I'll be giving it to my nephew for Christmas, along with the original John Masefield novel. (It's a sequel to The Midnight Folk. Ah well.) No idea what he'll make of it, but it's what he'll be getting. To be on the safe side, I'll also throw in Labyrinth and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I've had this on my to-watch list for years, after reading this: "It's completely amazing. I mean, it's kids tv, but it's like 'David Lynch's CBBC Head Fuck Pre War Werewolf Magic Half Hour'."
This is accurate. I even have a feeling I might have watched the series on original broadcast, because I remember the music... but I'd remembered nothing whatsoever about the story. This is because it defies description. I've just finished watching (rewatching?) the thing and I couldn't tell you what happens in it. There's magical stuff. There are villains. Beyond that, um.
IMPRESSIONISTIC PLOT SUMMARY
A child actor who's not actually that bad gets on a steam train in a downright lavish period recreation of 1934. Lovely vintage cars. Children who say, "golly, I am stupid." It almost looks Dickensian. Anyway, the boy meets two oily clergymen, who con him out of money.
Our hero also meets lots of facial hair. Buried deep inside this is Patrick Troughton, playing a magical character who's a friend to children and hundreds of years old. Good casting idea, that. Troughton also has a day job: Punch and Judy puppet shows. You can invite him to set up his booth and perform in your living room, which looks surreal and will remind you again that:
(a) TV really did change the world, didn't it?
(b) Satan threatening to drag Mr Punch to hell is suitable family entertainment.
Oh, and Mr Punch's face in the show's opening title credits is the most sinister-looking bit (for me) in a sinister sequence.
Troughton tells a clergyman that he's been doing this "ever since pagan times", then departs into a painting. This is achieved in part with hand-drawn animation. This show's SFX and visual quality in general are ridiculously lavish for 1984, although unfortunately I can't promise that your DVD will have restored picture quality.
There's some awesome snow. Older readers might remember that it used to snow properly even in the South of England in those days. Incomprehensible things happen. Eventually wolves chase a horse-riding boy towards a burning fort. We appear to have gone back in time. The horse flies up like an airplane, the boy goes over the fort walls and it appears to be 1000 AD or so. Roll end credits.
This continues in ep.2 with bloodless CBBC-friendly wolf-killing with swords. Herne the Hunter and our hero turn into deer, birds, fish and then deer again. The Box of Delights lets you shrink and talk to a mouse (which for once is a man in a mouse costume, not hand-drawn animation). The boy flies away from rats, then in ep.3 shrinks all his friends so that they can ride a toy boat. None of them express any surprise at this and treat it as an everyday occurrence. In ep.4, he visits the Trojan wars and the Greeks decide that he's a spy because he doesn't have a shadow.
Slowly, painfully, it occurs to you that there's actually been a straightforward CBBC story alongside all this. There are some cartoonish villains (who were also in The Midnight Folk) who squabble a lot and at one point capture and interrogate a bloodthirsty girl who likes gangsters and pirates. Meanwhile our heroes do quite a lot of magical sneaking, escaping and running around. They shrink and fly. That Box of Delights is handy. I can see how that would be exciting and fun for the target audience, although this almost never accomplishes anything. On a functional dramatic level, this six-part series is the story of some baddies who basically defeat themselves.
Finally, in the end, it was all a dream.
The acting's good. This means "an acceptable level of dodginess" in the child actors and "only hamming it up in a good way" from the villains. (The children cope rather well with some outrageously archaic dialogue, for instance. "Splendiferous!" "Gosh!" They also seem relatable, despite looking so upper-class to modern eyes that they might as well be aliens. They have servants and chauffeurs. "I say, James, stop at the shop so I can buy some muffins!") Meanwhile James Grout made me laugh as the conjuring-loving police inspector. The bloodthirsty little girl was also good, I thought, successfully and convincingly being an extreme type. Troughton isn't on-screen as much as you might be hoping.
I'm intrigued by the religious undertones. The story's riddled with Christmas and has clergyman villains kidnapping real clergymen and so threatening a thousanth Christmas church service! Churchgoing and Christian iconography is all over ep.6. It ends with a hymn to Christ the Lord. However this is side by side with Herne the Hunter, magicians, medieval philosophers and Troughton wielding his puppets since pagan times. Our hero time-travels back past Christian times, both within Britain and further (the Greeks and the Trojans). As for science, the only person to mention that is James Grout and that's for comedy. "Now that is how science helps the law!"
It also has music by Roger Limb, so it often sounds a lot like his Doctor Who stories. I was particularly reminded of Caves of Androzani.
To be honest, I don't know if I'd necessarily call it that good. There's not enough connection between the children's magical antics and what we'll tentatively call the plot. However the story's so flamboyantly mental that I feel like a heel for suggesting that. It's more of an experience than a story. There's a talking bronze head! It has people being "scrobbled". It has Patricia Quinn vamping it up (for a CBBC definition of "vamping"). It's loopy.
What were the wolves, though? Why were they running?