Schoolboy Kay Harker is going home for the Christmas holidays. On the train he meets Cole Hawlings (Patrick Troughton), a travelling Punch and Judy man who claims to be Older Than He Looks, and two clergymen with long names who rob him then turn into wolves.
When he gets back home he finds himself landed with the Jones Children who have been abandoned by their parents, and later the nefarious Abner Brown who wants to find Hawlings and steal his Box of Delights. Fortunately Hawlings escapes into a painting on a donkey, meets Kay in a dream and gives him the box. But all is still not well.
On his way to saving Christmas (or the Christmas celebration at Tatchester Cathedral) Kay meets giant mice, Pagan Gods, an evil governess, a cult, a boy in a waterfall and a Caroplane-Aeroplane.
The Box of Delights is a cult Christmas classic to the point where many people know whole sections off by heart. It's comparable to early Doctor Who (for more than one reason) if it had been directed by David Lynch in a good mood. It's also similar, if only in tone, to the BBC Narnia adaptations which were made around the same time and also for Christmas showings.
Fans are known as Boxers and can be recognised by their reactions to mentions of the Purple Pim. The haunting theme music is an excerpt from Victor Hely-Hutchinson's "Carol Symphony" - the full symphony can be found here - the sequence used in the series starts around the 12:30 mark.
The series contains examples of:
- Actor Allusion: Cole Hawlings is Really 700 Years Old, possesses supernatural Powers and a Box that seems to be Bigger on the Inside, at least occasionally. This Box may also be used for Time Travel. The fact that The Second Doctor is recognizable under all that beard should surprise no-one.
- Adaptation Species Change: In the books, Kay’s guardian Caroline Louisa is a supernatural figure who first appears in order to protect Kay from the villains. In the series (owing to her reduced role) she’s a normal human woman and oblivious to the magical goings-on.
- Age-Appropriate Angst: Completely missing. Scrobbled Governess? Robbers in your house? Golly, don't be pathetic!
- All Just a Dream: The very last scene has Kay waking up on the train he was on at the beginning of the story.
- Or Was It a Dream?: Although at least two of the people he dreamed about are still around...
- Arc Words: "The wolves are running."
- Badass Normal: Everyone unless they aren't normal
- Bad Habits: In public Abner Brown disguises himself as a doctor of divinity, and his henchmen as curates.
- Bag of Kidnapping: Used on Maria at the end of her kidnapping, when the kidnappers decide to let her go, so she can't see where she was being held.
- Bastard Understudy: Fox-Faced Charles runs off with Abner's loot — and his wife — at the end.
- Bloodless Carnage: In a scene where several people with swords are fighting off wolves, the wolves are never onscreen during or after being hit with a sword, and the swords never get any blood on them.
- Cassandra Truth: If Abner had taken Joe's suggestion seriously that Kay Harker might have the box, the story may have turned out very differently.
- Casts No Shadow: Kay, when he travels to the past to find Arnold of Todi. (Although there are moments when his shadow isn't as invisible as it's supposed to be.) It seems to be an inherent effect of travelling to the past; Master Arnold, when he catches up to him, doesn't have a shadow either.
- The Cavalry Arrives Late: In the final episode, the police decide that there might after all be something to what Kay's been trying to tell them all along, and come to investigate the bad guys, too late to play any role in Abner's downfall (although they do provide appropriate help and hindrance, respectively, to fleeing hostages and henchmen).
- Christmas Carolers: The cathedral choir show up and sing carols outside Kay's house in the first episode. Apart from helping establish the atmosphere, their leader sets up some plot points by inviting Kay and his friends to a couple of diocesan Christmas events that will be important later.
- Cool Old Guy: Cole
- Continuity Nod: When Kay and Peter sneak into the grounds of Abner's house in Episode 4, Kay mentions that if it was properly maintained, they'd have seen evidence of a gamekeeper, pheasants or owls by now. In The Midnight Folk, Kay encountered just those things in a wood. The Oracular Head that Abner consults also made an appearance in The Midnight Folk.
- The Dog Bites Back: As Abner's minions mock him before fleeing with his loot, Joe caps it off by dropping a flour bomb on him, knocking him off the wall to his apparent death.
- Drowning Pit: Abner's dungeon is designed with a mechanism to flood it with water from the lake above; he triggers it in the last episode.
- Exact Words: Invoked by the Boy Under the Waterfall, when he told Abner Brown, "You will have the Box under your hand today." Abner later had it under his hand, but in a literal sense - a shrunk Kay Harker was hiding in his trouser turn-up.
- Exposition of Immortality: Abner explains his plans to Chubby Joe in his study, taking the time to show him and explain to him several medieval philosophy texts. Significantly, the textbooks have portraits of Arnold of Todi and Ramon Lully. Lully just happens to look exactly like Cole Hawlings.
- Flying Car: The "caroplane-aeroplane" which the villains get about in.
- For the Evulz: Abner uses powerful magic to try to prevent the cathedral's thousandth anniversary Christmas service from taking place. He doesn't stand to gain anything from this, he just knows it would make many people sad and wants to perform "one last great wickedness".
- Foreshadowing: Sylvia Daisy seems unusually insistent that Abner not get rid of Charles. She would be. They're having an affair.
- Funny Animal: Rat, Mouse, The Wolves in one scene, The Pirate Rats.
- Greed: Abner's downfall. In the penultimate episode, there's a moment when he considers calling a day and retiring comfortably with the loot he already has stashed away, but when it comes to it he can't resist the temptation of getting hold of the Box too.
- Inevitable Waterfall: While the children are shrunk down and sailing down the river on a toy boat, they have to shoot some rapids.
- Large Ham:
- Abner, Abner- "WHERE IS THE BOX?"
- Sylvia Pouncer, even more so. At least Abner has some quiet moments.
- MacGuffin: Averted for the box; Kay might be investigating it, but he needs it too.
- Minion with an F in Evil: Chubby Joe is crooked, but doesn't have the imagination to be really evil; when he's given access to one of Abner Brown's oracles, the best use he can think of for it is to ask for racing tips. And while he has no issues with burglary, bank robbery, and a reasonable amount of kidnapping, his conscience gives him trouble about scrobbling clergymen, particularly at Christmas time.
- Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Abner responds to Joe's hesitancy about kidnapping the clergymen by locking him in the dungeon and leaving him to die. When Joe gets out, he sets about releasing all the prisoners, and gets in a The Dog Bites Back moment before leaving.
- Mundane Made Awesome: For all the fuss that is made of the posset, it really adds nothing at all to the story.
- Not My Driver: Mariah gets kidnapped by a villain pretending to be a taxi driver.
- Oracular Head: Abner has a conversation with one. It tells him absolutely nothing useful, so he turns it upside down and starts yelling.
- Or Was It a Dream?: After a midnight adventure in which he fights off wolves with a sword and Cole Hawlings entrusts him with the magical Box, Kay wakes up in his bed and thinks he dreamed it until he realises he still has the Box.
- Police Are Useless: Kay frequently attempts to report the villains to the local police inspector, never to any useful effect; the inspector is easily taken in by the villain's masquerade of respectability. After one attempt, a frustrated Maria suggests that they phone Scotland Yard, but Scotland Yard just refers them back to their local police. The chief constable eventually decides that Kay's story might be worth investigating, but even so the police only show up in time to help mop up after the day has already been saved.
- Portal Picture: Cole turns a normal picture into one of these to escape.
- Portal to the Past: The Box can be used as one, but there's no guarantee of being able to return. The creator of the Box is said to have become trapped that way, although when Kay meets him, he says he stranded himself deliberately because he had become tired of the present.
- Ransacked Room: The children return from playing by the river to find that the house has been ransacked by the villains searching for the Box.
- Shell Game: Kay's first introduction to Charles and Joe is when they run the card version on him during the train journey, under the guise of warning him about the dangers of playing card games with strange men on trains.
- Synchro-Vox: Used to animate the Oracular Head.
- Tempting Fate: When Caroline Louisa, Kay's guardian, is called away in the first episode, she says that she doesn't suppose anything can go wrong while she's away. After all, who would cause trouble in the season of goodwill?