As devoted genre fans our interest inevitably begins somewhere, our draw toward the dark side of media often starts during our childhoods. From a very young age we are exposed to more challenging and ominous material in fairytale books and Disney films.
While growing up in the nineties, shows such as Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark and a lesser forgotten CITV anthology series Frightners, caught my attention and were long lasting in the mind. Children’s horror fiction is designed to get under the skin while creeping us out bringing in a different perspective into our young lives on how we understand the world around us. Life isn’t always harmonious, it can get scary which is what our books, television shows and films instill into us. Therefore the perfect opportunity arose when a beloved cult Children’s BBC television mini-series from the late eighties but unknown to myself was offered to review.
That series is Moondial, now available to own on DVD in all its unedited glory for the first time in fifteen years thanks to Second Sight Films. I missed this wonderfully surreal series during its original run. It was broadcast on Children’s BBC back in February and March 1988, a good year before I was born and was then repeated once again in 1990. A Video release was issued in 1990 then re-issued in 1995 however cut to fit a movie length. In 2000 the first Moondial DVD was distributed but is no longer available.
For its loyal fans Moondial is a piece of nostalgia, bringing back memories from their childhood. Despite not being Moondial’s target audience anymore, there is a lot to appreciate from the show, while it’s evidently designed for a young audience there’s plenty for adults to take away from it too.
Based on the best-selling novel by Helen Creswell (who also adapted the screenplay of The Demon Headmaster) and directed by Colin Cant, Moondial is oddly compelling throughout its six installments. Prior to the first episode Araminta ‘Minty’ Cane (Siri Neal) is struck with tragedy following the death of her father When we meet her she is subsequently sent to stay with her elderly Aunt Mary (Valerie Lush) but tragedy strikes twice when she hears her mother has been involved in a fateful car crash leaving her in a coma.
Now stranded in an unfamiliar place, the ever-curious Minty begins to explore the gardens of the local mansion. It’s there she discovers the mysterious and magical moondial that transports her back in time to the turn of the century. On her journey she comes across two lonely and troubled children Tom (Tony Sands) and Sarah (Helena Avellano) from different times who suffer unbelievable cruelty at the hands of some malevolent forces. Mr World (Arthur Hewlett), an elderly gentleman guides Minty as she is chosen to save the children from potentially the devil himself. Events take an interesting yet sinister turn with the arrival of ‘Ghost Hunter’ Miss Raven (Jaqueline Pearce); who is she and what is her connection to the children beyond the moondial?
Moondial unapolegetically throws heavy and hard-hitting themes at its young audience, immediately we are introduced to a character who has experienced much heartache throughout her short life, making it one of the more interesting programmes created for children’s television during its time. Minty must come to terms with the loss of a parent, the concept of a possible step-parent as well as her mother’s critical condition, which is literally life or death. On top of that is the fantastical horror elements that heavily focus on ideas about the devil, how adults can be cruel and calculating and the creepy notion of the existence of ghosts. There’s then undertones of vanity at play in relation to Miss Raven’s character which leads to an important lesson being taught about self-image by the series closure.
Minty, however is far from a victim, she is incredibly strong-willed, dynamic and smart, and an example of a positive heroine. She does not allow adults to patronize her and copes with grief in her own way, it could be argued that Minty uses the Moondial as a sense of escapism from her real world problems. The show as a whole does not undermine its viewers and isn’t afraid to push the boundaries in terms of the themes it deals with.
There’s tons of creepy imagery galore; the angel statues, the lynch mob children with sacks on their heads (eerily reminiscent of a pre-pubescent KKK) and later donning Halloween masks chanting “devil child” intensely at little Sarah. There’s also the raven who appears in the opening sequence which becomes symbolic later on. The whole programme’s tone is gloomy bordering on depressing especially with Minty’s mother frozen in a coma throughout each episode, but the character of Tom manages to inject in some cheekiness to lighten the mood.
By today’s standards the series does look dated. Minty uses technology such as a tape recorder which will be unfamiliar to a children’s audience nowadays. Interestingly, at this point the fourth wall is broken as Minty devises tape recordings of her adventures to relay to her mother in hospital. She refers to them as installments which works cleverly as each episode unfolds. The music, costume, sets, special effects, abrupt editing and at times overly expressive acting all contribute to Moondial being a product of the 1980’s which may be problematic in terms of introducing it to today’s young viewers who are used to polished CGI. That said, it has potential to find a new audience on DVD, its original loyal fans of course will be eager to rewatch the series and kids of the eighties and nineties that may have missed it the first time around will discover an appeal.
For what it is, Moondial is impressive and feels somewhat unique. Its a fascinating Children’s fantasy, adventure, horror, drama with a strong episodic story arc and a productive heroine to root for. The location of the gardens where the majority of the action takes place are gorgeous, filmed on the grounds of Belton House in Lincolnshire. There’s a grand, maze-like essence to them, the perfect place for a childhood adventure. Moondial feels like a time capsule of the darker, grittier television series that were on offer for young people nearly thirty years ago.
So let the moon shine on the sundial and transport back in time with Minty. Moondial can now be yours to own on DVD.