“When the Wolves were Running”
A wolf. Mr Punch. A rat. A mouse. A Roman soldier. Herne the Hunter. Abner Brown. Cole Hawlings. The Box of Delights. In a sequence that haunted my dreams as a child, these are the images we see when the opening titles to The Box of Delights play, against the sounds of the Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchison. It’s a mesmerising piece of music, which blends seamlessly between fear and joy, and it’s exactly right for this series. Christmas is a time of excitement and happiness, but it takes place at the coldest, darkest time of the year. It is a holy festival, but at a pagan time. That blend of fear and joy, holiness and old magic, is at the heart of The Box of Delights. For the next six weeks, in the run-up to Christmas, we are going to take a look at this much-loved series, one episode per week.
Every episode of this series has its moments, but the first is by far the best. It sets the scene beautifully. Kay is getting on a steam train, going home for the Christmas holidays, but he is gradually being drawn into a world of magic. He meets Cole Hawlings on the platform, who already knows who he is and is able to conjure up a missing train ticket, which we later discover isn’t missing at all. On the train are Foxy Faced Charles and Chubby Joe, posing as clergymen under fake names, and conning Kay out of some money with a confidence trick, before later appearing to change into wild animals as they cross the fields. For a moment, when the train goes through a tunnel, Kay thinks he sees a real fox, where Foxy Faced Charles should be. Long before Harry Potter, we have animagi on our hands, or are these really wild animals who have taken on human form? It all feels dangerous and very odd, and throughout the episode various characters pop up to give cryptic messages to Kay before disappearing again. Cole and his associates seem to be using Kay as some kind of a messenger, but when we eventually meet the ringleader of the dangerous criminal gang, Abner Brown, he is clearly aware of Kay’s meddling, so the boy has been placed in considerable danger. This is a good vs evil story, but there are also shades of grey here, with Cole (who dates “from pagan times”) willing to risk the life of a child. On the other hand, he does seem to hold a clear picture in his mind of what the future will hold, so his “old magic” is powerful.
“Whatever happens in between, we shall be there.”
We know getting safely to the 100th Christmas ceremony at Tatchester Cathedral on Christmas Eve is the end goal of this journey, so the other bookend for the action is clear. The key players are introduced very efficiently, with Charles and Joe reporting to Abner, and clearly afraid of him, along with the very amusing rat:
“That brings the plump to a man, bacon rind tomorrow.”
Abner wants Cole’s magical box, which he says will give him “power over all”. It seems to be able to conjure up anything the person holding it wants. In a scene that lingered in my imagination as a child, Cole opens the box and a phoenix appears in the fireplace. But the most beautiful and remarkable sequence is of course when Cole escapes from his enemies by walking into a painting. This was the most expensive children’s television programme ever made at the time (and probably still is), and you can see where the money went. The waterfall in the painting starts to flow, a mule walks along a mountain path, and then Cole is able to enter the painting, mount the mule and ride away, before it becomes just a painting on the wall again. It was astonishing to watch at the time, and as a young child I felt like I was watching real magic taking place in front of my eyes. The sequence still holds up well today, and must have been incredibly difficult and complicated to achieve.
Towards the end of the episode, Kay goes out at midnight into the snow, something that seems like a hugely exciting and magical thing for a child, tinged with fear. In the brightness of the moonlit snow, a white horse carries Kay into the past, to a hill fort under siege from wolves. We are about to find out exactly what Cole meant when he said “the wolves are running”… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Box of Delights Episode 2
For a detailed introduction to this remarkable series, please see: Six Degrees of Who: The Box of Delights