It is the mid-nineteen-fifties, and Tom Long (Jeremy Rampling) is not a happy boy, for he is to be sent away to spend time apart from his family. This is thanks to his brother Peter (Simon Fenton) falling ill with measles, a very dangerous and infectious disease in those pre-vaccine days, and Tom has to be under quarantine lest he spread it to others, though he is showing no symptoms himself. Complaining loudly that he is not satisfied with this arrangement, twelve days away from home seems like an eternity, especially as he does not know his Uncle Alan (Shaughan Seymour) and Aunt Gwen (Isabelle Amyes) very well, but on arrival, prepared for boredom, the grandfather clock intrigues him...
This 1989 BBC version of Tom's Midnight Garden, the classic award-winner by Philippa Pearce, was the third time they tried the fantasy yarn (other adaptations were for radio), and just like many of their realisations of children's books it became much beloved of those who were children at the time they watched it. There was a film in 1999, but this eighties work was considered the best, capturing Pearce's very carefully balanced tale of the fantastical thanks to faithful scripting by Julia Jones and direction from the expert hand of Christine Secombe, niece of Goon Harry Secombe and by this stage highly experienced in getting the best out of material intended for the youngsters.
Being young was very much the theme of the piece, and what kind of state of mind it propagates, all under the guise of a story for the little ones to be read to them before bed: it had a cosy mood to it, despite occasional moments of peril for selected characters. That mood was assuredly present in this serial, and as it was broadcast in the winter months when it would have been dark outside in late afternoon, the memories associated with it would be of all nice and warm while cold weather struck the land, or it would have been had you watched this in Britain, where it was set. Of such things are childhood reminiscences made, and this has gone on to be the picture of contentment.
It was, in effect, a science fiction yarn, though dressed up in the fantasy trappings that, say, an E. Nesbit book would sometimes rely upon - the past sequences, as Tom discovers, were set in Victorian England. This was not to be mixed up with The Secret Garden, the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic that Tom's Midnight Garden can be compared to in terms of its reception and its overall effect, but the fantastical bent meant it contained precisely the right magic that has generations returning to it again and again. Tom, the hero, finds the old house he stays in with his relatives in their flat has an unexpected feature: should he venture out of the rooms and out of the back door at midnight, when the clock strikes thirteen, he is transported through the power of memory to the garden that existed there in the last century.
Yet it is not Tom's memory that transports him, it is someone else's who we are unaware of until the last ten minutes of the final episode (of six), though grown-up viewers may be ahead of him before the revelation. When in the garden, he finds nobody there can see or hear him except a girl named Hatty (Caroline Waldron) who he visits over and over during his stay, but only vaguely realises he is meeting her over the course of months, then years. To her, Tom represents the happiest aspect of a sad childhood, therefore she hangs onto him for as long as possible: what makes it poignant is both characters' gradual acknowledgement that you cannot sustain the happiest memories of childhood forever, and that you have to move on eventually. But the memories live on for as long as you do, and you should take comfort that you were in a good place at some points in the past, allowing them to enhance the adult you become. If the production was low budget, the obvious respect of the source won the day. Music by Paul Reade.
[Second Sight's DVD has an interview with Secombe as an extra, and fans will be pleased to see it again.]