Put actors, Christopher Lee and Michael Sheen on a stage together with writer Will Self and self-confessed Tim Burton luvvie, Mark Salisbury and you have a Wonderland of Alice to enjoy.

As part of the round of interviews and publicity stunts for the latest Tim Burton movie, the British Library put on a slightly more literary event with various readings from the original novel, a token Q&A session and a first showing of a restored original film from 1903.

I am not that familiar with Michael Sheen as an actor, but he seems to have a quite remarkable vocal range as his reading of the The Walrus and the Carpenter poem ranged from the Lugubrious walrus to high pitched, almost camp, oysters almost without a pause for breath. It was suggested that he should read the whole book – which would probably be quite a good experience.

Will Self broke a lifelong habit and read a short passage from his forthcoming novel which was quite strongly influenced by Alice in Wonderland and gave a long deliberate talk about how the novel had influenced his own writing.

Indeed, all the participants expressed a similar view – and one I share – in that you might not be able to remember the specific instance of reading the novel, yet somehow the imagery and text is instantly recognisable. It’s as if the story has become genetically engineered into our minds and we are born instantly knowing who the Queen is, and how to hold a flamingo when playing croquet.

For me thought, the first of the highlights of the evening was the first ever showing of a restored version of the first ever Alice in Wonderland film – made back in 1903. Heavily damaged, they managed to restore what looked like about half the footage, and even included the colour tinting in some of it. A new musical composition was also played on an electric piano for the first time last night.

The film is – for the time it was made – very long, being a staggering twelve minutes in length. Quite an arduous experience for an audience used to films lasting just a couple of minutes! In fact, so long was the film, that many cinemas just brought snippets and showed the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party rather than subject their customers to the ordeal of a whole 12 minutes of action.

A bit of a Q&A session followed this, with the usual generic actor/director luvvie action where everyone gushed about everything. Dull.

However, the second highlight of the evening was now approaching as Sir Christopher Lee stood to his full commanding height – with a walking stick that is probably taller than some people – and read out the infamous Jabberwocky nonsense verse in that famous deep sonorous voice of his. Quite awesome.

Questions from the audience, as usual with these sorts of things rounded off the evening, and this can either be the best part of the evening, or the worst.

One chap put his hand up immediately, with what was evidently a pre-prepared question on some bizarre issue of the politics of the book. Total bemusement from the panel, and the audience, with Will Self being pulled back on stage to give a long ponderous reply full of words that wont be found in a “pocket” dictionary and allusions to Czarist Russia which could probably have been summed up as “Oh do shut up you tedious little man”.

A weird comment about feminism and a slight rebuke that no ladies were on the stage got a scattering of applause – although I am not a fan of the quota based system that says an panel is no good unless it has a token female on it.

A complaint that films are all about special effects and would we get back to old-fashioned film making in turn was rejected by the panel who pointed out that fantasy films can’t be made without special effects, but that human interest films are rarely made with them!

A final question with just nuts though – “what is it about London you love the most”. Quite what that had to do with the film or the book is beyond understanding, and the panel seemed suitably perplexed by it.

In general, a good evening out and I am glad I went, despite the slightly excessive luvvie action that seems unavoidable in these situations. However, I don’t think I have ever been in a lecture hall where such utterly weird questions have come from the audience – must try better next time.

A quick chat with the BFI chappie after the event confirmed that the restored 1903 film will be put on the BFI website, probably next week – and if you like early B&W films, it will be worth keeping an eye out for.

I didn’t take any photos as that was frowned upon by the ushers, even though the two people in front of me kept trying (and being told off) throughout the evening.

A final amusing point though.

When Michael Sheen, who does the voice for the White Rabbit, was recording his dialogue, his physical acting in the sound booth was recording on film. He was not aware that this is then used by the animators as inspiration for their work – so he acted closer to how he has played Tony Blair in several productions.

So, if you go to see the film, the White Rabbit is actually… Tony Blair.

Makes a change from being George Bush’s poodle.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Brooke

    The BFI has just published the 1903 Alice in Wonderland on YouTube.

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