Back in 1988, BBC Children’s Television aired Moondial, a six-part time travel mystery series written by the hugely prolific Helen Cresswell whose numerous television credits include The Demon Headmaster and Five Children and It. In Moondial, fourteen-year-old Minty is transported back to the Victorian era by a mysterious moondial and becomes involved in the lives of two children from two different periods of time, both of them tormented and both of them in need of her help... Repeated only once on Children’s BBC and long-since unavailable on video and DVD, Moondial is now back courtesy of a new DVD release from Second Sight. STARBURST spoke to Moondial’s now-retired director, Colin Cant – whose own previous credits include Russell T Davies’s early children’s series Dark Season (starring a very young Kate Winslet) and Century Falls about this haunting and fondly-remembered drama...
STARBURST: How were projects divvied up in the old days of the BBC Children’s department? Was Moondial a title you specifically requested to work on?
Colin Cant: Well, we used to have yearly meetings at which Anna Home who was the head of the Children’s department at the time would say ‘I have this number of scripts which need to be done this year, which one would you like to do?’ Over the years that disappeared until eventually they’d say, ‘You will do this one.’ Moondial was produced by Paul Stone and he just said to me, ‘This is what you’re going to do’.
What were your first impressions of Moondial once you’d had the chance to read the scripts?
I was baffled by it! I used to go in to see Paul and say, ‘What about this, who’s done that and why has this happened?’ and he eventually got fed up with me and he said, ‘Look, why don’t you go up to Nottingham and talk to Helen yourself’. So I went up with a few sheets of A4 with all my questions on, had a nice lunch and she obviously knew I was coming to ask her a few things and she launched into a chat about it and I came away thinking, ‘Oh I get it now!’ Almost by osmosis I got the feel for what it was all about and I never got to ask her one of my questions!
How involved was your producer Paul Stone with the actual production of the series?
He just said, ‘Get on with it!’ We had our battles, of course, but once he said, ‘Go and see Helen’ – which you’re not usually allowed to do, you usually have to go through your producer –but once he relinquished that, it was me on my own. He was very appreciative of the end result; he was a good man.
How much did the series’ main location – Belton House in Lincolnshire – influence the visual look of the series?
The only real visual gimmick I thought I would give it was a certain symmetry and in a lot of the shots I tried to imply that Minty was on a sort of a path which was leading her on. When she arrives at the hospital, for example, she sits in the middle of the frame and the perspective goes away behind her Belton House was ideal for that sort of thing, it enabled us to do lots of long shots of her walking along the grounds, and really they were the only little visual things I did. The long shots also helped to capture the atmosphere of the place itself, which I must say I found slightly sinister. It was more to do with the photographs of the people who’d lived there in the past, they all looked a bit grim, nobody was smiling; it had a definite atmosphere about it. As I remember at the time, the National Trust had only recently taken Belton Hall over so they were quite keen for us to be there, it was good publicity for them.
How did you come to cast Siri Neal as Minty? Apparently she wasn’t originally put forward for the role when you were scouting the Drama Schools...
At the time we didn’t have casting directors so we had to do it all ourselves, and we tended it to do it from a sort of ‘repertory company’ of actors we’d worked with in the past. I often think that good actors are slightly peculiar, it’s almost an attitude of mind; they’re slightly up front all the time, very chatty and extrovert. Siri had that slightly eccentric atmosphere about her. She wasn’t put up originally because she was a bit of ‘bad girl’, a bit naughty I think, which is a bit strange because I always think if you’ve got children at Stage School it’s a bit odd not to put them up for things. But Siri was absolutely fearless considering she pretty much had to carry the whole serial. She was of an age when she was beyond having to have a chaperone; she was quite mature for her years. She was determined to become an actress, but she tells me now she doesn’t do it anymore.
And of course, you cast the formidable Jacqueline Pearce who you’d worked with before on Dark Season in the dual role of Miss Vole/Miss Raven...
She was an absolute dream. She’s quite a character, not exactly overpowering but she certainly stands out! Apart from playing a superb character, she was terrific on location for keeping everything going.
Moondial is unusual in that it’s a fantasy series but there’s not much going on in the way of visual effects, it’s all carried by the story...
Indeed, there was really no visual trickery at all. The only tricky thing I suppose was the scene where all the children from the village dress up on Halloween and come up with the lanterns all lit up. I didn’t believe we were going to be able to do it but it was amazing. The lanterns had some sort of reflective material in the eyes and behind the camera there was just one lamp – this must have been a good hundred yards away - and as long as they kept the eyes looking in the direction of the light they shone brightly which was wonderful. But that’s one of the great things about doing children’s programmes, there are all these unusual things to stage which I always enjoyed. If you were working in adult television in those days you were either in hospitals or police stations, but children’s TV had all sorts of strange things to stage so it could be quite a challenge.
There’s some quite spooky imagery and challenging subject matter presented in Moondial too. Did you ever worry you might not be able to get away with ideas like the ‘devil’s child’ and the scenes with the chanting masked children, and indeed the show’s themes of death, loss and abuse?
I tended not to worry about it. I always felt that the Department kept us back a bit. We got away with all the stuff about the Devil, but in various other shows there were things we didn’t get away with. I actually think kids are well capable of dealing with all these things; death, bereavement etc. but I think they’re always a bit careful at Children’s BBC about those sorts of things.
Did Helen Cresswell visit the set and was she pleased with the realisation of her novel?
She was very pleased with what she saw. What was interesting was that she turned up one day – we didn’t know she was coming – and she immediately spotted Siri Neal and said, ‘That must be Minty’, so we knew we’d got the casting right. She picked her out of this massive crowd standing around. She was no problem at all and she was very pleased with the end product. We eventually took it up to the school where we got the extras from and showed it to the kids and she was delighted with it.
Do you recall the reaction to the show when it was screened and do you think it stands a chance of finding a new audience over two decades later?
It went down very well. It was quite a success. I think it could find a new young audience today because every so often over the years people have asked why it hasn’t been repeated. It’s been out on DVD before but not for years and I’ve still got the original VHS release around somewhere but I think there were bits edited out. I think there’s a big gap there even allowing for all the pop stuff and the video games that kids are into today, and I think shows like Moondial were thought-provoking and I’m sure that kids today are still interested in thought-provoking material given the chance to watch it.
You worked with Russell T Davies early in his career when you directed his Dark Season and Century Falls children’s serials. What did you make of his work back then?
Well I knew him because he’d been around at the BBC so I’d met him a few times. Dark Season was the first one I did and it was very interesting, two three-part stories. I am a great admirer of Russell T Davies, his scripts are just packed full of ideas, you could make two or three series based on the things he puts into his scripts. Century Falls was a fascinating piece that covered huge subjects and I felt it could have gone on and on but the Children’s department didn’t work that way at that time. Interestingly, where Moondial came in under budget, Century Falls was well over budget. It turned out that instead of six episodes, I shot seven and we put that up for them but scheduling being what it is we were told we had to lose an episode and cut it down to six.
Century Falls – The Director’s Cut!
I’d love to revisit it and reinstate the missing stuff but I don’t know if the footage is still around. I don’t know if they keep all this stuff in the archive or not.
You’re now retired, but your credits show a predomination of children’s serials and dramas. What was the appeal to you in working in that specific areas of television?
I think it really was probably just the sheer variety and the things you had to stage as opposed to police chases and routine A&E dramas – plus the fact we were really our own man. We were handed the script, the budget, you had a few chats with the producer and you were off. I don’t think it’s like that anymore. Of course, the department doesn’t exist in the same way now at the BBC, there’s not much drama at all these days and I think it’s a shame because you hear a lot of people saying, ‘Whatever happened to BBC children’s drama’ which is a pity because it was always going in such an interesting area, but nowadays it’s all crash-bang-wallop with just games and cartoons. I watch miles and miles of CBeebies with my granddaughter and I’m amazed at the quality of it and the money they must spend on some of that is colossal compared to the budgets we used to have!
MOONDIAL is released on May 4th from Second Sight, and is reviewed here.