'Moondial' - the Television Serial

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What happens to Time when the moon shines on a sundial?

Moondial is a 1987 children's novel by prolific children's 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.

Plot

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 her mother 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 particularly 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. After talking to 'Old' World who tells her that she must save the children and only she has the key, apparently discussing ghosts, she discovers the Moondial. This is a seemingly sentient sundial, decorated with statues of Chronos and Eros - the great healers, Time and Love - holding up the dial and gnomon. When she stands on its plinth and touches the statue of Eros, she is sent her 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, yet 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 – short for 'Edward' - an 11-year-old kitchen boy from London who, like his younger sister Dorrie, is dying of TB. He is also 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' and like to dress up wearing sackcloth hoods or masks, carrying flaming lanterns, beating and burning effigies of her and threaten to do the same to her. 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 saving the children from their own times and helping them escape into Moontime she will also wake her mother from the coma, with unconsciousness another form of Moontime. Yet this is made more difficult when a lodger comes to stay in Aunt Mary's house; Miss Raven calls herself a professional ghost hunter and is as interested in the contents of Minty's room and the books she is reading as the legends concerning Belton House.

Dramatis Personæ

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

CharacterActor
Araminta 'Minty' CaneSiri Neal
Tom 'short for Edward' LarkinTony Sands
Aunt MaryValerie Lush
Mr 'Old' WorldArthur Hewlett
John Benson Martin Sadler
SarahHelena Avellano
Kate CaneJoanna Dunham
Miss Vole} Jacqueline Pearce
Miss Raven

Siri Neal continued acting until the late 1990s, appearing in Sharpe's Battle (1995), before deciding to pursue a more stable career. Valerie Lush is best known for playing Auntie Flo in television series …And Mother Makes Three (1971-3) and follow-on …And Mother Makes Five (1974-5). Joanna Dunham appeared in numerous films and 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 (1996-8) 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 Helen 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 which many of the locations are places that can be visited. She had ensured that the National Trust had granted permission for Belton House to be used as a filming location in the television adaptation's very earliest stages. The key 'Moondial' is in reality a sundial dating from c1690 that really exists at Belton House 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 puts 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. Knowing from experience that they used the audition process to reward children and punish others, when at the Corona Stage School he deliberately asked to also see the 'naughty children' also, with 14-year-old Siri Neal 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, however 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 were the time travel sequences. These involved a circular track being placed around the Moondial so that the camera would quickly spin around and around the dial, filming firstly towards Minty on the dial and then breaking off to film the dial's surroundings. This sequence frequently made the cameraman dizzy and feel sick.

Dial Tone: Moondial's Reception

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 a splendid 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 night-time 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. Three years later she adapted children's author Edith Nesbit's 1902 novel Five Children and It, the first of Nesbit's Psammead trilogy2 in 1991 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, 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, despite the witch-like characters of Miss Vole and Miss Raven being the villains, it promoted witchcraft. Despite this, in the 30 years since original broadcast no record of any increase in witchcraft or Satanic acts related to Moondial has been recorded.

Review

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 obviously wears double-denim for a large portion of the time, conclusively 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 rather than studio filming, which gives the series 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).

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, though one of Moondial's strengths being how it only sparingly used effects, choosing to rely predominantly on old-fashioned story telling 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 are the day-for-night filming sequences4.

Yet the serial remains a fondly-remembered, atmospheric, dark, broody and mysterious story that keeps viewers intrigued until the ambiguous ending.

1An 'aunt' by title, not an actual relation. You can tell she is a bit posh as she is an Aunt, not an Aunty.2Followed by The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Story of the Amulet (1906).3Film records a series of images, or 'frames', chemically, whereas videotape records an electronic signal magnetically. Film is also a universal medium and often used for series intended to be sold internationally. Different videotape formats are used around the world: PAL, SECAM and NTSC. Film is easily converted to all three, but converting one videotape format to another results in quality reduction.4These are scenes set at night time that were filmed during the day, with the videotape darkened in post-production to look like night. There are both visual and practical reasons to do this. Visually, day-for-night filming avoids the reduction in picture quality that takes place when actually filming at night. It also avoids the practical inconvenience of filming at night-time, particularly as filming children outside at night is severely restricted by child performance regulations.

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