of Masefield’s novel. The “It was all a dream” epilogue was added at the behest of his publisher (there was no suggestion that The Midnight Folk took place in Kay’s mind). Such a move can be the cop-out of an author who doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, or used to excuse a variety of inconsistencies with internal logic (it is rarely used well). The box carries Kay away from the Cathedral, and we see the spinning effect from his dreams (within his dream) before he awakes on the train.


Greeted by Caroline Louisa, he disembarks. There is no sign of Cole Hawlings, but a couple of suspicious looking curates are seated on the platform waving at him. His governess asks if it was a bad dream and he replies that it was a wonderful one (where his slumbering knowledge of occult symbols and incantations derive from is anyone’s guess; boarding school?) As the camera takes in the station a snow flurry blows into frame.


The presence of the Charles and Joe lends a sliver of doubt to the ending (although we’ve seen the device of “real” figures inspiring those in a dream in any number of stories). Kay has awoken “within his dream” several times already, with similar effects employed. IMDB trivia suggests this is an indication that the box has reversed time to the beginning. But presumably not in the sense that Abner now lives and Cole has yet to be caught; that would be like a Children of the Stones loop about to begin again. Rather, now that Kay has helped return events to their “natural” path, unhindered by darkness, all is right with the world and the festive season may be fully appreciated. In addition, he has passed his initiation successfully – although it seems that there is a final stage whereby he masters the distinction between illusion and reality, even if this was not part of Masefield’s design – but does not yet know it. Maybe Cole is set to return the box to him, or his guardian/Old Lady will in time steer him towards his destiny?) 


I’d always seen the curates as signifiers of ambiguity, but had no particular concerns with the “dream” ending spoiling the overall effect. That might be because those final scenes are so well filmed that they add to, rather than subtract from, the whole.


Overall:


It would be tempting to give The Box of Delights the full ***** for reasons of nostalgia, which sees it through its occasional rough patches. And also for its charming atmosphere and winning performances, effects both accomplished and scrappy, and evocative music. It is the rare BBC children’s serial that holds up, and one in which the surprisingly uncensored Masefield vision of Christmas survives intact. It might not quite sustain itself for today’s youngster, and it certainly sags during the “second act”, but this classic retains an irresistible seasonal magic.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

That living fossil ate my best friend!

The Meg (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s a good chance that, unless you go in armed with ludicrously high expectations for the degree to which it's going to take the piss out of its premise, you'll have a good time with The Meg. This is unabashedly B-moviemaking, and if a finger of fault can be pointed, it's that director Jon Turteltaub, besides being a strictly functional filmmaker, does nothing to give it any personality beyond employing the services of the Stat. Obviously, though, the mere presence of the gravelly-larynxed one goes a long way to plugging the holes in any leaky vessel.

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018)
(SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless Heat rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but Den of Thieves is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.