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Alice in Wonderland (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Alice in Wonderland (1966)
BBC, tx. 28/12/1966, 73 mins, black and white
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerJonathan Miller
AdaptationJonathan Miller
Original book byLewis Carroll
MusicRavi Shankar

Cast: Ann-Marie Mallik (Alice), Wilfrid Brambell (White Rabbit), Alan Bennett (Mouse), Finlay Currie (Dodo), Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar), Leo McKern (Duchess), Peter Cook (Mad Hatter), Michael Gough (March Hare), Wilfred Lawson (Dormouse), Alison Leggatt (Queen of Hearts), Peter Sellers (King of Hearts), John Gielgud (Mock Turtle)

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Following a mysterious white rabbit, Alice falls down a hole in the ground and finds herself in a strange topsy-turvy universe populated by wondrous creatures.

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Broadcast in the centenary year of the publication of Lewis Carroll's novel, Jonathan Miller's television adaptation is both a completely logical translation of the book, and a radical departure from convention. Almost all other versions of Alice in Wonderland are aimed squarely at children, but Miller's intended audience was not only adults but those so familiar with the book that they would still be able to recognise what was going on even when his film was at its most elliptical. To emphasise this, it was screened after 9pm, well after most children's bedtime.

Miller digs deep into the roots of Carroll's work, and this pervades the entire film. Carroll was the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in real life, so references to the Anglican Church abound, with appropriate hymns on the soundtrack. The rest of the music was composed by the Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, both a nod to then-contemporary fashion (the Beatles had just discovered Indian music) and a sly nod to the British Empire, at its height in 1866.

The interiors reflect the Victorian passion for collecting and classifying (embodied by Sir John Soane's cabinet-of-curiosities museum, one of the locations), and the various characters are made up to resemble the 19th-century upper-middle classes. Aside from the actors' facial features and occasional animal sound effects, there is no attempt at making them resemble the creatures that they're portraying - an approach which helped Miller recruit an exceptionally starry cast.

This included former satirical partners Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and John Bird and actors spanning one global star (Peter Sellers), two theatrical knights (John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave) and distinguished character players Leo McKern, Michael Gough, Wilfred Lawson, Wilfrid Brambell - and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Alice was played by Anne-Marie Mallik, an unknown cast because Miller was struck by her 'Victorian' looks. Much of her dialogue, even when supposedly uttered onscreen, is delivered in voice-over, emphasising the dislocated effect of a dream.

But Miller is careful not to create a clich├ęd 'dreamlike' ambience - he respects the logic of Dodgson the mathematician as well as the fantasies of Carroll the dreamer, and plays everything straight, photographed in crisp, deep-focus black-and-white by regular Ken Russell collaborator Dick Bush. Of all Carroll adaptations, only Jan Svankmajer's partly animated Alice (Neco z Alenky, Czechoslovakia, 1987) is as faithful to the spirit as well as the letter of the original.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The caucus-race (3:08)
2. Duchess and pig (2:26)
3. Mad Hatter time (2:39)
4. Off with his head! (1:12)
5. The Mock Turtle (2:32)
Alice in Label Land (1974)
Alice in Wonderland (1903)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Bird, John (1936-) and Fortune, John (1939-)
Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)
Cook, Peter (1937-1995)
Currie, Finlay (1878-1968)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Sellers, Peter (1925-1980)
TV Literary Adaptation