Moondial: Interview: Colin Cant

Cant 2015Director Colin Cant is perhaps best known to genre fans for directing Russell T Davies’ two serials for children’s TV, Dark Season and Century Falls, but his work in the field predates those. In 1988, he was at the helm of Moondial, based on the book by Helen Cresswell, which is finally getting an unedited release on DVD from Second Sight. Paul Simpson chatted with him about his work on the show…




Are you surprised there’s still the interest in Moondial?

Yes I am. I’m not sure where this interest in coming from. The audience is probably people who watched it when they were children.

How did you get into directing in the first place?

Moondial CantI trained as an architect and I saw a programme on BBC 2 about set designing. Architecture was terribly slow, but if you’re designing sets for television programmes, things go up very quickly and come down very quickly, so there was quite a buzz about it. I eventually managed to get into that, and I was at Television Centre working as an assistant designer for a man called Ridley Scott. He said, “You don’t want to be a designer all your life, you want to be a director, don’t you?” I said, “ok, if you say so.” That’s what he was trying to do. If he’d said, “You don’t want to be a designer, you want to open a sweetie shop,” he was such a personality that I would have done as he suggested!

I managed to get on the production course, and that was it. I got a job on Coronation Street as a director, and stumbled on from there – I say stumbled because that’s how I’ve always seen my career. I always think it’s rather like a pinball machine: you’re fired off from the bottom right hand corner and you bounce off various things. One of them was Ridley Scott who set me off in one direction, then you meet someone else… There was no plan at all, all very random, but I managed to stick it out. Coronation Street just happened to be looking for someone at the moment I wrote to them.

How did you move into Children’s TV?

I was freelance, so you get an agent and they put you up for this that and the other. One of them was for a job at the children’s department at the BBC for a thing about football called Striker. I stayed there for two seasons, and then they wanted someone to do a new school thing called Grange Hill – that lasted for a long time.

In those days, they’d have half a dozen shows and ask which one you’d like to do. [Paul Stone’s production of The Chronicles of] Narnia was offered to me, but I went for [smuggling tale] Moonfleet because it was more like a feature film.

Moondial logoHow did Moondial come about? Was it something you brought to the BBC?

No, it didn’t work that way. Usually, it came from the producer, and in my case it was Paul Stone, who said they had the rights to do it. I read it, and was baffled by it but intrigued.

How much was it reworked before it went into production?

The scripts were pretty much there. I had lots of questions and I used to go into Paul and say, what’s this? Why that? And he got so fed up with me that he told me to take my questions to [original author and screenplay writer] Helen [Cresswell] herself. So I did that.

I had a sheet of foolscap with all my questions. We had a very nice lunch, and she obviously knew I was coming to ask her lots of questions. Before I had a chance to ask anything she launched into a description, a talk about it. Almost by osmosis, I got the idea of what it was all about. I came away seeing what she was after – but I never did get the answers to my various questions!

I got the atmosphere from her, but nothing specific. Minty had been traumatised by the possibility of becoming an orphan and all these things happened to her – we put it together scene by scene, and a lot of it didn’t tie up by the end, but that didn’t seem to matter!

In an interview Jacqueline Pearce said that she could never work out if there was supposed to be a direct link between her past character and her contemporary one. Did you think they were the same person, split in Time?

Yes, I think it was, yes, but that was one of the holes in the script. Miss Raven, in the present, just disappears at the end: that was a bit unsatisfactory, so we glossed over that.

Moondial dialThe story about finding Siri O’Neal at stage school is recounted both in your interview on the DVD and in the commentary, but what were you looking for particularly from the adult roles?

We didn’t have casting directors in those days, so you did it yourself. You’d get some sort of idea of the character from the script, get out Spotlight and go through it. Then you’d interview lots of people and eventually one comes through the door and you think that’s the one that will work.

I wouldn’t say I had any particular characteristics in mind – you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. I always say a lot of it is in the actual casting – you wind them up and set them off and that’s it!

I gather that Belton House, where the series was shot, was somewhere Helen found?

That’s right. I’m not sure why she went there originally, but she went there a couple of times and was taken with the place and set the story round it. All the various elements were there: the moondial – or the sundial as it was; there were a couple of scenes in the church there that we eventually lost.

The whole thing had… not a sinister atmosphere, but there was certainly something about it. I looked at photos of the people who had lived there, and they were all a morose looking lot, very unhappy. That had quite an effect on me. Some of the statuary was quite sinister as well.

It was a very self-contained location without any planes overflying, which was a great plus.

How long was the shoot?

I think it was six weeks there, and then we had an interior house for a couple of weeks as well.

Did you treat it as one 150-minute piece, or as separate episodes?

No, you had to be aware of the cliff-hangers but you treated it as a one-off.

Moondial symmetryWhen you put it together, what particular techniques did you use to create the atmosphere?

One of the most successful techniques was desaturating the picture. Most of it was supposed to be shot at night but you can’t do that with kids. It played into our hands with the moondial: some of the night stuff was set on very clear moonlit nights, and that gave a very spooky feel to it.

Apart from that, I wanted to use the location a lot, so there was a lot of wide-angle stuff, using the elements of the location, like the orangery and the pond. I thought that symmetry should come into it: Minty was on this flight path that directed her towards the moondial, and unaware that she was being pulled along, so I tried as much as possible to get symmetrical shots – the buildings behind her, and in the hallway.

The music and sound effects make such a difference on a project like this…

Oh yes, terrific stuff. I worked with [composer] Dave Ferguson quite a lot. It was always very good on these sort of programmes.

Were there any particular notes you gave him?

I don’t remember; 95 percent of the stuff he put up was just terrific. In Dark Season, I remember saying I wanted it to sound like you’ve had a hangover and you’re there the next morning and you’re not quite with things. You’re in the real world, but not really in the real world. That sort of buzzing in your head…

I remember telling the lighting man that I wanted it to seem as if the characters were under a bell jar but were moving around in the real world. We used that again for Dark Season.

MoondialWas there anything you particularly learned from directing Moondial?

The trouble with television is that you learn something at the time but you can very rarely use it again on future projects. You learn one thing at a time! Particularly with the editing and the special effects: you can get something one year and come back the next year and the technique has changed so you have to learn everything again.

Because it was on video, you had everything available on site, and you could manipulate the pictures much more. You could see it at the time, you weren’t restricted to the editing suite. One or two of the shots done by the vision supervisor with the inlaid skies were wonderful: that was quite a revelation to me. The scene where Jacqueline Pearce walks down the path: there was just a grey sky when we filmed it, but when I looked at the rushes in the evening, there was this wonderful cloud-filled sky.

Could you still change things in the edit?

Oh yes. That was the big jump to video from film – you couldn’t have done that.

What did you think of Moondial when you came to rewatch it for the commentaries 28 years later?

I thought it all hung together quite well. There were one or two gaps in the story, but the performances I thought worked well. Siri O’Neal, who played Minty, I thought was terrific.

Moondial dvdsMoondial is released on DVD 4 May courtesy of Second Sight. Click here to order from

Thanks to Louiza Bennett at AIM Publicity for her help arranging this interview




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