How we made Christmas classic The Box of Delights: ‘For the snow scenes, a fire engine followed us around squirting foam’

Renny Rye, director

When I was offered the directing job, the only condition was that I use The First Nowell from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony as the theme tune. It had featured on at least one of the earlier radio productions of John Masefield’s Christmas-set novel, and the producer remembered its magical effect. As soon as I heard it, I agreed it was perfect. Roger Limb from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop provided the incidental music. We were able to afford three or four traditional instruments, which he bulked out with synths, like he did with Doctor Who. That gave a nice ancient and modern feel that helped to tie in the more sci-fi elements with the sense of the story’s old magic.

Robert Stephens had listened to the 1940s radio adaptation and was keen to take part. He was playing one of the ugly sisters in the National Theatre’s first ever panto when I went to talk to him about playing the villain, Abner Brown. I was at the bar and he strode up in full costume and makeup and gave me a lipsticky kiss on the lips. When I met Patricia Quinn about playing Sylvia Daisy Pouncer I was unaware – or had forgotten – that she and Bob were a couple. She was able to marshal his drinking habits a little, though I think he may have been fuelled by vodka the night we shot Abner’s death scene. A stuntman had refused to do a second take and Bob said, “Oh, for God’s sake – I’ll do it,” and threw himself into the canal. He then insisted on doing a couple of widths just to prove that he could cope with it.

The series cost £1m, which was unheard of at the time for a children’s series

Julian Sands also loved the story and wanted to be involved, even though he’d just finished The Killing Fields and I’d already cast most of the parts. He just has one line as a Greek soldier. Nick Berry’s in there, too, as a pirate rat, just before he found fame in EastEnders.

I remember reading the script for the first episode, which includes Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings riding into a painting and Kay landing in a wolf-besieged Roman encampment on a flying pony, and thinking, “OK, how do we do that?” These things just weren’t possible in those days, but the technology was changing daily and the BBC was building an electronics workshop we were allowed to use. I ended up spending almost six months in there.

Not all the solutions were hi-tech and they included pantomime-style costumes and traditional animation. I knew that children’s imaginations would paper over the cracks. We could only afford four-frame animation, which gave a sort of slow-mo quality, but it’s quite dreamlike, which suited the narrative.

We had a couple of real wolves for the Roman camp scene, the rest were Belgian shepherds made up to look like wolves, but in both cases, it was difficult to get any shots where it looked as if they were attacking – we had people throwing them over the fence and would then try to get a quick shot before they ran away with their tails between their legs.

For the scenes with real snow, we shot in Scotland in January. But the snow was very late that year, and by the time I arrived for the week’s shooting we’d already ordered an expensive snow machine from Pinewood. Then there was a massive blizzard that meant most of the crew couldn’t make it over the border for days. We ended up having to shoot some scenes in the garden of the hotel, but when we did make it up into the hills, the landscape and the snowwere staggering.

The series cost £1m, which was unheard of at the time for a children’s series. I paid no attention to the budget, though – I would just ask if we could afford to do something and if not, I’d find another way.

It was broadcast on BBC1 in the six weeks before Christmas, with the final episode on Christmas Eve, and I know there are people who still watch it every year at this time. It’s very fondly remembered by a lot of people in their 40s - my granddaughter asked me the other day for a signed photo for her history teacher. It’s his favourite show ever, apparently.

Devin Stanfield (played Kay Harker)

My grandfather and my parents worked in the theatre – I was well-briefed from early on that it was a business I shouldn’t get involved in. But an old schoolfriend of my mum’s ran a child theatrical agency and I ended up on her books. I was only 12 and didn’t think anything would come of it, but I got three auditions and won every part - Kay Harker was the third.

I went to a comprehensive school but my accent was plummy enough for period pieces - I was never going to get cast in Grange Hill. I got a copy of The Box of Delights and was still reading it on the train on the way up to the audition. By the time I met Renny I had lots of questions about how some of the crazier scenes were going to be pulled off. I think it was my curiosity that won him over.

I said yes to everything – 'Can you wield a sword?' 'Yeah, of course!' I was bloodthirsty as hell

My abiding memory is of either being freezing cold and soaking wet in the real snow, or sweating under studio lights in my tweed suit, often on Kirby wires. In the studio, the snow scenes were done with tiny polystyrene balls which got everywhere, and for the snow scenes filmed in the summer we had this specialist fire engine following us around squirting foam.

The other children in the cast would turn up for a week’s shooting and then disappear again, whereas I was stuck in hotel rooms with my chaperone for months at a time. But I got on well with the adult cast. Pat Troughton was charming, kind and patient. I remember waiting with him for hours until we were needed on a night shoot with hundreds of extras in the grounds of Hereford Cathedral. We had an in-depth discussion about how his being impaled with a lightning rod was achieved in The Omen.

I never actually got to play opposite Robert Stephens - whenever we met on screen I was usually “small” and so my bits were shot in a separate studio against blue screen. I would dearly love to have been able to say I acted with one of the very finest actors of his generation.

They were going to use a stunt double for the scene where the pony runs up to the stockade, but I insisted I could ride bareback even though I’d only been on a horse a handful of times. There’s a shot following the horse from behind where you see it stumble slightly – that’s really me riding. I said yes to everything – “Can you wield a sword?” “Yeah, of course!” I was bloodthirsty as hell - I remember Renny saying, “Let’s try that again, perhaps with a little bit more trepidation and fear…?” I was a bit disappointed when they gave me one of the prop boxes as a souvenir at the end of the shoot, rather than the sword.

My work now is behind the scenes, as a production manager and technical director. I did go to a few auditions after The Box of Delights, but I stopped after losing out to Christian Bale for Empire of the Sun. I spent the next few years with kids shouting to me “Go into your magic box! Go big! Go small!”