Alice in Wonderland


Rating 5

Directed by Jonathan Miller

Written by Jonathan Miller, based on the noval by Lewis Carroll

Cast includes Anne-Marie Mallik (Alice), Wilfrid Brambell (White Rabbit), Alan Bennett (Mouse), Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar), John Bird (Frog Footman), Leo McKern (Duchess), Peter Cook (Mad Hatter), Michael Gough (March Hare), Wilfrid Lawson (Dormouse), Peter Eyre (Knave of Hearts), Alison Leggatt (Queen of Hearts), Peter Sellers (King of Hearts), John Gielgud (Mock Turtle) and Malcolm Muggeridge (Gryphon)

Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was broadcast on BBC1 on 28 December 1966 as part of “The Wednesday Play”, a series of acclaimed weekly one-off dramas that ran from 1964 to 1970. These included, perhaps most famously, ‘The War Game’, which was scheduled for transmission in August 1966 on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but was considered to be so shocking and controversial that it was banned and not finally shown by the BBC until 1985, although it was screened in art house cinemas prior to that. Also of note is ‘Cathy Come Home’, which was directed by Ken Loach and first shown in November 1966, leading to a considerable amount of comment and debate, as well as the raising of awareness about issues like unemployment and homelessness.

Jonathan Miller came to prominence at the beginning of the 1960s as part of the groundbreaking satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe alongside Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, the pre-eminent comedy writer and satirist of his generation. After that he was the editor and presenter of the BBC arts programme ‘Monitor’, before producing and directing ‘Alice in Wonderland’ from his own adaptation of the celebrated Lewis Carroll novel. During the 1970s he became best known as a director of opera for the English National Opera and in the 1980s he famously directed six of the plays of William Shakespeare for the BBC.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ was mentioned to me recently by my brother. Although I was only 8-years-old when it was broadcast and had certainly not previously given any thought to it, I immediately had vague memories back to the programme, including the knowledge that Wilfrid Bramble (then famous as old man Steptoe in the long-running BBC television comedy series ‘Steptoe and Son’, which had ended its original run the previous year) played the White Rabbit and the mercurial Peter Cook was suitably cast as the Mad Hatter. My interest was roused enough to want to watch it again and as I did so, presumably for the first time in more than 42 years, more vivid memories of it came flooding back, including Alice following the White Rabbit through the tunnel (as depicted by Miller, rather than down a rabbit hole) and the scene in which the gardeners attempt to paint the white roses red before the arrival of the Queen of Hearts.

The scene above all others that stands out for me, although not necessarily from memory, occurs late in the story when Alice meets the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, played beautifully by Malcolm Muggeridge and John Gielgud. I laughed loudest, though, at the entrance of the Mad Matter at the Trial that takes place immediately before Alice wakes from her daydreams.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ was filmed in black and white – BBC1 did not start to transmit colour programming until November 1969, two years after BBC2. It eschews the frenetic child-like lunacy of most adaptations of the novel, instead giving it a sleepy hallucinogenic quality that is very much a product of the time; The Beatles had released the ‘Revolver’ album a little less than five months prior to the broadcast. It perfectly captures the stillness of an English summer’s day. The actors do not wear prosthetics or appear in animal costumes, instead appearing in human form with an assumption made that the audience will have some pre-existing familiarity with the story. There is a wealth of famous acting talent on show here, including theatre heavyweights like John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave, Miller’s old cohorts Alan Bennett and Peter Cook, and a genuine film star in the guise of Peter Sellers. Eric Idle of Monty Python fame is featured in a non-speaking role in what I believe was his first television acting appearance. However, perhaps the most interesting piece of casting is that of 14-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik as Alice, in what appears to have been her only professional acting performance.

Alice is often on the fringes of the various scenes, frequently looking off in some other direction to the characters surrounding her; her expression impassive and immobile. In this respect, she is not even an observer. Mallik, who looks a little like a young Scarlett Johanssen and for some reason put me in mind of Kate Bush, projects a kind of disinterested melancholia. Whether or not her acting would have been up to close scrutiny had her acting career advanced on from this is a point of conjecture, but her performance here is in perfect keeping with Miller’s adaptation.

As might be expected, Miller draws out the satirical aspects of the story. For example, we are reminded that this is a story written and set in Victorian England that shines a magnifying glass on the Establishment – The Queen of Hearts is a representation of Queen Victoria and the King of Hearts is Prince Albert. The Knave of Hearts is, I imagine, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, whose own son Prince Albert Victor has been somewhat spuriously linked in the past to the Jack the Ripper killings in the Whitechapel area of London between August and November 1888, some 23 years after the book was first published.

If I am being truthful, a couple of scenes did veer a little too close to tedium, notably the caucus race that occurs near to the start of the story. However, this is a remarkable work, a wonderful adaptation, and an excellent example of the kind of production the BBC was once capable of.

The music for the production was composed and performed by Ravi Shankar.

Review posted 16 April 2009


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