Sunday, 21 January 2018

Moondial


Moondial is a children's TV show which may leave you rather baffled as questions with no answers rain down on you like a summer storm, but you can rest assured that this irked puzzlement will take place from behind the sofa. You see, from the cold opening sequence with its cacophony of haunted, otherworldly tones to the creepy Halloween finale, Moondial is real horrorshow. Founding its narrative in a good old fashioned ghost story, Moondial taps into that area of the brain which operates purely on instinct and won't rest until every square inch of your body is covered in goosebumps.

Genre: Children's
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 10/02/1988 - 16/03/1988


Following the death of her father, Minty (Siri Neal) has been out of sorts and her mother (Joanna Dunham) decides that a change of scenery may help Minty readjust to a world without a paternal figure. Minty soon finds herself travelling to Lincolnshire to liver with her Aunt Mary (Valerie Lush), but the apparently tranquil change of surroundings is soon shattered when Minty's mother is involved in a car crash shortly after dropping Minty off. Precariously balanced between life and death in a coma, Minty's mother presents yet another stressor for Minty's fragile, pubescent state.


Mocked by the local children, Minty finds temporary refuge in the beautiful grounds of Belton House and, in particular, finds herself mysteriously drawn towards a moondial in the gardens. Flanked by statues of Chronos and Eros, this moondial is much more than just a standard timepiece as it's capable of transporting Minty back in time. Minty's first travels take her back to Victorian times where she meets the TB suffering kitchen boy Tom (Tony Sands), but eventually Minty (and Tom) find themselves going back to the 18th century where they come across the troubled Sarah (Helena Avellano).


Blighted by a birthmark which her contemporaries believe is the mark of the devil, Sarah leads a lonely terrified existence where she is hidden away within Belton House under the cruel watch of Miss Vole (Jacqueline Pearce). Determined to save both Sarah and Tom from their unsettled, cheerless existences, Minty sets out to bring peace to their lives. A plan of action which is backed and urged by 'Old' World (Arthur Hewlett), a present day local who is well aware of the ghostly children trapped within Belton House.


Minty documents her trials and tribulations with the past onto a tape recorder as a story that she hopes will rouse her mother from her deep coma. However, Minty's quest has an unexpected obstacle in its way in the form of darkly enigmatic ghost hunter Miss Raven (Jacqueline Pearce), who Minty soon discovers has a disturbing connection to Belton House's ghostly past.

Setting the Moon

Based on the 1987 novel - of the same name - written by Helen Cresswell, Moondial was a six episode series which first aired in 1988 on Wednesday evening's at 5.05pm on BBC1; one repeat of the series came in 1990. Curiously, the series has had several home releases with a 'movie edit' of the series being released on VHS in 1990 and 1995 with a DVD version coming out in 2000. The first episodic release didn't land until 2009 when it had a limited DVD release through Reader's Digest, a much more widely available DVD finally came in 2015.


Helen Cresswell continued the writing duties for the TV adaptation having previously written scripts for The Bagthorpe Saga and The Secret World of Polly Flint. Keen to continue in the world of telefantasy, Cresswell also went on to script Five Children and It, The Return of the Psammead, The Demon Headmaster and The Phoenix and the Carpet. Directing Moondial was Colin Cant who had previously directed the equally spooky The Children of Green Knowe and later found himself in the director's chair for Russell T Davies' early, mysterious offerings of Dark Season and Century Falls.

Dancing in the Moonlight

Moondial certainly made an impression on me as a youngster - I think I probably caught the repeat of the series - and its dark, troubling atmosphere ensured that it was indelibly stamped upon the section of my young memory reserved for dealing with things that go bump in the night. Admittedly, in the intervening years, I frequently mixed up the narrative with that of Tom's Midnight Garden, but please, people, give me a break as they aired around the same time and both featured characters called Tom. So, I retained a sense of unsettling anxiety whenever I heard mention of the show, but how would I interpret these supernatural goings-ons nearly three decades later?


Well, Moondial instantly harries you into a world of unease with that pre-titles opening which is soundtracked by ominous, rumbling organs and shrieking, ghostly synths which create a terrifyingly discordant racket. As this unearthly symphony unfolds, a young girl in white sets off from a set of church gates, making her way across a moonlit lawn and towards a moondial where she pauses. A light in a grand house at the top of the lawn draws her attention and she hurries towards it. Peering into the window, she's confronted with a ghostly apparition of herself pursued by a lady in black who wrestles her away from the window.

And, dear God, it's true, nightmare inducing territory. It's bewildering, it's unsettling and it terrorises the senses with a thrilling energy and ease. Thankfully, after that (and the titles) we're back in normality to catch our breaths and pray that the opening was nothing more than a traumatic misstep by the director. After all, this is children's TV, right? We don't expect to have such deep-seated fear imprinted on our soul at this age, right? Unfortunately for us, Colin Cant is quite happy to continue fashioning this imprint with a sledgehammer.

The disconcerting feeling of perplexity and displacement soon seeps back into the narrative as Minty is first exposed to the horrific vision of her mother lying on a life support system and then begins her travails into the past. Belton House, of course, is central to the story and it's a fantastic setting, all tremendously British, but at the same time able to conjure up a sense of dread through its imposing stone walls and long, dark history. The moondial, which remains on site, is a nice centrepiece to the story and, again, adds a mystical edge to the proceedings, especially with its connotations of Greek mythology.


Transporting Minty back in time, the moondial brings her face to face with new horrors. Poor Tom is under the cosh of his masters and clearly unwell, coughing up a gruesomely vivid mouthful of blood in one stomach churning scene. Nonetheless, despite his debilitating respiratory problems, he channels an urchin charm, underlined by his unshakeable belief that he'll defy genetics and become a lofty footman. It's Sarah, though, whose young soul is subjected to the most chilling and tortuous scenes, all backed up with not even a grain of hope or childlike naivety.


Initially portrayed as nothing, but a shadowy, cloaked figure pursued by Miss Vole, Sarah's faceless form presents a subtle, thrilling mystery and also sets up a series of disturbing scenes. First, the local children, systematically beat and then burn a mannequin said to represent the 'devil child' and, finally, Sarah is confronted by a young, baying mob who refuse to accept that her birthmark is nothing less than a sign of the cloven hoofed beast. They're all wearing folk horror masks (one of which looks like an even more horrifying version of Noseybonk) and posses a bloodlust unrivalled in children's TV.


Clearly, the visuals in Moondial are strong and sinister, but what of the actual story?

In terms of scope, it's quite terrific as it takes in time travel and the supernatural, two genres which can be exhilarating in their own right, so the promise of greatness is set in the foundations. However, in terms of startling clarity, Moondial fares worse than a moondial on a sun-drenched afternoon. There's a basic thread woven into the narrative that Minty needs to help others be it her unconscious mother or two ghostly children. It's an admirable message and one which is translated loud and clear, but slightly more deafening are the unanswered questions left clogging your consciousness.

The moondial, for example, is the central device from which all the twists and turns of the story and furiously stoked, but do we ever find out how or why it does what it does? Like hell we do! Okay, there's a brief discussion between Minty and World about 'moontime', which attempts to broach the subject but this is sadly smothered by vague notions. And Miss Raven's appearance in the modern day is an exciting twist, but, you know, it fizzles out to nothing. Oh, and where on Earth do Tom, Sarah and Dorry (Tom's sister) go skipping off to? Judging by Minty's discovery of Tom's grave (dated 1871), he didn't lead a long life, so did he succumb to TB and not actually glean much happiness?


It's not all disappointing, of course, Tom and Minty's friendship has moments of joy, the narrative never fails to dawdle and, by the end of the serial, Minty has found redemption and is in a much clearer sense of mind than at the start. And if a hero can't come out stronger and it be considered a success then I don't know what makes a decent yarn. The acting, too, is very strong with all the young actors putting in strong, confident shifts. Jacqueline Pearce, in her dual roles, is wonderfully unhinged, particularly in her 'unveiling of the mirrors scene' which is alarming in its depiction of wickedness.

Sure, Moondial may fall short in the logic stakes, but its eerie visual magnificence and gripping adventure manages to overcome its flaws and deliver a piece of children's TV which will stick with you through the decades.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Want to Be Part of the Video Tape Swap Club?


Netflix is a wonderful marvel of modern entertainment which provides hundreds of thousands of hours worth of visual delights with just a few swipes of a screen. Apparently. I've only used it a few times, so can't really comment on the stranglehold it has over our modern viewing habits.

I do, however, absolutely love the rich history of British TV. I also adore the nostalgic thrill of wading through old VHS tapes to discover the home recordings which may be lurking within. So, why don't I try to combine these two passions? Well, I already do and my Archive Tape Digging articles are testament to this hobby obsession.

However, what I'd really love to do is create something which is a little more communal, so that's why I've dreamt up the Video Tape Swap Club. And, no, it's nothing like Blockbusters. Or even LoveFilm. Instead, the Video Tape Swap Club will provide a curiously analog alternative to Netflix with all the mystery and excitement of a lucky dip down on the village green.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Kazuko's Karaoke Klub


When you watch Kazuko's Karaoke Klub you have to wonder exactly what Channel 4 executives were smoking in the late 1980s. Sure, the channel was a much needed beacon for the alternative and the strange and, in a trashy way, this continues with shows such as Naked Attraction. However, whereas Naked Attraction, serves up some mild titillation (no, I'm not going to apologise for the pun) that taps into our base instincts, Kazuko's Karaoke Klub is very much the kind of television that leaves you as bewildered as an aging aunt confronted with a new TV remote.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Whatever You Want


Whatever You Want is thrilling, agitated, rock and roll, hilarious and out to prove a point. It's the kind of television that the British youth had been waiting for in 1982, a soapbox for them to investigate and discuss the issues affecting a Britain gripped by unemployment figures tipping over the three million mark. With an acerbic brand of journalism forming the show's background, it's presented by the unpredictable, forthright stylings of Keith Allen. Whatever You Want is also a disjointed melange of viewpoints, moods and styles.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Archive Tape Digging: December 2017


I worked out the other day that I must have worked my way through close to 1,000 VHS tapes throughout 2017 in search of interesting nuggets of British TV. Obviously, I don't scan every single millisecond of the tapes as that would be ridiculously time consuming, so the fast forward button helps me skip through the late 1980s editions of Blind Date and get to the interesting bits like ad breaks and whatever followed when the tape was left running.

Monday, 25 December 2017

25th December 1977 - A Seminal Day in British Broadcasting History? Or Not?


Today's very special and festive blog is courtesy of Jonathan Hayward, a friend of Curious British Telly and a man responsible for many of the VHS recoveries on the YouTube page.

The above date has been thought of by a number of writers and commentators as the day, or perhaps more accurately, the evening when populist but universally accessible broadcasting reached its most dominant apex. Starting with Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game, followed by The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show and climaxing with The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, the latter reaching viewing figures quoted as 27 million or even slightly higher at 28.835 million.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Re-United


The Manchester United team of the mid to late 1960s was a stupendous collection of talents, personalities and, most importantly, winners. Their highpoint, of course, came in 1968 when they Benfica to become the first English team to win the European Cup (Celtic had taken the accolade of first British club to win the competition the previous season). 10 years on from the Munich air disaster, it was the culmination of an unenviable rebuilding process helmed by Matt Busby which sought to yield the ultimate fruit. And yield it did.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Inimitable Johnny Jarvis Theme Tune


If you've never managed to succumb to the beauty of the Johnny Jarvis theme tune then there's a good chance that you're either stone deaf or beyond any sense of known help. And not only is the Johnny Jarvis theme tune an incessant earworm which refuses to evacuate your auditory system, but it also heralds the start of one of the finest British television dramas.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

42 Lesser Known British Children’s TV Shows

I was flicking through one of those 'Greatest Children's TV Shows' things the other day and, yes, the shows it listed were indeed fantastic, but what about the other children's shows that were making up the schedules as Tiswas, Knightmare and Grange Hill were unfolding?

I'm pretty sure that they're still worthy of recognition in some way (even if they're forgotten for good reason), so that's why I've decided to pull together 42 lesser known British children's TV shows to give a fuller understanding of what children's TV is capable of.