Monday 9 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #27: Moondial (1988)

I was 12 when Moondial aired. It was shown on Wednesday evenings, five minutes past five, in February, just before it got dark.

It was appointment TV for me, before I even knew what that meant. I saw the first episode because it was what happened to be on, and made sure I didn't miss another.

The second time I watched Moondial was in these last school holidays, and I had decided that I was going to put the first episode on with my kids watching. Because no critic of kids' TV is as exacting as a kid. If they didn't like it, I thought, I'd watch it later myself, or maybe I wouldn't bother, because I've already done three children's serials and why do a fourth if it's not much cop?

When the first episode finished, they unanimously begged for another. The first time they'd agreed on anything for weeks. After three episodes, back to back, I had to call it a day. For the next 48 hours, they pestered me about seeing the end of Moondial, and wouldn't stop until they'd seen it.

Afterwards, Elder Son was dismissive, but he's nearly a teenager anyway. It's his job. Daughter, aged nine, was generally positive about it. But it's three weeks later and I've just asked my youngest child, the Golden-Haired Youth, all of eight years old, if he remembered it, and he lit up. That was cool, he said! How they travelled in time with the sundial, and how they beat the villain with a mirror, that was the best part, he said.

I was enthralled too. Even twenty-nine years down the line, I would go so far as to say that I think it is the best children's drama I have ever seen.

Some of my more knowledgeable readers may be saying, "surely it's not better than Children of the Stones?" But probably not, because apart from me, no one talks out loud to blog posts. Anyway, the point is, yes, I think it's better than Children of the Stones (which is, if you don't know, generally considered the Gold Standard by people who take the time to set Gold Standards, i.e. not kids). Moondial is that good.
The Moondial.
Siri Neal, the young actor who plays the protagonist Minty (short for Araminta, but no one calls her that except the villain) carries the story. She's one of those child actors who produce performances so profound that you can't understand why they didn't become world famous.

Minty's father died some time ago. She isn't quite over it, but there are hints that her mother has begun to move on. She goes to stay in the countryside with Aunt Mary (the wonderfully named Valerie Lush), actually a family friend. On the way back from dropping her off, Minty's mother has a car crash and ends up in a coma.
After the screams.
The scene where Minty receives the news is sudden and shocking. She dissolves. Loses the plot. Screams and laughs at the absurdity of it. And Aunt Mary shakes her and strikes her across the face, because that's what people of that generation did, and that could be clich├ęd, and with less talented performers it would be terrible, but Siri Neal, all of 14, sells it.

And you realise that although Minty was mature and self possessed, she was always just a word from this. That her self possession was all too brittle. And it's phenomenal. Siri Neal's performance is one of the best child performances I have ever seen on British TV.
Siri Neal and Helen Cresswell.
Minty's shock settles into isolation. She can't, won't have anything to do with the local teenagers. She's hurting. And you root for her. She's the ideal of a big sister. Hurting, hurting deeply, but wise. Funny. Brave. Likeable. Protective. Which she needs to be when her haunting begins.
In the hospital.
And the only time after that initial shock when Minty really loses it is at her comatose mother's bedside. Her mother has a "work friend", John (Martin Sadler), who Minty didn't really know about. John is far more conscientious about visiting Minty's mum than Minty thinks he should be, and again, Siri Neal gets across the process of Minty joining the dots and consciously refusing to come to the obvious conclusion, and Helen Cresswell's script (adapted from her own novel) leaves it largely to you to fill in the gaps that Minty refuses to.
Devil's Children.
Nothing that Minty does is outside of this context and that grounds the story in a way that the circumstances of the other three children's serials I've covered don't. In Children of the Stones, good as it is, Adam Brake is widowed in a way convenient for the plot (that is, he will meet a love interest) and aside from a brief establishment of that fact, it's not mentioned again. Adam and Matthew's grounding is "science", and the script plays fast and loose with that. In The Moon Stallion, the kindly professor continually uses his knowledge to confirm the reality of the phenomenona Diana experiences. And in Century Falls (which shares with Moondial its director, Colin Cant) no one lives in a rational world at all.

But Minty's emotional state is shown, not told, and it never feels excessive or patronising. It is not harped on. But it is present. And it grounds the action. Minty is a real girl, with real pain. And that's all.
Minty and Tom.
It's Minty's isolation and grief that make her the focus of what initially appears to be a haunting, and while Moondial gets overlooked in favour of the more obviously pagan Children of the Stones, Minty's isolation, both in physical and emotional terms, allows for her to access these haunting through an enchanted sundial bedecked in classically pagan imagery. This makes Moondial just as much a perfect folk horror.

The hauntings are in fact nothing of the sort; they are fractures in time. First, Tom (Tony Sands) a kitchen boy from a century before Minty, comes into the frame. Minty and Tom forge a cautious friendship, neither quite believing in the other. Later, they find Sarah (Helena Avellano), a girl from a century before Tom.
Old World.
Minty isn't the first to have seen these children. A kindly old man known as World (Arthur Hewlett) tells her he knows there there and he knows they're suffering.
They are. Tom, separated from his beloved sister, experiences constant neglect and physical abuse. He is dying of consumption, although this is never spelled out. Sarah is emotionally abused by her vain, spiteful governess Miss Vole (the unmatchable Jacqueline Pearce, the face of feminine evil for a generation of British TV watchers) and in danger from the local children who call her the "Devil's Child" because of the port-wine stain on her skin.
Sarah and Miss Vole.
Minty finds that she can travel to the times of both children (and Tom can come to hers) by holding on to the sundial at certain times, particularly at midnight when the moon shines on it. It's not straightforward time travel, though. They're invisible in the time they visit, and they cannot carry objects from another time back to theirs.

The country house Minty haunts in her adventures is actually Belton, a real National Trust property; it has guides and tourists, and does in the story too. But it's no less dangerous for that. Like much of the rural landscape of Britain, the psychic remnants of thousands of years of habitation leaves its stones soaked with spiritual residue. It is haunted. But then, isn't everywhere? 
The dream sequence.
I remember very clearly the way the picture, shot from above, spins as the world does when the Moondial does its work, and it happens at least once an episode (my kids did not consider the effect particularly dated. And they immediately understood it. They're all smart enough to understand visual language of TV, after all).
Miss Vole.
Minty's project is to rescue the children from their abuse. As the apparent hauntings increase in intensity, however, she finds herself facing subtle opposition from a psychic ghost-hunter, Miss Raven (also Jacqueline Pearce), deliciously villainous and sly where Miss Vole is vicious, who only ever calls Minty by her full name. It's hinted that her opposition might be Satanic in form, and that Miss Vole and Miss Raven are one and the same. But Minty wins. And she wins in her own way.
Minty: Light and shadows, by turns. But always love.
– Episode 6
Of course, Minty, who externally has the most self possession, and the most strength, needs rescuing just as much as Tom and Sarah do. But she is her own rescuer, and by freeing Tom and Sarah from their pains, she resolves her own fears, her own grief.
Miss Raven.
As it ends, Tom reunites with his sister and with Sarah they leave Minty and travel Elsewhere; where that is, whether it's Minty's imagination, some sort of faerie realm or an afterlife of sorts, the story gives you no idea, nor, crucially, does it really matter. Because they have rescued Minty, and now that they have rescued her, she is prepared for the moment when her mother wakes up, and a new phase of her life begins.

From start to finish, Moondial maintains a consistent atmosphere; unlike Colin Cant's work on Century Falls though, which gets almost Wagnerian at times, Moondial has a lower key. The first episode begins with a terrific dream sequence that, watched back, illuminates the whole story, and that sets the pace for the rest of the story. In his interview, Cant says that he didn't wholly understand what was going on, but had faith in the script and went right on and shot it. And to his credit, it worked.
This might seem an odd comparison, but I think the closest thing to Moondial is Red Shift, also adapted by the novelist, also dealing with fractured time and with emotional isolation grounded by the landscape. Red Shift of course goes to very different places and ends on a bleak note, but the parallels are there if you look.

Moondial combines fantasy with emotional truth, and has a maturity to it that many supposedly adult dramas lack. It is sorely overlooked. Moondial deserves to be seen as one of the classics of British children's television.