Shiny Shelf


Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland

By Mark Clapham on 04 May 2003

Like so many stories fed through the Disney machine, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has become banal in our collective memory, crushed by the pasteurised, bland nature of its cartoon adaptation. It’s a blessing then that the British Film Institute’s excellent programme of ‘Archive Television’ releases has brought us this 1966 BBC version, directed by famed polymath Jonathan Miller.

Miller’s interpretation of Carroll is not one of cute anthopomorphic characters. Originally broadcast after 9pm, Miller’s ‘Alice’ is surreal and disconcerting, Wonderland a journey through madness. The setting is an eternal English summer, a hazy time of sleepy heat. Ravi Shankar’s beautiful sitar score is simultaneously the most sixties thing ever, and strangely timeless, emphasising the lazy, sun bleached setting. Alice (Anne Marie-Malik) follows the white rabbit into Wonderland, and is faced with a succession of baffling and incoherent creatures and situations. She reacts not as a plucky heroine, but with a bored lack of interest, an impatient insolence. The lunatics Alice faces – and the detached, mumbling delivery of many of the lines is suggestive of mental illness – with their bizarre rules and games are clearly little different from Alice’s day-to-day experiences. Wonderland is adulthood, especially that of the Victorian world, laden with rules and protocols, tedious and incomprehensible to the inquisitive child.

No wonder Alice never seems particularly excited by any of this. Malik is excellent, a naturalistic everygirl, delivering her lines free of stage school pretense. The rest of the cast are an astonishing array of Miller’s celebrity mates, not only fellow satirists Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and John Bird, but major figures like Peter Sellers and John Gielgud, not to mention familiar faces Wilfrid Brambell and Leo McKern. Each is perfectly cast and in tune with Miller’s reading of the text, in a production that never puts a foot wrong. Dreamy and unnerving, Miller’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is an essential release, and the BFI are to be commended for proving there’s more to archive television than the usual ‘cult’ releases.

The Institute have, thankfully, treated this release with the same care they apply to the films they put out, adding a decent selection of extras. As well as a commentary from the ever-erudite Miller there are a number of contemporary stills, and a detailed biography of the director. Best of all is a rarity – the surviving footage from a 1903 version of ‘Alice’, reconstructed as much as possible and with a commentary putting the piece into it’s historic context.

This is the kind of disc we need more of, not just a rehash of something that has done the rounds on VHS, but a valuable and rare addition to anyone’s collection of great television. Superb.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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