Philippa Pearce’s 1958 children’s novel has certainly held a fascination for successive generations of television producers; the BBC have adapted it three times, initially in 1968 (as part of the educational series Merry-Go-Round) and again six years later; in 1999 there was even a feature film. This most recent TV version was broadcast at the beginning of 1989, and is perhaps the most fondly-remembered and best-regarded. In truth it’s rather stiff, even for vintage kid’s telly.
If you’re the wrong age to have caught any of these transmissions (or read the book), the story goes like this: Tom’s brother Peter gets a case of the measles, so Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle at a fictional village near Ely, where they’re tenants to the mysterious woman who lives alone in the attic flat. Tom becomes fascinated by the grandfather clock that stands downstairs, never chiming the correct hour – and one midnight, after it strikes thirteen, he discovers a mysterious garden beyond the building’s rear door.
It’s a story that dwells on its evocation of place – each night, Tom visits the house’s Victorian past – than any more pressing narrative concerns, and this television adaptation struggles to stretch to six half-hour episodes; we don’t meet Hatty, one of only two people in the past who can see Tom during his visitations, until the end of the second instalment – and it’s two more before we get any real sense of jeopardy or, indeed, development. Pearce’s novel was concerned with the idea of either Tom or Hatty being a ghost (to one another at least), but without much internal monologue and with Tom’s letters to his brother heavily abbreviated, Julia Jones’ terribly earnest script only skims the surface of that. It’s also fairly superficial with regards to Pearce’s ideas about the nature of time, and ultimately while emotionally satisfying Jones’ is an intellectually lightweight version of the story.
This also suffers from some unimaginative and rather flaccid direction. Jeremy Rampling, as Tom, only ever had one other screen credit and while he’s enthusiastic, Christine Secombe never manages to tease an authentic or even wholly sympathetic performance out of him. And while this is the BBC at their period best, the production lacks ambition and some of the camerawork and artistic choices are uninspired to say the least. It doesn’t help this is an all-video production, and the picture is rather murky in places. That said, Paul Reade’s score is memorable and quite lovely.
If you were twelve in 1989, chances are you’ll thrill to the nostalgia kick. But this feels like it was old-fashioned telly even for then, and this version isn’t going to appeal to a new generation of potential fans.
TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: CHRISTINE SECOMBE / SCREENPLAY: JULIA JONES / STARRING: JEREMY RAMPLING, SHAUGHAN SEYMOUR, ISABELLE AMYES, SIMON FENTON, CAROLINE WALDRON, RENÉE ASHERSON / RELEASE DATE: 12TH NOVEMBER