Moondial

From time to time I ask people if they were a BBC kid or an ITV kid.  I’m sure that it can sometimes come across as an affectation, perhaps an attempt to turn the conversation onto children’s TV so we can all sit and  talk about Bagpuss or whatever and feel comfy and cosy.  There are people that do that, I’ve met them.  However, that is not a conversation I particularly want to have.  I don’t do fuzzy reminiscence and in in terms of the feelings one might  associate with nostalgia – familiarity, warmth, safety – these are not things I look for in television I enjoy.  I firmly believe that children’s TV is more than a distraction, that it serves a social function beyond entertainment.  So when I ask people whether they grew up watching BBC or ITV it’s because I think it’s as an important an aspect  in determining the kind of person that they turned out to be as the structure of their family, their educational background or any of the other key factors in childhood development.  I should probably admit it, I’m always suspicious of ITV kids.  There was never (and still isn’t) much that could lure me over to channel 3.  BBC was where it was at for me, and dramas like Moondial were why.

The biggest criticism of BBC kids TV from my ITV loving friends was that it was too middle class.  Araminta ‘Minty’ Cane the central character in Moondial sadly does little to dispel this.  I remember watching it at the time and thinking “I’d like you a lot more if you were just a bit less posh”.  We have to cut Minty some slack though, after all she has befallen the classic kids drama fate and had one of her parents die.  In the parallel universe of the supernatural drama the sensible way to deal with a significant childhood bereavement is to rip the child away from all that is safe and familiar, hence Minty is packed off to stay with ‘Aunt’ Mary in Belton.  Belton is apparently a very happening place, happening in a ghostly sense, so obviously ideal for a child dealing with existential issues.  Aunt Mary is not very happening, in any sense.  When Minty’s other parent is injured in a car accident she relays her condition most reassuringly by telling her “the head injury’s the main trouble”.  Aunt Mary also thinks headphones are a form of sorcery.

Moondial is based on the 1987 book of the same name by the prolific children’s author Helen Cresswell which she adapted herself the following year for the BBC.  This six parter was filmed on location in the real village of Belton in Lincolnshire and makes extensive use of Belton House and it’s gardens.  The ‘Moondial’ at the centre of the story is the actual sundial found in the Dutch Garden at Belton House sculpted by Caius Gabriel Cibber.  Christened the Moondial because it tells “the only true form of time”, moontime, it’s utilised in the drama as a portal device to transcend eras.  Minty discovers this by accident whilst wandering in the grounds after a conversation with Mr World (old man that knows more than he’s letting on) who has identified her as having ‘the key’ and is pretty soon is zipping backwards and forwards between the 18th, 19th and 20th century at will.

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While dubbed a ghost story, it’s more accurate to call Moondial a timeslip drama as really the only ghost Minty sees is Victorian kitchen boy Tom who uses the Moondial to travel to the future.  The rest of the time Minty actually is the ghost because she has travelled to the past.  Get your head round that one.   The theme of Moondial is time and love, the story of three children from three different periods of history trying to deal with cruelties unique to their time.  For Tom the kitchen boy it’s a classic tale of Victorian hardship – orphaned, uprooted from London and sent to work, he’s mistreated, overworked, misses his sister and probably has TB.  Sarah is the second child from the past, she bears ‘the mark of the devil’ and is vilified by all around her to the point where she only  dare go out at night.  The only human contact lonely Sarah has is with her cruel governess and via a quite persistent and extensive campaign of persecution from the local children who frequently chase her round the garden with pillow cases on their heads calling her the devil child, which is a lot less fun than it sounds.  Back in the 1980s the local children also harass Minty, mainly because she wears really awful waistcoats.

Moondial is the classic BBC escapist drama.  With a heavy emphasis on making the most of the period setting it’s surprisingly light on history as they could easily have upped the educational factor given the story takes place over three centuries.  It’s not any the worse for this, though the mystical elements of the story could certainly use some bulking out.  If you’re looking for explanations of the how’s and why’s you’ll be scrabbling around with lots of vague notions of alternate forms of time, liberation from invisible forces of evil and the central theme that all life’s cruelties can be overcome with time and love.  Hopefully the same can be said for Minty’s dress sense.

Tracking down a physical copy of Moondial could be a bit of a labour of love.  Unbroadcast since 1990, mysteriously it has only been released once in it’s episodic format and is currently out of circulation.  There are a few VHS copies of the edited film version to be tracked down, but as ever YouTube is your best bet.

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~ by hazyhazy on February 19, 2012.

One Response to “Moondial”

  1. Any ideas young girl in victorian nightstand skipping around fountain singing nursery rhyme . Ghost boy. Fallen burning tree. Old mansion. Please help.

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