Light and Shadows by Turns … But Always Love

Robin Carmody on Moondial

First published January 2000

The late ’80s were something of a high point in British children’s TV, probably the last before the multi-channel age descended, with its illusory con of “choice” (which seems to equal half of Live & Kicking being repeated on BBC Choice only a few hours after it goes out on BBC1). At the core of it were three dramas, all filmed in the flatlands of eastern England, with their imperious, brooding quality, and all rooted in the elusive, ultimately unknowable nature of Time: Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe and Moondial.

The first two were, of course, wonderful, but being based on books written in the ’50s were relatively soft-centred, having been written at a time when children’s literature (and childhood culture generally, as we can see from early children’s TV) was still inherently innocent, and therefore their treatment of these themes was essentially light (although way ahead of anything else written at the time). But Moondial, written 30 years later, was pretty dark. It got right to the core – the nature of Time, the interrelation of the centuries, the Devil, and a complex vision of the most fundamental battle of all – between good and evil.

In this it was helped by the superb direction of Colin Cant, one of the most important figures in children’s drama, Trevor Wimlett’s photography which made maximum use of the location, Belton House in Lincolnshire, and the dramatic music composed by David Ferguson, which judged and established the mood exactly right. The quality of writing in Helen Cresswell’s original book is very high, the descriptive passages so perfect (“The voice was high and flutey. It wove through the darkened air with a dreamlike wandering that seemed to show that it was singing to itself” ) that it needed a director who could turn this prose into visual poetry. That was Colin Cant’s achievement (although the video edit, which is the only version I’ve seen in the past nine years, omits virtually all the lingering location shots from the original, reducing them to brief glances back).

Writing a screenplay from your own book is never easy, but Helen Cresswell’s transposition from one medium to the other seemed pretty much flawless. After a brief prologue establishing the spirits that lay, as yet unhealed, in Belton, we see Minty’s arrival at the gatehouse, hear of Kate’s accident, and the first encounter with World, the old man who recognizes her qualities and her gift. The first encounters with Tom, the Victorian kitchen-boy whose treatment is all too typical of the reality behind the “Victorian values” beloved of the then Prime Minister (and see also Leon Garfield’s 1986 The December Rose, a perfectly Dickensian yarn which says it all about the life of a chimney-sweep), and with Sarah, the 17th Century girl whose treatment is also genuinely of the time (a birthmark, itself was enough to get people to call you the “Devil’s child”) show us their unhappiness, their entrapment by the prejudices of their own Times. The whole thing is incredibly well-executed, every atmosphere right, every performance superb, but particular praise must go to the shrouded figures surrounding Sarah, finally seen off in the climax, and the scene where Miss Vole expounds her hatred to Sarah; as terrifying as you can imagine.

Bizarrely, the essence of Minty’s mission can be defined in a song by Sting, If You Love Somebody Set Them Free. As we discover that Miss Vole and Miss Raven (the angular, ice-cold Jacqueline Pearce, best known of course for Blake’s 7) are two incarnations of the same (D)evil across the centuries, the intensity of Minty’s requirement becomes ever more obvious.

When Minty and Tom meet at the moondial for the final time, they know their mission must be completed that night. The phrase “Light and Shadows by turns, but always love” is the mantra which takes them there. The moment when Sarah realizes her true beauty is incredible, and I can’t think of anything shown at 5.10pm on BBC1 scarier than the final triumph, as the glass splinters, Miss Vole transmutes into a raven and a dove is released into the air. The imagery inspired several reactionary complaints to Points of View and to the late ’80s “Come on, BBC!” phone-in Open Air, which is always a good sign. After this, as Dorrie appears, Minty returns, Miss Raven has gone and Kate becomes conscious, we know the outcome. But there’s something wondrous about the moment when Minty realizes that the headstone “E.L. 1871″ relates to Tom’s early death, and the final scene, with Tom, Dorrie and Sarah disappearing into the mists, set free from the cruelties of conventional Time, allowed to run forever, ranks as the most emotionally affecting climax to any children’s drama (although the final scenes of Tom’s Midnight Garden run it close).

But there’s really quite a sad postscript to this story.

Ever wondered why the continuum of children’s drama that took in Moondial – and also The Cuckoo Sister, Running Scared, Aliens in the Family, The Watch House etc. – tailed off in the early ’90s and has now faded into history? Here’s why.

As multi-channel TV and globalization began in the late ’80s, the BBC entered into more and more co-productions. This naturally involved making programmes whose vision of Britain’s past conformed to that of your stereotypical middle-American who says “gee, isn’t it quaint” at any cathedral they see. 1988, which had begun with Moondial, ended with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. While this was fine fantasy from credible source material, the middle-class World War II setting of its non-Narnian scenes could have been invented for the US Disney Channel, where it was shown to great success, apparently. So the process which had begun with The Box of Delights in 1984, but then tailed off for four years as we enjoyed the last golden age, restarted in earnest. After the next two ‘Narnias, in ’91 we had Five Children and It, a non-stylized, non-televisual retelling of an E Nesbit fantasy first adapted as early as 1951. Naturally, the setting in a golden Edwardian summer was played up for all it was worth. Since then, we’ve had the two sequels to this (one of which, The Phoenix and The Carpet, was, by all accounts, made much better in the ’70s), The Prince and the Pauper, Children of the New Forest and Just William. The period drama has lost its bite as much as, indeed even more than, the contemporary drama.

That’s my theory, anyway. I blame co-productions. But Moondial is still there, and the tremors are still being felt.