Home Vision Entertainment // 1966 // 72 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brian Burke (Retired) // November 24th, 2003
How queer everything is today. I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle: who am I? -- Alice (Anne-Marie Mallik), shortly after descending down the rabbit hole
"I had begun to feel this strange, lingering sadness about the work, and also...the brilliance with which Lewis Carroll captures the peculiar logic of dreaming" -- Director Jonathan Miller
Alice in Wonderland (also known as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) was first published by Oxford mathematician and Anglican deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) in 1865. Carroll apparently concocted the story while on a boat trip with a young girl named Alice, the daughter of an Oxford dean. A classic of children's literature, the story was first filmed in 1903, and has been re-made some thirty times (most famously, in 1951, by Walt Disney). This 1966 production was made for BBC television by Jonathan Miller.
I first became aware of Jonathan Miller when his thirteen-part history of medicine, The Body in Question was shown on PBS in the late 1970s (it was originally made for the BBC). I trace much of my desire to enter medicine to that series, and still keep his book of the same in my collection. I was aware at the time that Miller was a sort of Renaissance Man and polyglot, who seemed to succeed in most every field he tried. The son of a child psychiatrist (and childhood best friend of the future neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks), Miller received his medical degree from Cambridge University in 1959, where, owing to his gift for mimicry, he also acted briefly on the stage. The following year, he was asked by a friend to appear in a musical comedy revue called Beyond the Fringe, with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore. Over the next two years, the show's great success essentially ended Miller's career in medicine.
When Beyond the Fringe ended, he continued his habit of reading voraciously, contributed some book reviews, and then gravitated into directing plays. He found that directing came easily to him, though he'd never had any formal training. Soon he was staging controversial Shakespearean productions and venturing into the world of opera to great acclaim. In between, he produced arts programming for the BBC. An adaptation of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland had long been on his mind when the subject came up in a cocktail party conversation with the playwright Lillian Hellman. When he pitched the idea to the BBC, he was surprised by the warm reception and the ready offer of cash. By convincing a number of England's greatest actors and comedians to forgo their usual salaries and work for "scale" (£500 apiece), Miller was able to form a "dream cast," yet remain within budget. The director was committed to making a faithful adaptation of the book which preserved its Victorian roots, but which didn't rely on elaborate costumes or animation. Now Home Vision Entertainment has released this 1966 television film on DVD.
While lying in the grass on a summer afternoon, young Alice (Anne-Marie Mallik) drifts to sleep, and finds herself in a peculiar dream, in which she follows the White Rabbit (Wilfrid Brambell) down a hole and into a strange house. She shrinks in size after drinking from a bottle labeled "Drink Me," then enlarges after eating a cake labeled "Eat Me." She wanders into a room full of odd people, listening to a dry historical tale told by the Mouse (Alan Bennett) who suddenly decide to have a "Caucus Race." After wandering some more, she comes upon the Caterpillar (Sir Michael Redgrave) dusting in a library, who has her recite a poem. After confronting the Frog Footman (John Bird), she sees the Cheshire Cat and meets its owner, the ugly Duchess (Leo McKern), who is cradling a squealing pig in her arms and trying to rock him to sleep.
Alice next wanders into a garden where bees are buzzing and a sparsely attended tea party is in progress, with three curious guests: the Mad Hatter (Peter Cook), the stammering March Hare (Michael Gough), and the sleeping Dormouse (Wilfred Lawson). After much pointless conversation, Alice leaves and pauses in a lane where a gardener (Gordon Gostelow) is painting white roses red. Their talk is interrupted by the sound of a brass band in the distance, as a procession featuring the Queen (Alison Leggatt) and King (Peter Sellers) of Hearts, and their blithering idiot of a son, the Knave (Peter Eyre) marches by on its way to the Royal Garden. There, a croquet match has spilled over into a stream and the surrounding woods. The Queen sends Alice off to the seaside to see the Gryphon (Malcolm Muggeridge) and the Mock Turtle (Sir John Gielgud), who tells her about his schooling, before he and the Gryphon dance the Lobster Quadrille on the beach. Alice winds up in the courtroom for a trial in which the Knave is accused of stealing the Queen's tarts. The Mad Hatter and the Peppercook are called to testify, and the courtroom breaks into song. The ever-growing Alice refuses to hold her tongue, and the Queen shrilly declares, "Off with her head!" Alice awakens.
Knowing Jonathan Miller's reputation, I approached this release with a great deal of curiosity and excitement. The casting seemed both eccentric and brilliant. Surely Peter Cook and Peter Sellers would turn the production on its ear. Who could resist the opportunity to see two legendary thespians, Sirs Michael Redgrave and John Gielgud, or to glimpse the future star of television's Rumpole of the Bailey (Leo McKern) in drag? I also knew of the journalist, author, and religious scholar Malcolm Muggeridge, and was interested in seeing one of his few film appearances.
Unfortunately, the film itself is a letdown. In the accompanying audio commentary, Jonathan Miller sets out his conception of this production. He attempted to make a film that stayed true to Carroll's dialogue (he discouraged any ad-libbing from the cast, with a couple of exceptions). He set the action during the Victorian era of the book's publication (the Queen of Hearts character is based on Queen Victoria). He didn't want his famous actors hidden behind animal-heads or playing-card costumes, so they are all dressed as Victorian men and women. In order to cast Alice, he placed a newspaper ad, and received hundreds of pictures of perky little girls. Only one girl's picture perfectly fit his conception of Alice as a somber, old-fashioned, stone-faced Victorian girl, so 11-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik was hired (this will sound odd, but her face reminds me of the half-naked pubescent girl from Blind Faith's 1969 record album). Though the BBC may have thought it was paying for a children's production, the film that resulted is geared more towards adults (it's simply too boring for most children -- and many grown-ups, I fear).
That's not to say that the film has no positive qualities. It has the creepy, perverse, hyperreal atmosphere of a dream. The deep-focus, black and white photography is excellent, as is Ravi Shankar's sitar music (which Miller chose because it reminded him of the droning quality of insects on a hot summer's day). In fact, the film looks and sounds like an un-psychedelic, '60s-era head-trip. What little comedy there is relies more on Lewis Carroll's illogical riddles and puns than on character or shtick. I enjoyed the interchanges between Gielgud's Mock Turtle and Muggeridge's Gryphon, Peter Cook's Mad Hatter, and Leo McKern's drag-Duchess, but Peter Sellers is mostly wasted as the King.
HVE presents Alice in Wonderland in its original full-frame aspect ratio. With a few exceptions, the transfer looks quite good, with excellent definition. However, I suspect it is based on the same PAL master used by the British Film Institute for its Region 2 release earlier this year (the same extras appear on both releases). I say this because there's an annoying jitteriness to the picture at times, and a blurring of the image whenever the camera pans (which, fortunately it doesn't do often in this film, but see the panning shot of the courtroom at 57:15 for an idea of what I mean). To me, this indicates a problem with the 3:2 pulldown when the PAL source was converted to NTSC. Instances of dust and scratches are very minor, and I don't detect any significant edge enhancement. Audio is coded as Dolby Digital 2.0, but appears to be monaural fed to both speakers.
Jonathan Miller's audio commentary is the main extra. He carefully explains what he was trying to do, and tells anecdotes about many of the cast members (including Peter Sellers, whom he describes as very superstitious and fixated on his horoscope). He also performs some wonderful imitations of the cast. I think I enjoyed the film much better after hearing Miller's comments. Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon provides a nice essay in the insert, which is also helpful to read before watching the feature. Also included is the first-ever film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Cecil Hepworth's silent film from 1903 (only eight-and-a-half minutes survive, and the nitrate elements had deteriorated badly before being preserved). Scholar Simon Brown provides a fine commentary over this short film. The animated menus are clever, and the film is indexed into 16 chapter stops.
I had high expectations for this film, but after an odd start, it only got curiouser and curiouser. If you are fonder of the book than the Disney animated version, this release may be worth checking out. To me, this is a noble -- but failed -- experiment.
The court might have been more sympathetic to the prosecutor's argument if he hadn't repeatedly shouted "Off with his head!" every time Jonathan Miller's name was mentioned. As it stands, I have no choice but to declare a mistrial. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 72 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Director Jonathan Miller
* Cecil Hepworth's 1903 Silent Film, Alice in Wonderland, with commentary by Simon Brown (8:30)
* Behind-the-Scenes Stills Gallery by Photographer Terence Spencer
* Essay by Film Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon