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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Alice In Wonderland  Kraft Television Theatre 1954

Alice In Wonderland  Hallmark Hall of Fame 1955

Alice In Wonderland  BBC 1966     Autumn 2021

You may be aware that Jonathan Miller directed a BBC version of Alice In Wonderland in the 1960s, but you probably didn't know there were at least two previous television version, both in the USA, a decade earlier. In our somewhat random explorations of online drama, it seemed worthwhile to check them out.

The Kraft Television Theatre (named, as was the fashion, after the sponsor, here a cheese company) version of 1954 is by far the weakest of the three.

Perhaps because they already had him under contract, the sponsor-producers shoehorned in 1930s radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. With no logical justification for them being there, they follow Alice down the rabbit hole and through her adventures.

They thus not only take up valuable chunks of the one-hour-minus-ads running time with their irrelevant and tepid jokes, but spoil the basic concept of one special girl's special adventure.

When they're not getting in the way, we get a very rapid rush-through of the plot, with some major characters on and off the screen within a minute or two.

Twelve-year-old Robin Morgan looks disconcertingly adult as Alice, and a cast of Broadway character actors that includes Art Carney (Mad Hatter), Cliff Hall (Duchess), Una O'Connor (Cook), Blanche Yurka (Queen), Arthur Treacher (Cheshire Cat) and Bobby Clark (King) collect a quick and easy paycheck.

Only Clark, livening up the courtroom scene with an easy informality, and Carney, at least aware he's supposed to be funny, contribute much.

It is faint praise to say the Hallmark (greeting card company) version is better, but it actually is pretty good.

Based on a stage version created by actress-manager Eva Le Gallienne in 1932 (and revived several times later, up to the 1980s), it shows the value of a higher budget in its elaborate masks and costumes, modelled on the classic Tenniel illustrations, and by the inclusion of music and dance, most of Carroll's poems being pleasantly sung rather than recited.

Fifteen-year-old Gillian Barber is a convincingly and attractively young Alice, and, as in the Kraft version, the cast is made up of first-rate character actors Martyn Green (White Rabbit), Hiram Sherman (King), J Pat O'Malley (Gryphon), Elsa Lanchester (Red Queen), Bobby Clark (this time as the Duchess), Karl Swenson (Humpty Dumpty), Reginald Gardiner (White Knight) and Eva Le Gallienne herself (White Queen).

But almost none of them register, because they are all hidden under either full-head masks or layers of make-up, and for all you can tell, they could be, Darth Vader-like, bodied by one person and voiced by another. Still, with an extra half-hour (minus ads), this version is able to pause for a while with each episode.

You might have spotted from the character list that Le Gallienne conflated the two Alice books, and in what was probably the stage version's second act, the pace slows down to let the Looking Glass characters the two chess Queens, the White Knight and Humpty develop as characters and their performers do some real acting.

Of the three we're looking at, this one comes closest to being a satisfying rendition of the book.

In 1966 Jonathan Miller made no attempt to hide the fact that his version was a rather free adaptation of Carroll, and he raised some controversy with the liberties he took.

For one thing, he deliberately foils the audience's visual expectations. The characters are all played as humans rather than animals, and the setting is a more-or-less realistic Victorian stately home and garden.

And Miller imposes two directorial visions on the original, changing its tone and effect significantly. First, he makes it explicitly clear from the start that the whole Wonderland adventure is a dream of Alice's.

This frees him from having to be too whimsical, as the narrative flow, the changes in size, the abrupt shifts in location and mix of bizarre characters, and the general plasticity of reality all take on the internal logic of dreams.

And Alice herself is not the openly curious adventuress we expect, but a moody and rather petulant child. She is played brilliantly by thirteen-year-old Anne-Marie Mallik, an amateur who never acted again, but who was obviously cast for her magnificent scowl.

This Alice is a child intelligent enough to know two things that adults constantly behave in inexplicable ways, and that as a child she is doomed to have to put up with their madness. Her dominant experience is not of wonder but of exasperation constantly wrestling with stoic resignation.

It really is an extraordinary performance, a reminder that in screen acting doing less can be more effective than doing more.

That darker element actually is there in the original books, but Miller makes it the core of his interpretation, and this Alice In Wonderland, if not wholly true to the original (because there is, after all, a lot of whimsy in Carroll), is a fascinating gloss on it.

As with the others, the BBC version is the occasion for a string of guest-star cameos Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar), Peter Cook (Hatter), Michael Gough (March Hare), Leo McKern (Duchess), John Gielgud (Mock Turtle), Peter Sellers (King), along with fleeting glimpses of Alan Bennett, Finlay Currie and others.

Cook's tic-and-twitch-filled idea of madness is a bit exhausting, and Sellers just recycles some Goon voices, but Gough's bored-to-distraction Hare is droll and Gielgud's dotty-but-charming country squire Turtle sweetly endearing.

Not the version to go to for a clear plot summary of the original, but the most original and satisfying on its own terms.

Gerald Berkowitz
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Reviews of television Alice In Wonderland 1954, 1955, 1966 - Autumn 2021