❉ A fondly-remembered serial from an era of thought-provoking and intelligent children’s drama.
Children growing up in the 1980s had a superb roster of drama presented to them. The BBC, in particular, seemed to be experts at crafting engaging, thought-provoking stories that kept viewers entertained for up to six weeks at a time. The corporation was able to call on all of the talents and resources that any of the adult dramas were allocated, from composers to visual effects, from set designers to costume designers, to produce some truly memorable programmes.
The children’s department had a pool of incredible talent to draw upon on, with names like Christine Secombe, Paul Stone and Colin Cant cropping up regularly throughout the decade. The latter two of these were involved in the creation of Moondial, a 1988 serial that concerned the tale of Minty, a young girl who finds herself drawn into a mysterious time-travelling adventure. In this period there seemed to be a proper drive not to talk down to children and to provide them with very high quality, thoughtful programming.
Based on the book of the same name by the late Helen Creswell, Moondial made it to the screen relatively quickly. First published in 1987, Creswell was asked to adapt it for television the next year. She already had an established track record in children’s drama, having previously penned the Lizzie Dripping series’ in the 1970’s, and would later go on to adapt the enormously popular Demon Headmaster as well as the likes of Five Children and It and The Famous Five (the latter for ITV). Head of Children’s programmes Anna Home was a friend of Creswell’s and was the person responsible for commissioning this adaptation.
In Moondial, we meet Araminta Kane – Minty – a teenage girl who is sent to stay with an elderly Aunt (a common trope of this sort of story) after her recently-widowed (another common trope of this sort of story) mother is involved in car accident and hospitalised. Near to her Aunt’s house is a grand mansion with vast grounds, both of which prove a draw to the inquisitive, isolated Minty. Exploring the grounds, she finds a sundial which somehow transports her back in time. There she meets two children – Tom and Sarah – the only people who can see her. Tom is treated appallingly by the adults in his Victorian era, and also comes under threat from the mysterious Miss Raven – a ghost hunter from the modern day. Despite suffering from tuberculosis Tom is playful and fun but Sarah is more elusive, only appearing at night, being very shy and keeping her face covered.
Tom believes Minty to be a ghost and tells her that he has seen a ghost before – that ghost being Sarah, who originates from the 18th Century. It’s no wonder that Sarah is shy – she is picked on by local children due to having a large birthmark on her face, and lives a miserable existence under the supervision of her governess, Miss Vole, who brands her a ‘Devil’s child’ due to the birthmark. The servants even fear her, making the sign of the cross when they encounter her. Minty and Tom set out to free Sarah from her torment, but must travel back in time to do so.
Jacqueline Pearce is the standout name amongst the guest cast, taking the dual role of Miss Raven and Miss Vole. Familiar to 1980s viewers of course as Servalan from Blake’s 7, Moondial represents one of the – sadly – few major roles that she would go on to take on. Cant would use her again in Dark Season, again as a villain, and it appears that she became somewhat typecast following her time as the Supreme Commander. It would have been interesting to have seen such a talented actress in a wider variety of roles. As Miss Raven, Pearce looks like and plays the part rather similarly to that of Servalan, but is never less than captivating. Miss Vole, is even worse – she is completely horrid to Sarah and the scenes in which Vole torments the girl shows of some of Pearce’s most effective ever acting.
Minty is played by Siri Neil. Although Minty is supposed to be just thirteen years old, Neil is evidently a touch older than this. She’s hauntingly attractive and exactly the right sort of actress for this part, doing a terrific job in what was her first professional acting role. Neal has a confidence here that isn’t always seen in child actors, and is completely believable. Following Moondial, she went on to appear in a number minor roles in other television series and could have been a much bigger star than she ultimately became as her potential clearly stands out here. Unfortunately for viewers, she later retired from acting and moved on to a new stage of her life. Virtually the entire story rests on Neil’s shoulders – a big task for such a young actress – but she copes admirably. Tony Sands takes the supporting role of Tom, and is another really good performer who seems to have disappeared from the acting scene. The character of Old World is played by Arthur Hewlett, an actor who seemed to make a career out of playing elderly men. World is a wise old chap who seems to be partially psychic and is able to guide Minty in her investigations, imparting vital clues along the way. He believes that he sees and hears glimpses of the children from the past, and represents a link to the older time.
David Ferguson’s theme tune and score is wonderfully ethereal, and he would go on to become a regular collaborator of director Colin Cant, the pair later working together on The Country Boy, Dark Season and Century Falls. Ferguson, unusually for BBC children’s productions of the time, wasn’t part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and operated on a freelance basis but his work has a very similar feel to the best of the Workshop. His music sounds timeless, not suffering at all from sounding like it comes from the 1980s, and not sounding as if it was crafted on the usual synthesisers. It is one of the finest aspects of this production and deserves a wider audience. Sadly, Ferguson passed away in just his mid-50s, so listeners were denied hearing any more of his excellent, talented work.
The grand 17th century Belton House in Lincolnshire is used as the location for much of the story and its impressive scale is used to good effect. Creswell had visited the house prior to writing the book and deliberately chose to set her story there, with the production being based entirely at the location for the duration of the eight-week shoot. The sundial that appears in the story, and from which Cresswell partly took her inspiration dates from the 18th Century, still exists, and visitors to the National Trust property can go to see it to this day. Today the house even features a Moondial trial, a walk on which visitors can see the locations used in the series. Belton House seems to have really embraced the show and incorporated it into its ethos and being, something that very few locations from children’s television series have bothered to do.
Children’s drama in this era was thought-provoking and intelligent, with real care and attention made during the productions. The BBC seemed to go to great lengths to produce high quality programmes that made children think, entertained them and which didn’t belittle them. Like most other drama of this period, Moondial was made entirely on videotape (with quite a bit of day-for-night recording too), but this doesn’t detract from the quality of the storytelling and the series still manages to stand up to scrutiny today. Cant resists the temptation to go overboard with special effects (which would undoubtedly date any production), with only minimal use of video effects. Even the day-for-night material has a slightly unsettling quality to it, due to the images having been slightly colour desaturated.
There’s a genuinely spooky, haunting feel to Moondial, and whilst perhaps modern viewers may turn away from a six-part adventure because of the pacing, the story is never less than interesting and raises plenty of questions in the mind of the viewer. Not all are always answered, and perhaps this is no bad thing – viewers don’t always need to be spoon-fed. This is a complex, layered story rather than your typical runaround adventure which caught the attention of children: some even being interviewed for the BBC’s Take Two programme to voice their opinions. Paul Stone also appeared, answering questions from Phillip Schofield on whether the serial was too scary for younger viewers.
Moondial received coverage, both positive and negative, in the Radio Times letters page too. One reader wrote in to condemn the programme, saying “do you need to teach young children about devil worship?” and an eleven year-old commenting “this programme could have a very harmful influence on children. When I first saw the trailer I decided that I should not watch it because of the occult influence”. Paul Stone, quite rightly, pointed out that good triumphs over evil.
Thankfully for nostalgia hounds, the series was released on DVD in its full original episodic format by Second Sight in 2015, and in 2018 this fondly-remembered series celebrated its 30th anniversary. Perhaps appropriately for a story whose business is time travel, you may find yourself wondering just where those thirty years went…
❉ ‘Moondial’ by Helen Cresswell was first published January 1st 1987 by Puffin Books, and originally broadcast on BBC1, 10 February – 16 March 1988.
❉ ‘Moondial’ (1988) is available on DVD from Second Sight Films, originally released 4 May 2015. BBFC classification PG. Running time 158 mins. Catalogue no. 2NDVD3274.