DVD: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ (1989)

❉ Despite its languid pacing (even for 1989), many elements of this BBC fantasy drama stand up beautifully.

In 1958, Philippa Pearce wrote a novel that was to become an evergreen children’s classic, Tom’s Midnight Garden. The novel was instantly lauded and it won the prestigious Carnegie Medal as that year’s outstanding children’s novel.  So popular was the book that when the Carnegie Medal celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2007, Tom’s Midnight Garden was second in the all-time top ten Carnegie winners, a huge accolade for a novel that was nearly 50 years old at that point.

The novel’s success lies in the clever melding of two timeframes. Tom Long, the book’s main protagonist can slip between these two times when the grandfather clock in entrance hall of the flats where his aunt and uncle live chimes 13 and he is transported through time into the garden where meets a girl called Hatty. She is the only person who can see him and they become friends.

This magical premise, of course, lent itself to a visual adaptation and the BBC obliged in 1968 and again in 1974, with two very similar 3 part versions being recorded for children’s TV. Despite several repeats of the 1974 version, the limitations of its studio-bound production were very evident by the early ’80s, and so in 1989, a new version was sought, especially as special effects work had moved on far enough to make effects like Tom’s ghostly appearances in the garden look far more convincing than they previously had.

Following on from the successes over the previous few years of big fantasy stories such as The Box of Delights and The Children of Green Knowle, Tom’s Midnight Garden would sadly not be shown in the run up to Christmas. Instead this would be the first big Children’s BBC drama of 1989, airing in January and February. The production reunited producer Paul Knight with director Christine Secombe, who had worked together on successful series like 1987’s Aliens in the Family.

There are many elements of the show that stand up beautifully. The title sequence is exquisite, with the changing of the seasons beautifully evoked by some charming artwork, complimented by a haunting and rather melancholy theme tune.  The effects work is generally good, with Tom’s ghostly appearances through doors and walls looking good for the time and the model work of the great cedar tree being struck by lightning is absolutely superb. This is one of the serial’s finest moments and is genuinely exciting and tense, especially so as the garden has been portrayed as a safe haven up to that point.

The friendship between Tom and Hatty comes over very well, with Jeremy Rampling and Caroline Waldron doing a good job of making both characters sympathetic and natural. Their relationship is gentle and rather touching, as both find each they need each other at a time in their lives where they’re both invisible in the worlds they live in – Tom because he’s been sent to stay with his aunt and uncle and Hatty by being the cuckoo in the nest as she’s adopted when her parents die.  It’s very moving to see their bond begin to decay as Hatty grows up and finds another love to replace her bond with Tom.

The scenes in the final episode of Tom reunited with the now elderly Hatty, played with great sensitivity by Renee Asherson are the highlight of the show. They’re really touching and emotional and a worthy pay off to the story. Asherson brings a real childlike side to her performance in these scenes and is an absolute joy as she realizes that the Tom in her flat is the boy she befriended many years earlier. The metaphysical and philosophical explanation for how it happened is truly magical.

It does, however, feel something of a slog to get there at times. While the central premise of the story is wonderful, it does feel rather stretched at six episodes and it takes a long time to get going.  The pace of the show, even for 1989 is rather languid. There are many shots of Tom exploring the garden, which while establishing that the garden is tranquil and a safe haven for Tom, also just feel like padding at times. Tom and Hatty don’t even meet until episode 3 which somewhat slows down the storytelling. It may have worked better as a four part serial.

Despite that, the series is overall one with plenty of magic and the last few episodes are really quite lovely. It’s a welcome release from Second Sight Films, who are doing a great job at bringing some neglected children’s TV shows to DVD.

❉ ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ (Cat.No.: 2NDVD3325) was released 12 November 2018 by Second Sight Films. Cert: U Running Time: 151 mins approx. RRP: £19.99.

❉ Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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