It is thirty years this year since the BBC adaptation of John Masefield's 'The Box of Delights' entranced a generation of school children. I remember racing home through the snow to sit beside the fire after school, completely bewitched by the magical special effects which brought paintings to life and turned boys into wild stags, fish and birds.
The sequel to 'The Midnight Folk' was published in 1935, and tells the tale of school boy Kay Harker returning to his aunt's house for the Christmas holidays. As discussed last month, this is another classic children's tale where the care of a maiden aunt and absent parents opens the door to freedom and adventure. Aided by 'those blessed Jones'', Kay helps Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings protect a magic box from Abner Brown and his band of scoundrels. It is a tale that sweeps back to Pagan times, populated by magical characters like Herne the Hunter, and creatures including a talking rat with a penchant for green cheese and a phoenix conjured from the fire in the Drop of Dew pub. Sleighs are drawn not by cutesy reindeers but fleets of lions and unicorns.
At its heart, it is a tale of good versus evil, and Masefield (then the poet laureate), wrote in dreamy poetic prose of snow-bound adventures which have spoken to generation after generation of children. Radio adaptations in the forties and fifties led on to the 1984 TV series, starring Patrick Troughton, a gloriously evil Robert Stephens and Patricia Quinn. Add a mesmerising theme by Victor Hely Hutchinson, and the spell was cast:
A recent Folio edition is on my wish list, although my original battered paperback is as much a loved memento of schooldays as the falling apart at the spine pink Puffin Book of Verse. I just discovered that the forward to this new edition is by HG's own Adele Geras, so I'd love to read her thoughts on this most favourite of tales. Each year, it is as much a part of our celebrations as new pyjamas on Christmas Eve, and Nativity services when home.
Growing up in an isolated village between the Devon moors, the countryside scenes shot in Herefordshire and the surroundings seemed familiar. The 1930s slang and costumes were not too far off from our sheltered experience, and living in a landscape populated by stone circles and tales of magical creatures, the idea of bumping into Herne the Hunter was not beyond the realms of possibility. It now seems beyond dated to my children - they humour me for half an hour each Christmas then slink away as I indulge in a time 'when the wolves were running'. It seems impossible that it is thirty years old - do any of the HGs remember this, or earlier versions? There are rumblings of a big screen Hollywood adaptation, but I rather hope they'll let this jewel alone.
Wishing you all a wonderful Festive Season, and a peaceful New Year - which books are essential reading for you at this time of the year?