Adapted for the screen by Helen Cresswell from her own novel, Moondial was screened on Children’s BBC in 1988 and stands as a fitting reminder that children’s imaginations are best fed and watered by intelligent story-telling which is neither patronising nor presumptuous. With kids’ TV now dwelling in the nether regions of CiTV and CBBC, Moondial seems like the product of another age in more ways than one. The six-part serial is a classy, atmospheric and occasionally quite creepy affair, but it’s hard to imagine today’s excitable young generation, living and breathing Twitter and Facebook and Justin Bieber, finding much appeal in this terribly British tale of time travel, mysterious Victorian governesses and creepy old country houses.
Fourteen-year-old Araminta Caine (known as Minty) is packed off by her widowed mother to stay with her aunt in her country cottage for the summer but disaster strikes almost immediately when her mother is seriously injured in a car accident after dropping Minty (Neal) at her aunt’s. With her mother lost in a coma, Minty explores her new surroundings and finds herself drawn to a moondial in the grounds of a nearby country mansion. The moondial has mysterious properties and Minty is transported back to the nineteenth century and a series of encounters with a consumptive urchin named Tom (Sands), an orphan working as a servant at the house and a terrified girl named Sarah whose disfiguring facial birthmark has led to her being dubbed ‘the Devil’s child’. Minty becomes fascinated and troubled by life at the turn of the century and when eccentric ghost hunter Miss Raven (Pearce) turns up to investigate the mansion house in the twentieth century bearing an extraordinary resemblance to formidable Victorian governess Miss Vole, Minty realises that she holds the key to helping Tom and Sarah escape their gruelling fate in a cold and unfriendly world.
Moondial is heavy on atmosphere but light on action. It’s not by any means a traditional adventure series and its time travel conceit – accepted with remarkably alacrity by Minty – is merely a device by which the story can explore issues such as abuse, ignorance and prejudice. In the twentieth century, Minty, who has already lost her father, now has to face the possibility of losing her mother. It’s grim stuff for 1980s nippers, but the show’s to be commended for its willingness to tackle difficult and often quite mature concepts head-on without resorting to convenient and reassuring primary colour kids’ TV clichés. Mannered performances nail the series squarely to the period, but young Siri Neal, who carries the weight of the story, is utterly convincing as the troubled Minty, and Jacqueline Pearce, as ever, never fails to channel her inner Servalan as the devilish Miss Vole and the extravagant Miss Raven. Sometimes too slow-paced for its own good, Moondial is wonderfully moody, intelligently, and thoughtfully directed by Colin Cant and with some genuinely eerie and edgy moments which push right at the boundaries of what must have been considered acceptable for childrens’ telly; one night-time sequence with a bunch of masked kids holding illuminated pumpkins, chanting ‘Devil’s Child’ before throwing an effigy onto a bonfire could pass muster as a deleted scene from The Wicker Man.
Grown-up 1980s ankle-biters will get a nostalgic thrill from Moondial and while it still holds up well as a production it’s unlikely to give sleepless nights to today’s brats who routinely watch stronger stuff on their iPhones on their way to school.
Extras: Interviews with Siri Neal and Colin Cant / Two commentaries
CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: COLIN CANT / SCREENPLAY: HELEN CRESSWELL / STARRING: SIRI NEAL, JACQUELINE PEARCE, JOANNA DUNHAM, TONY SANDS, VALERIE LUSH, ARTHUR HEWLETT / RELEASE DATE: MAY 4TH