Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Jonathan Miller's Psychedelic Alice in Wonderland


Shown on BBC TV just after Christmas 1966 Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland caused a similar media furor to that of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour exactly one year later. The Daily Mail called the film X rated and it was even seen as an attack on family values. This is not therefore the Alice in Wonderland of Disney or more recent adaptations for children. This was made for adults and most of the characters are played by actors in standard Victorian dress. It also explored some of the more philosophical and existentialist themes that are often ignored in other versions of the story. Alice asks "Who am I?" and is lost in world where nothing is real.

In other words, this is 1966 and Alice is going down to Strawberry Fields...

Seen now, this film can be viewed as an evocation of the same ethereal spacey English summer afternoon that The Pink Floyd would explore on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, or The Beatles on Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds and Strawberry Fields Forever.  A multitude of other British psychedelically inspired bands were also about to trip through these same fields during 1967's "summer of love" which was just round the corner. The soundtrack features the sitar of Ravi Shankar which also imbues the film with a humid air of psychedelic sensory abandonment.

US band Jefferson Airplane probably recorded the most famous ode to Alice and the psychedelic exploration of inner space with their White Rabbit but, unlike their American counterparts who took acid and headed off into both inner and outer space, British hippies took hallucinogenics and were transported back to a kind of idealized magical summer afternoon of childhood innocence. There is a very strong pastoral influence in British psychedelia which can be heard in many recordings from this period. Try watching this film with the sound off and listen to the first couple of Traffic, albums or Donovan, The Zombies, The Incredible String Band, Sgt Pepper, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Rolling Stones' 1967 singles Dandelion and Ruby Tuesday as well as parts of Satanic Majesties, or any decent late 60s psychedelic compilation; Mojo magazine's Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers for instance, and you will hear the mood that is evoked by the film is also that which is explored by the music of this era

As this film was shown on TV in late December 1966 it's no stretch of the imagination to suggest that this film must have had an influence on the development of British psychedelia in the months that followed.

Miller's directing style is slow and photographic. Scenes appear at times to be staged for a Victorian photo album.The film also features some of Miller's acting friends and acquaintances and can perhaps also be seen as part of that surreal strand in British humour that was prevalent in the 60s. Peter Sellers is the King of Hearts and two of Miller's fellow cast members from Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett are the Mad Hatter and the Mouse. Steptoe and Son's Wilfrid Brambell plays the White Rabbit, Leo McKern (who would go on to play No.2 in The Prisoner) is in drag as the Ugly Duchess and even Malcolm Muggeridge (the journalist and broadcaster famous for accusing Monty Python's Life of Brian for  blasphemy) is in it as the Gryphon. Coincidentally, it also features Monty Python's Eric Idle as an uncredited member of the Caucus Race.
So if you are in the mood for a trip back to the pastoral psychedelia of Grantchester Meadows or Strawberry Fields Forever then follow the white rabbit below.
But make sure you're home in time for tea...

Jonathan Miller's Alice in Wonderland (1966)
  • Directed by: Jonathan Miller
  • Produced by: Jonathan Miller
  • Written by: Lewis Carroll (novel); Jonathan Miller (teleplay)
  • Music by: Ravi Shankar
  • Cinematography: Dick Bush
  • Editing by: Pam Bosworth
  • Release date: 28 December 1966

Note on location

The scenes of Alice running down corridors of wide open windows at the beginning of the film were shot at the now demolished Royal Victoria Military Hospital in Netley near Southampton. Part of the building still exists as a museum and the stairs Alice runs down can be seen from the entrance. The museum commemorates the old hospital which was originally built in 1863 and  was used for military personnel during various wars of Empire and the 1st World War. Psychiatrist R.D. Laing worked there in the 1950s when he was in the army.

The grounds are now a country park. I've often been down there walking the dog. There is a duck pond and fields and woods at the back. And on humid soporific summer days, when there's no one else around, it can still cast a spell...

Bella at Netley © David Mainwood

Jonathan Miller's Alice In Wonderland (1966): A Suitable Case for Treatment

Now try this
Parallax - The Pink Floyd and the BBC

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