Sunday 25 October 2020

Book Review: Opening the Box of Delights

It's that time of year where, as the leaves start to clutter our gardens and the days become shorter and colder, we need a dose of comfort more than ever. And, for many of us, this comfort can be found in The Box of Delights. Starting life as a 1935 novel written by John Masefield, The Box of Delights is a good old fashioned fantasy adventure which pits schoolboy Kay Harker against the evil machinations of Abner Brown. A popular book on its initial release, it found a new lease of life in 1984 when the BBC adapted the series for Christmas. And a new book written by Philip W. Errington lifts the lid on both Masefield and his most famous novel.

Almost everyone reading this blog will have watched The Box of Delights at least once; truth be told, it's more likely that multiple viewings will be the case. Either way, with a thoroughly charming cast and a thrillingly imaginative story, it's hard to deny the series' appeal. Throw in some cutting edge special effects - for the BBC in the mid-1980s - and it's an intriguing brew of everything that the venerable TV enthusiast could want. But the story behind both the television and Masefield's novel has tended to fall by the wayside. Thankfully, Opening the Box of Delights pieces together the definitive story.

Regarded as one of the leading authorities on John Masefield, Philip W. Errington has crafted an exhaustive look at the life of Masefield. In fact, it could easily masquerade as a full on biography for a writer who not only worked in a British hospital for French soldiers in World War One, but also served as Poet Laureate for a record breaking 37 years. Errington dissects and analyses Masefield's career with a forensic detail that takes in his earliest experiences training in the Navy through to his down-and-out years in New York and onto his burgeoning writing career. And significant space in the book is dedicated to the genesis and release of The Box of Delights. It's a study which leaves no stone unturned. And this allow Errington to sum up a definitive history of the novel.

The final section of the book is dedicated towards the 1984 BBC adaptation, along with short sections on its various audio incarnations, and again provides a comprehensive wealth of information. Most interesting are the sections that look at how The Box of Delights came to be on our screens. Part of a long running campaign to adapt the novel, the BBC had first floated the idea in the 1970s. However, it was not until the early 1980s that the project began to gain traction. And Errington covers this in great detail pulling quotes from producer Paul Stone and director Renny Rye. Time is also devoted to covering smaller, yet crucial details such as location lists, commercial releases (there was even a rare Betamax video) and press coverage. It is, quite simply, a fantastic companion to the TV series.

Errington's book is subtitled as "A stunning visual celebration" and this is the final seal of quality for the publication. Original manuscripts of Masefield's work are featured alongside archive photos of the man himself and wonderfully obscure promotional materials for the television series. The visual contributions help to colour Errington's study and prevent it from falling into the trap of becoming too academic. The project has clearly been a labour of love for Errington and his dedication to digging out this accompanying material can only be applauded.

A superb book for anyone interested in finding out more about John Masefield and the TV series, Opening the Box of Delights is available from DLT Books from 29th October 2020.

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