John Masefield (1878-1967) accomplished many things during his long life. He was appointed the Poet Laureate of the UK, writer of verse for the monarch on occasions of national significance. After his appointment, Masefield was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V, one of the highest civilian honours which it is possible for an Englishman to receive. He also penned the famous poem Sea-Fever, which features the immortal line “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. Say his name today, however, and it is likely that almost anyone who has ever heard of Masefield will know him primarily as the author of children’s book The Box of Delights. A wonderfully festive treat, the book tells of the adventures of a schoolboy named Kay Harker one Christmas, when he is drawn into a magical but sinister web of intrigue featuring wolves who walk as men, ancient wizards, talking animals and arcane objects. Published in 1935, The Box of Delights was adapted into a popular BBC tea-time serial which was broadcast in the lead-up to Christmas in 1984 and has since enjoyed an eternal afterlife on video and DVD. Yet the book’s fame has perhaps unfairly eclipsed the other works of a writer who led a truly remarkable life.
Masefield was born in rural Herefordshire and his idyllic childhood in the countryside was in many ways vital to his later work. School in Warwick was followed at the age of 13 by training for the merchant navy. In 1894 Masefield sailed for Chile, suffered acutely from sea-sickness, endured some kind of breakdown, and was returned home. He sailed again across the Atlantic, but at the age of 17 deserted ship and became a vagrant in the USA, taking what jobs he could find, reading voraciously and writing verse. Back in England he began his prolific writing career, which was eventually to compass some 50 volumes of verse, over 20 novels, eight plays, and much miscellaneous work. In the period between 1900 and his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1930, Masefield published several books which were received by the public with great interest and sold in large numbers. These included Salt-Water Ballads (which featured the poem Sea-Fever), the verse tale Reynard the Fox (which was set in the rural world of Masefield’s childhood), and The Midnight Folk (the prelude to The Box of Delights). A final, luminous fragment of autobiography, describing his country childhood up to his mother’s death, Grace before Ploughing, appeared the year before his own death in 1967.
The Midnight Folk and its sequel perhaps offer the greatest testament to the versatility of Masefield’s imagination. The first book is about a boy, Kay Harker, who sets out to discover what became of a fortune stolen from his seafaring great-grandfather (note the recurring nautical theme that was so characteristic of much of Masefield’s work). The treasure is also sought by a coven of witches who are also seeking it for their own ends. The witches are led (or manipulated by) the wizard Abner Brown, who reappears as Kay’s antagonist in the second book. On returning from boarding school, Kay finds himself mixed up in a battle to possess a magical box, which allows the owner to go small (shrink) and go swift (fly), experience magical wonders contained within the box and go into the past. The owner of the box is an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings, whom Kay meets at a railway station. They develop an instant rapport, and this leads Cole to confide that he is being chased by Abner Brown and his gang. For safety, Cole entrusts the box to Kay, who then goes on to have many adventures. Although both novels have been adapted a few times for both film and TV, it is the 1984 BBC production of The Box of Delights which has lived longest in the memory.
The Box of Delights was broadcast in 1984 in six parts, with the last episode transmitted on Christmas Eve. Although it featured some renowned actors, including John Horsley, Inspector Morse‘s James Grout, former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton and RSC alumnus Sir Robert Stephens, perhaps the most memorable piece of casting was that of 13 year-old Devin Stanfield as the hero Kay Harker. In his first and last major TV role Stanfield does a brilliant job of conveying the sense of wonder he feels every time he opens the eponymous box. The serial used an innovative mixture of live action and animation, with Quantel Paintbox and chroma key effects to bring the adventure alive. Noted for its yuletide atmosphere (the story was of course set during Christmas as well as broadcast during the festive season), the series has become something of a nostalgic treat for followers of cult TV. Even the theme music is seasonal: it is Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s orchestral arrangement of The First Nowell from his Carol Symphony. Appropriately enough, the exterior shots of Abner Brown’s theological college were filmed at Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury, Herefordshire, not far from where Masefield was born.
If you’re looking for something to watch at this time of year and you’re finding the Christmas spirit hard to come by then I can’t recommend The Box of Delights highly enough. It is the perfect antidote to the slew of commercialised kid-friendly trash on TV today. Produced in a more innocent age, it has endearingly creaky sets and special effects but the quality of acting is first-class and Masefield’s classic tale is timeless. There are moments of real danger and darkness, as well as the feeling that something older and larger is at stake than at first appears. The snow scenes are perfectly real – no CGI snowflakes here! – and the production feels all the more magical for that . Things like The Box of Delights only come along once in a generation and I regard it as almost as essential a part of childhood as corn flakes, dirty trainers, chocolate bars or Saturday morning cartoons. If you have children and decide to rent it for them I suspect that you may end up sitting down and enjoying it every bit as much as them! On that note, I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and New Year as Fabulous Realms is now going on hiatus until the start of 2013 (gosh, it feels strange saying that!). See you in the New Year!