“Leave us not Little, nor yet Dark”
After an absence of three episodes, it’s great to have Patrick Troughton back as Cole Hawlings. He was chosen for the role because the director was a fan of his Second Doctor Who, and thought he could bring that Doctorish magic to the show. He wasn’t wrong about that. There was an interview with Troughton and Devin Stanfield for Blue Peter, which is included on the DVD set, and the comparison is made between Cole Hawlings and the Doctor. Troughton also mentions having to use kirby wires for the filming of The Moonbase. If you’re a Doctor Who fan it’s worth a look, as television interviews with Troughton are rare, but also it’s heart-warming to see how complimentary he is towards his co-star, who he says John Masefield himself would have cast. I think he’s right about that. Devin has something of the awkwardness one would expect from a British child actor, but he isn’t helped by occasionally unnatural dialogue in the scripts, and he’s never anything but likeable throughout.
For the final episode he gets to play the hero, rescuing all his friends, although it’s really Hawlings who works all the magic that saves everyone. He is clearly so powerful that one wonders why he couldn’t have magicked up a way to escape already, but I think there was a significant line way back at the start of the series, where Cole seemed completely confident that everyone would get to the Christmas service:
“Whatever happens in between, we shall be there.”
So maybe he was generous and patient enough to let Kay have his moment of triumph, and magical enough (or wise enough) to have a strong impression of what the future would hold.
Before they can escape, the tension gets ramped up with Abner’s evil deeds, summoning demon creatures to make the roads and railways impassable and to “fill the countryside with a blizzard of snow”. He also gets information from a bronze head, who is apparently omniscient, so one has to wonder why we haven’t seen Abner asking him for information before. The bronze head is not actually an idea that was invented by Masefield, and if you want to learn more about that, take a look at another of my articles:
Luckily for Abner, and unluckily for the head, the plinth on which the head sits has a slot so his head can be placed upside down. It’s actually quite a cruel and shocking moment, with the head screaming after Abner not to be left like that, and although we see the liberation of the waterfall boy, for all we know the bronze head is stuck like that forever. It’s an intelligent, seemingly omniscient being, and it’s left paralysed upside down, which doesn’t bear thinking about.
The triumphant journey back to the cathedral is at first exciting, with the flying lions and unicorns making for an unusual substitution for reindeer, but then we come crashing down to the reality of television fakery with heaps of snow that isn’t snow. What a shame they couldn’t have filmed this bit while they had all that gorgeous real snow we saw in the first two episodes, to end the story as beautifully as it started. But it does show what an incredible stroke of luck that thick snow was when they were filming some of the scenes, and how much the production owes to that lucky break, without which it would have all looked like this: actors wading through polystyrene balls.
All is forgiven when we are treated to the site of a huge crowd arriving at Tatchester Cathedral (shot at Tewkesbury Abbey for the exteriors), and then the Christmas service filmed inside Hereford Cathedral, with the cast joining in with O Come All Ye Faithful.
The ending is depressingly familiar for anyone who has read enough children’s fantasy fiction, with authors oddly feeling the need to rationalise their magic as just a dream. Masefield never actually wanted this ending himself (it was imposed on him by his publishers), so it would have been wiser of Alan Seymour to leave it out of his adaptation, but at least there is enough ambiguity that it could be interpreted in other ways, and does in fact take place after Kay’s first meeting with Cole Hawlings, so we don’t have to accept that Kay just dreamed the detailed events of four days if we don’t want to. I would rather believe in Cole Hawlings’ old magic any day, especially on the day this was broadcast, Christmas Eve. If there were ever a time for a child to believe in magic, it’s Christmas. For this child of the 80s, Christmas 1984 was the most magical of all. RP