Saturday, December 26, 2009


Boxes of Delights (Repost With Added Chocolate)

If you’ve not yet recovered from Christmas, you know the best cure – chocolate. So after posting this at the weekend, I’ve added plenty more, particularly about Thorntons. You can still catch up with Radio Four’s Doctor Who weekend on iPlayer, too: The Lost Episodes, On the Outside It Looked Like an Old-Fashioned Police Box and David Tennant’s Desert Island Discs. And if you saw the new Day of the Triffids, with beefed-up sauntering Eddie Izzard villainy and off-the-peg unresolved father-son tension and mysticism, why not see for free the closer-to-the-book 1981 adaptation, with a sexier lead and scarier plants? Both of them are more fun than Survivors, anyway, which is just the same story with nowhere near enough killer vegetation.

So, for a couple of days, this has travelled through time to midnight on the last day of the year before returning it to its original time and place. It’s Doctor Who, after all!

Having a replete Boxing Day? It’s a day for the most important things in life – TV and chocolate (and my beloved Richard). Richard’s chewed over last night’s Doctor Who, as have the lovely Jennie and Andy, and I’ve… scoffed many chocolates. So I’m sitting to watch Shakespeare, thinking of Christmas boxes. What are the best boxes from Thorntons? What’s the box set to buy for Doctor Who? What’s the most Christmassy box the BBC ever presented for us to wolf down? And are you looking out for Radio Four’s three Doctor Who programmes in the next day, starting tonight?

Of all this year’s Doctor Who DVD releases, look out in the sales for The Deadly Assassin (the greatest story of the lot, with the Master, Time Lords and Russell T Davies bigging it up on Confidential last night, as well he should), The War Games (another terrific story, also featured on the last Confidential, with the Time Lords – who are gits, and always have been – turning up at the end as the big bads to kill off the Doctor) and, especially if you can find the price knocked down a bit, The Key To Time boxed set. In Christmassy fashion, it’s a collection of six different stories, some of which may be more to your taste than others but which all form a delightful variety and I find quite delicious. In daytime TV style, as I’ve raved about The Key to Time before, I’ll turn to boxes of Thorntons later.

The Box of Delights
“If you will, there is something no other soul can do for me but you alone…”
Here’s an odd thing. The Key To Time boxed set was first released a couple of years ago as a limited edition, sold out fast and was deleted. At last re-released last month, perhaps because its semi-sequel The Black Guardian Trilogy came out this Summer, it’s one of the two best BBC DVD boxes I can think of to wrap for a Christmas present. So, obviously, the BBC’s now deleted the other ideal Christmas present – just in time for it’s twenty-fifth anniversary, The Box of Delights has been taken off the shelves. No, I don’t understand it either.

A quarter of a century ago this Christmas, the BBC made an adaptation of John Masefield’s children’s classic that was simply magical. Despite seven Doctor Who Christmas specials (most of them marvellous, and most of them made for Christmas), it’s delightfully old-fashioned and comforting, and still the most glorious piece of Christmas TV there’s ever been. In the 1930s, an old wandering magician entrusts a boy with his magical box to keep it safe against the wolfish minions of evil magic, and everyone makes the journeys along the way something very special.

At the time, it was the most expensive children’s TV the BBC had ever made, full of great actors, animation and special effects – a little symbolic in the penultimate episode, but only to save up for explosions, a salmon-leaping boat and demons at the last – and a fabulous score by Roger Limb (arranging Victor Hely-Hutchinson for the gorgeous theme music). Devin Stanfield grounds it as the surprisingly together young hero, James Grout is an entertaining police inspector, and Patricia Quinn is astounding as the campest thing on screen, teacher, witch, and utter ruin for her lover (“My golden idol. My graven image!”), the brilliantly named Sylvia Daisy Pouncer.

It’s most worth watching, though, for the wise old magician and Punch and Judy man (and sometime pagan and medieval philosopher), Cole Hawlings, and his deadly opponent, ambitious, evil warlock and posing clergyman Abner Brown. They’re the two best roles, with the two most compelling actors – former Doctor Patrick Troughton in one of his last great roles, and Robert Stephens promising
“One last… Great wickedness before I go!”
As at the moment it’s bizarrely not available to buy, have a look at it on YouTube. All six episodes are available, under a slightly disguised name (presumably to prevent seizure by copyright lawyers, even though if you want the DVD you can’t get it) and broken up into lots of little chunks. Just half a dozen minutes into the first episode, Patrick gives one of his most husky-voiced and mesmerising performances – while the part five’s stolen outrageously by Mr Stephens with the most scenery-chewing piece of acting I’ve ever seen that still absolutely grips you. To get you started, here’s the opening episode, in three parts.

Doctor Who On Radio Four (and David Tennant – and John Simm, of course – everywhere)

If you’ve had a Merry Christmas at home, perhaps you’re now sitting down with David Tennant’s jolly Hamlet. John Barrowman must be wondering what’s gone wrong, when it’s the other Doctor Who star who’s omnipresent this Christmas (and John Simm’s gone to rather extreme lengths to beat him). On top of Doctor Who, Hamlet, Never Mind the Moroks (wasn’t Bernard Cribbins genius?), QI and others on TV, he’s doing quite a few radio shows, among them one of Radio 4’s three – yes, it’s his turn for Desert Island Discs tomorrow at 11.15am.

The two to really look forward to, though, are on tonight at eight (tune in 3pm, Monday, for an edited repeat), exploring the “lost” Doctor Who stories the BBC made in the ’60s and then junked, and a welcome repeat for their celebration of the Target books of the ’70s and ’80s at 1.30 tomorrow. Radio 4’s top Who fan Shaun Ley investigates Archive on 4: Doctor Who – The Lost Episodes tonight, including interviews I saw him making at a convention a month or two back, while Mark Gatiss hosts tomorrow’s On the Outside It Looked Like an Old Fashioned Police Box, which intriguingly features readings from Doctor Who novelisations that BBC Audio has released on CD – but read by different actors to the CD versions. That’s the BBC internal market for you.

That last bit was quite wrong, of course; I was mixing up having heard the original broadcast in the Summer with the fabulous Target Books special feature on The War Games DVD at about the same time. That On Target – Malcolm Hulke focused on perhaps the most revered of Target adaptors, so it was a BBC DVD rather than a radio programme that had to use different actors doing the readings to those BBC Audio produce – Peter Miles ironically offering the reptile people’s point of view from Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, for example, rather than Caroline John in the CDs. The radio programme, made with just as much love, does indeed use BBC Audio’s versions, albeit adding sound effects and music from the TV series that (confusingly) the DVDs use but BBC Audio appears not to lack the rights for. These tend to be from ’70s stories, and though the Target books ran right through the ’80s as well, the vast majority of Mr Gatiss’ attention is on the ’70s, back when he was a boy. His love for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in particular shines through; I have my reservations about him, but his Target books, at least, are smashing. One of the top moments to listen out for, appropriately, is marvellous artist Chris Achilleos relating how Pertwee asked Target to get him to portray his nose as less of a double-barrelled shotgun than it was in life – another is fab companion and now reader Anneke Wills asking of the BBC’s trashing her old stories (yes, tying in with the Shaun Ley programme):
“You have to wonder if there was anybody intelligent in charge!”
Top marks for selecting several excerpts from Tom Baker’s reading of Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, probably the best of the CDs for me, and bringing to life one of Terrance Dicks’ most thoroughly fleshed-out novels. Terrance himself provides entertaining, informative and often self-deprecating commentary on the novel series for which he wrote almost as many books as everyone else put together, while current Who script editor Gary Russell pays praise to Malcolm Hulke, the author who most got inside the characters’ heads. Mark Gatiss, though, should pay more attention to the ’80s: aside from his Sarah Jane Adventures novelisation, Invasion of the Bane, the most recently made Who story Terrance novelised was 1986’s The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet. And that, of course, is the one that begins with the line he loves but can’t place:
“It was a graveyard in space.”
Four Thorntons Boxes For Christmas…

Last week I wrote about pies and sandwiches. Tonight it’s time for the hard stuff.

With so many boxes of chocolates about – and Hotel Chocolat’s too numerous and expensive for me to sample them all (I’m not wild about their pralines, but their fruit creations are uniquely tart and rather fantastic) – I thought I’d zoom in on Thorntons’ selections.

If you’ve happened to saunter past a Thorntons on the high street and just popped in for a moment – and if you’re reading this, you probably have – you’ll know that they have quite a selection of, er, selection boxes. Their most famous, justifiably, is the Continental: it’s been around for decades, with occasional changes, and is still a fabulous mix of creations, mixing milk, white and dark, truffle, mousse and praline. For me, the Viennese Truffle wins every time with its buttery filling and delicately sugared light casing. You might try the Continental White Collection for variety, which is a particularly good relatively recent variation – the Continental Dark Collection’s good, too.

Heretically, though many of their individual milk chocolates are marvellous, their milk chocolate mix itself is a little bland and sickly for me – not a patch on Dairy Milk (unbeatable for pigging in large quantities). So I wouldn’t bother with a bar of it, but confections covered in it are fine. Other hardy perennials include the Mint Collection, which is fine, but with a smaller number of choices and some rather bitter (the ribbed diamonds always taste of nettles to me), there are never enough of the delicious long minty batons or the delightfully knobbly Luxury Double Cream Mints, my favourites. The box I wouldn’t buy for myself from Thorntons is the Classics – although it sells well and is marketed as “The familiar flavours you remember from childhood,” when you find the same shape and taste of fudge, strawberry, coffee creams and so on as in every other chocolate selection, it’s apparent that they started making this box because people were coming in saying, ‘all these creative flavours are all very well, but can’t you be the same as everyone else?’ So it’s not bad, as such, but not in any way interesting. Not that I wouldn’t eat them, mind…

However, there are four fairly new boxes you might not have sampled yet, and – purely in a spirit of selfless experiment – I’ve given each of them a try.

Winter Dessert Gallery

Just happening to pop into Thorntons one day last year – it was raining, and I wanted somewhere I could wipe my glasses – I came across this box, which unlike the others I’m reviewing isn’t new this season, but which I’ve tried again. A choice of seven chocolates, all modelled after well-known desserts, all looking very attractive in their (mostly milk chocolate) little cups. It’s a newer variation of their standard Dessert Gallery that’s been around for a few years; I have to admit, that’s the one I prefer. Some of the selection appear in both, but for the differences, the earlier box tends towards sharper flavours which are more to my taste (barring one that just isn’t me at all). It also has a stylish Art Deco box in white, while the Winter Dessert Gallery has a warm burgundy cover with no definite identity that’s appropriate to the comforting but slightly more forgettable chocolates within.

The Double Chocolate Mousse is the most intense, with a rich chocolate centre and plenty of little curls on top of a dark cup; at the other end of the scale, the Christmas Pudding is clearly the special Winter centrepiece, but tastes only vaguely of Christmas pudding, faintly of rum and brandy, though noticeably of raisin, and the white chocolate on top’s quite nice. Other survivors from the main Desert Gallery are worth tasting – the Tiramisu does taste a bit of tiramisu, with a whiff of coffee and brandy, while the Lemon Meringue’s my favourite, with the nearest you’ll find here to a bit of tartness in a deep well of lemon, with crunchy sweet meringue on top in a white cup – while the other new ones are all right, but not to the same standard. The Sherry Trifle is pretty good, with a custardy fondant, sticky jelly and tiny strips of chocolate on top that look pretty but are too small to taste; the Sticky Toffee Pudding sounds promising, but (small and sweet) simply doesn’t have enough toffee; and the Rhubarb Crumble… Well, I’m not a big rhubarb fan, but this is so vague you don’t taste it, or anything much bar the milk chocolate cup. None of these are unpleasant, but it’s difficult to overcome the impression that winter desserts are popular because they’re hot and comforting, so making them small and cold misses the point a bit.

Continental Paris Milk Collection

A new collection I noticed in Thorntons a month ago while taking a shortcut through it into a shopping centre, this starts off with the disadvantage that their milk chocolate’s a little bland, and the selection never really gets past that. As the name implies, they’re all French-inspired, mostly new, and quite delicate. It’s nice enough, though, and it has rather a pleasing look to the box – round, dusty blue, with a chocolate-brown lower half, rather like a hatbox.

You’ll not be altogether amazed to find that I loved the Mousse au Chocolat; it’s a light and rich mousse, exactly what it promises, and the best of them. The Caramel du Café’s pretty good, too – the coffee and caramel melt together very sweetly, both distinct, though (even if I don’t like coffee much) it could do with a bit more coffee to make it tart. The Praline Feuilletine, on the other hand, is very much the sort of confection that Hotel Chocolat often come up with. The praline’s so-so, but there are lovely crunchy feuilletine waffle pieces, and it’s an attractive design, long and large with dark patterning. The Hazelnut Croquant has another good crunch, but tastes basically just sweet and a bit chocolatey; the Ganache au Marc de Champagne is something all the top chocolatiers have been doing different versions of in the last few years, and it’s not tremendously distinctive – heavy milk chocolate, an aftertaste of champagne… I’d have said white chocolate would set the flavour off better. The most interesting of them is the Pain d’Épices, which doesn’t entirely work but gets your attention more than any of the others – there’s plenty of ginger overcoming the caramelised hazelnut pieces (though they have a good crunch). That leaves two that I suspect are intended as showpieces: the Parisian Truffle is rather good, a touch of brandy making it very Christmassy; Amour, on the other hand… A heart-shaped chocolate always looks promising, but this really depends on whether you like marzipan and orange liqueur – if you do, this is probably very nice. If not, it’s disgusting.

Continental Milan Dark Collection

The other new collection which I just happened to notice, accidentally buy and promptly consume purely to get out of the way when I nipped through a Thorntons last month has altogether more go to it. Based on Italian recipes, also mostly new, this set of eight are all in a much richer dark chocolate (far superior to their milk), again in a rather nice hatbox, this time with the top half in deep red. It looks great.

Now, I’ll confess that I really like a proper tart lemon, and the Lemon Mousse is easily the best here. Thorntons used to do a very similar chocolate in whole bags of them – sharp dark chocolate setting off a great tang of lemon in a light mousse. The Espresso is another strong flavour; again, I don’t even much like coffee, but this is dark and strong and very rich. The Amaretti, on the other hand, is a bit bland; I don’t care for amaretti, but if you do you’ll only get a hint of it here, and rather more honey. Similarly, the Milanese Truffle has a bit of liqueur, a bit of hazelnut and interesting textures, but you mainly just taste the chocolate. Fortunately, the others are more distinctive. The Tiramisu is excellent, with a soft filling and white chocolate top, beating the Dessert Collection’s recipe, the red-wrapped Crunchy Nougat Praline is rather fine (the tastiest bit of nougat I’ve had for years), and the Cannella is interesting, individual but not really a successful mix – another mousse, offering first a taste of lemon, lightly, then plunging into cinnamon, which is rather strange. It rounds off with a mild and creamy Panna Cotta that has quite a strong taste of vanilla, set off perfectly afterwards by the dark chocolate. Ironically, after both the dessert collections, this is the one that most instantly captures a childhood afters – it tastes remarkably like an old-style choc ice.

Metropolitan by Thorntons

I just popped into a Thorntons to ask the time a couple of weeks ago (you know that old saying: if you want to know the time, ask a chocolatier), and to make polite conversation chatted to the manager about chocolate. He said this was the best selection they’ve ever produced, and it’s rather fabulous, you know; it may not be quite their best ever, but it pips the Continental Milan Dark Collection for me as the best of this set. It’s got a lovely Art Nouveau box design, and – fond as I am of white chocolate – this works in just dark or milk. Better still, it’s a much fuller-flavoured milk than their standard mix, here taken from Ecuador, the dark from the Dominican Republic, building on their Single Origin collections. These come in multiples of squares, batons and swirled shells, with one exception…

Vanilla Heights is a square vanilla ganache, with almost a caramel flavour rather than vanilla; Cloudberry Hill is sweet but intriguing and faintly fruity, like the other square chocolate, the delightfully patterned Q Couture, another ganache with quince. The quince is slightly strange, but the dark chocolate stops it being too sweet (I’ll admit to not being too familiar with either quince or cloudberry, but they’re both worth trying). The Orange Garden baton may be based on a better-known fruit, but – flavoured with orange blossom – again it’s very sweet, more perfumy than ordinary orange, set off with quite a good sharp aftertaste. I prefer the other long chocolate, the crispy Praline Piazza, another light praline (a taste that rarely impresses me), but with a great texture of crunchy feuilletine waffle pieces. The two shells are both surprisingly solid: the Manhattan Melt is (rather good) milk chocolate through and through with a subtle aftertaste; Midnight Melt is rich and fruity and slightly bitter in its sweetness, an outstanding dark chocolate. Perhaps my favourite (though Richard didn’t care for it) is the odd one out, the Soho Caramel – sadly the smallest, with slight salt caramel in a thick dark chocolate sphere, it’s like a chocolate berry, oozing with flavour.

Bars, Baubles and Bags

Thorntons has also produced two new bars for Christmas, both milk chocolate and neither especially vibrant. Their Crème Brulee Bar is sugar-studded and coolly creamy (well, more milky) inside – nice, but you realise that it’s the crunch of hot, brittle caramel that makes a crème brulee, and the little strip of caramel-ish underlining isn’t good enough. I quite liked it, but you’re best off peeling off the wrapper and storing it somewhere so you forget the name: it’s absolutely not a patch on the proper dessert. The Winter Fruit Crumble Bar is less disappointing, but only because I expected less of it; the crumble pieces in the chocolate coating work, but the blackberry and blackcurrant (both fruits that really appeal to me) filling is very insipid. Despite proper bits of fruit, it’s more sickly than sharp. If you’re after their Continental-style bars, stick to the Sicilian Lemon and the Viennese Truffle, both of which are gorgeous.

They’ve probably sold out of their baubles to hang on the tree by now (like anyone’s going to wait… Oh, yeah, parents), but all three are rich and large enough to take a proper bite into. The Chocolate Truffle Bauble has a near-perfect filling, rich and sweet and strongly chocolatey, though it’s back to that rather bland milk chocolate outside. The Champagne Truffle Bauble works surprisingly well – you can feel the champagne at the back of your mouth. Then there’s the Praline Bauble, which is essentially their long-established Continental the Alpini, in a ball. It’s one of the few pralines I really rather like, with little crunchy pieces to it, too.

And so as not to miss out Hotel Chocolat altogether, one of their new chocolates that I’d recommend is the Eton Mess – soft strawberry mousse that would even get Peter Butterworth’s attention, bedded in milk chocolate and crunchy meringue, covered in thick white chocolate and topped with dried strawberry; a stunning mix of tastes and textures. You can get them in their own selector packs now: eat them by the bag.

So make that your New Year’s resolution. Pile up the chocolates, pile them into your mouth – er, I mean, offer them round your loved ones – and stick Doctor Who on the iPlayer, with a side order of Triffids (eat up your veg, or it will eat you!) and The Box of Delights for sweet. For a little nibble, though, there’s always the poor old Pet Shop Boys with their new EP: the ‘be careful what you wish for’ Christmas ghost-of-a-chance-of-getting-a-hit It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas. Not the best year to release that one, but give the other songs a listen – borrowing Madness, Tchiakovsky and Coldplay, each one of them sounds more like a single. Or there’s always fabulous Katie and December Will Be Mad As a Bucket of Frogs Again or, if you’re not a big fan of sparkly commercial Christmas, Timbuk 3 offer a first verse that’s got one of the best awful puns I’ve ever heard (needing an American accent, and with more than a bit of politics). You’ll have to buy Tom Robinson’s hilariously gloomy North By Northwest CD to get his Christmassy nuclear war epic Merrily Up On High, but I always stick mine on…

Update: and finally, the prize for most unlikely review of the year: Lawrence Miles. Given what he predicted for it (now vanished) before transmission – get it while it’s hot, as like most of his blog, it’s seasonal and goes off quickly!

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The cry of anguish I exhaled when I saw this year that my video tape of Box of Delights had been chewed to buggery ...

"Time, tide and buttered eggs wait for no man, young Master Harker"
Ta for link, Alex dear!
Oh, poor Stephen! Just catching up as I repost this with more chocolate.

I'd hug you if you weren't so delightfully old-fashioned and reserved. I've got my blurry old VHS, but if you can ever find the DVD, it's not only much clearer but has the cliffhangers in it - it's just not the same without them. They're there on that YouTube, if you try it...

And you're very welcome, dear Andy! I'll hug you ;-)
Blimey, Stephen!

Just waiting up to check this had reposted properly at midnight, and Film 2009's on. Jonathan Ross is interviewing Matthew Goode from Watchmen*, and in blurry after-midnight-o-vision, in casuals and his proper hair, he looks uncannily like you. But a bit camper.

*He's not the one with the giant blue penis all the straight men complained about.
Mmm. Buttered eggs. Just the thing as hors d'œuvre to chocolate. And a lovely line, too.

Right, lots of bolding added to make the chocolate titles stand out, and it's time for bed...
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