'MARY'S heart began to thump . . . she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole. She put the key in and turned it,' wrote Frances Hodgson Burnett in her 1911 classic, The Secret Garden.

'And then she took a long breath and . . . she slipped through it . . .

'She was standing inside the secret garden.'


They've built the secret garden on a back lot at Pinewood. It's a wet Monday morning, the garden has a couple of goats in it, also a goose, a pair of pigeons and a crow. Animal handlers stand by, their rent-a-pets in cages, waiting for their cue. What with the foxes and lambs, mice, doves, ducks, robins and rats, this is a picture David Attenborough could love. Children in period costume, perfect pros, stand around while the director, Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa), a short brisk woman in black, emits orders in a Polish accent.

The Secret Garden has been made into film before, by MGM in 1949, as a low-budget British feature, and by the BBC. The gardens were always built indoors 'with a few old plants and a wall', says the designer of this production, Stuart Craig.

Film designers reinvent the world, like kids with the permission - and talent and money - to build their dreams.

Stuart Craig, who's won a couple of Oscars (for Gandhi and Dangerous Liaisons) is a wonderful designer with a simple idea: if you call a movie The Secret Garden, you'd better deliver a great garden. This is some garden]

A quarter of a million pounds of make believe, it took 10 weeks to draw and build. It has meadows and trees, roses and cornflowers, ruins and grottos. Artificial leaves are entwined with real leaves; it's impossible to tell them apart, unless you touch them.

Lolling on this patch of instant old Yorkshire, I think about books and movies, adrift in childhood and summertime. Stuff like that. Nothing


Being here is some kind of time machine. Years flip by, like those awful movie titles in which the pages of a book flip backwards, and I am 10 or 6 - I can't remember when I couldn't read - and I'm lying on my bed, reading The Secret Garden. I can feel the shape of the book. I can see the garden, the animals, the moors . . .

OK, fine, so there were moors, but why did I love this book? I was a completely urban child. I wasn't crazy about animals or the summer either. I had a dog once, but it bit me. I was a fat kid and summer meant you had to take your coat off and run out to play. What was so great about the out-of- doors? You could look at it through the window.

What I wanted was to read; I was a promiscuous consumer of books: Nancy Drew, Jane Eyre, Ballet Shoes, Gone With the Wind ('the expurgated edition for children,' my mother told people).

The Secret Garden was special, though, maybe because the main character, Mary Lennox, was a lonely 10- year-old - an outsider - and so was the chief boy, Colin Craven. Finding the garden, keeping it secret - the suspense was delicious - and making it grow made them happy, made them friends. This was about secrets. About growing up OK. It was about winning the race.

Why would anyone make a movie of this 80-year-old novel now? At dollars 16m ( pounds 8.4m) it is not exactly cheap. Is it a marketing ploy? Do its producers see millions of Mary Lennox dolls and kiddie manuals of secret gardening? Is a modern kid gonna give up Batman for this?

The film's producers say there is a desperate gap in the market for 'family entertainment'. Also, that The Secret Garden is New Age, Green and Politically Correct.

But will it, I wonder, send children scurrying away from Nintendo and back to books? Will they ever again lie on their beds all summer long, reading? Does it matter?

I don't know. I don't think books are intrinsically better than movies. Mostly what I think about is how children now look at the world. I was completely sure the secret garden in my book was utterly real - I still am. My friend Ben, who is 10, has a different fix.

Ben's favourite films are Batman I, Robocop I and Terminator II. On Friday, for an end-of-term treat, he gets to see Batman Returns. An ugly, violent movie, its star turn is Danny de Vito as a sub-human sewer dweller who contemplates killing kiddies in Gotham, and drools blood. At Ben's age, this would have left me catatonic with fear.

'Aren't you scared of this stuff?'

I inquire, as Ben and I exchange views on these philosophical issues. 'No,' says Ben, grinning. 'I know they're

not real.'

(Photograph omitted)