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Wonderland – Sky Arts

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer and director: Adrian Munsey

Wonderland, Adrian Munsey’s four-part Sky Arts series, is a fascinating exploration of classic British children’s writing. It charts the 75-year golden age from Alice in Wonderland (1866) to The Hobbit (1937), offering thought-provoking accounts of such classics as Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden and The Ballet Shoes, and in particular their creation of imaginative worlds. Alice in Wonderland appeared shortly after Charles Kingsley’s didactic fable, The Water Babies and marks a clear starting point. Carroll daringly satirizes Kingsley’s traditional values and creates the first strong, assertive child heroine in Alice herself.

The series places the disruptive tragedy of the First World War at the centre of the children’s writing in the era, from a sense of pre-war insecurity that characterised Barrie’s writing to the haunting of Kipling’s writing long after the war ended. Much of Episode 4 looks at the influence his experience in the Somme trenches on JRR Tolkien’s writing of epic battles. Munsey is sensitive to the underlying melancholy in all of these books, drawing attention to ways in which the sufferings of their authors became the well-spring of their imaginative wonderlands. There is also attention paid to the importance and popularity of women writers, including Beatrix Potter, Edith Nesbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Unlike their male counterparts, these women have their feet firmly on the ground, writing to make a living and creating strong, independent heroines who can survive in the modern world.

It is the male writers, amongst them JM Barrie, Rudyard Kipling and Kenneth Grahame, whose personal sufferings drove them to seek consolation in other worlds. Contemporary readers were untroubled by darker issues we now see underlying them. Can we still enjoy these books with their imperialist assumptions and their unthinking presentation of class and race? The documentary’s thoughtful commentators argue for understanding the books in context. The subtle layering of biographical parallels in the writers’ lives – most of whom were orphaned or lost a sibling at a young age – offers psychological insight into why they  idealised the world of childhood.

Munsey doesn’t avoid the most troubling issue for us: the intense relationship some writers formed with the young children for whom they wrote. Wonderland probes these in a spirit of genuine inquiry: Lewis Carroll’s friendship with Alice Liddell, for example, or Barrie’s extraordinary immersion in the lives of five Llewelyn Davies boys. The series concludes that there is no evidence for predatory sexual behaviour, but perhaps more could have been said about the emotional damage inflected by such intense friendships. Two of the Llewelyn Davies boys committed suicide, for example, as did Kenneth Grahame’s only son, Alastair, at the age of 19.

This was the extreme, of course. But the documentary is more candid about cases in which a particular child who became the writer’s muse would grow up to feel burdened by their inheritance. A A Milne’s son Christopher stares out balefully from a photograph in which he is perched on his father’s knee. ‘My father found fame by standing on my infant shoulders,’ he wrote in adulthood, uncomfortable with being forever associated with Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh.

What the series does best, however, is to present such insightful accounts of these writers’ lives that, without ignoring the uncomfortable issues, suggest that childhood trauma in some way arrested their emotional development. There’s the heart-breaking story of Barrie whose older brother David, his mother’s favourite, died in a skating accident when Barrie was only 6-years-old. Prostrated, his mother took to her bed in a state of profound depression. The young James tried desperately to comfort her, dressing up in his brother’s clothes and trying to speak like him. It was a doomed attempt, but it is no wonder that he later created Neverland and Peter Pan, a boy who refused ever to grow up. What is fascinating was how Peter Pan the 1904 play (the novel followed in 1911) captivated so many adults, suggesting that it is we, rather than children, who don’t want to grow up. ‘You write not for children, but for yourself,’ Arthur Ransome later noted.

It’s something of a relief to come to the featured women writers. Many had their own tragedies – Beatrix Potter, for example, leading a very restricted childhood and later losing her fiancé before they could marry; Edith Nesbit endured a philandering husband and the death of her son Fabian. But in general their response is to create not so much an other worldly wonderland, as a nurturing place in which to recover. Much is rightly made of The Secret Garden of Hodgson Burnett, and indeed on the centrality of the role of a home in nature.

Beyond its carefully interwoven accounts, Wonderland includes extracts from the films inspired by these children books and also includes original footage of early morning mist hanging over a river or lying mysteriously over the woodland and lakes of Cumbria. Munsey also composed the film’s appealing music. Some children’s writers are absent in this account – notably CS Lewis – and the inclusion of Erskine Childers strains the definition of both a children’s writer and a writer of a wonderland. But it is nonetheless a profound and inspiring account.

Episode One of Wonderland will premiere on Sky Arts on 18 August 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score

Profound and inspiring

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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