Alice in Wonderland

Anglia Television - 1985
 

There's very little information about the 1985 Anglia Television adaptation of Lewis Carroll's masterpiece Alice in Wonderland on the Internet, but that's not altogether surprising. It was almost immediately overshadowed by the much more lavish 1986 version (directed by Barry Letts, and produced by Terrance Dicks, both veterans of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who), which aired in BBC1's prestigious 'Sunday Classics' slot. Anglia's version, which aired on Tuesday afternoons, was quickly forgotten: as far as I know it has never been repeated, and it has never been released on any home video format.

Anglia Television don't have much of a reputation for making drama series, and certainly never came close to rivalling other regions like ATV, Thames and Granada in terms of output. In fact Anglia's enduring drama legacy amounts to a handful of series: most notably the sting-in-the-tail anthology series Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88) and a brace of adaptations of P.D.James crime novels (Death of an Expert Witness (1983), Shroud for a Nightingale (1984), etc). That's not much to show for a franchise that's been running since 1959!

According to the end credits, the Anglia series was inspired and based upon an early production put on by the famous Da Silva Puppets group at the Norwich Puppet Theatre (which was founded in 1979). The company regularly performed - and, indeed, continues to perform - shows based on classic children's literature, such as Treasure Island and Pinocchio.

The series was produced and directed by Harry Aldous, an industry veteran who had worked as a film editor on several Ealing Studios classics, including perennial favourites Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. It must have been a dauntingly ambitious production, requiring the use of many elaborate technical techniques, including extensive use of TV's equivalent of "green screen", CSO (colour separation overlay). Most of the series is a blend of puppetry (a mixture of marionettes and rod puppets) and a live action element (in the form of Alice), set against photographic or live action backgrounds. Almost all of the creatures Alice encounters are puppets, with, it seems, the exception of the mouse in the Pool of Tears sequence, which was played by someone in a costume (perhaps it was the only outfit the production could get from stock?)

The script adheres quite closely to Carroll's story, and features most of the book's key characters and set-pieces (unlike many other film and TV versions, which frequently borrow from Carroll's 1871 sequel Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There). In fact, the adaptation is so close that there is no "adapted by" credit, or even one for a script editor, indicating that Aldous was responsible for this aspect of the production, too.

In what has become something of a customary addition, Anglia's adaptation begins with a 'real-life' sequence depicting the Reverend Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) telling the story to the three Liddell sisters, during an 1862 rowing boat trip on the Thames. The Anglia adaptation is also book-ended with the novel's 'real-life' scenes of Alice playing with her sister on the river bank. Incidentally, it's probably safe to assume that the 'Kesser Andrews' who plays one of Alice's sisters in these sequences is the real-life sibling of Alice actress Giselle Andrews.

The look of the series is also faithfully modelled on the book, in that it closely mimics John Tenniel's iconic book illustrations (which date back to the first published edition of Carroll's novel, in 1865). Several of Tenniel's illustrations are recreated quite precisely, although some have been re-staged back-to-front, in common with some less-faithful editions of the book. A few of Tenniel's illustrations even appear on-screen, such as the coloured illustrations for You are old, Father William, as re-told by the Caterpillar (left - tellingly, this is another 'flopped' image).

The series' designer was Spencer Chapman, who also worked on Anglia's Tales of the Unexpected. Chapman has an impressive resume of BBC prodictions, including the 1964 Doctor Who story The Dalek Invasion of Earth; Dennis Potter's highly-controversial Wednesday Play, Son of Man (1969); and prestigious BBC drama series The Forsyte Saga (1967). Coincidentally, Potter was also bewitched by Carroll's stories: he blended the books with a biography of Dodgson for the BBC in 1964, as another Wednesday Play, simply titled Alice, and re-worked the story into the sorely neglected 1985 Thorn EMI film Dreamchild, which boasted stunning Wonderland creatures from the Jim Henson organisation.

The Anglia production generally uses sets for the interior scenes (the room of doors, Rabbit's house, the courtroom, etc), and photographic backgrounds for the exterior scenes (including all the interstitial woodland scenes, the beach, and the croquet court, etc). Most of the show was recorded on videotape (a necessity, given the effects work required), with the live-action sequences dropped in from film inserts.

Giselle Andrews, who played Alice, was a thirteen year-old pupil at Yarmouth High School, Norfolk, when the series was made. Usually the part is played by an older actress; almost always one who is older than ten, which was the real Alice Liddell's age when Carroll narrated his tale. The role is a demanding one, not suited to a young child. Some adaptations have opted for performers in their teens (thirteen year-old Tina Majorino in Hallmark's 1999 adaptation, or sixteen year-old Fiona Fullerton in the 1972 film, for example), others for even older actresses (Charlotte Henry was twenty when she made Paramount's star-studded 1933 film, and Carol Marsh was a whopping twenty-three when she starred in Lou Bunin's largely-suppressed 1949 version). Andrews, at the younger end of the age scale, rivals the ten year-old Natalie Gregory in Irwin Allen's glitzy 1985 TV version. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) - which, admittedly, does not cover television at all  comprehensively - has Alice in Wonderland her sole credit, suggesting that her acting career was not a lengthy one. Similarly, none of the "Robert Peters" (who played the Reverend Dodgson) listed by the IMDb seems to be the one who appeared here.

A record of this version of Alice in Wonderland has only recently been added to the IMDb (since this article was originally published, in fact), so it may have come as a surprise to some people to discover that the series featured a number of notable performers giving voice to the various people and creatures Alice encounters. Many are instantly recognisable, because they're performers whose careers have continued to flourish, or people who have been immortalised at their peak by a particular role that still resonates. Almost all are very well-cast, especially the Jackanory-honed tones of Bernard Cribbins, who plays the mournful Mock Turtle, and master of the funny voice Michael Bentine, who plays the March Hare. Other perfectly cast voices include regular sitcom battleaxe Joan Sanderson as the Queen of Hearts, and John Barron, perhaps best known as C.J. in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, as the lugubrious Caterpillar.

Almost all of the featured characters have well-known performers giving them their voice, with veteran voice artistes Jon Glover and Mary Miller filling in the supporting roles.

Music for the production was provided by Peter Fenn, who became something of a household name, for his work as organist on Anglia's enormously popular "Quiz of the Week", Sale of the Century (1971-1985).

It's fair to say that the production is hamstrung both by its budget, and by the technology of the time (it was made a few years after ground-breaking digital image manipulation devices like those from Quantel were available, but before they were widely adopted within the industry). Much of the series struggles to rise above the production values you'd expect from a (typically under funded) children's television series of the time. The puppets, which were perhaps the ones made for the theatrical production, are crude, and not well-suited to the intense scrutiny of the television close-up. Even the puppets who are given a lot of screen time, like the Mock Turtle and Mad Hatter, have very little articulation, and are barely capable of much more than opening and closing their mouths.

The cast and crew of Anglia's Alice in Wonderland attempted a very ambitious project, and probably did so with a fraction of the funds given to other TV adaptations. It's a rather clunky re-telling of the story, but one that's not without charm and invention.

As a footnote, it's perhaps worth noting that, a couple of years after making Alice in Wonderland, Anglia produced the long-running kids' adventure / quiz show Knightmare, which began its run in 1987. The series used many of the same special effects techniques used in their production of Alice in Wonderland, using CSO (or a slightly more sophisticated version of the technique) to place its young contestants in computer-generated sets, so perhaps the experience stood them in good stead.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I've recently only seen four of the five episodes.

The series was broadcast in five twenty-minute episodes:

Episode One - Down The Rabbit Hole and The Pool of Tears   (TX: 26/3/85)

Episode Two - A Long Tail, A Little Bill and Advice From A Caterpillar   (TX: 2/4/85)

Episode Three - Pig and Pepper and Onto a Tea Party   (TX: 9/4/85)

Episode Four - A Mad Hatter's Tea Party and The Queen's Croquet Ground   (TX: 16/4/85)

Episode Five- The Mock Turtle's Story, The Lobster Quadrille and Who Stole The Tarts?   (TX: 23/4/85)


CAST:

Alice - Giselle Andrews

The Reverend Charles Dodgson - Robert Peters

Alice's Sisters - Kesser Andrews, Kate Tooley

VOICES:

White Rabbit - Paul Eddington

Lory, Dodo - John Braban

The Caterpillar - John Barron

Mad Hatter - Eric Sykes

March Hare - Michael Bentine

The Cheshire Cat - Leslie Crowther

The Duchess - Eleanor Bron

Mock Turtle - Bernard Cribbins

Gryphon - Windsor Davies

Doormouse [sic] - Royce Mills

The Queen of Hearts - Joan Sanderson

The King of Hearts - Leonard Rossiter

Pat, Mrs Pat, Bill, Knave, Fish Footman, Frog Footman - Jon Glover

Mouse, Duck, Parrot, Longbeaked Bird, Pigeon, Cook, Baby - Mary Miller

CREW:

Director of Puppetry - Stephen Mottram

Puppeteers - Kim Bergsagel, Ray Da Silva, Joan Da Silva, Joe Fane-Gladwin, Richard Marriott, Peter O'Rourke, Gillie Robic

Based on the production by Dasilva Puppets at Norwich Puppet Theatre  [sic]

Dubbing Mixer - Terence Barker

Dubbing Editor - Patrick Foster

Videotape Editor - Giles Tuffield

Music - Peter Fenn

Lighting Directors - Chris Brown, Malcolm Harrison, Roger Law

Designer - Spencer Chapman

Produced and Directed by Harry Aldous

Anglia Television Limited MCMLXXXV

 

 


 

 

Messing about on the river...

     
Down the rabbit hole...   Alice arrives at the bottom of the rabbit hole.
     
The hall of doors.   The Caucus-Race.
     
Alice grows inside the White Rabbit's house.   Pat and the White Rabbit tend to the fallen lizard, Bill.
     
"Who are you?" - Alice meets the Caterpillar.   The Fish Footman delivers "an invitation for the Duchess to play croquet" to the Frog Footman.
     
The Duchess, modelled by Tenniel on Quentin Matsys's painting 'The Ugly Duchess'.   The Duchess, the Baby, and Alice.
     
Alice encounters the "Cheshire-Puss".   The Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
     
The Queen, King and Knave of Hearts.   The Gryphon, the Mock Turtle and Alice.
     
In the Courtroom: the King and Queen of Hearts: "Give your evidence," said the King.   The Knave of Hearts. He stole some tarts, you know!
     
Mad as a Hatter!   The Dormouse gives evidence.
     

     

In 1999 Anglia Television published a lavish coffee table book, A Knight on the Box, celebrating their fortieth year. The book devoted almost a whole page to Alice In Wonderland (below). The book seems to be a promotional item, perhaps given to staff members.

     

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