Director Renny Rye was keen to cast Robert Stephens as Abner Brown, although given his reputation as a heavy drinker, this was seen as something of a gamble. Rye got his way though and Stephens was no trouble at all – and it’s his brooding performance which adds so much to the quality of The Box of Delights.
Stephens’ Abner is a man constantly on the edge (with only Sylvia being able to restrain him). It’s not subtle (it veers towards melodrama at times) but it’s perfectly in tune with the tone of the story – and he contrasts well with the apparently servile nature of Charles and Joe. Frankly, whenever Robert Stephens is on the screen, he tends to act everybody else off it.
Abner’s partner-in-crime is Sylvia Daisy Pouncer (Patricia Quinn). She was formally Kay’s governess and has a low opinion of the boy. “That little ruffian. He was a child for whom I had the utmost detestation and contempt. A thoroughly morbid, dreamy, idle muff!”.
Events take an unexpected turn when Maria (Joanna Dukes) turns up at Abner’s rooms. Dukes gives a lovely performance throughout as a girl who appears to have been thoroughly influenced by the latest gangster films (“I’ve generally got a pistol or two on me and I’m a dead shot with both hands”). Is this the reason why Abner thinks she’ll make a good recruit and decides to scrobble her? Logically it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but arguing about logic and The Box of Delights is rather fruitless.
The Christmas celebrations at the Bishop’s palace at Tatchester are delightful – and it’s a chance for the story to stop for a few moments to enable us to enjoy the Christmas mise-en-scene. But the news that they had a break-in during the party (Abner’s gang looking for the Box) highlights that danger isn’t far away.
Since Abner doesn’t know who has the Box (he discounts Kay as surely nobody would entrust such a precious artifact to a boy like that) he goes through all the other possibilities. It doesn’t seem to be the Bishop, so maybe Hawlings gave it to Kay’s guardian – Caroline Louisa?
Caroline Louisa’s disappearance en-route from London seems to suggest she’s been scrobbled by Abner, although a telegram for her seems to solve that problem. There’s still the question about what’s happened to Maria, but Kay and the others apparently forget about her and decide to sail Kay’s new toy boat instead.
Charles, Joe and some others are after them though, so Kay uses the Box to reduce them all in size, enabling them to sail the toy boat down the stream. It’s an endearing sequence (the CSO looks as effective as CSO always used to do, i.e. not always terribly convincing) but it does work – especially at the end when the boat and its tiny occupants are facing a literal cliffhanger.
Next Up – Episode Four – The Spider in the Web