Thursday, March 28, 2013

The BBC's Alice in Wonderland (1986) & Alice Through the Looking Glass (1973) DVD reviews

The Rued Morgue has love for the most famous works of Lewis Carroll, but it wasn’t that love specifically that led to the desire to check out and review these two recent DVD releases from the BBC. Unsurprisingly, both programs have Doctor Who connections, and both I’ve known about for years, but have never seen. Kudos to the BBC folks who dug deep into the archives and unearthed these rarities for public consumption. A few years ago I reviewed another BBC TV version of Alice in Wonderland (1966) – a version that was a drastic departure in terms of presentation from what we’ve come to expect from the classic story. This version? Not so much. Not at all, really. Indeed, it is extremely faithful to Carroll’s work, and nearly all of the dialogue (including a number of songs) seems to have been lifted directly from the original text, and it covers most of the book. Having suffered through the plastic Tim Burton movie, Carroll scholars will surely find this a worthy adaptation based on the dialogue alone.

Titled Alice in Wonderland, the episodes are dated 1985, but according to IMDB, it started airing on the BBC the first week of 1986. It was produced by Terrance Dicks and dramatized and directed by Barry Letts, and like a classic Who serial, is presented over four episodes, each running nearly 30 minutes. In addition to the behind the scenes contributions of Messrs. Dicks and Letts, this production features some other noteworthy Who alumni: Elisabeth Sladen as the Dormouse, her husband Brian Miller (“Snakedance”) as the Gryphon, Roy Skelton as the Mock Turtle, and Michael “Davros” Wisher as a pretty sinister Cheshire Cat; all four appear under heavy makeup and are barely recognizable. However, heavy doesn’t necessarily equate to great, and these creatures are often not much more convincing than the sort of thing you’d see at a professional children’s theatre (the production often feels like theatre). Having said that, many of the anthropomorphized creatures bear striking resemblances to the illustrations drawn by Sir John Tenniel to accompany Carroll’s original text, so in a sense, the effects, makeup and costuming strive to be true to the original work as well.  

This is a low budget video affair, produced on more of a shoestring than even Doctor Who (which was on its infamous mid-80s hiatus at the time this was made). The production is loaded with Letts’ notorious CSO, which, alongside some basic set work, is used to achieve Wonderland. The BBC version of the technique had been honed considerably by ’86 (versus when Letts when using it on Who during the early ‘70s), so it doesn’t look bad, per se, but it is a matter of getting used to the surreal-but-often-flat atmosphere. Who’s to say what Alice’s imagination dreamed up?

What sold me on this Alice was the dawning realization that Letts and Dicks are seemingly paying homage of sorts to the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz. The styles used to achieve the two productions are similar, even though they’re separated by decades and tools. Today, the painted backgrounds used to frequently bring Oz to life would be unthinkable, as would these flat CSO backgrounds – but the end results aren’t terribly different if you analyze them sans prejudice. We (hopefully) make allowances for Oz when we watch it today because it’s an understood classic, and forgive that it’s a product of its time, just as this Alice is of its time, and just as importantly, its place: BBC TV.

Other similarities? The use of songs, the previously mentioned anthropomorphized creatures (ala the Cowardly Lion), as well as the casting of an older actress to play the lead role (Kate Dorning’s Alice is at least 16 here). They even begin each episode with a prologue set in reality (Carroll weaves the tales to his niece and her friends) and colored in sepia tone! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying or even implying this is anywhere near the same level of artistry as Oz. It doesn’t have the same energy or vision. Nobody’s ever going to call it a classic – it’s far too restricted by its TV origins. But I can picture Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, when putting this production together, using Oz as a jumping off point - or for inspiration, if you like, and at the end of the day being reasonably pleased by the results, given what they had to work with.

The second program is Alice Through the Looking Glass, which, while indeed based on Carroll’s second Alice book, is not a sequel to the previous production. Dramatized and directed by James MacTaggart, it was shown on Christmas Day in 1973 as a single 74 minute show, and stars Sarah Sutton (Nyssa of ‘80s Doctor Who fame) - who was 11 when it was shot - as the title figure. Having said all of that, it still makes a fine sequel to the previously discussed production, as the techniques are similar, right down to the dodgy (but lovable) CSO. Though I didn’t necessarily get the same kind of Oz vibe from this one, its adherence to both the text and the illustrations of its source material is clear. It’s also got a somewhat more high profile cast (in terms of British TV royalty, anyway) with Brenda Bruce, Judy Parfitt and Geoffrey Bayldon all playing sizable parts. However the standout performance must surely be that of Freddie Jones (Dune, The Elephant Man) as Humpty Dumpty, who does amazing things with just his face and voice. Sutton acquits herself nicely as well, and her Alice has a bit more spunk than Nyssa was ever allowed to.

Both discs are bares bones with no extras whatsoever, aside from optional English subtitles. While both programs present frequently disturbing visions that no doubt haunted the children of their respective days, it seems unlikely that kids weaned on the production values and dramatic pacing of today would find much to appreciate here. No, from today’s vantage point, this is fare for adults who can appreciate the conditions under which these shows were created, or people who just want to soak up as many screen versions of Carroll’s literature as possible. Now, BBC, how about releasing Barry Letts' dramatization of Gulliver in Lilliput from 1982?