Jonathan Miller's version of Carroll's classic, made in 1966, was one of the first archive television DVD releases, back in 2003, from the BFI. Long since out of print, it's now timely that the BBC are re-releasing this version to provide a suitable contrast to the current release of Tim Burton's indigestible CGI-fest which might call itself Alice In Wonderland but is in effect more of a sequel to it. What makes this new release, currently available in Region 1 from BBC Worldwide, more appealing is that you also get a very rare Dennis Potter 'Wednesday Play', Alice, as an extra on the disc. I'll get to that in a minute.
Ideally, you should see the two versions of Wonderland as representative of their times, with Miller's a reflection of the sun setting on Empire and the then channeling of English pastoral and surrealism into the pop culture explosion of the mid 1960s as opposed to Burton's visually overloaded worship at the altar of 21st Century technical prowess and information saturation. One is subtle. The other is not.
Miller's film, originally shown on 28th December 1966, is a vision of the Carroll story that is, in effect, a version made for adults. He's very faithful to the Carroll book and dialogue but allows many of the actors, particularly Peter Cook, Peter Sellers and John Bird to improvise freely with their own logic jokes, matching Carroll at his own games. It's a film about the disaster of becoming an adult as seen from a child's point of view. This nightmare is produced in the fever of a long, drawn out English summer (remember when we had them?), a waking dream in which all the adult authority figures playfully twist reality out of shape to such a degree that the prospect of growing up seems terrifying, sinister and repressive.
It shows the difference between the vision of children and adults: those things that adults consider important and wise may be stupid and insignificant for children. Miller also suggests that the strait-jacket of Victorian etiquette and customs, their ideology, is now redundant in the face of 20th Century liberalism (The Queen and King of Hearts are dressed respectively as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert). This is especially significant at the time of making the film where the esoteric faiths of the East, the rise of the teenager, the freedoms within law and commerce were all impacting on post-war Britain. Hence we get the creme de la creme of British satirists (Cook and Bird), writers and comedians, character actors and thesps (Gielgud, Brambell, Sellers) all on top form and an intensely gorgeous soundtrack from Ravi Shankar whose sitars plunge the film into a particularly odd expression of the dying days of Empire.
It's very easy to get lost in this film and Miller makes no concession to Carroll's own word games and strange uses of language. If you're not familiar with the book then this might come across as a real puzzle and one which you may not care to decipher. This is quite appropriate when it is Alice herself getting bored and frustrated by the endless nonsense spouted by the likes of the Frog Footman who expounds at length on the possibilities of doing nothing at all when all she wants is to do is progress on her journey. All the adults mouth off continuously but much of their sound and fury means little to the perplexed Alice. Unlike many other adaptations, Miller goes for subtlety in depicting the characters of the book. In his language of the unconscious, there are no prosthetics, animal heads or complex visual effects (compare it to the Potter play of 1965 for example). The White Rabbit is simply an overtly camp, officious little man played with great relish by Wilfrid Brambell, the Ugly Duchess is played by Leo McKern and the Cheshire Cat is simply a real cat. Alice is played by Anne-Marie Mallik and her dialogue is almost completely done with voice over, heightening the distancing and dream-like effect of the film.
Dick Bush's deep focus, wide angle, black and white photography distorts this vision in a suitably surrealistic fashion and allows the film to accumulate a feverishly dreamlike quality. There's an amazing sequence where Alice and the Ugly Duchess walk in conversation down a tree-lined avenue that's all shot hand held, the camera pirouetting through the trees. It's also brilliantly designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman who dresses the actors and outdoor locations in Victorian finery (some of the costumes almost foreshadowing the Beatles own Sgt. Pepper outfits, with the eponymous album being recorded in August 1966 contemporaneous to the shooting of this film). The interiors reflect the Victorian obsession for cataloguing, collecting and classifying and Oman's incredible set for the final trial scenes is a vast tribute to this mania and offers a real sense of scale.
A mesmerising film, inventively and strikingly made, and quite rightly regarded as a television classic.
DVD Special Features
As well as the crisp black and white transfer, owners of the previous BFI version may well want to double dip with this to get their hands on the Dennis Potter play included in the extras.
Commentary: Miller's commentary on the film is thorough and intelligent, full of anecdotes about the production, where it was shot, the casting and shooting and stories about Sellers, Bird, Cook and BBC Director General Huw Weldon. Weldon thought the film 'disastrously long' and asked him to cut the finished film by half and hour. Where are those bits of film now I ask myself? He also recounts the press reaction to his original desire for the film to go out in the evening. The furore led to questions being asked in Parliament because the press misunderstood his 'adult' version of the film as something redolent of child abuse and violence! This commentary was on the BFI release.
Cecil Hepworth's 1903 silent version: One of the first silent versions made in Britain, this is fascinating and comes with a commentary from film historian Simon Brown. Again, this was on the BFI release.
Ravi Shankar Plays For Alice: Some behind the scenes footage of Miller and Shankar working on the soundtrack of the film. It's an extract and ends rather abruptly. New to this release.
Behind The Scene Photo Gallery: Images by Life photographer Terence Spencer, including some rare colour shots. Unfortunately they are not well presented with many of the images vignetted or slightly obscured by the menu design.
The play mixes biography, flashbacks and recreates scenes from Alice In Wonderland, inspired by the Tenniel illustrations, to examine Dodgson's inspiration and creativity. Again, there is the English pastoral setting but here it is not used as the landscape for the childhood reluctance to become an adult but rather as an tense, anxious arena for the illicit gaze to fall upon an object of sexual desire. It boasts a superb cast including a intense central performance from George Baker as Dodgson and a striking early appearance from Deborah Watling as Alice Liddell.