What happens to Time when the moon shines on a sundial?
Moondial is a 1987 children's novel by prolific novelist Helen Cresswell, who also adapted it into a 1988 six-part children's television serial for the BBC. This television serial, filmed on location at the National Trust's Belton House, is regarded as a well-loved cult classic. Six 30-minute episodes were made on location, with the story set in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.
Since the death of her father about a year ago, 13-year-old Araminta 'Minty' Cane has been understandably despondent. Her mother Kate decides Minty needs to get away to the country for a break and arranges for her to stay with her godmother, 'Aunt' Mary1 in the village of Belton in Lincolnshire, which is where she herself stayed when young and always felt was a 'happening sort of place' where 'something was happening'. Shortly afterwards Kate is hit by a lorry and spends the rest of the story in a coma.
Between being ferried to the hospital and back by her mother's work colleague (and potential boyfriend) John Benson, Minty spends her free time exploring the neighbouring churchyard and the grounds of Belton House, which is open to the public. When she walks through the churchyard, the weather and amount of daylight suddenly changes whenever she turns a particular corner, sending shivers down her spine. She meets 'Old' World, a strange old man who works at Belton. He tells her mysteriously that she must save the children and only she has the key, but apparently not talking about children alive today. She then discovers the Moondial. This is a seemingly sentient sundial, decorated with statues of Chronos and Eros - the great healers, Time and Love - who support the dial. When she stands on its plinth and touches the statue of Eros she is sent back in time.
Learning about the nature of time, she discovers that clocks measure mean time, sundials measure apparent time and the only accurate time is star time. Time travel is only made possible through Moontime. Minty realises that when she stands on the Moondial in daylight she is sent back to the Victorian era (c1870) but in moonlight she travels further back, to an unspecified point in the 18th Century. In the Victorian era she befriends Tom – which he tells her is 'short for Edward' - an 11-year-old kitchen boy from London who, like his younger sister Dorrie, is dying of tuberculosis. He is frequently beaten as well as locked in cold, dark store rooms. In the 18th Century she meets the mysterious Sarah, who always hides her face and is terrified of everyone. The other children of Sarah's time call her a 'devil's child'. They bully her by dressing up in sackcloth hoods or masks, carrying flaming lanterns and beating and burning effigies of her. They also threaten to do the same to Minty. This is because Sarah has a facial birthmark. Sarah's vain governess Miss Vole is no better, telling Sarah that if she ever sees her reflection in a mirror then the mirror will crack and the devil will take her.
Only other children, particularly Tom and Sarah, seem able to see Minty when she is in the past. Minty willingly accepts her mission to save these two children in the past, convinced that by doing so and helping them escape into Moontime she will also wake her mother from the coma, with unconsciousness another form of Moontime. This is made more difficult when a lodger comes to stay in Aunt Mary's house; Miss Raven calls herself a professional ghost hunter. Though Raven is superficially interested in the legends concerning Belton House, she seems more obsessed with the contents of Minty's room and even snatches the books Minty is reading.
Is Minty Cane able to save the children and, by so doing, save her mother too?
But I am a beautiful woman, such beautiful, smooth white skin. Do you not find me beautiful, Sarah? Do you? Tell me, do you? Oh yes! Yes! And beautiful faces need mirrors, Sarah. So today I shall spend with my own reflection.
- Miss Vole to Sarah
|Araminta 'Minty' Cane||Siri Neal|
|Tom 'short for Edward' Larkin||Tony Sands|
|Aunt Mary Bowyer||Valerie Lush|
|Mr 'Old' World||Arthur Hewlett|
|John Benson||Martin Sadler|
|Kate Cane||Joanna Dunham|
|Miss August Vole||} Jacqueline Pearce|
Siri Neal continued acting until the late 1990s, notably appearing in Sharpe's Battle (1995), before qualifying as a teacher. Valerie Lush is best known for playing Auntie Flo in television series ...And Mother Makes Three (1971-73) and follow-on ...And Mother Makes Five (1974-75). Joanna Dunham appeared in numerous films and on television and is perhaps best known for being Mary Magdalene in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), while Jacqueline Pearce excelled at playing Servalan in Blake's 7 (1978-81).
Moonlighting: The Making Of Moondial
I've always thought of Belton as a - as a happening kind of place... I always had the feeling, I don't know, as if something was happening.
Helen Cresswell (1934-2005) was a children's author and television scriptwriter who was four times nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Best known for her fantasy work, she not only adapted novels such as Five Children and It (1902) and The Demon Headmaster (1996-98) for television, she also adapted some of her own work including Lizzie Dripping (1973–75) for the BBC, and The Secret World of Polly Flint (1987) for ITV. Considered an experienced, reliable set of hands when creating children's television fantasy, she was quickly commissioned to adapt Moondial for television.
One aspect of fantasy that Cresswell was particularly known for was setting her stories in real places that children could visit, making the story accessible, and often even including maps in her novels. This carried forward into the television adaptation. In the very earliest stages she ensured the National Trust would grant permission for Belton House to be used as a filming location. The key 'Moondial' really exists at Belton House; it dates from about 1690 and is a Grade II* listed monument.
With her mother in a coma and believing that her mother needs to hear her voice to find her way back, Minty decides to record and narrate her adventures onto audio cassette. One reason that Cresswell did this was to allow the audience to, as she put it:
...get directly into [Minty's] mind. Children in real life are constantly pretending, saying what they think grown-ups want rather than what they are really thinking. If they said aloud some of the things they think they would appear unattractive and rude and it would be unconvincing, anyhow. As an alternative to voice-over as a way to show what is really going on in [her] mind, I use[d]... the device of telling her story into a tape-recorder for Minty in 'Moondial'.
When director Colin Cant cast Minty, he visited numerous stage schools. He knew from experience that they used the audition process to reward well-behaved children, whom they let audition, and punish others who had been playing up. When at the Corona Stage School he deliberately asked to see the 'naughty children' as well; 14-year-old Siri Neal was classed in that category. She has since said that it came as a complete surprise to everyone at the stage school that, of everyone there, she was the one chosen. It was considered, though, that she had the most otherworldly presence.
Filming took place over eight weeks, predominantly at Belton House. As this location was out of the way, with few visitors, no aircraft flying overhead or traffic to distract or ruin takes, this went extremely smoothly. The masked and hooded children who torment Sarah were played by local schoolchildren. The most difficult part of filming was the time travel sequences. These involved a circular track being placed around the Moondial so that, while circling around the dial and pointing towards Minty, the camera could then quickly break off and spin around while still circling. This sequence frequently made the cameraman feel dizzy and sick.
Novelty Value: Differences from the Novel
The novel was illustrated by ink drawings of PJ Lynch, including a map of Belton House and its grounds. It has since been chosen to be one of the approximately 300 books that comprise the Oxford Bookworms Library. This is a range of specially-chosen texts by Oxford University Press comprising classic and modern fiction, non-fiction, and plays. The selection was shortlisted to books that would particularly appeal to children, although adult readers for whom English is not their first language were also considered. Moondial is rated Stage 3 out of the seven carefully-graded language stages.
The adaptation follows the plot of the novel very closely but, as is usual, the novel does go into more detail than the television serial. One thing it explains is how Minty has free run of Belton House's grounds; as a child Aunt Mary had worked for the Brownlow family who had owned Belton House and now works for the National Trust in the gift shop. In the novel Miss Raven is presented as an old lady and a different age to Miss Vole, who is in her late 30s. This means Minty is shocked when Miss Vole's reflection in the mirrors reveals Miss Raven's face. Minty also sees differences in the house and grounds when she travels back in time, especially smoke coming from the chimneys. In one scene she travels back to a snowy day but is unable to leave footprints in the snow. In the television adaptation the house and grounds always look identical regardless of the period she has travelled to.
The novel also goes into more detail with regards to Minty's mum Kate and her Aunt Mary. Kate is revealed to work in Grantham Hospital and the reason Minty stays with her godmother in the first place is because Kate is unable to get time off over the summer holiday and wants someone to look after her daughter. Why Minty is taken to Belton is never properly explained in the adaptation. Minty's thoughts about the archaic nature of her godmother are also clearer - she affectionately laughs at the way the old-fashioned Aunt Mary says things like 'Children like jellies' around her and does not understand what headphones are.
Dial Tone: Moondial's Reception and Legacy
Better bury your head, dear, the mirrors are coming out to play.
The BBC were delighted with the series and, hoping to recapture the success, quickly commissioned an adaptation of Philippa Pearce's 1958 novel Tom's Midnight Garden, which they broadcast the following year. This shares many plot similarities with Moondial, including nighttime time travel, a friendship across different eras and an overall Gothic theme.
Cresswell herself would continue to enjoy a close relationship with the BBC, adapting her own and other works of fantasy. In 1991 she adapted children's author Edith Nesbit's 1902 novel Five Children and It, the first of Nesbit's Psammead trilogy2 to great acclaim, following this up with a sequel series Return of the Psammead (1993) and an adaptation of The Phoenix and the Carpet (1997).
Visitor numbers at Belton House skyrocketed following the broadcast. Even today (2020), over 30 years later, Belton House is proud of its association with the serial and has a Moondial trail for visitors.
The BBC did receive a few letters of protest following Moondial from those stating that it promoted witchcraft, although the witch-like characters of Miss Vole and Miss Raven were presented as the villains. Despite this, since the original broadcast no record of any increase in witchcraft or Satanic acts related to Moondial has been recorded.
Light and shadows by turns, but always love.
Moondial is a series that does not explain everything, leaving the story open-ended and open to interpretation. This will delight those who enjoy maintaining a sense of mystery, but infuriate those who want to know why what happened happened. Among the points never fully explained is the relationship between Miss Vole and Miss Raven. Is someone from the past in the present, or is Raven a descendent or reincarnation of Vole? Is the Moondial sentient? It does seem to respond to Minty talking to it. While the Moondial takes Minty into the past, how does she return back to her own time when she is nowhere near it?
As a television series from the 1980s, Minty wears double-denim for a large portion of the time. This style suits her and her character admirably, proving that naysayers are wrong to criticise that style. The repetitive background music also relies on the synthesisers of the day, but is nevertheless extremely atmospheric and works well to create and build a genuine air of menace.
Unusually for a children's drama the series exclusively consisted of location filming rather than studio filming, which gives it a sense of realism. Belton House is a wonderful location; the BBC would return there when filming scenes for the definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), where it featured as Lady Catherine De Bourgh's residence 'Rosings'.
The one area in which Moondial has dated is that it was recorded on videotape rather than film. This was the BBC's standard approach of the time. Videotape is far cheaper than film but a lower quality format, with less depth of colour and less glossy finish3. Videotape was easier to edit effects into, although one of Moondial's strengths was how it used effects only sparingly, choosing to rely predominantly on old-fashioned storytelling rather than camera trickery. The effects present do not distract from the story or seem dated, but instead each have a purpose. The most notable, the spinning Moondial, conveys time travel. The change of lighting and daylight demonstrates the mystery of the graveyard and the other main effect is the day-for-night filming sequences4.
The serial remains a fondly-remembered, atmospheric, dark, broody and mysterious story that keeps viewers intrigued until the ambiguous ending.