Archive for November, 2021

Photo of the CD boxset of Big FInish's audio version of the Box of Delights

I’ve been a fan of John Masefield’s magical festive story The Box of Delights since first seeing the BBC TV version in 1984, which led me on to the original book and its prequel The Midnight Folk. More recently rewatching the TV version every year in the run up to Christmas has become a festive tradition in my household.

So it was with great interest to me when Big Finish announced that they were coming out with a full cast audio version of the story. I’ve enjoyed their Doctor Who and other audio dramas for many years, admiring the good stories and listening experience. So it was a no brainer to buy this, especially with the cast.

The audio version of the story runs for 5 hours and has an hour of additional extra interviews on top. The 5 hours of the main story are split into 10 half hour episodes, each with the classic Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony music that has become so associated with the tale. The director is Barnaby Edwards, and the story was adapted by Christopher William Hill.

The cast is strong. Cole Hawlings is played by Derek Jacobi. Young actor Mack Keith-Roach takes on the pivotal part of Kay Harker. The chief baddie Abner Brown is played by Mark Gatiss. And other parts are played by a large cast, including acting stalwarts like Annette Badland, Louise Jameson and David Warner.

The story is set in the 1930s, when a young boy returning home for the holidays finds himself unexpectedly in a festive tale of a magic box and its mysterious owner, good versus bad, old versus new magic, and so much more besides.

To get to the point I very much enjoyed listening to the audio. It was refreshing to hear a different version of the story, albeit one that shares much in common with the TV version that I adore. In many cases the audio version was closer to the original book, but significantly it made a number of important changes.

First among these is the role of the character Peter, who is sidelined for much of the original book and TV versions. Here this does not happen, and he plays an important role throughout, alongside Kay. This is an astute choice on the part of the adapter, given the audio medium, and allowing the two boys to describe what they are seeing, and thinking and doing, in a way that isn’t necessary in either the book or TV versions, but that helps audio listeners immensely.

Another wise choice by the adapter was to increase the role and agency of a number of the supporting characters, especially the maid Ellen and the mysterious White Lady. The “Bloodhound of the Law” was also given welcome extra scenes.

I also approved of tweaks to the sleigh ride scene, and a marvellous parting scene at the very end of the story, which was extremely emotional and very effective, and not in either book or TV. Also marvellously acted. Thank you.

Less successfully a number of the scenes needed a more radical adaptation, being difficult to visualise on audio. I’m particularly thinking of the early wolves at the camp scene, which was chaotic to listen to, even for someone who knows the original well. Likewise the later Wolf Guard scene is also tricky to visualise, as to an extent is the action in the cellars underneath Chesters. Though the Wild Wood and ancient Greece/Turkey sections are well handled in audio form.

Of the cast I would particularly praise the Kay and Abner actors, both of which were extremely strong. I enjoyed Derek Jacobi’s performance, and he did sound twinkly, but the very extended running time (5 hours versus TV version 3 hours) meant that it was painfully aware how absent Cole is from much of the story.

The extras at the end are interesting, but feel somewhat indulgent in length. However it was interesting to hear how the story adaptation was approached, and I especially enjoyed the input of the young Kay actor talking about his part.

In terms of cost the audio box is expensive. Currently £44.99 for CD+download version, or £39.99 for download version only. The download is in e.g. MP3 you can download to your computer or play via the Big Finish app. It was lower cost on first release, and the price direct from Big Finish is occasionally lower in special offers. However for something that you can enjoy listening to potentially multiple times in future it is probably not too unfair a price. Certainly being a full cast audio with a very large cast and an extremely long run time would increase the cost, and the CD boxset version is a particularly nice item, perhaps to gift to a friend or relative. Note the 6-disc CD version can be bought elsewhere, e.g. from other online etc. retailers, or ordered via independent booksellers. The download (with or without CD) is exclusive to Big Finish.

I would recommend this audio to existing Box fans as well as to fans of good audios and festive dramas in general. For the former though do go into it knowing that it’s different from the TV and book versions, and enjoy it for what it is. To read more about the audio release see the Big Finish product page for it.

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