In the run up to Christmas, many people all around the UK watch a BBC Children’s television series first broadcast in 1984: The Box of Delights directed by Renny Rye and starring Devin Stanfield as Master Kay Harker, Robert Stephens as the villainous Abner Brown, and Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, the Punch and Judy Man who “dates from pagan times.” Some time their viewing so that they watch an episode a week to finish on Christmas Eve with Leave Us Not Little, Nor Yet Dark – just as the 1984 series was transmitted.
The outpouring of love for this series seems to start annually in November, as aficionados declare that Christmas won’t be Christmas without the Box of Delights, or that hearing the theme music (The First Nowell from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony) heralds the beginning of the festive season.
The original book was written by John Masefield (1878-1967). He is now perhaps best remembered for The Box of Delights and another adventure featuring Kay Harker and Abner Brown, The Midnight Folk. The language of these books is so evocative – with possets, pirate tea, Oliver’s time, pudding time and pagan times, and the provisioning of toy boats to sail on the floods – and who can fail to be stirred when they hear that the Wolves are Running?
For me, one of the pleasures of reading Masefield is his knowledge of the sea, ships and sea lore – developed while he served on HMS Conway as a youth. His sea songs and shanties run through the Kay Harker stories and include the raucous pirate song from The Box of Delights, sung by the Wolves of the Gulf after much rum punch: We fly a banner all of black, With scarlet Skull and Boneses, And every merchantman we take, We send to Davey Jones’s. Masefield, who was Poet Laureate between 1930 and 1967, also wrote the much loved Sea Fever (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).
The Box of Delights has been delighting children of all ages since its publication in 1935. Forty years before the much-loved television series, The Box of Delights was adapted for radio. As part of Children’s Hour, the BBC Home Service broadcast three six-part adaptations “for older listeners.” The book was adapted by Robert Holland and John Keir Cross in 1943 (with John Gilpin as Kay Harker and Hay Petrie as Cole Hawlings), in 1948 (with David Page as Kay and Harcourt Williams as Hawlings), and in 1955 (with Patricia Hayes as Kay and Deering Wells as Hawlings). Charles Hawtrey played Mouse in all three productions.
Over the years there have been multiple radio broadcasts of The Box of Delights, most of which were adapted by John Keir Cross (1914-1967) – a prolific writer, radio adaptor and broadcaster. He presented a radio book club in 1951, which suggested books for family reading, and Connoisseurs of Crime, which explored crime novels and real life cases with detective authors. He also wrote the first radio adaptations of Pamela Brown’s theatrical novels for children, The Swish of the Curtain and Maddy Alone in 1944. *
In 1966, John Keir Cross told the Radio Times that “Some twenty years ago I wrote a serial version of The Box of Delights, and still, to this day, I am asked when it might be repeated. Recently, writing a script for The Archers, I made a passing reference to this unusual tale; and from all over the world came letters from its secret addicts who wanted to know if it was still in print – as in fact it is.”
It seems that The Box of Delights secret addicts club is still alive and thriving. Every year, the cry that The Wolves are Running goes up – and people join in the adventures of Kay Harker once again.
* I found out about radio adaptations thanks to the wonderful BBC Genome Project which gives BBC listings information from the Radio Times between 1923-2009.