DVD Review: Moondial

1988 – 6 Episodes – 175 minutes
DVD – Second Sight

[xrr rating=3.5/5]


It’s been a very long time since the 1988 six-part BBC childrens drama serial Moondial aired on television. Now, after a lengthy period when the only way of seeing it was hunting down old VHS copies or dodgy versions on Youtube, Moondial has received a proper DVD release, giving us the chance to see if it’s stood the test of time.

Adapted by children’s author Helen Cresswell from her own 1987 novel, the story follows Araminta (Siri Neal), known as Minty, a teenager who’s already lost one parent when a car crash puts her mother in a potentially fatal coma. Having been bundled off to stay with her old-fashioned aunt, Minty feels isolated and alone – but as she explores the grounds of the nearby stately home (actually Belton House in Lincolnshire), she soon finds herself involved in the kinds of spooky goings-on that tend to happen around mysterious country houses in children’s stories.

In this case, an ancient sundial holds the key to something that’s halfway between a time travel tale and a ghost story, as Minty crosses paths with two children from the house’s past – an ailing kitchen boy called Tom, and a terrified girl who always hides her face. Both of them are trapped in their respective worlds, and both need Minty’s help to eventually find their freedom.

Unfolding at a gentle pace across its six episodes, Moondial is a story that’s more concerned with atmosphere than sense. While there are definite heroes and villains (including a memorable turn from Jacqueline Pearce, best remembered as the ferociously camp Supreme Commander Servalan in BBC cult space opera Blake’s 7), this is a long way from being an adventure story. Instead, Moondial often plays like a child-oriented version of 1979–81 SF mindbender Sapphire and Steel, mixing a brooding, slow-burning mood with ambiguous storytelling and a hefty dose of dream logic.

Time hasn’t entirely been kind to Moondial. Late 1980s British TV was an era of change and flux, and the series harks back to older, more traditional styles of television – most notably, the now-surprising number of posh RP accents on display from much of the cast. There’s also a lot of moments that highlight how much culture can change in 27 years (from Aunt Mary dealing with Minty’s hysteria by slapping her, to the description of genial old man World as someone who “loves children”).

The series never quite escapes a theatrical edge, from Minty’s regular habit of talking aloud to herself, to the somewhat mannered nature of some of the performances. Siri Neal is often very striking and effective as Minty, and she builds up an enjoyable onscreen friendship with Tony Sands as Tom, but there are points where she can’t pull off the material she’s been given (such as her hysterical reaction in episode 1).

What’s most impressive about the show is its sense of atmosphere. Director Colin Cant pulls off the remarkable trick of creating a genuine sense of otherworldly menace while shooting on video – just see the original 1996 TV version of Neverwhere to see how hard this can sometimes be. Cant is also helped in this by the amazing, doomy soundtrack from David Ferguson that pushes the gothic nature of the story even further.

Wide-angle lenses, video effects and tracking shots are in full force, and the stylisation also extends to the day-for-night sequences. Night filming was far too expensive for a 1988 children’s show, but the solution Cant uses is surprisingly effective, both darkening the image and draining the colour to create a dusk-like effect, so that sequences like the arrival of the masked children in episode 3 are genuinely chilling.

Cant also shoots the hell out of Belton House as a location, making full use of the cavernous rooms and the stately gardens, and captures a very English sense of spookiness. From the natural menace of the house itself, to the weirdness of the sundial and the sight of a horde of children dressed in Wicker Man-style animal costumes, there’s no shortage of weird and unsettling moments. Even the sound design plays into this, giving the whole story a chilly, otherworldly feel that’s ambiguous and unsettling in exactly the right way.

The pacing is sometimes awkward and occasionally way too slow (there’s a point in episode 6 where it’s impossible not to think “Oh God, not another gradual walk to the sundial?”), and the ending may leave many thinking “So… what happened again?”. However, Moondial also plays into the fears of mortality, loss and abandonment upon which much of the best childrens and YA fantasy is based. The series has definitely dated, but the atmosphere, mood and off-beat sense of spookiness is still capable of exerting a pull on those willing to take the chance.

EXTRAS: Half an hour of interesting interviews with Cant and Neal, who go into a healthy amount of detail on the making of the show, and there’s also a commentary track from both of them on episodes one and six.

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