Film Review: Trumbo

Trumbo Movie

For Hollywood, there’s only one thing better than making movies, and that’s making movies about making movies. Holding a mirror up to itself is almost as old as the film-making process. From classics like All About Eve, In a Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard that portray the often bitter decline and fall of the acting profession, to more recent takes on movie-making like The Artist or L.A. Confidential. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a tough place for actors, writers and crew members, all of whom seem to suffer from the cut-and-thrust of life in Tinseltown.

Now added to this list is Trumbo, examining the rise and fall and rise again of Dalton Trumbo who was once the toast of Hollywood writers before coming acropper due to his Communist views, and subsequent pursuance by the House Un-American Activities Committee who attempted to root-out and remove any public or influential figures with Communist sympathies from working in America. Known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, this film examines the experience of a group of artists and scriptwriters who were hounded by the Committee, sentenced to prison and added to an official ‘blacklist’ that barred them from working for film-makers. The cost for many was public shame, loss of income, family and opportunity, as well as criminal records for contempt by refusing to recognise the constitutional authority of a Committee to control the thoughts of American citizens.

The solution for Trumbo and his colleagues was to translate their blacklist status into black market activity, writing under pseudonyms or crediting their work to other ‘safe’ writers which meant Trumbo earned two Oscars unbeknownst to the Hollywood Establishment – one for Roman Holiday and one under a different name for The Brave One. This is the story of that process, taking in the backbiting nature of Hollywood life and the numerous betrayals that occurred among this group of people as the pressure increased from McCarthyites desperate to expose and destroy Communist sympathisers, as well as the eventual reaction against the blacklist by leading all-American figures.

With several Oscar nominations of its own, as a film, Trumbo is a mixed bag; it’s an interesting story and one that gives a fascinating insight into the politics behind the scenes of a very glamorous and powerful place. But on the other hand, this is a rather ponderous affair, meandering through the story and never truly representing the very real fear and culture of suspicion this unhappy period of American history revealed. Trumbo can’t entirely decide if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama, so the occasionally wry joke and jaunty means of conveying information sits uncomfortably alongside storylines about divorce, death and disgrace for those being persecuted, while the comedy actually takes away from the strain and danger these men were in.

Technically, the film produces some winning moments particularly in neatly combining original filmed and radio testimony of stars appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dissolves into the modern actors also being questioned. There’s also some nice scenes where sections of films like Spartacus are recreated which give a nice glossy Hollywood feel to the whole thing combining the glamour and allure of the place with the fantasy element of it, which help to explain why men like Trumbo didn’t want to just walk away and do something else. It’s also, of course, a fascinating and inspiring story, one that reveals quite a dark moment in Hollywood history where the whole industry turned its back on those who had earned it a fortune, pitting friends against each other and subsuming artistic freedom to the prevailing political wind – and one that many believed was not just unconstitutional but also inhuman. Yet still, Trumbo and his colleagues found ways to subvert the system and work with key allies to continue churning out the work they loved (and a lot they didn’t) until attitudes began to change. The rollercoaster nature of that process comes across really well.

But other decisions in the presentation of this story undermine its serious message – the appearance of ‘stars’ is more of a distraction and a cheeky wink to the audience than adding to the story. It’s a difficult one because admittedly these people were part of the unfolding drama and can’t be left out – no story about Hollywood can entirely ignore the actors – but when David James Elliot appears as John Wayne or Christian Berkl as Otto Preminger it feels like a ‘ooh look a celebrity name’ moment rather than a progression of the story. Admittedly Dean O’Gorman is brilliantly suited to playing Kirk Douglas who rides in to rescue Trumbo from obscurity, but there is a major tension in the film between trying to outline the consequences of this dark time and showing the gleaming face of Hollywood – wherein for the most part shiny Hollywood wins out.

The performances are very good throughout; Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston is a complicated figure as Trumbo showing both his political firmness in not relinquishing his principles and his willingness to sacrifice friends and family for them. One of the most interesting ideas in the film concerns whether Trumbo was a true Communist in that he’d be willing to give up the assets he has acquired to create a better society, but as he loses much of his standing he chooses work over everything else, seemingly with the goal of returning to the level of his former lifestyle –an argument he has with friend Arlen Hird. It’s a fine performance but unlikely to surpass DiCaprio as Best Actor front runner or Fassbender for Steve Jobs (much the better actor in my view but unlikely to earn him a gold statuette this year). Helen Mirren is fine but unchallenged, playing effectively a pantomime villain in lovely hats – the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who had a personal mission to assist the Committee in exposing the supposed ‘traitors’ within. John Goodman is fantastic though as the ‘couldn’t-care-less’ boss of a B-movie studio who hires Trumbo to churn out rubbish. Goodman has some fantastic comedy scenes as he chases away members of the Committee who threaten to expose him and openly acknowledges the nonsense he peddles.

But overall Trumbo is an uneven film, unsure of where it’s going, overlong and slightly fearful of condemning Hollywood too strongly. Writer John McNamara shies away from turning on the studios, actors and workers who so clearly shunned the Hollywood Ten and by reducing some of the darkness of this period doesn’t properly convey the real cost to the people who suffered it. The glossy sheen makes the audience think that it’ll all come right in the end, so that the dark times, which in reality no one knew what was going to happen and these people were in very real danger, are sanitised so that Trumbo’s return to the fold seems inevitable in a way that it never could have been. Later in the film he preaches forgiveness for those days that undermines the purpose of the film which appeared to be to name and shame those who set Trumbo and his like on this course. Yet the lack of bite is the problem which, given this is a film about Hollywood itself, is unsurprising. So even retrospective criticisms have to have a redemptive ending showing that the American dream factory is better than ever – even writers today know which side their bread is buttered.

Trumbo was shown at the London Film Festival. The film goes on general release in the UK on Friday 5th February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Winter Wanders 2016 – Walk London

Walk London Guided Tours

Walk London’s thrice yearly free guided tours have become somewhat of a fixture in the London cultural calendar. Having first discovered them exactly a year ago, I try to take part in two every weekend it’s on – although I missed the Autumn Ambles which clashed with the final weekend of the London Film Festival and, for me, the premiere of Steve Jobs. The latest Winter Wanders  were bigger than ever and I decided to try two new additions to the programme one examining film and TV locations in Bloomsbury and the other along the Piccadilly Line, and for the first time I began to wonder if these guided tours have become a victim of their own success.

There was only one opportunity for the Scenes on Screen – Film and TV in London walk, and on turning up to Russell Square tube station there were easily 100 people crowded together. It quickly emerged that two guides had been allocated but one had already left and this multitude were under the care of poor Stella the remaining guide who admirably shepherded the hoard on a 100 minute tour. There was a fair amount of pushing and shoving, and for some it turned into a running tour as they dashed past to be first to the next location so it wasn’t always as well spirited as these usually are. Hard to estimate popularity but given the huge interest in TV locations generally a second tour time might have been anticipated.

But Walk London is actually onto a bit of winner here and has designed a walk that it can easily franchise in other parts of the city, nicely combining film, TV and advertising. It starts off light with a local costume collection at the former horse hospital behind the station before taking in Martin Freeman’s walk through Russell Square in the opening episode of Sherlock and the embarrassed Russell Hotel refusing to acknowledge its role in a Smith and Jones film about aliens despite sharing a dining room designer with the Titanic. From here we looped back round Russell Square Station to look at the McCann Erickson art deco offices – a famous advertising agency responsible for high-profile campaigns.

It stops outside the Brunswick Centre, former home of Catherine Tate and one-time film location for Jack Nicholson before taking in the former home of Kenneth Williams on Marchmonth Street and London’s first gay bookshop that was recreated in Hampstead for the film Pride staring Dominic West. Round the corner was another shop used as the exterior for Black Books, as well as a strip of Georgian shops opposite Euston Station that once contained a Eurovision Song Contest flashmob but most famously doubled for Dover in ITV’s version of The Clocks staring David Suchet as Poirot.

This walk saves most of the big stuff till last, St Pancras and King’s Cross used frequently in programmes like Downton Abbey or major films including The Imitation Game, The Ladykillers, Batman and, of course, Harry Potter which is set to become even bigger news this year when Jamie Parker assumes the role of the grown-up Harry in a new stage version. It’s a good tour covering a lot of ground and different types of famous location in under two hours despite the cumbersome size of the group. Arguably it missed a couple of tricks; a diversion of 5 minutes to the other side of Euston Station would have taken us to North Gower Street, the actual location of Sherlock’s front door and Speedy’s café in the modern version which would have been a big draw, and the McCann visit could certainly have warranted a Mad Men reference given the rivalry with Stirling Cooper throughout the series. Nonetheless this tour is a great addition and Walk London should consider adding more like it – certainly a Strand to Westminster film walk could cover some major blockbusters like X-Men First Class (Somerset House), Four Weddings and a Funeral (Southbank Skate Park), Suffragette (Parliament) and, of course, multiple Bonds (Westminster Bridge and Thames), as well as countless more Sherlock locations. Maybe one for the Summer Strolls given how important the film industry is to the financial and cultural life of London?

The second walk was also new to the programme and is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve done so far. The Piccadilly Line – Featuring a Cricket Bat and Sherlock Holmes is a superb 1.5 hour wander through the heart of London starting at Green Park and ending at Covent Garden. Celebrating 150 years of London tube design, this walk was added especially for this year but is definitely one to retain – particularly as it is a cunning way to encourage people off the tube and to walk this relatively tiny distance. In a considerably smaller and friendlier group of 30-odd, the excellent guide Ian (pictured above) kept the tour together despite passing along London’s busiest streets on a bustling weekend.

At the start we learn that the Piccadilly Line was built in 1906 running mostly under the road because permission was easier to obtain from the council-owned roads than the private landlords on either side. The Line shares its birthday with The Ritz, our first stop, built we learn by Cesar Ritz after having managed the Savoy Hotel and sits close to the Wolseley, a now famous restaurant which was once a car showroom. Across the road we learn that Burlington Arcade is clearly the place for me as whistling is banned within its parade of shops and strictly enforced by security unless you’re Paul McCartney who has dispensation to whistle there. A former garden, the shops were originally built, we learned, by Lord Cavendish the frustrated owner of the neighbouring Burlington House (now the Royal Academy) who was sick of drunks throwing oyster shells (the 18th century kebab) into his courtyard on their way home.

From here we visit St James’s Church in Piccadilly, built by Sir Christopher Wren and damaged in World War II, but from the gardens we can see into Jermyn Street where Florins is visible and is the oldest continuously situated shop in London, fictionally visited by James Bond. Over the road we’re directed to look at Cordings the country clothing store who offered their best customer Eric Clapton a share in their business, while the group is set straight about the statue at Piccadilly Circus – not Eros but Anteros, the God of requited love. Leicester Square steers back to the tube as we compare the red terracotta entrance on the north edge – each station having its own colour, Ian tells us, so people who couldn’t read would recognise which station they were at – with the 1930s sleeker design next to the Wyndhams Theatre.

En route to Covent Garden on the final leg of the walk we take in the former offices of cricket publishers Wisden, a peg for policemen to hang their jackets in the days before traffic lights, Stanford’s map shop which employed Kenneth Williams and was the fictional cartographers of choice for Sherlock Holmes before stopping finally outside the Transport Museum in the heart of Covent Garden with tales of the actor’s church, St Paul’s, itself a lovely summer theatre spot.

In a little over 90 minutes, this tour covered about a mile of easy walk, 300 years of history and was jam-packed with brilliant anecdotes and little tube trivia questions to think about between each stop – a fine addition to the Walk London programme. So another great weekend of learning about London and while TFL need to think about resourcing some of the more popular walks, they are a great opportunity to get to know more about our city from the learned guides. Looking forward to May already.

Walk London free guided tours, sponsored by TFL run three times a year in January, May and October. The programme covers a large part of London and can be viewed on the Walk London website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Lee Miller: A Woman’s War – Imperial War Museum

Lee Miller

At the end of both the First and Second World Wars women were frustrated that they were expected to give up the ‘man’s work’ they had been doing and return to being housewives or objects of delicate beauty. Nowhere is this more obviously ridiculous than in the case of Lee Miller who in the decade before the Second World War transitioned from model to Vogue fashion photographer before going on to become a leading photo-journalist during the conflict, eschewing her former lighter focus to join soldiers on the front line immediately after D-Day, photograph the death camps and travel across Europe in the aftermath of victory to picture the dispossessed and destitute.

Yet Vogue wanted her to go back to taking pictures of the re-emerging clothing lines and millinery, forgetting all about the woman and the artist she had become. An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum which runs until April cleverly charts Miller’s career, from brushes with early surrealism and friendships with Picasso and Hemingway, through her fashion years to celebrations of all kinds of women’s work on the Home Front and eventual documentation of combat and its effects, with accompanying articles written by Miller herself.

Running chronologically, it opens with family photos accompanied by the horrific story of Miller’s rape as a 7 year old and some borderline inappropriate nude shots of a teenage Miller taken by her father as art. Yet later, Miller would often pose nude and several pictures in this exhibition as well as a model of her torso are included which imply a possession of her body and image that might well be unexpected given her early violent experience. One picture shows her naked and covered in camouflage paint beneath some netting which, the IWM cheekily observes, was frequently shown to recruits in camouflage training. On a more serious note, these images help to make sense of her perspective as a photograph which not only understands the role of the model having been one but also in the way she implies both strength and character in her sitters. Whether they are pre-war clothes horses or female mechanics fixing a wireless in the midst of conflict, Miller’s sitters are multifaceted and nuanced women, far more than just a two dimensional image on a page.

One of the more interesting things to learn in this exhibition is just how cleverly magazines like British Vogue were used by the government of the day to influence the way women behaved. From encouraging shorter hair styles which were more suitable for factory life to aiding recruitment for particular sections of the women’s forces, Miller’s photographs inspired and directed the public to aid the war effort. One shot that looks like a fashion piece shows an ordinary female sergeant in uniform sitting in what looks like an airfield, the picture’s style has a sheen of Hollywood glamour but the subject is a working woman in the middle of the working day – and the notes say it did wonders for recruitment. Miller recorded a number of women from 1939-1945 showing the breadth and skill of war work, from nurses and mechanics to WRENS and, in a particularly atmospheric picture, the silhouette of two searchlight operators lit from behind by the lamp pointing to the sky.

The final section of the exhibition signals a major shift in Miller’s work and career; no longer the semi-posed images with a call-to-action for Britain’s women, but the photo-documentation of the consequences and aftermath of warfare on both soldiers and civilians across Europe. Miller graduates to a more serious tone with shots of wounded men being operated on in hospitals, footage from D-Day and sites of destruction in Cologne, Paris and Romania. In a short period she travelled extensively through central and Eastern Europe documenting the chaos and destruction that she found, whether the country in question was an aggressor or victim of the Second World War. Some of the most startling are from Germany with initial shots showing women hanging out their washing in what looks like a totally unspoiled landscape, but these sit next to the devastation the RAF caused in Cologne as two women smoke on a bench amidst the rubble of former houses. Harder still are the shots from liberated camps where German civilians had been forced to view the consequences of their administration. Miller observes them with a critical eye, giving little sympathy for the Axis powers, but providing a fascinating record of defeat.

The shots of Paris too are intriguing, with images of women, we are told, deliberately dressing well with elaborate hair and make-up as a show of defiance against the Nazi occupation. Interestingly, however, this was misinterpreted abroad, particularly here where these images were thought to show Parisians living it up while Britons suffered to help liberate them. The effects of war and the things she photographed took their toll on Miller, however which is also recorded towards the end of the exhibition, and like many of the combatants who served we learn that the things she saw had a lasting effect on her, resulting in bouts of depression and alcoholism which plagued her later years, until her death in 1977.

There are a number of interesting personal items belonging to Miller in the exhibition which along with various cameras include her US uniform, various letters from before and during the war, as well as items once belonging to Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun which Miller stole from their German home when she went to photograph it on the day of their suicide – including a dressing table set and compact. Through this exhibition it’s clear that Miller was quite a force and someone that worked tirelessly during the war to represent women’s lives in her work. These days it’s not at all unusual for a model to turn her hand to other kinds of work from acting to running major fashion and beauty businesses, but they’re never quite able to shake off the ‘former-model’ tag – whatever is written about them it is often preceded by these words, and it’s strange to think someone’s first job will forever define them, as if we’d equally refer to someone as ‘former-Sainsbury’s checkout girl’. Miller undoubtedly faced these obstacles 60 years ago as this exhibition implies and while it’s sad that little has changed, it is also admirable that she overcame them to produce such meaningful and insightful work. It’s not always the most cheerful story, but this exhibition charts Millers various lives extremely well and a chance to see a familiar war from a new perspective.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is at the Imperial War Museum until 24 April. Tickets are £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Richard II – The Barbican

Richard II by Alastair Muir for RSC

At the start of a new year it’s traditional to look to the future, to think about self-improvement, make resolutions and generally hope for better things. It will seem somewhat strange then that my first theatrical review of 2016 is looking back to a production that first took place over two years ago. The re-arrival of David Tennant and the RSC’s 2013 version of Richard II is something of a special event, not only as part of a complete cycle of Shakespeare’s histories currently in performance taking audiences from said Richard to Henry V, but is an unusual thing in theatre- a repeat. Now, we are used to seeing transfers which means you can see the same play from somewhere like The Young Vic, National Theatre or Royal Court or beyond in a bone fide West End theatre a few weeks or months later. There are tours too, that begin and end in London which allow you to see the same show several months later, and revivals occur all the time with new casts, directors and designs that give a new twist to a well-worn classic, but to take a play that completed its entire run years ago and reconvene many of the original cast within the exact same production values is a rare thing indeed.

One of the joys and frustrations of theatre is that it only exists for a moment before it’s gone, even the National Theatre Live people have quite sensibly refused to release their cinema recordings on DVD or download to preserve that ‘one night only’ feel. But imagine if you could do this all the time, what productions would you replicate in their entirety, just to see them again one more time? Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan in the 2001 production of Private Lives would be high on my list, Tennant’s Hamlet of course and I could easily see the recent A View from the Bridge countless times. You could also pick something you missed out on first time around, that hot ticket that everyone got but you, or even something from long ago that wistful theatre critics remember fondly. What the RSC is doing at the Barbican however is far more practical, by giving proper context to a particular cycle of plays it will help the audience understand the meaning and consequences of that period of history, and offer an almost unique rep season as a fitting start to this 400th anniversary year.

Undoubtedly, this production of Richard II was one of the best things I’d ever seen in a theatre and its reprise certainly lives up to my memory of it. There have been just enough changes to keep it fresh however and although Tennant returns to his original role, as does Oliver Ford Davis as the Duke of York, Jane Lapotaire remains the Duchess of Gloucester but Sam Marks is promoted from Bushy to the Duke of Aumerle. New members include Leigh Quinn who replaces Emma Hamilton as the Queen, Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt has become Julian Glover, while chief agitator Bolingbroke sees Nigel Lindsay morph into Jasper Britton.  Design, direction and costumes are pretty much the same although two scenes configure slightly differently to how I remember them – a moment in which Richard descends from above on a platform and later mirrored by Bolingbroke as Henry IV don’t occur, and instead Richard’s is seen to slightly rise on the platform, while Bolingbroke does not move. This removes the religious, king-anointed-by-God imagery of the earlier production but presumably there is some health and safety reason for it not being included this time. Likewise the prison scene which took place in a trap door on the stage floor is replaced by a roll on board on which Richard sits in chains, but this change happily makes no difference to the power of the scene.

Seeing something a second time allows you to notice things that may have eluded you before, and Greg Doran’s production seems more openly sympathetic to Richard as a wronged man than it previously appeared. There are few redeeming features in Shakespeare’s presentation of Bolingbroke but Britton adds a touch of the pantomime villain to him, openly hostile to Richard’s orders from the start and with a huge chip on his shoulder. When Lindsay was in the role the character had a more thuggish approach but his claims that his invasion were solely for the purposes of honour in regaining his lost lands rang truer than they do with Britton’s interpretation which is an interesting point of comparison. Britton also makes Bolingbroke grubbier and less tender to the defeated Richard than Lindsay had been, as though his schemes run far deeper than he wants the court to believe, nicely emphasised here as they back away into the shadows as the consequences of his commands are discovered. It must be strange to take-over a central role in an established production so Britton is commended for bringing his own interpretation to it, not least for covering up sportingly when he accidentally knocked a piece of metal edging into the front row of the audience.

Leigh Quinn was a less successful exchange as the Queen, lacking the solemnity of her predecessor Hamilton. On learning of her husband’s capture and deposition she talked of woes but seemed entirely untouched by them or by their final parting which was a shame. Julian Glover, however, equals Michael Pennington as the melancholy John of Gaunt who witnesses the death of his brother and the exile of his son early in the play. The central triumvirate with Lapotaire and Ford Davis as the surviving Aunt and Uncles to King Richard add a lovely gravitas as they watch the next generation fail them. Credit also to Sam Marks who made an emotional transition to the role of Aumerle full of feeling for his King and remorse for the various betrayals he later commits to save his own life.

Tennant’s performance is every bit as good as it was in December 2013 balancing the initial ethereal god-like presence with a growing sense of his own humanity. Particularly interesting this time around was how rapidly Richard goes from never being touched – and when a subject lays a hand on him it is met with gasps from the court – to needing the physical proximity of others, to having no control whatsoever over his own body and its condition. Through the production and the torments it lays on him, Richard becomes less and less a deity on earth and more an unprotected man clinging to the little life he is allowed. Once again Tennant’s descent from regal to despondent is charted brilliantly, culminating in an especially moving scene as he publicly renounces the crown which visibly appears to cost him every bit of strength, as he bows to the inevitability of his own demise. Seeing this again, Richard II could almost be recategorised from history to tragedy as Richard’s fatal flaw (a failure to see and act clearly) signal his certain end as they do Macbeth and Hamlet. The rousing standing ovation that greeted the curtain is assurance that the Barbican audience loves Tennant as much as they do Cumberbatch.

Greg Doran’s production thus makes a welcome return to the Barbican for the next few weeks and while the cavernous stage seemed to drown last year’s Hamlet, here it is amply filled with suspicion and politicking. There were only three chances to see this play without booking the entire cycle (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two (with Anthony Sher) and Henry V) and they all took place on the weekend just gone, but all the plays in this season have earned excellent critical reviews, so it’s worth seeing the lot, or chance your arm on the days Richard II is playing for a last minute return. The whole thing then transfers to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York from March. There will be plenty of new things to come in 2016, but as a year of Shakespeare celebrations begin, it’s a delight to look back to one of the best productions of recent years.

Richard II is part of the Shakespeare’s King and Country History Cycle that’s running in rep at the Barbican until 24 January before moving to New York from 24 March. Advanced tickets for the Barbican are only bookable for all four plays although day seats may be available for individual performances.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Alice in Wonderland – British Library

Alice in Wonderland - British Library

Judi Dench played Alice Liddell in John Logan’s Peter and Alice in 2013 which explored what it meant to be saddled with a fictional creation for a lifetime. Alice of course was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, while Ben Whishaw played the tragic Peter Llewelyn Davies, the man who was once Peter Pan. These characters have become ingrained images of childhood, and while Alice Liddell had to live with her fictional alter-ego with all its expectations and pressures, as this new British Library exhibition shows our image of Alice has barely changed in 150 years, and illustrators who deviated from the prototype were criticised.

So, Alice, short, long probably blonde hair held back with an Alice band, blue dress, white apron – are you forming a picture in your mind? Chances are it’s the Disney-version of Alice or thereabouts, which itself was inspired by the original illustrator John Tenniel. Alice in Wonderland, a free exhibition on the first floor of the British Library which runs until April, explores where this image comes from and why, so many years later, this character continues to exert a hold over our imagination.

It begins with the least successful part of the exhibition, a summary of the story on giant wooden stands using the various illustrations since publication and a series of slightly distorted mirrors, but it’s not entirely clear whether these are meant to reflect the audience, or flip the accompanying illustration and get us to see Alice from different perspectives.  Maybe it’s both, but the mirrors aren’t quite warped enough to make a clear point and by the time you reach the eighth or ninth of these it’s become a bit repetitive.

But speed past this minor distraction and the British Library is on considerably firmer ground in its presentation of the books, prints and ephemera celebrating Carroll’s famous book. At the start, we learn about the story behind the story, how Lewis Carroll met the Liddell family and made up fantastical tales for their daughter Alice which he eventually committed to paper. In this section is the original handwritten manuscript with Carroll’s own illustrations which he later presented to Miss Liddell, as well as prints of the original Alice herself. Pretty quickly the story was published and John Tenniel was called upon to illustrate the text and in doing so created a long-lasting picture of Alice.

Heavily involved in the publication process, the exhibition includes Carroll’s diary recording the details of book binding, pricing and working with Tenniel on the illustrations. As we see here, these were clearly influenced by Carroll’s original concepts, but Tenniel expanded them and original woodblocks are on display showing the incredible detail of his work which is both formally Victorian while still perfectly representing the magical land of the story. There is also a darkness to them which may have passed you by as a child but the Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts and even in some scenes, Alice herself, look a bit sinister. But the overwhelming feeling when you see these pictures is just how familiar they are, totally reinforcing the British Library’s central argument that these character portraits have barely changed in 150 years.

Once the book was out of copyright and after Carroll’s death there was an explosion of alternative ‘Alices’ and the next section of the exhibition looks chronologically at these illustrations while gauging their relative success. As well as pure reprints which fascinatingly reimagined Alice for their times, there are also examples of how the characters have been used to satirise political or social issues of the past, including the behaviour of the British government in the 1930s faced by the threat of Hitler’s ambition. As well as a history of children’s literature, here these works also sit in a longer tradition of comic-like ridicule that goes back to Hogarth and the political cartoonists of the eighteenth-century.

By the time we reach the 1960s, the pictures become more absurdist and abstract, and while the characters still have that Tenniel look, there is clearly an attempt to break free of more conventional approaches, so the final part of the exhibition which looks at more subversive takes is full of brash colours and wacky interpretations. Interestingly, for children’s stories, in a lot of these images Alice and co never lose that sinister feel that Tenniel introduced so long ago, and whether you’re looking at Ralph Steadman’s version or Salvador Dali’s abstract vision it’s no cosy children’s tale.

Peppered throughout this interesting show are a number of additional exhibits that have been inspired by Carroll’s story including ornaments, video games that you can try out and merchandise from the Disney film which solidified our picture of Wonderland.  Added to this are animations, music and some newly commissioned articles which make a semi-interactive and comprehensive examination of this story’s influence.

This is a small exhibition in the main entrance and as it is free was quite crowded on a weekend afternoon. But if you can’t go during the week then give yourself plenty of time to get round it because bearing with the crowds will be worth it. As always with the Library, there is a lot to read with plenty of detailed signs explaining the artefacts as well as summarising each section as you move from the background to the original story, through mass circulation to reimagining and reinventing familiar characters. You’ll leave knowing not just how influential Carroll’s vision has been on children’s literature both through the text and his own illustrations that guided Tenniel, but also how this story has emerged from its pages to become a significant and un-waning cultural influence. More than anything you’ll understand why the image of Alice affected her inspiration, Alice Liddell, for the rest of her life and why we continue to find it fascinating today.

Alice in Wonderland is at the British Library until 17 April and entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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