Dennis Potter's Two Dark Visions of Wonderland: Alice and Dreamchild

Dennis Potter has written so many great, rare and unreleased television plays for the BBC over the years. A disappointingly substantial number of them have yet to be made available in any form, while others are out only on some pretty obscure discs. One of his earliest, and long unreleased, is Alice, a "Wednesday Play" from 1965: a more realistic and tragic take on the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the real Alice Liddell who he crafted his stories for.

Update 9/10/15 - 11/11/22: Kino has given Dreamchild a much needed upgrade to blu.  'nuff said!
Here we see Carroll, excellently played by George Baker, as a reclusive, stuttering professor with an undying devotion to the very under-aged daughter of his dean (Upstairs Downstairs' David Langton). Nothing overtly sexual or immoral happens, but Alice's mother slowly catches on that there's something inappropriate in this man's attentions to her the girl, spending all of his time with her, buying her gifts, inviting her over to be photographed. But at the same time, something genuinely beautiful and innocent is developing out of his true feelings for her: these wonderful stories he creates to win her affections.
Throughout the film, we see moments and characters that inspire some of the most famous scenes from Alice In Wonderland, and occasionally we enter into the storybook world itself. It's an honest look at human relations seldom examined, and a psychological character study too honest to simply present us with anyone to demonize or romanticize. When Carroll ultimately takes his first book of Wonderland stories to an appreciative publisher, they're all too eager to have their illustrator visit the real Alice for their pages, but there's the awkward moment when Carroll must explain to them that the family now objects to the entire affair.
In 1985, Potter wrote the screenplay for a film called Dreamchild, which is often referred to as a remake of Alice. That would certainly make sense... a small but highly praised BBC teleplay getting turned into a feature film happens often enough, even specifically with Potter's works; and certainly this film has many of the same themes and a rough premise in common with Alice. In fact, it has a few scenes replayed word for word. But I really don't think it's fair to call this a remake; it's actually quite a different film, that just happens to stem from the same root idea.
Certainly, it's another story of "the real Alice" and an implied darker, even abusive, relationship between her and Carroll. But it's quite a different story. Despite its title, Alice was about Carroll; Alice was just the catalyst. Dreamchild, on the other hand, is about Alice. This film is set in the 1930s, when Alice is now 80, visiting America for the very first time because she's receiving an honorary degree from an ivy league university as part of a celebration for Carroll's centenary. She's surprised to learn just what a cultural icon the book has become, as she's instantly beset by reporters who don't understand how haunted she is by the story's characters (angry monsters brilliantly brought to life by Jim Henson). In Alice, Carroll seemed to simply want more than there could be with Alice, but in Dreamchild, we're left to infer that something immoral did indeed happen, and she's a survivor forced by the book's lasting popularity to confront her demons to her very last days.
There is so much story that isn't even hinted at in Alice. Peter Gallagher is a major character playing a reporter who Alice rejects but eventually warms to after he shows her how much money there is to be made in exploiting her newfound American fame. There's a whole subplot, then, about her young assistant who she brought over from England and tries to keep under her thumb (a sort of mirror, where she tries to keep Lucy infantilized just like Carroll wished of her). The scenes this has in common with Alice are all flashbacks from her youth with Carroll, this time played by Ian Holme. Again, those scenes are the same down to the precise word; but they only make up maybe 15% of this movie, which has an entirely different tone and very different things to say. Certainly production values are much higher here - compare the gryphon and the mock turtle in the screenshots from each production above. But I have to say, key scenes - like the one where Liddell's family asks Carroll to recite a silly poem from his book and Alice and her sisters laugh and get distracted by their boyfriends, because they've outgrown his childrens' stories - are more heartbreaking in Alice. Truly, though, they're two very different and excellent original works by Potter; and you'd be doing yourself a disservice to only see one or the other.
Both of these films were unavailable for ages. However, if you'll pardon a brief detour (it'll tie in eventually), what was released, was a rather smart 1966 BBC adaptation of Alice In Wonderland by Jonathan Miller, who also directed the terrific Whisper and I'll Come To You. This is a faithful adaptation of the story by someone who greatly disliked the Disney cartoon, and it features a brilliant cast including John Gielguld, Peter Sellers, Michael Redgrave and Peter Cook. It's a more mature version, with a strong score by Ravi Shankar and all the characters (the white rabbit, etc) portrayed simply as humans, and the entire adventure as a dream.
I used to have the BFI DVD of it, which had some excellent features, including an audio commentary by Miller, a vintage featurette on Shankar's scoring process, and an old silent film version of Alice In Wonderland from 1908 with commentary by a BFI expert. But I upgraded that old edition for this US DVD when it came out in 2010, as it carried over all of those extras but also included the DVD debut of Potter's Alice! I kind of wish I'd hung onto that BFI disc (also released in the US by Home Vision), because look at the ghosting in that screenshot above. I'm pretty sure that's a PAL to NTSC conversion issue the original UK disc didn't have. But I'd have bought it anyway, just for Alice. I would've bought Alice on DVD just by itself, because it's terrific. I don't care if they've tucked it away as an extra; it's an amazing package.
And Dreamchild? That finally came out as just an MOD DV-R from MGM in 2011. It's in its original widescreen OAR, and it was fantastic to finally have this movie. But DV-R is pretty disappointing and looks really compressed. It did actually get a proper, pressed DVD release in the UK from 101 Films in 2015. But apparently it's the same transfer and no extras or anything. Besides, now in 2022 we've got a proper blu-ray from Kino, and it's even a bit of a special edition. Everything else is now ancient history.
2011 MGM DVDR top; 2022 Kino BD bottom.

It's nice to see this isn't just the same master slapped onto an HD disc, although honestly, I would've been happy with that.  Especially since we're coming from a wonky, interlaced DV-R, not even a proper DVD.  But this is even better!  Obviously the compression is vastly improved, the image is sharper being in HD and the interlacing is corrected.  But beyond that, we have fresh, corrected colors so everything doesn't look so orange anymore, and the aspect ratio has been corrected from 1.82:1 to 1.85:1, slightly adjusting the framing of the entire picture.  Did I mention they made it less orange?  Because that really makes a big difference.

The original mono audio has been bumped up to DTS-HD, and optional English subtitles have been added to the blu.
And we finally get some extras.  We start out with an audio commentary by expert Lee Gambin, which is okay.  His expertise is clearly more on Henson than Potter, and he goes on a long 20+ minute jag of just reading every puppeteer's IMDB credits one by one.  But there's some good stuff in there, too, if you've got the patience.  The other main extra might take a little patience, too.  It's an audio-only interview by Gambin with director Peter Medak.  To be clear, Medak is a director, but not Dreamchild's.  He's here to share memories of star Coral Browne, who he worked with on another picture.  Unfortunately, he doesn't remember much more than the fact that she was sexy.  He's asked, for instance, if he ever saw Dreamchild, which Browne was immensely proud of; and Medak says he's pretty sure he did but doesn't remember it at all.  Like the commentary though, there are some interesting moments if you've got the time.  It's an unedited and slow phone call, including a long bit at the end where Gambin struggles to end the conversation... I can only imagine the reason they left all that in is because nobody listened to it before sticking it on the disc.  But it's still a nice, little bonus.  Kino also includes the theatrical trailer and a couple bonus trailers.  So this is easily a must-have for anyone's collection.
Now, maybe we can hope for an HD upgrade of Alice?  There are still a substantial number of excellent Potter teleplays left to be released on DVD, let alone blu, so maybe the BBC could give us a box boxed set.  Fingers crossed, but I'm not holding my breath.  So I strongly recommend the Kino blu and the 2 Entertain DVD, because more people should really see both... and Miller's adaptation too, for that matter.  But only viewers who are prepared for something a little heavier than a Disney musical.


  1. Hello John W. McKelvey thank you for creating this comparison
    between the two Dennis Potter versions of the Alice-Dodgson saga. I have never seen the whole of Alice. I appreciate many of your observations especially how the two films are different with a specific emphasis the first on Dodgson and the second on Alice. Also I know of no other such review that looks at both versions in detail. I would like to understand better your assertion that Dream Child makes explicit that something immoral happened between Dodgson and Alice. I can believe that the emotions of the elder Alice can stem from her love for Dodgson and vice versa and she can still be haunted with demons and still not involved in immoral behaviour. Please can you expand on how Potter presents sexual elements in their relationship. Yours sincerely Paul Sutherland

    1. Well, it's been a couple years now since I've watched these, so I'm afraid I'm going to let you down a bit in terms of specific details or moments I can point to. But I think the main point is that Dream Child is the only film of the two to look ahead and see how Alice has been traumatized by her past with Carroll/ Dodgson. The Wonderland creatures are monsters that scare her, and she talks about how she'd repressed her memories of Dodgson until they came flooding back to her on the trip. And while she ultimately comes to acept what the stories have come to mean to the world at large; that's clearly at odds with how they affect her internally.

      I mean, I did say the immorality was inferred, not explicit. But if he was just a fawning nuisance (let alone a desired love interest) for her, their newfound celebrity would presumably be amusing for her, not something dredging up an unwanted past. You know, said immorality doesn't have to be something physical or heavy-handed either... maybe more that she just realized what he was getting at when he kept asking her who she'd one day like to marry, and realize the man she held up as an idealized special friend was an adult she'd have to avoid and what that means in the real world.

      I can't remember... do we see much of Alice's parents in Dream Child (naturally, the two films tend to run together)? In 1965's Alice, we see them and other adults observing all the red flags in this adult doting on a young girl far beyond what was normal. So that may've been a more overt indicator of the themes Potter was exploring. But only Dream Child then goes on to see what that really meant for Alice... in 1965's Alice, her inner feelings are just a mystery seen from Dodgson's PoV, forever anxious whether she'd accept or reject his next gesture.

      But yeah, there's certainly sublety and room for interpretation in both versions, which is a big part of what makes the story so compelling.