Tom’s Midnight Garden (1989) – Second Sight DVD Review

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After Tom Long’s brother, Peter, comes down with a bad case of measles, Tom (Jeremy Rampling), is forced to spend several weeks with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen (Shaughan Seymour and Isabelle Amyes). Although they’re friendly enough, they live in a small flat where there’s nothing to do (and what’s worse, no garden to play in).

Tom becomes intrigued with a grandfather clock which sits in the downstairs lobby. It belongs to Mrs Bartholomew (Renee Asherson), their reclusive and elderly landlady. Unable to go out, due to fears that he may be infectious, Tom becomes more and more frustrated – until one midnight he hears the grandfather clock striking thirteen.  Creeping downstairs, he discovers that the back yard (which he was told only housed an old bike and a few dustbins) has now been transformed into a gorgeous sunlit garden ….

Originally published in 1958, Phillipa Pearce’s novel has been adapted for television three times (this was the most recent) and was also turned into a film in 1999 as well as a stage production in 2001. Long regarded as a classic of children’s literature, Julia Jones’ adaptation manages to capture a good deal of the magic of the original.

Broadcast in six episodes during January 1989, it’s an all-videotape production, as was common at the time. Film would have given the story a little extra gloss, but this is only a small quibble.

The first episode contents itself with setting up the story, meaning that we only briefly glimpse the garden right at the end of this opening instalment. This gives us plenty of opportunity to get to know Tom (he’s a remarkably whiny child to begin with and also very fond of burping). He may be hard to love in these early scenes, but this unsympathetic portrayal is necessary, otherwise the redemptive nature of the garden would carry less weight.

Once he ventures out into the garden in earnest he makes a new friend – Hatty (Caroline Waldron). She, like the garden and the transformed house during these midnight trips, is rooted in the Victorian era (which results in a pleasing combination of two different eras). But the question is, is she a ghost in the present or is Tom a ghost in the past?

With six episodes to play with, there’s a leisurely feel to proceedings – this isn’t a bad thing though, as it helps to create a relaxing atmosphere. Puzzling though the garden may be, it’s also a haven of peace and security (at most times, anyway). We do observe the occasional discordant moment – such as when a tree is felled by a lightning bolt. This is achieved via an impressive piece of modelwork which, unlike the rest of the serial, is shot on film.

If Tom feels somewhat invisib!e in the real wor!d, then he’s really invisib!e whenever he enters the garden. It seems nobody, apart from Hatty, can see him (although we later learn that Tom is visible to one other person). Hatty is in some ways a kindred spirit (she’s equally as lonely as Tom, although unlike him she indulges in games of make believe). Their first face to face meeting – in episode three – is where the story really begins to engage.

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Jeremy Rampling and Caroline Waldron pitch their scenes together very well, the developing relationship  between Tom and Hatty is teased out in a touching way (no mean feat for two young and inexperienced performers).  Like many juvenile leads from serials such as this one, Rampling didn’t subsequently pursue an acting career (apart from one later appearance in an episode of Casualty). Waldron racked up a few more credits, most notably the prestigious Summer’s Lease, also in 1989.

Producer Paul Stone’s cv reads like a list of some of the best children’s series and serials of the 1980’s – The Story of the Treasure Seekers  (a DVD release of this would be very welcome), The Machine Gunners, The Baker Street Boys, The Box of Delights, Moonfleet, The Children of Greene Knowe, Seaview, Running Scared, Jossy’s Giants, Moondial and the Narnia stories, to name a few.

Director Christine Secombe also had experience in this field (she directed all 28 episodes of Johnny Briggs and would later direct and produce Grange Hill). Not as effects intensive as the likes of The Box of Delights, Tom’s Midnight Garden has to rely instead on the drama of character interactions, mainly that of Tom and Hatty (these are handled with aplomb by Secombe).

The late twist is a pleasing one and concludes a quietly confident adaptation. Apart from a limited release via the Reader’s Digest some years back, this version of Tom’s Midnight Garden hasn’t been widely available on DVD, so it’s nice to see it out at last. If you’ve enjoyed some of the other BBC classic children’s adaptations from the 1980’s then this one should also hit the mark. Recommended.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is released by Second Sight on the 12th of November 2018. It has a running time of 151 minutes and an RRP of £19.99.

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