Ghosts In Time:
Time-travel or ghost story? Robert Taylor takes a look at Moondial, a classic children’s drama that puts the resilience of children, in the face of adversity, at its heart...
During the 1970s and 1980s, children’s television drama was arguably at its height with both original and adapted material being brought to the screens during weekly tea-time on a consistent basis by both the BBC and ITV networks. Dramas where children took the centre stage and were given a platform to be equals to their adult counterparts and therefore subject to as much peril and tribulation within stories that didn’t shy away from hard-hitting subject matters and dealing with very real issues that were instantly relatable no matter how fanciful the setting.
Moondial, a novel written by Helen Cresswell, was published in 1987 and was almost immediately produced by the Children’s BBC Drama Department, (the adaptation aired in February 1988) with Cresswell adapting, very closely, her own source material. In line with other children’s drama of this era, this adaptation tackles, head-on, themes of death, bereavement, isolation and displacement alongside physical and mental child abuse with strong undercurrents of the supernatural and creeping threat.
Ariminta (Minty) Cane, reluctantly separated from her mother, stays with her Aunt Mary (Valerie Lush) in Belton, Lincolnshire and it isn’t long before the curiosity of the nearby Belton House and its mysterious Sundial leads her to cross the threshold of time and encounters ghostly presences who appear to be caught in the trappings of life as much as she is.
The narrative both in the novel and the adaptation doesn’t offer a clear resolution or straight-forward explanations and appears to deliberately leave us with a fair degree of ambiguity. Even director Colin Cant admits being puzzled by the scripts and having to explore their meaning further.
‘I was baffled by it! I used to go in to see Paul (Stone, Executive Producer) and say, ‘What about this, who’s done that and why has this happened?’ and he eventually got fed up with me, and he said, ‘Look, why don’t you go up to Nottingham and talk to Helen (Cresswell) yourself’. So, I went up with a few sheets of A4 with all my questions on, had a nice lunch, and she obviously knew I was coming to ask her a few things and she launched into a chat about it and I came away thinking, ‘Oh I get it now!’ Almost by osmosis, I got the feel for what it was all about and I never got to ask her one of my questions!’ (1)
However, the story remains a potent one and examines the very impact that bereavement can have on a child whilst not requiring to give us all the answers. Sometimes, as in life, we do not get to have the answers.
Minty (Siri Neal), is a gifted child who can sense things that many cannot (this is subtlety alluded to during the opening of episode one much like the opening paragraphs of the novel although the adaptation omits the dark notion of Minty sensing a past act of suicide on the landing in her own home and realised her ability when she could hear her father’s voice even though he is dead). Neal gives Minty a rather fearless and unconventional quality to her character along with an incredibly real vulnerability having already lost a parent and is now facing the very real threat of losing the other.
Following a serious road traffic accident, Minty’s mother suffers head injuries and remains in a coma. Suffering from a sense of abandonment, (she pleaded with her mother to stay a little longer before she set off on the car journey) Minty now seems to purposely detach herself from the relationship in order to keep her strength. In a scene that does not hold back for children’s television, we see the devastating full extent of her mother’s condition – non-responsive, heavy surgical dressings, facial injuries, tubes, clicking machinery, and ventilation. Understandably affected, Minty cautiously draws closer to her mother and she immediately addresses her as ‘Kate’ and whilst a nurse encourages her to speak so that her mother might hear, Minty strongly rejects the idea and flees the hospital ward.
Minty clearly tries to exert control over the things in life that we simply do not have control over. She mentions, half-jokingly, about holding her breath in order to stop growing, having earlier acknowledged that things ‘don’t feel safe any more’ since her father died, as if she has the desire to try and stop the clock from turning any further. Now she is faced with the prospect of being an orphan and appears to stand strong in the face of this horrible possibility even if she is not quite sure where this will take her next.
But Minty’s mother has already set her on that journey with talk about ‘happenings’ at Belton House and this, along with being physically struck by her Aunt Mary, out of the hysteria and shock upon hearing news of the accident, appears to have opened up a doorway to some other world or time.
Moondial strikes a refreshingly feminist approach for its time. Minty is very much the leading character, strong-willed and fearless in the face of adversity, compassionate and pro-actively engages in order to help others. There is no notion of being a ‘tom boy’ here, Minty is a strong woman who can lead, challenge, and help others.
This does not take away from her vulnerability, and she is clearly hurting and lost amongst bereavement and tragedy. Having agreed to record tapes describing her time-travelling adventures for her mother to listen to because she cannot bear to be with her mother in such conditions, she returns home to collect her walk-man and enters the empty untouched rooms much like a ghost clinging to its past for fear of the unknown. In the novel, she once pounders, ‘Perhaps rooms don’t come alive til people live in them’. (2) As a ghost, Minty does not have the power to reclaim the past.
After meeting the mysterious and emotional Mr (Old) World (Arthur Hewlett) who talks of the heartache caused by hearing the cries of the children, trapped over at the house, across decades, Minty steps forward into the grounds of Belton House accepting the idea that she is key to reaching them.
Built between 1685 and 1688 by John Brownlow (1659-97), along with the ponds and gardens, Belton House sits in the parish of Belton and Manthorpe not far from Grantham, Lincolnshire. Situated on the axial pathway is a figure of Time made from Portland stone, seated on a globe and supporting a baluster column with the assistance of a cherub. Atop this statue is a brass sundial inscribed by Thomas Wright and dating to 1725. (3)
Led on to the sundial, upon a strangely symmetrical journey resembling that of her dream which opens this six-part serial – and accompanied by the late David Ferguson’s magnificent score – Minty discovers its powers to be that of not just ‘apparent-time’ but also that of ‘moon-time’ and the dial spins her on course to the 19th Century where she meets a fellow time-traveller, a boy called Tom ‘short for Edward’ (Tony Sands).
Tom strikes a sickly, solitary, outcast figure during his time at Belton House. His name isn’t even his own and later reveals that Tom is the name given to all the kitchen boys working at the house. Like many children from his background, he is denied education, forced to work, locked up and beaten by the adult staff who treat him as sub-human as opposed to the boy he really is. Despite this, Tom is unflinchingly positive in such brutal circumstances and unlike Minty, he categorically wants to become tall and endearingly takes deep gulps of air at regular intervals to ensure his timely growth. Tom longs to become older so that he can be reunited with his sister, Dorrie (Naomi Elvin) who is ill and living in London squalor. This is in stark contrast to Minty’s need to stop and have things, as they once were, back in her own lifetime.
Tragically for Tom, he will never see his sister because, like him, she is a victim of the Victorian impoverished and has succumbed to Tuberculosis. Tom may not yet know it, but his destiny is instead to free another child trapped in the shrouded blackness of night another century away at Belton House and will need Minty’s guidance to help him.
18th-Century Belton House sees a ghostly, shrouded, and hooded figure walk its gardens. This is Sarah (Helena Avellano), the third child in this story, who is hidden in the depths of Belton House by the oppressive and abusive Miss Vole (Jacqueline Pearce) – whose mirror image is, inexplicably, that of Miss Raven, a ghost hunter, who torments Minty in the present day with unspoken threats of finding the children. Sarah hides in shame and internal loathing and only dares venture out into the late night.
Sarah has been conditioned to hide her face for she has the ‘devil’s mark’, a birthmark that lines one side of her face. She is cruelly subjected to horrific abuse from the village children who chide her continually with chants of ‘devil’s child’ just as Miss Vole also refers to her as and is threatened with the uncovering of mirrors, ‘The mirrors are coming out to play!’, so that should her reflection cast upon any of them then they would crack, ruin and the devil will come and get her.
But Sarah is an innocent, beautiful child who has been led to believe she is evil has seemingly never been loved or accepted by anyone. At one point, Minty and Tom witness her daring venture into the daylight and trying to wash the devil’s mark from her face by the fountain in a heart-breaking scene that shows the true extent of the mental torment she has been subjected to. And all the while, as she walks the grounds of Belton House in darkness, singing her solitary song, ‘I’m weeping for a play-mate on a bright summers day’ she is completely unaware she has two mates awaiting to save her from her loneliness.
The moondial becomes then the very source that leads these three children to become impossibly interconnected across two centuries, and when Old World checks the history of the dial from a book that he has kept since his own childhood, he informs Minty that the statue which holds up the brass dial represent Chronos and Eros, translated as time and love. Both Minty and Tom are equally empathic and caring children standing firm in times when their own lives are shattered with tragedy and so it would appear their ability to shun superstition and prejudice enables the dial to allow them in and to conquer time.
The closing moments of the show feature a poignant scene where Tom is reunited with his sister Dorrie and, along with Sarah, walk off into the distance before fading from Minty’s view entirely. Lux et Umbra vicissim, sed semper Amor, Light and shadow by turns, but always Love.
As much as this is a story about time travel, this is a ghost story where Minty has become a protector of trapped voices of the past, freeing them so they can move on to whatever comes next before she returns to her own time for good and thereby forced to move only forward. Minty might have felt like she was a ghost and, indeed, upon first meeting Tom there was much playful debate between the two over such matters but, unlike Tom and Sarah, she certainly was not one.
Moondial aired between Wednesday, 10th February 1988 and Wednesday, 16th March 1988 (4), on BBC One, closing the last part of Children’s BBC programming. It would be repeated, two years later, in the same slot with its last broadcast taking place on Wednesday, 13th June 1990 at 5:05 pm (5). It also featured on the children’s television review and comments programme Take Two on Wednesday, 20th April 1988 at 4.30 pm (6), hosted by Philip Schofield and joined by executive producer, Paul Stone.
This magical, at times, harrowing, and engaging six-parter signalled an end of an era as the decade closed to allow the 1990s to begin where children’s drama would continue its shift for faster-paced viewing with less quiet tones. Colin Cant reflects upon this change of pace.
‘Of course, the department doesn’t exist in the same way now at the BBC, there’s not much drama at all these days and I think that it’s a shame because you hear a lot of people saying, ‘Whatever happened to BBC children’s drama’ which is a pity because it was always going in such an interesting area, but nowadays it’s all crash-bang-wallop with just games and cartoons.’ (7)
By those who watched it originally air, Moondial remains fondly remembered and much loved by viewers and readers alike and with its beautiful imagery, outstanding for a show shot on video-tape, lingers long in the mind afterwards. Staying with us, perhaps, as long as time itself.
1,7) Starburst Magazine, Feature, Colin Cant – Moondial, 3rd May 2015, Paul Mount
2) Moondial, p108, 2015, Faber by Faber, Helen Cresswell
3) Historic England, Belton House, List entry no. 100469
4,5,6) BBC Genome Project.
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