Once upon a time, the TV schedules in UK were full of plays. There were strands including The Wednesday Play, Play For Today, Theatre 625, Armchair Theatre, Espionage, Out of the Unknown, Tales of the Unexpected, Play of the Week, Twentieth Century Theatre, The Sunday Night Play and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Now, we have Playhouse Presents on Sky Arts and that’s about it.
So today, in an effort to boost the ‘play count’, I’m starting a new strand on TMINE, appropriately entitled ‘The Wednesday Play’, that’s going to feature a different classic play each week. Now, I could start with almost anything, but since we have a taste for the unusual round here, let’s start with Jonathan Miller’s 1966 adaptation for The Wednesday Play of Alice in Wonderland, starring John Gielgud, Peter Sellers, Michael Redgrave, Michael Gough, Leo McKern, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Malcolm Muggeridge and Eric Idle.
Miller’s production is unique among live-action Alice films in that he consciously avoided the standard Tenniel-inspired costume design and “florid” production values. Most of the Wonderland characters are played by actors in standard Victorian dress, with a real cat used to represent the Cheshire Cat. Miller justified his approach as an attempt to return to what he perceived as the essence of the story: “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 play featured a number of then-prominent British actors including Michael Redgrave (as the Caterpillar), John Gielgud (as the Mock Turtle), and Peter Sellers (as the King of Hearts), as well as two of Miller’s fellow cast members from Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett as the Mad Hatter and the Mouse respectively. The title role was played by Anne-Marie Mallik, the 13-year-old daughter of a Surrey barrister, this being her only known acting performance. Wilfrid Brambell played the White Rabbit, Michael Gough and Wilfrid Lawson were the March Hare and the Dormouse, Alison Leggatt was the Queen of Hearts, and Leo McKern did a drag turn as the Ugly Duchess. The journalist and broadcasting personality Malcolm Muggeridge was The Gryphon. The play also featured a young Eric Idle, several years before Monty Python brought him notice, uncredited as a member of the Caucus Race.