Tuesday 4 December 2018

A musical Box of Delights

Daren Thomas, friend and fellow Whovian with whom I attended the Doctor Who Experience (DWE), follows up his Christmas television post from 2012 with a review of the newly announced Silva Screen soundtrack release for The Box of Delights. Let's hope it's not so long next time, eh? Time and tide and buttered eggs wait for no man...

Guest post by Daren Thomas

Christmas is jammed full with its little traditions that permeate so many areas of our lives and go far beyond the putting up of trees, decorations or exchanging of gifts. It’s not all about guzzling down copious amounts of alcohol, mince pies or sprouts either (okay, well, maybe it is). But Christmas can also be a time for reflection, too. We are often looking back to the magical happy holidays of the past, especially when it comes to the television, films and music we consume…. Suddenly, regular Satellite channels offer Christmas themed programming 24-7. Whilst, the likes of Netflix cram a yuletide playlist full of treats that we all love to see time and time again, as the holidays draw near. Whether it’s an ‘Only Fools’, ‘Morecambe and Wise’, ‘Elf’ or ‘Home Alone’, we all have our favourites, that can often hark back to our childhood.

One programme is often talked about on social media, sometimes even as early as November! This is when many begin their yearly episodic watch of a classic BBC children’s six-part series from the mid-1980s. The Box of Delights is an adaptation of the book by the once Poet Laureate, John Masefield and it is a charming children’s fantasy adventure positively brimming with an old school Christmas feel from start to finish.

Our plucky young hero Kay Harker (Devin Stanfield) returns home for the holidays. En route meets an old Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, played by ex-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton. Hawlings entrusts Kay with his magical box of delights, as he tries to keep it from the clutches of the evil Abner Brown (played with theatrical aplomb and relish by Sir Robert Stephens). Kay’s fantastical adventures with the mystical box is an utter joy.

The music used in The Box of Delights underpins the story perfectly, with its atmospheric Christmas themed soundtrack, combining sounds which echo so many other magical children’s dramas of the past. This is because the music is provided by none other than Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. His work as an electronic musician has included stories for Doctor Who in the 1980s, as well as many other children’s dramas, like ‘The December Rose’, ‘Aliens In The Family’ and the stories found in the children’s programme ‘Look And Read’, as part of the Schools and Colleges strand.

This soundtrack has now finally been made available to buy via Silva Screen records, under the guiding hand of fellow Radiophonic composer Mark Ayres, who has remastered it for this wonderful release. The 50-track CD also contains Richard Harvey’s ‘Christmas Day In The Morning’ (a synthesised re-working of ‘I Saw Three Ships’). This music accompanied the dancing children at a special Christmas party hosted by the Bishop of Tatchester within the story.

The collection also contains an eight-minute segment of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s ‘Carol Symphony’, performed by the Pro-Arte Orchestra. Its version of ‘The First Nowell’ is used as the theme tune and has become somewhat synonymous with The Box of Delights, being first used for its earlier radio adaptations too. The piece was issued as a theme tune by BBC Records on vinyl in 1984, but here the actual televised opening and closing themes are presented for the very first time. The original piece by the Pro-Arte Orchestra is finished with additional electronic notes, which eases us into the soundtrack for the story.

This CD has many highlights and from ‘The Time That Likings Are Made’ onwards, we are wistfully transported into the fantasy of the story.

Beautiful harp-like sounds not only rekindle the identifiable motifs from the theme tune continually throughout, but they also underpin the music in pieces like ‘A Mountain In Switzerland’, which accompanies Cole Hawlings enchanted departure from Kay’s house with the ingenious use of a painting on the wall. They also appear in the early parts of the track ‘King Arthur's Camp’. This piece nicely builds using medieval like percussion, which highlights Kay’s urgent attempts to escape the wolves and his journey back in time, where he fights them off with the use of a broadsword.

The piece ‘The Box Of Delights’ combines atmospheric electronic soundscapes which provide a mystical feel to the magic used by Hawlings. The music swirls as Kay whooshes into the night sky, escaping the danger of the wolves by using the box to go swift.

The more traditional brass sounds in ‘Towards Dawn’ herald the start of a new day as Kay and Peter wade through waist-high snow, where they witness Cole’s kidnap by Abner’s evil henchmen. Then, the later ‘Snowman’ provides a small fun lighter respite, as the children build a snowman before it then descends into a snowball fight.

‘Herne The Hunter’ takes us on Kay’s journey into the Box itself and his meeting with this mythical character. Horns and the drumming of hooves sound as the two become animated Stags in the wood, whilst a more uplifting electronic tune accompanies their second change into flying ducks. Finally, the ambient and echoing electronic water sounds follow them as they become fish in the river, whilst all the time being pursued by the wolves.

The upbeat jaunty synths contained in ‘Go Swift’, ‘In The Darkest Cellars Underneath’ and ‘The Spider In The Web’ have a familiar similarity to some of Roger’s work on the early part of the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who. Whilst the darker edged themes found in pieces like ‘Dreams’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ may remind many of the fifth Doctor’s swan song and the sixth Doctor’s battle with Daleks in the creepy crypts of Necros.

Kay’s trip back into the past once again beautifully blends the more orchestrated feel with an ethereal almost Jean Michel-Jarre like synths, as Kay is magically pushed along the animated sea to the island to find Arnold of Todi.

‘Under My Hand’ and ‘Slave Of The Night’ both offer yet more unnerving synthesised atmospherics to eerie animated creatures of the night, as Abner’s plan is put into play and the climax of the story is fast approaching. Things are then brought to a close as we go full circle with ‘Home For The Holidays’.

For those interested in soundtracks, especially fans of electronic and radiophonic work will find lots here to enjoy. Similarly, the music has now, certainly for me, become as iconic as the adaptation itself. It simply is Christmas and it is both beautiful, very characterful and brimming with those little yuletide moments that send shivers down your spine. The CD is released on the 14th of December and is available to pre-order at all normal sites, as well as directly from Silva Screen. Go take this literal musical box of delights home with you this Christmas.

You can pre-order The Box of Delights OST from Amazon.co.uk (affiliate link).

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