Thirteen-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik stars as the title character in Jonathan Miller’s 1966 production Alice In Wonderland. It is her only known acting performance.
Jonathan Miller’s Alice For The Ages
By David McGee
Ranking with the classic Alice In Wonderland interpretations spotlighted elsewhere in this issue, Sir Jonathan Miller's 1966 version has fierce advocates hailing it the best of all Alices. Not only did Miller's dry, deadpan wit suffuse the mood of his Alice, but he conjured Lewis Carroll’s surreal reality without the benefit of animation or costumes of any sort save that of period dress—that is, the Mock Turtle, the White Knight, et al. appear in Miller's film as humans, as the Victorian Alice might have encountered in her everyday life. "It always struck me when I read it, that they were about Victorian people that Alice Liddell would have known as a child in Oxford," Miller says in the interview below. "Then I think I read William Empson's essay on 'The Child as Swain,' in which he said that Victorians had always had this vision of the child as someone not yet corrupted, the way Wordsworth describes the child as 'trailing clouds of glory,' and then shades of the prison house beginning to close around the growing child, and it seemed to me that that was precisely what Dodgson was talking about when he described these two adventures of Alice, one Through the Looking Glass and the other in Wonderland."
Into this mesmerizing dreamworld of his, Miller injected the haunting thump-and-drone of original music composed by Ravi Shankar, who had then been embraced by the Beatles and was on his way to becoming an international superstar of the day, the foremost representative and instructor to the masses on the beauty, subtlety and complexities of Indian music. Voila! A masterful interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s vision, if not an outright masterpiece.
‘How queer everything is today.’
Trained as a physician, Miller moonlighted during his school days at St. John's College, Cambridge, as an actor, rising to prominence in his native England and here in the States with the satiric musical revue he wrote and produced in 1960, Beyond The Fringe, which launched not only his career but those of Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett. From the stage he gravitate to television, hosting the BBC's highly regarded arts program, Monitor. His 1966 Alice In Wonderland was conceived as a BBC television play. It boasted a stellar cast of British actors, including his Fringe partners Peter Cook (who was nothing short of brilliant in his wry turn as the Mad Hatter during the Tea Party scene) and Alan Bennett, and a royal triumvirate of Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar), Peter Sellers (King of Hearts) and John Gielgud (Mock Turtle). These were joined by, among others, Wilfred Bramblett (then familiar to American audiences as Paul McCartney's wayward grandfather in A Hard Day's Night) and Leo McKern in drag as the Ugly Duchess (McKern, too, endeared himself to American filmgoers in a Beatles movie, as the leader of a gang of eastern religious fanatics bent on human sacrifice in Help!). Alice was played with a charming mixture of beguiling innocence, confrontational attitude and preternatural wisdom (some might say cynicism) by 13-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik, a lawyer's daughter whose appearance in Miller's film is her sole credited acting performance.
Miller has had a distinguished career not only in theater (he's directed a number of Shakespeare plays to great acclaim), but in opera, on TV, in print as an author (with 16 books to his credit), even as a sculptor. His multi-part TV series include two highly regarded productions, 1991's Madness (indeed, a history of madness in five parts) and 2004's Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, one of several inquiries he's made into atheism from both a personal and a global perspective. In 2009 he ended a 12-year sabbatical from opera by directing his own production of La Bohême, which he set in the 1930s.
Executioner! About that cat—I want his head taken off. Right off!
In an insightful review of the DVD release of Miller's Alice at the Bright Lights Film Journal (http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/42/alice.php), critic Scott Thill properly sees it as the antecedent to a later body of film work dealing with fractured reality—notably David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—and offers the definitive word on an Alice whose stature only grows with time, like that of the title character herself as the story progresses:
In [Miller's] assured hands, Alice in Wonderland is not merely a fantastical tale of caterpillars, mice, and bloodthirsty queens looking to off some heads, but rather a journey of self-realization and maturation for a young British girl locked in a Victorian nightmare filled with, to paraphrase de Saint-Exupery's similarly structured The LittlePrince, adults executing matters of "consequence" that mean, like Footman says, nothing at all in the scheme of things. As Miller explains it, "Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it's all about. A small child, surrounded by hurrying, worried people, thinking 'Is that what being grown up is like?'" The fact that they make no sense, are trapped—like the Mad Hatter, played with sparkling annoyance by Peter Cook—by time, dance about in meaningless caucuses until they're utterly spent, fuss over keeping their children prim and proper right before they go outdoors and play, and conduct ludicrous proceedings—such as in the King and Queen's court—when what they really want to do is behead each other, doesn't jibe with the supposed air of solemnity, importance, and meaning that inflates everything they do.
As Alice says to the Footman in Carroll's version, "the way creatures argue"—that is, converse, debate, quarrel and communicate—"is enough to drive one crazy." Miller's excellent rendering of Alice's long, strange trip into the world of adults, made even stranger by Ravi Shankar's trance-inducing sitar soundtracking, takes that psychosis—what Miller called that Kafkaesque "illogicality of dreaming"—and magnifies its estranged human component, laying the groundwork (directly or indirectly, it's up to you) for David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, Jeunet and Caro's Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and onward.
Skewering conventional expectation—this Alice is not for the kiddies, my friends—and putting the reality back into surreality, Miller's turn at this fractured tale will sit as well with Matrix philosophers as it will with old-school Shakespeareans remembering the fond "Swinging Sixties" and its decidedly inventive takes on traditional narrative. Enjoy at your caution, but make sure to leave a trail to find your way back. Once you get lost in Miller's dense labyrinth of film language and composition, you may never make it home, wherever that may be.
‘I think Lewis Carroll, like many other Victorians, regarded becoming an adult as a sort of catastrophe in which you lost your innocence and, as I quoted in the film, ‘the things I have seen I now can see no more.’’
The Negligible, The Commonplace, The Humdrum
Jonathan Miller discusses his singular Alice
How did Alice come to be made? Talk about the experience of childhood as it relates to Alice.
I think I started as a result of meeting Lillian Hellman at a party in New York when I was there 40 years ago. She asked me if I had ever thought about making a film of Alice in Wonderland, and I told her that I had never made a film. I hadn't even worked in television at that time, although I had performed once or twice, but I had never directed anything. Then that set me thinking. I had always liked Alice in Wonderland, and when I got back to England in about 1964 I went and worked in television as an presenter and editor of a magazine on television called Monitor. After I had finished doing that, after a year or two, I began to make some films for the BBC, the first of which I think was my version of Plato's Symposium, which I staged and filmed and broadcast some time in 1964-65.
By that time the Alice project had begun to germinate in my mind, I begun to think about how would I do it, and it struck me immediately that what I had to do was to get rid of all those ridiculous animal heads. Although, as it were, everyone knew the work, in addition to what Lewis Carroll had written, through the illustrations that Tenniel had provided and they became sort of canonical representations of these various characters, but it always struck me when I read it, that they were about Victorian people that Alice Liddell would have known as a child in Oxford. Then I think I read William Empson's essay on "The Child as Swain,” in which he said that Victorians had always had this vision of the child as someone not yet corrupted, the way Wordsworth describes the child as "trailing clouds of glory,” and then shades of the prison house beginning to close around the growing child, and it seemed to me that that was precisely what Dodgson was talking about when he described these two adventures of Alice, one Through the Looking Glass and the other in Wonderland. In both cases she makes a journey to maturity. In Wonderland she finally lands up being two miles high, she changes her size a lot during it, as a young girl on the edge of adolescence would, and she lands up by being two miles high and becomes the accused in the Court. In the second work she travels across the chessboard and becomes a Queen. In other words she becomes a grown up.
I think that Carroll, like many other Victorians, regarded becoming an adult as a sort of catastrophe in which you lost your innocence and, as I quoted in the film, "the things I have seen I now can see no more.”
"There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream."
Indeed a dream. It seemed to me to be self-evident that that was what the whole work was about, so that I got rid of all the animal heads at once and I simply cast them as Victorian figures that she would have known in and around Oxford, Oxford dons, professors, cleaners, college servants and so forth.
‘Now then, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Tell you what I’ll do for you. Nothing. Is that any good to you, at all? Nothing? I mean, I won’t be able to do it straightaway, I’ll say that.” –Alice meets the Foot Frogman
Alice is a story about a child who is trying to make sense of the world, but the world is full of adults who keep behaving illogically...
She has a little schoolgirl's literalness. There are things she has learned. When she rebukes the Ugly Duchess, when she says "the world turns on its axis every 24 hours" and things like that. There are little formulae that she has picked up in school and she tries to, as you say, hold on to common sense surrounded by these strange adults who appear to be lost in their world. In other words, she is witnessing the cataclysm of growing up. She sees them all around her—a white rabbit who is endlessly hastening and hurrying, the griffin and the mock turtle who are endlessly looking back to their schooldays with great nostalgia. Everyone around her is absurd precisely because they have grown up.
The adults in Alice—a melancholy story.
It is very melancholy. I think it has that wistful melancholy of much Victorian fiction and Victorian poetry. That was what I was trying to capture, and then by using Ravi Shankar to have the music, I wanted to get the feeling of the hot summer, and also the idea of what the child would have read in the Illustrated London News' engravings, and perhaps even photographs of Durbars in the Raj.
Fidelity to the book when working on the film.
I really stuck very much to the book. Everything that occurs in the book, with one or two exceptions; I can't remember which things I left out. I preserved all the events and occasions which are in the book, representing them differently to the way in which they are famously represented in Tenniel's illustrations. So that when I had the gardeners painting the roses I simply had them as gardeners, not dressed as playing cards, and when I had Peter Sellers and Alison Leggatt playing the King and Queen of Hearts I didn't have them as playing cards, they were simply this strange sort of quasi-Victorian royalty.
The symbolism in the film—or lack of it; and where Freud got it wrong.
Yes, I don't think I really thought of anything really symbolic. As soon as I put the film out, there was a great deal of talk and assumption on the part of critics and commentators that it was bound to be Freudian, and of course, there was nothing of the sort. I certainly didn't have any Freudian symbols in it. Freudians might have talked about the fall down the rabbit hole as something Freudian, but as far as I was concerned there was nothing even symbolic about it. I don't think that anything is symbolized. It just is the disheveled dreamscape that we all go through, in which I don't believe there are any symbols which stand for something other than what they look like.
‘Have you ever done the Lobster Quadrille?’—a charming scene from Jonathan Miller’s Alice In Wonderland
It's a film full of visual images—such as the trial scene. Representing dreams and the problems of symbolism.
None of those things that occur in the trial scene are symbolic. There was a man shaving in one of the upstairs compartments on the balcony. There's a woman hastily dressing with a man in a bedroom. I just thought that Alice would have visited various hotels with her family, would have glimpsed, through half open doors, things going on, people sitting having breakfast as they were in one of the downstairs compartments. She might have seen her uncle shaving upstairs. I tried to make that courtroom be a mixture of a college chapel, which is why I had them start by singing "Immortal, Invisible,” but also it would have been a hotel. She wouldn't have been inside a courtroom. The jury are sitting at school desks, which is what she would have sat at. It's just a mixture of all the things she would have seen, but none of them represent anything. None of them are symbolic. It's just all the things that a child would have experienced suddenly occur. That's what makes dreams into dreams. Usually people make great mistakes about representing dreams, they represent them surrealistically. Well, what they mean by that is that it has to be either symbolic, that it stands for something, usually sexual, or that there are drifting smoke-filled perspectives, Dali-esque perspectives. Well, actually, dreaming never takes place in anything one doesn't recognize, it's just that they are rather oddly juxtaposed. You find yourself in a greenhouse at one moment and then you open the door of a greenhouse and find yourself in a room where your uncle is dusting architectural models. I think that's one of the great problems always of the 20th Century, and less now in the 21st—I mean Freud's beginning to diminish in his persuasiveness, but it's been replaced by a sort of massive discourse of interpretation, and he doesn't let things happen in the way that they normally happen. One of the things which is so wonderful about something like Madame Bovary is that there are no symbols, there are no interpretations. It just is an extraordinary story of someone so negligible and humdrum that you can barely bear to spend more than five minutes with them.
Dreams have no logic, no normal rules—or do they?
It isn't so much madness, it's just that dreams are like that. Dreams are peculiar juxtapositions of things which couldn't possibly occur one after another. You couldn't possibly find yourself running through a ruined greenhouse, turn back and hear your voice whispering "who am I?” and open a door with no connection between a greenhouse and a room in which someone is dusting architectural models. Nor could you then immediately afterwards find yourself drumming at the locked door of a kitchen in which people were throwing plates around. None of them symbolized anything. None of them represent anything. No rules are being broken. All that happens is that reality is not quite like that. You go out of the door and into what you expect to be, and is, the street. You turn a corner in the street and the road goes to somewhere that you know it must do. In dreams that doesn't follow. It never seems surprising or odd at the time of the dream. It's only in retrospect that you suddenly have these editorial licenses. What I mean by “editorial”—filmically editorial license is to cut from one scene to what is impossibly another. In real life it couldn't possibly cut from one scene to another because you don't have transitions, you don't find yourself going through a corridor that leads from a broken greenhouse into a room in which someone is unaccountably dusting architectural models, but it all seems perfectly normal at the time.
What is interesting about the film, you talk about not having transitions and things not having to link together, I notice that, for example, when Alice eats the and drinks and changes size very suddenly, there isn't as there is in most other adaptations, the process of getting from small to big.
She's very small and then suddenly she's big.
That's right, the only way in which you show that is by just simply doing what I had, which is to have small models of the furniture at one time when she's real and ordinary sized things when she is small, and that's all that a child who is going through the experience of her growth spurt would experience. It's all to do with reality. It's to do with the reality of dreams as opposed to the reality of waking life. Both of them are equally real—we have two existences. We have an existence in which we walk through the ordinary world in which we have to make transitions from one place to another. They are logical and meaningful, and have spatial coherence, as opposed to an equally real dream-life that we have in which none of these transitions and sequences and connections occur. It's not that rules are broken in dreams, it's just that the world is organized in a different way in dreams and at the time they seem perfectly natural. It's only, as it were, in hindsight in reminiscence that you think "I was somehow, for some reason, sitting on the seashore and the tide has come in and I hear a voice saying ‘the trial's beginning,’ and without having to walk up the shore, at the next moment I am actually walking into a courtroom, which somehow is also rather like the college chapel, which is also somehow rather like the schoolroom with the list of hymns at the back, which is also like the hotels which my parents take me to in the summer."
‘Have some wine.’ ‘I don’t see any wine.’ ‘There isn’t any.’ ‘It wasn’t very civil of you to offer it.’ ‘It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down before you’re invited.’ ‘I thought you did invite me. And anyway, the table’s set for a great deal more than three.’ ‘Uh, your, um, your, uh, hair, uh, wants cutting.’ ‘You shouldn’t make personal remarks. It’s very rude.’ ‘Oh, heh-heh, why is a raven like a writing desk, I wonder?’ ‘I’m glad you’ve gone off in riddles. I think I can guess that one.’ ‘Do you mean that you can find the answer to it?’ ‘Exactly.’ ‘Then you should say what you mean.’ –an insolent, confrontational (and decidedly droll) Alice joins a truly mad Tea Party. Some ten minutes of brilliance unleashed in this scene with Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter).
Is Alice in the tradition of imaginative fantasy writing and the classic transformation stories—or it is something more humdrum?
Well those, of course, are in fact magical and mythical transformations. What I was determined to have in Alice was something which avoided any sort of miraculous transformation. They all seemed totally humdrum. Of course, there was a couple of gardeners, very diligently painting roses, and doing so with great diligence with a palette, as you would have to have in order to paint them. The roses are somehow obstinately resisting the colors which are being applied to them. That often happens in dreams. You find yourself frustratingly unable to do a job that you set yourself, or someone is frustratingly unable to complete a job which they have set themselves. Whereas all the other things you mentioned—the Golden Ass and the metamorphosis of it and indeed other mythical transformations, all the stories that occur in the Odyssey—they are filled with beasts and monsters and hippogriffs and so forth. What is so interesting about Alice in Wonderland, it's filled with people with whom she is totally familiar, and every single location is totally familiar in some odd and unsettling way.
You see I'm interested in the negligible, in the commonplace, in the humdrum. The whole point about waking reality is that it's actually commonplace and humdrum and perfectly ordinary, and therefore when your brain relaxes and goes into a different mode during sleep, the only thing it can draw upon is what you went through. I don't think people dream with monsters and things of that sort. Fairy-tales and myths and so forth are very different enterprises to dreams. They tell different stories. They are symbolic. They represent ideas about creation, about origins of things. The thing is that dreams only represent, in a disheveled form, what you've been through in your life up until then.
This undated interview with Jonathan Miller was originally published at the website ICONS-A Portrait of England. On its home page, the site's purpose is described thusly: ICONS - A Portrait of England is a rich resource of material about our lives and cultural heritage comprised of the top 100 icons that best represent England, as voted by you. Teachers use it to stimulate classroom learning. Inspiring content sparks visits to arts venues and events. It whets the appetites of tourists and provides valuable reference material for students. The content for the site has been created by the ICONS team and our partner organisations, as well as valued contributions from you—the public.
We hope this site continues to intrigue individuals and organisations, we also want to interest people who might not normally go to museums or art galleries. Triggering a response from people who do not usually use the web is also a priority. Our life-long learning partners are useful allies here.
ICONS was the first project by ICONS Online, a not-for-profit organisation whose aim was to develop projects that provide stimulating interactive ways of exploring different cultural landscapes.
For more information on ICONS, visit http://www.icons.org.uk/introduction
Jonathan Miller interview: http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/alice/features/interview-with-jonathan-miller
Alice, 1972: A Bond Girl In Wonderland
In 1972 British writer-director William Sterling offered what proved to be a well-received musical version of Alice In Wonderland, starring a 15-year-old, pre-Bond Fiona Fullerton in the title role, a pre-Phantom Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit, Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, and in a bit part, Dudley Moore (whose comedic partner, Peter Cook, had a featured role in Jonathan Miller’s Alice), with songs by John Barry (who was a Bond man—that is, he wrote some Bond soundtracks) and Don Black. This version, rarely seen on these shores, has won two awards, both in 1973, from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for Best Cinematography (Geoffrey Unswerth) and Best Costume Design (Anthony Mendelson).
At least four versions of this 1972 production are available at Amazon, and reports are that a new release is coming this year. For the moment, all the releases on Amazon seem to have come from the same original source, thus eliciting customer howls, and not good ones, either, at least as regards the video reproduction. Below is a typical customer review. Proceed with caution to Amazon.
So far, this is my favorite version of Alice on film. Why? The answer is simple: it stuck to basics. Rather than change up the story, it stuck mainly to the story in the classic book by Lewis Carroll. Okay, instead of Alice and her sister together on an outing, they have Carroll and his friend Duckworth taking the three Liddell sisters boating, and the Cheshire Cat's scene was dropped (though a publicity photo suggests it was filmed), and the Tweedles appear, the only nod this movie makes to "Through The Looking-Glass." Overall, these changes are forgivable.
Peppered with little ditties and songs, this movie feels like it should be a family classic. It boasts many stars, and there is even plenty of humor in the script, and you'd find yourself hard pressed not to chuckle at some of the Mad Hatter and March Hare's wisecracks. ("Who walks like this? ... I do!") Some may be unimpressed by the idea of the Wonderland characters as just people in costumes, but really, prior to CG and advanced animatronics, how else could it be done? And considering Alice's adventure is just a dream, it looks appropriate that she views these odd creatures to be similar to herself.
This is an obscure film, but I feel a large problem lies in how it is viewed today: on home video. In the United States, all copies are horribly cropped (or in the case of the credits, stretched) fullscreen that look very dirty, the sound also being terrible.
The best home video edition is available only in the UK, and that still leaves a lot to be desired: while it is in widescreen and does look clearer, it is not anamorphic, but "matted," meaning the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are part of the video, and the transfer is not a sharp image, in fact, some parts of the image often look pixelated and there's some flickering going on.
Seriously, this should get a High-Definition transfer so people can enjoy it without being distracted by poor image quality. –Jared A. Davis