Ah, piracy. There are so many ways in which it’s a measurably bad thing, something we’d undoubtedly be better off without – but one thing that the world of copyright infringement is annoyingly good at is catching the things that fall through the cracks. Not everything stays in print, or easily available, and it’s amazing what you can track down if you’re prepared to look. I’d never have gotten another look at the wonderful, wonderful James Burke documentary series ‘The Day the Universe Changed’ if it wasn’t for piracy – and I also wouldn’t have gotten another chance to watch the fantastically atmospheric and spooky BBC childrens drama serial, Moondial.
Broadcast back in 1988, Moondial got a VHS release sometime in the early Nineties, but ever since then it’s almost entirely vanished from view – it’s ridiculously difficult to get hold of, and the one ‘proper’ DVD release it got vanished from the shops almost as soon as it was released (the most recent DVD release was – weirdly – via the Reader’s Digest, and is also now unavailable – it’s this full episodic version that is, at least at the moment, up in full episodic format on Youtube. And just to be clear, I’d buy a commercial DVD release of it in an instant, as would plenty of other similarly aged TV SF/fantasy geeks, I’m sure). Of course, there’s an awful lot of stuff from that era that doesn’t get a release as well, but it’s frustrating in Moondial’s case because it stuck in my memory so strongly from when I first watched it, back when I was fourteen, and the world of Children’s TV was a much weirder, spookier place.
There’s a whole variety of shows that are burnt into my mind from that era – one of them, the ITV anthology series ‘Dramarama: Spooky’, scared the living crap out of me so much that I’ve actually avoided the recent DVD release, simply because I’m not sure I want to find out that my memory cheated and that it wasn’t quite as scary as I’ve remembered. Some haven’t aged brilliantly – The Box of Delights, for example, a much-praised 1984 adaptation that kicked off a whole run of prestigious fantasy adaptations, still has charm but doesn’t quite hold together (mainly because of the completely insane free-form nature of John Masefield’s original story), but while Moondial is absolutely a product of its time and often spectacularly Eighties, it’s also aged better than I expected and pulls off some impressive levels of atmosphere.
Adapted by children’s writer Helen Cresswell from her own novel, it’s the story of Araminta Caine (teen actress Siri Neal), usually known as Minty, who’s packed off to stay in the country with her slightly stand-offish aunt, but barely gets a chance to settle in before her mother is involved in a near-fatal car-crash that puts her into a coma. Traumatised and lonely (especially since her father already died a few years previously), Minty ends up exploring the grounds of the sprawling country house nearby (actually Belton House in Lincolnshire), but 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 an ailing kitchen boy called Tom, and a terrified girl who always hides her face – both of them trapped in their respective worlds, and both needing Minty to eventually find their freedom.
Safe to say, this isn’t exactly action-packed. We do get two definite villains – an evil governess, and a hilariously nasty goth ghost-hunter, both played by Jacqueline Pearce in full-on style that’ll bring back happy memories of her days as ferociously camp villainess Servalan in BBC cult space opera Blake’s 7 – but this is in no way an adventure story. Mood is the key word here, and there’s a certain level of weird abstractness to the story that you certainly couldn’t get away with today, but while Moondial is mainly a gently-paced, slow-burning mood piece that’s all about character, it’s often an astonishingly good one.
The late Eighties is a time when the whole look of television started to change and evolve at a pretty dizzying rate, and there are a certain aspects of Moondial that feel very entrenched in the way things used to be – for example, the number of beautifully plummy English accents on display, especially in the adult members of the cast. However, visually there’s a very definite effort to make this look good – fantasy TV is always very director dependant, and it’s pretty clear that the director here (Colin Cant, who only worked on a handful of projects after this according to IMDB) understood that the visuals and the location was going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of generating a sense of enigma and mystery.
The end result of this is that the whole show has a wonderfully spooky edge, one that’s helped by the emotional undercurrent at the heart of the story – that it’s essentially about a girl finding a way of dealing with the possibility that her mother might die. We get a whole selection of sweeping tracking shots and kooky wide-angle lenses, which gives the show a very definite sense of style, and it’s also one of the few examples I can think of where filming day-for-night – throwing special filters onto the camera to acheive the illusion of night, back when cameras weren’t as powerful and night shooting was pricey – actually works. This is thanks to some carefully used filters and video effects, as well as the decision to drain most of the colour out of the image – what you get is something that doesn’t exactly look like night, but it does look dusky, weird and definitively spooky.
What makes it even more surprising is that Moondial is shot on video, and it’s incredibly difficult to make something shot on video look stylish (for an object lesson, go look at the late Nineties Neil Gaiman-written BBC drama Neverwhere, which only occasionally manages to lose the shot-on-video curse). Even the contemporary episodes of Doctor Who shot at the time (Season 25) don’t pull off quite so many moments of pure cinematic style as Moondial does when it’s really working. Matching this is a music soundtrack by David Ferguson that uses a mix of synths and traditional instruments in a way that’s weirdly timeless, adding a major level of darkness and edge to something that really could have come across as whimsical and feather-light.
There’s also the deliberately sinister edge given to the transport through time – I’ve always been fond of shows and movies that try to depict the impossible as real, and Moondial presents its fantasy elements very carefully, in a stylised but very controlled way. The travel through time via the sundial/moondial is acheived really simply – a circling tracking shot that spins around the sundial in question, combined with a funky piece of spinning late 1980s video effects – but combined with some fantastically eerie sound design, it gives a real sense of process. Rather than trying to be magical and charming, time travel in Moondial is weird, unsettling and disorienting, and the whole story feels much more weird (and ever-so-slightly science-fictional) as a result.
Admittedly, while much of Moondial still works astonishingly well, not everything here has aged as effectively. For a start, there’s an earnestness to the story that’s often touching, but occasionally trips over into slightly clumsy storytelling – it’s a very internal story, and unfortunately ends up relying on the ‘central character talks to herself’ device a few too many times. Siri Neal is often very impressive in a demanding role (she’s in virtually every scene), especially the sequences between her and Tom (Tony Sands), but there’s a few awkward moments in the opening episodes – especially a bit of full-on hysteria in episode 1 when she finds out about her mother’s accident – that don’t quite come off. The adult actors are generally divided into those who are really effective, and those who are giving slightly mannered ‘childrens TV’ performances (although Pearce isn’t among these, and gives a wonderful villainess turn that’s cool, chilling and distinctly camp).
The pacing is a bit too slow at times, even by Eighties childrens series standards – it’s a show that works better in 25 minute chunks than taken all in one go, and there does come a point in episode 6 where it’s hard not to think “Oh dear god, not another slow walk along the terrace to the Moondial?” Plus, the style is often very Eighties, even though there are plenty of TV dramas from that era that have aged much, much worse (like a 1986 version of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which now bears an unfortunate resemblence to the music video to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’).
Ultimately, the thing that’s most effective about Moondial is its sheer weirdness, which is what makes it even sadder that there’s hardly anything like it on television anymore. It taps into a very English form of spookiness (from the menace of country houses, to the devilish children dressed in Wicker Man-style animal masks), it’s as gothic (and Goth) as a childrens TV series can probably get away with, and it’s a show that dares to take its time and be deliberately dreamy and surreal. While it’s rough around the edges, and the ending will almost certainly leave you scratching your head and going “Okay, that wasn’t entirely satisfying…”, this is still a trip down memory lane that’s worth taking. Here’s hoping that a proper DVD re-release turns up sooner rather than later…