The Box of Delights
“I prefer stories to be touched with beauty and strangeness; I like them to go on for a long time, in a river of narrative; and I like tributaries to come in upon the main stream, and exquisite bays and backwaters to open out, into all of which the mind can go exploring after one has learned the main stream.”
So wrote John Masefield in 1944 and his description fits perfectly his two most famous stories for children, The Midnight Folk (1927) and its sequel The Box of Delights (1935).
In these free-wheeling chronicles of the adventures of schoolboy, Kay Harker, fantasy and reality, past and present, magic and mystery, history and legend, meet and mingle, and the age-old battle between dark and light is engaged. Generally acknowledged as ‘classics’ they may well be about to find a new wider audience as a result of the BBC TV six-part adaptation of The Box of Delights which begins on 21 November.
We talked to Paul Stone, Executive Producer of the series, about translating Masefield from page to screen.
Like many others Paul Stone missed out on The Box of Delights as a child. ‘I encountered it first eight years ago. As soon as I read it I wanted to make it for television. It’s an amazing and singular mixture of adventure story and poetic myth and the writing is packed with visual imagery. It seemed to me that television is uniquely able to translate those qualities from one medium to another and that if we could get it right it would be a service to the book and to us. I wanted to capture the sheer magic of the book in all senses.’ It took five years of negotiation and planning before he could make a start. First of all the rights had to be secured from the Masefield Trust. ‘At one point it was going to be made as a Hollywood feature film; but eventually we got the go-ahead, mainly, I think because they had faith in our integrity.’
It is the phenomenal technical advances that television has made in the last ten years in electronic effects and animation that have made this a possibility, technical advances which Paul Stone is quick to point out have in many cases been pioneered by the BBC. Kay’s struggle against the evil Abner Brown (who in his 1935 form appears as Father Boddledale, principal of a training college for missionaries) take him flying through time and space; he shrinks to Tom Thumb size for, among other things, a hair-raising journey on a toy boat, encounters talking animals and amazing flying cars. ‘It was an enormous challenge to our Special Effects department and was two years in the planning.’ At the beginning Alan Seymour, who wrote the script, was in two minds about whether it was possible if he had to lose some of the most magical scenes. ‘We said to him. “Don’t leave anything out. Put in whatever you think we need and we’ll find a way of doing it.”‘
It is, claims Paul Stone, a very faithful adaptation given the discipline imposed by six thirty-minute episodes and the need to point up the narrative thread. It is faithful in other ways too.
Masefield set his stories in places he knew well as a child. Seekings, the house in Condicote where Kay lives with his guardian, Caroline Louisa, to which he is returning at the beginning of the story for the Christmas holidays after his first term away at school, is The Priory, Masefield’s grandfather’s house next to the church in Ledbury, where the Masefields came to live when John was six. Tatchester, the cathedral town, scene of Kay’s triumphal return, is Hereford. Abner Brown’s house is one Masefield ‘found’ deep in the Cotswolds, with a lake and a sluice.
The BBC searched exhaustively for matching locations. ‘The house we used for Seekings is not the original but it bears a striking resemblance to it. We also filmed in Ledbury and the Cotswolds. The final scene we shot in Tewkesbury Abbey – it wasn’t possible to use Hereford cathedral – with the full choir. It’s magical.’
The story moves through cold, snowy landscapes, across dark wintry skies to the final glowing affirmation of the cathedral ablaze with light on Christmas Eve. In search of snow the crew and cast went to Scotland last January and got rather more than they reckoned on. There were blizzards and temperatures well below zero. ‘We just got Kay’s pony through before the last road was closed. It was so cold the snow machine froze up and so did the propane gas for the log fires. We were marooned but magically the blizzard stopped and left us with a marvellous winter sky – just what we wanted.’
The TV version is set firmly in the book’s original period, 1935, and according to Paul Stone, Devin Stanfield, the 12-year-old boy selected to play 13-year-old Kay Harker, has a ‘look of a schoolboy from the thirties.’ He also has ‘a clear understanding of the story and the issues involved.’
No doubt the BBC’s reputation for nostalgic period pieces and a strong cast which includes Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings (the Punch and Judy Man who entrusts the mysterious Box to Kay) and Robert Stephens as evil Abner Brown will help to sell The Box of Delights abroad (the USA has already taken it) – very necessary if the BBC and its British co-producer Lella Productions are to recoup the one million plus pounds they have spent making it.
Paul Stone will be happy if when we watch the final episode on Christmas Eve we share a sense of the magic, the poetry and the many-layered appeal which drew him to the book in the first place.
To coincide with the TV series Heinemann and Fontana are publishing The Box of Delights in a new abridged edition. Patricia Crampton who produced the new version writes about the task which she saw essentially as
CHOPPING NOT CHANGING
It’s odd that in a childhood particularly rich in books Masefield’s two great children’s books, The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights never reached me. It was my husband in our courting days who introduced me to Midnight Folk and I was left, as these things go, to read Box of Delights to myself. All this happened over 25 years ago, but they left an impression so strong that the request from Heinemann to abridge The Box of Delights was ridiculously exciting; no less so the later one from Fontana Lions to do the same kind of thing with The Midnight Folk.
The same kind of thing but, as far as working methods went, not the same thing. Box of Delights has always seemed to me the weaker, less unified book of the two; but with the exotic scenes Kay visits through the Box, and its wealth of characters it is a natural for a TV serial, and Alan Seymour, the scriptwriter, has clearly revelled in it. Given that my version was to be a ‘tie-in’ it was of the first importance to observe his selections and deletions and I followed closely the script which was supplied by Heinemann. Kay’s meeting with Cole Hawlings, the bearer of the Box who in his 1935 incarnation appears as a Punch and Judy Man, must therefore be the nub of the opening scene at the station where Kay changes trains. Masefield’s opening is more complicated with Kay mistaking two men (evil Abner’s associates) for detectives. Later, on the train, they reappear as curates. The abridged version dispenses with the ‘detectives’ episode altogether and Kay’s meeting with the ‘curates’ with its first hints of evil doings is sandwiched between his two encounters with Cole. I think this makes for a stronger opening chapter.
Equally it was Alan Seymour who gave me the confirmation I needed that the idiosyncratically Masefieldian vocabulary could be retained. There are two examples – ‘the crink’ and ‘rumpaged’ – as early as the second page of the abridged Box. I was often grateful for this in the course of both books; it’s quite easy to be discouraged from such practices these days but we really would be the poorer for the loss of ‘scrobbling’. On the other hand it would have been wrong to introduce into the text anything that was not already there, even where the film script differed very slightly from the book. At one point in the film for instance, in King Arthur’s camp, Arthur’s sword comes into Kay’s hand when the Wolves break through the defences. There is no such sword in the book, and none has appeared in the abridged version. However film and abridged book are very close indeed and I am quite sorry that the abridged version of Midnight Folk had to be brought out at the same time as The Box. What if the BBC decides to film Midnight Folk later on? The scriptwriter’s selections and deletions are unlikely to coincide with mine! For both books the idea was to cut about 25,000 words, reducing the whole from 80,000 to 55,000. Because I had based the abridgement of The Box on the film script it turned out that my cutting had resulted in much more than a taking-up of slack (something that I think any modern editor would in any case have done with Masefield’s two books before publication) and I was horrified, in what was intended as the semi-final version, to find myself some 15,000 words short. Continuity having been very carefully maintained while arriving at this version, with due regard for the balance of action, dialogue, and description (which had suffered the heaviest cuts in the earlier rounds) I crept back gingerly into my self-made maze of cuts and arrow signs, using a ‘2’ in green to signify reinstated passages. The equivalent of about 45 pages in blocks of 2-7 lines, was restored to the amputated book.
Excisions came in three main varieties. First candidates for chopping were descriptions which, though full of charm, were quite irrelevant to the story, where Masefield was apparently musing over a scene or historical fragment attractive to himself; a good example is Kay’s excursion into the Beast-Market and Tibb’s Wharf in search of Cole. Then I tend to cut very long elaboration’s such as the list of Christmas party gifts: ‘And then there were … most lovely … Then there were … And then . most splendid . . .’ and over-explicit dialogue for instance Caroline Louisa’s unnecessarily detailed explanation of her visit to London, cut from nine lines to three. I even got rid of the chauffeur, at first by name because Joe is also the name of one of the members of Abner’s gang, and then bodily, because he turned out to be redundant as a character.
With The Midnight Folk I was on my own. Word counts and squiggled calculations resulted in this cryptic message to myself: ‘200 11 in 28pp.’. This seemed to allow me enough licence to make no cuts at all on a good many of the pages while keeping a general balance throughout the book, and in fact only a few additional changes had to be made on the final read-through of the abridgement, generally on the grounds that there was a little leeway for replacement of some funny passages. Sometimes though there is a sterner REPLACE in the margin when it has become clear that a phrase or an item deleted has a vital part to play later in the book.
There are more deletions in Midnight Folk than in The Box of single words which would jar today such as ‘little’ Kay or the ‘Please’ with which he begins so many of his sentences which are not requests! or the constantly recurring ‘instantly’.
Will the books appeal to today’s children?
Well, sailing ships and governesses were not much more familiar to 7-9 year olds in 1927, when Midnight Folk was first published, than they are now. But, more important, loneliness has not changed and that is the root of Kay Harker’s magic world populated by the few people, animals and pictures he has around him in Midnight Folk. The Box of Delights is a different matter; Kay has his cousins (and his beloved guardian, in the background at least) which makes it more of a `family adventure’ sequel to the earlier book.
In The Cool Web Arthur Applebee reports a pleasant piece of dialogue with Jacqueline, aged 6.
‘Q: What story do you like?
Jacqueline: Peter Pan.
Q: Why do you like it?
Jacqueline: Because he’s a nice story
Q: Why is he a nice story?
Jacqueline: Because he can fly.’
The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights belong to that world, and its claim to children’s affection is obviously as strong as ever.
The Box of Delights, John Masefield abridged by Patricia Crampton, ill. Faith Jaques, Heinemann, 0 434 95052 1, £7.95 Fontana Lions, 0 00 672415 9, £1.50
The Midnight Folk, John Masefield abridged by Patricia Crampton, Fontana Lions, 0 00 672416 7, £1.50