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DVD Review: Alice In Wonderland (1966, BBC TV)

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I am neither a teacher or a literary expert, but I sometimes wonder if any of the truly “classic” stories out there that are still read on a regular basis in today’s educational system. I’m pretty sure that there are still a few teachers out there will occasionally plague classrooms with some god-awful thing by Mark Twain, while other academic sadists prefer the sleep-inducing work of Ernest Hemingway to torture their students. If only they would break open Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, and say, “Hey, see if you can guess what kind of drugs you think Lewis Carroll might have been using here” (even if he didn’t), they might manage to keep the kids’ interests.

But why bother with the one literary version of a title when you can choose from several thousand moving picture adaptations that only keep the premise of a story and ditch the rest? Bill Osco’s Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy would be ideal for classes around the country, although I fear some parents might question such a pick. And, while Tim Burton’s latest visual nightmare might just be bizarre enough to appeal to the strung-out students of today, it should be known that the BBC and Warner Home Video have teamed up to bring us something ever more bizarre: an episode of the television series The Wednesday Play from 1966.

This incarnation of Alice In Wonderland is by and far the strangest I’ve seen.

Writer/producer/director Jonathon Miller takes us on a mind-numbing odyssey wherein our protagonist, Alice (played by Anne-Marie Mallik, who went on to do nothing else in the world of film or TV), falls asleep one lazy afternoon and soon finds herself being led through a strange land by the White Rabbit character (Wilfrid Brambell). It’s a world where everyone talks in conundrums. Alice frequently talks to herself (literally: she has conversations with her own inner monologue), with dialogue that even the most pretentious of intoxicated philosophers would scratch their heads over in disbelief.

Soon, Alice meets the Mad Hatter (played here by the great Peter Cook, whose tendency to act peculiarly makes his Hatter seem like the winner of an “Upper-Class Twit Of The Year” from that Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch) and his companions (Wilfrid Lawson and Michael Gough). Sir John Gielgud has a fetching bit as the Mock Turtle, while Peter Sellers makes his own Inspector Clouseau seem normal as a clucking King of Hearts. Since it was hard enough to get British actors to appear on the telly to begin with, don’t expect to see anyone in “animal” make-up: the entire cast of Wonderland Weirdoes are seen wearing traditional attire.

But wait, there’s more. Apart from its esoteric dialogue and extraordinary performances, Alice In Wonderland boasts some of the most Bergman-esque moments I’ve ever seen in a BBC production. Medium close-up shots of Alice listening and responding to herself show off Miller’s splendid ability to make the whole scene as grey as possible. The musical score by Ravi Shankar takes us one step closer to lying on a shag carpet after a fresh hit of LSD. Frankly, the whole thing comes off as what might had happened if Ingmar Bergman dropped a bag of ‘shrooms and joined the BBC for a day.

But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s…interesting…but very, very weird.

I wouldn’t recommend it for the kids, though — not unless you want to see them cry.

BBC Home Video has done an exemplary job of bringing The Wednesday Play’s Alice In Wonderland to DVD, with a transfer that stunningly captures Miller’s beautiful dreamlike photography. Choosing to shoot this on one with 35mm film as opposed to the BBC’s 16mm standards was a wise choice on Miller’s part: and the end-result is just as memorable as is the tele-film itself. A mono English track accompanies the print, which boasts a tiny audio discrepancy here and there, but for the most part, is fantastic. SDH subtitles are available, should anyone want to make sure they are actually hearing what they think they’re hearing.

You wouldn’t expect any extras on a catalogue title like this (particularly for a TV show as old as this), but BBC Home Video has opted to give its viewers a treat here. The first three items were available on a previous release of the title, and begin with an audio commentary with Jonathan Miller gives the filmmaker a chance to talk about the making of this project. Another version of Alice In Wonderland — this time from 1903 — shows us a severely-damaged silent short, which is narrated by historian Simon Brown. A gallery of still photos taken by Terence Spencer

About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.