First Published in 1935, The Box of Delights – John Masefield’s sequel to his earlier book, The Midnight Folk – has enjoyed many adaptations over the past 85 years. These have tended to be of excellent quality, so much so that for many, if not most who know it, The Box of Delights isn’t really a book, but instead a beloved television series produced by the BBC in 1984.
Now Big Finish have thrown their Christmas cracker paper hat into the ring with an audio adaptation penned by Christopher William Hill. It’s familiar territory for Hill, who was responsible for the excellent BBC Radio adaptation of The Midnight Folk, and he brings that deeper understanding of the characters and the world Masefield created to bear.
The respect shown for the original story, as well as the various adaptations that fans have come to love, is clear. For example, the opening of each episode uses The First Nowell section from the Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchinson. First used in the Children’s Hour adaptation in 1943, it’s a piece that manages to go from unsettling and sinister to heralding the arrival of Christmas in less than a bar. Not using it would have felt like a betrayal, and hearing those opening notes is like a reassuring hug.
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That appreciation of the responsibility an adaptation like this creates is evident throughout. At almost five hours, this is a lengthy production. Fortunately, it’s broken up into ten separate parts. If you can resist bingeing – which isn’t going to be easy – this feels like the ideal treat for putting on as you wrap presents and prepare food during the run up to Christmas. That extra time has allowed Hill to explore the source material far more deeply than other adaptations. There’s more 1930’s slang, more moments of magic, and more reasons to fall in love with the story.
Big Finish have again drawn on their regular stable of amazing talent, but it’s rare to see so many of their big guns in one production; another mark of how seriously this has been taken. Mack Keith-Roach and Lizzie Waterworth-Santo are brilliant as Kay and Peter, respectively. There is a warmth and friendship between them that elevates their characters from two-dimensional protagonists to people we care about, wonderfully heightening the tension when danger threatens, and making it easier to smile when their idiosyncrasies come out.
Derek Jacobi brings a nuanced warmth to the role of Cole Hawlings. The affable Punch & Judy man-cum-immortal magician needs to be someone we easily trust, and Jacobi plays the part wonderfully. Clare Corbett’s rebellious Maria sounds rather too much like an adult doing an impression of Violet Elizabeth Bott from the Just William TV series. It’s fine, but doesn’t gel with the rest of the production, especially when heard alongside Deeivya Meir’s far more naturalistic Susan.
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Louise Jameson, Nicholas Pegg, and Damian Lynch make up Abner’s gang of Pouncer, Charlie, and Chubby Joe. The trio create a near pantomime level of villainy, and it’s almost impossible to really dislike them, which is exactly what is needed. Lynch is particularly good value playing the part of the slow-witted lackey, wringing every drop of humour from an already funny character.
Three relatively small but vital roles have been cast with excellent actors able to bring the necessary punch to what they are doing. Tim Bentinck gives us a loveable, bumbling, yet ultimately heroic Inspector, and hearing David Warner’s turn as Arnold of Todi is nothing short of a joy. A favourite of the Big Finish regulars, Mina Anwar uses her natural warmth and humor to bring a likeable believability to the much put upon character of Ellen.
Lisa Bowerman as Caroline Louisa has little to do other than sound posh and unflappable, but she does do that well, while the rest of the voice cast perform an amazing job, ensuring we continue to believe and enjoy the whole experience. The best has been left to last, and Mark Gatiss deserves nothing short of a knighthood for his outstanding work as the main baddie, Abner Brown. Practically chewing on every syllable he spits out, his portrayal is a worthy successor to Robert Stephens, which is as high a praise as can be given.
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But beyond the epic script and outstanding cast, the production values are sumptuous in their own right. An excellent soundscape creates detailed and rich images, though at times it can be a little jarring. For example, at one point popping chestnuts sounded more like gun-fire. But that small gripe aside, it’s a well realised world that draws you into it.
The soundtrack manages to be even better. Unobtrusive incidental music interweaves beautifully with rousing snippets of classic carols that provoke an immediate emotional response. It might occasionally stray a little too close to John Williams at Hogwarts territory, which can distract, but that’s entirely forgivable. One of the special features is an eleven minute long suite of the music, which should become your go to soundtrack when out Christmas shopping. It’s clear that director Barnaby Edwards knows exactly what he wants to achieve: nostalgia for a time none of us ever knew yet still remember.
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Along with the musical suite, you get to enjoy an hour long behind the scenes special feature, full of information and interviews that starts with the heartwarming revelation that the idea of using Derek Jacobi in a children’s Christmas story sparked the entire project. It only gets better from there.
Released in June, that is not the time to enjoy this story unless you are a die-hard fan. But cometh the hour, cometh the man or, in this case, cometh the season, cometh the audio adaptation. This is old fashioned, perfect Christmas fare. A spiffing world of adventures had by young people with received pronunciation between sumptuous meals of potted meat sandwiches and pop. Local bobbies, crisp snow, and parcels wrapped with brown paper and string. It’s a joy to visit, and we’re reluctant to leave. Edwards has presented us with a version that is true to the spirit of the book, respects and builds on adaptations past, and conjures joyful memories and wishes for Christmases long gone.
If you’re not happy with Big Finish’s Box of Delights, well that’s just the Purple Pim!
The Box of Delights is out now from Big Finish.