Alice in Wonderland Review
A tangle-haired child pursues a top hatted Wilfrid Brambell through a stone walled tunnel, along a corridor of majestically billowing white curtains, and down a twisting stairwell whose walls are cluttered with paintings.
You might not immediately recognise the scene in question but it’s director Jonathan Miller’s take on a famous literary moment – Alice following the White Rabbit down the hole into Wonderland…
Alice in Wonderland is one of those relatively rare literary texts that not only enthuse generations of readers but also twist and turn their way into numerous re-interpretations. The chief innovation of Miller’s 1966 television version is, in his own words, the stripping away of the ‘japing and game play’ that usually dominate such adaptations. Consequently, in this version the array of talking animals that Alice meets are portrayed by mask-less undisguised actors in period garb. This intriguing conceit has two main effects. Firstly, it emphasises the wonderful strangeness of Lewis Carroll’s dialogue – one might reasonably assume that a menagerie of anthropomorphised creatures would behave whimsically, so how much more explicitly disturbing if their twisted words come instead from the mouths of supposed authority figures? In this exquisitely conceived and designed version, Alice’s voyage through a fantasy landscape becomes a journey through dusty academic rooms and interiors decked out in gross Victorian maximalist style, to formal gardens and dreary/dozy picnics. En route she encounters a succession of adults who are variously disinterested, aggressive, demanding or self important, who constantly dispense confusing and illogical advice. In essence, Miller reveals to us a child’s eye view of the perplexing adult world. Secondly, the loss of the animal element also allows Miller to assemble a frankly astounding cast who likely would have been unwilling to appear swathed in unflattering costumes. This canny trade-off means the viewer can be treated to the delightful sight of John Gielgud and Malcolm Muggeridge as the Mock Turtle and Gryphon skipping along the beach hand in hand reciting the Lobster Quadrille, to Leo McKern’s frankly vicious drag act Duchess, and to an ear-trumpet wielding Peter Sellers (King of Hearts) and Peter Cook (Mad Hatter) attempting to outdo each other in the sillyness stakes, to name just a few of the notable performances.
Writing recently in The Guardian, Alan Bennett – who also appears here using his sticky, school-marmish voice to great effect as the tedious Mouse – spoke of the now vanished ‘easy-going but richly productive’ atmosphere of the BBC that provided a ‘wetlands of the mind’ to nourish emerging writers and film-makers. Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland stands as a wonderful testimony to the possibilities of that era (and listening to the commentary track reveals an amusing anecdote about the ease of the process by which the production was commissioned). It’s not only an original take on Carroll’s tale that unapologetically addresses a thinking audience, it’s also a glorious snapshot of the mid-to-late sixties. Moments like the montage sequence at the croquet party - in which Anne-Marie Mallik’s Alice turns repeatedly to camera whilst the great and the good of sixties’ acting talent are arranged tableaux-like behind her and Ravi Shankar’s incidental music drones on - are not only wonderfully strange and dreamlike, but so perfectly of their time that you almost feel if you could just nudge the camera a little to one side you’d see the Beatles midway through shooting one of their weirder promotional films…
In summary then, if you are searching for a copy of Alice to screen to your children or pupils, and expect the BBC label to guarantee a worthy costume drama adaptation, this DVD is not for you. Your kids will probably be bored or confused: that was certainly my reaction on seeing a repeat of this production as a child, although equally I was left with a parade of haunting images that I never quite forgot… So, don’t buy it for them, buy it for yourself, enjoy the all star cast, and allow yourself to wallow in Miller’s evocation of the strange dreamy/dreary summer of a half-forgotten childhood.
Extras and Menus
The disc menus are black and white and stylishly minimal. The main screen utilises a lengthy excerpt from Gielgud and Muggeridge’s perfomance of the Lobster Quadrile – this links to further static screens that subdivide the feature into 10 chapters and list extras.
The main extra on offer is a director’s commentary. Miller talks about the project’s genesis, execution and eventual reception both within the BBC and on broadcast. There are a couple of lapses into silence – always a hazard with solo commentaries – and Miller rarely responds directly to the on screen action, making perhaps this more of an audio lecture with incidental visuals than a ‘traditional’ commentary track. Nonetheless, he’s a fascinating speaker and this is well worth a listen.
Also of note is the inclusion of an eight minute silent British film adaptation of Alice from 1903; the earliest cinema version known to exist. This charming glimpse into the early world of movie making is illuminated by a commentary track from the BFI’s Simon Brown. Brown provides an interesting, whistle-stop guide to the film and producer Cecil Hepworth, concluding by suggesting it’s good that we’ve had the chance to see one of Hepworth’s films – I could only agree.
This disc is rounded off with a small selection of production stills from Miller’s version, a director’s biography, and a BFI weblink.
It’s worth mentioning that the disc packaging, like others in the BFI archive television range, include sleeve notes. Here Philip Kemp provides a witty introduction to Miller’s work, also making reference to other film adaptations. It’s a shame there’s no consideration of other television adaptations of Alice – Dennis Potter’s 1965 Wednesday Play: Alice, which parallels scenes from the book with events in the life of the real ‘Alice’ and ‘Lewis Carroll’, would for example make a fascinating companion piece - perhaps an additional on-disc guide or essay could have further helped to place the work in context?
Picture and Sound
Dick Bush’s glorious deep focus black and white photography receives an excellent crisp non-anamorphic transfer. Sound is a good, clear mono track and entirely appropriate for a production of this vintage.
A landmark production receives a decent DVD release. Can we have Potter’s Alice next, please BFI?