Alice’s Wunderland: Through The Onion Glass
This week sees the premiere of the brand new radio pilot from the brain of TVO’s fairy godmother, Alice Lowe.
Bringing together a whole host of familiar names in a late night audio treat, the pilot will be broadcast this Thursday, April 21st on BBC Radio 4.
In the run-up to the show, TVO were lucky enough to talk to Alice about the fantastical adventure she has in store for listeners…
Hi Alice! Welcome back to TVO. First off then, what can you tell us about Wunderland?
I think it’ll be up your street! It’s quite fantastical, but with a gritty side to it. There’s a magical realism quality to it too. There’s a line in the script that says it’s the Poundland of magical realms. Wunderland is very weird but set in our world, with familiar references – imagining if magic did exist how jaded would it be by now?
It’s a sketch show, and it’s going to be ‘a little bit wacky’, she says in inverted commas! I wanted to do something a bit more imaginative, and go against the stereotype of what people expect from Radio 4. I wanted to do something that was about sound, and be experimental.
Wunderland itself is a place. It’s a fictional town where anything can happen. It’s a very British town… a bit dirty round the gills, with an air of dilapidation and pretension.
I wanted to do something that was quite magical, and transported you somewhere new. I’ve been thinking about hypnotism tapes, and how sound can transport you into a different place if you listen to it in a certain way. I kind of want people to listen to Wunderland in a darkened room! Get some sensory deprivation going…
Are we in for a real audio experience then?
There are a couple of songs in there, and some weird soundscape ideas – which I’d want more of if it went to series… fingers crossed!
I wanted music to be a big part of it, so I got Jane Watkins involved. She’s composed music for a lot of the short films I’ve done, so she came on board as my consultant and composer for this. What’s really strange is that you think being radio that music would be really important, but its quite common not to have the budget for new music. I think that was one of my more diva-ish demands to Radio 4!
There were plans to include Hot Brew in there at one point weren’t there?
Yeah, but Hot Brew, unfortunately did not make the cut. It was nothing to do with the quality of the sketch, but we had to lose ten sketches out of about thirty, just because I like to leave an element of improvisation and quite often they end up much longer than I originally planned. I want people to muck around and have the freedom to be funny, but obviously that means that if you chase a funny idea then sometimes you have to lose things, which is a bit heart wrenching.
How many did you end up writing in the end?
All in all, there were about forty sketches written for the show of which maybe twenty-five made the cut and then you lose another few. You try to cherry-pick the best bits at every stage. Having worked on lots of sketch shows in the past you do kind of end up throwing lots of shit at a wall and seeing what sticks! Sometimes its more advanced shit throwing…
I guess you don’t know what it’ll be until you make it. I’m a bit of a control freak and I like to know exactly what’s going into something, but this has actually turned out quite different to how I thought it would.
How was the writing process different to your previous work?
I don’t know that much about radio, which was good in a way, as I didn’t have any presumptions about what it should and shouldn’t be. It’s a new venture for me. I’m used to doing stuff that’s quite visual, so it’s quite a weird experiment for me to have to write in another style.
I usually just have an idea that I try to develop and bring to life, and Wunderland was still in that mould. I think it’s very much still in the development process. It’s not perfect, and I know that. It’s a kind of work in progress, and listening to it I think I know what I would do with the series now.
When you do tv there’s so much more money involved, and so much is riding on every choice that you make. The brilliant thing about radio is that you can quite easily change your mind, and do more than you need, which is quite liberating.
I think doing Jackal Films has really given me more confidence in my writing, which really helps! But with radio there really is no limit to what you can do – you can set something on the moon, or do a sketch in India, without worrying about the budget.
How much freedom have you had to be yourself on this project?
I think they’ve given me quite a lot really. Jane Berthoud [BBC Head of Radio Comedy] commissioned it, and she’s always been very supportive towards my work. Her team basically said: “We really like you. Can you write us a sketch show?” – and you can put anything you want into a sketch show, really.
The only proviso they gave was that they wanted it to be my show. They wanted me to be the main thing in it, with characters that I was doing, and they just left me to it really.
You’ve pooled your resources and got a lot of familiar faces on board with Wunderland. Is this because they’re reliably funny?
I prefer to work with people I’ve worked with before because I do like to work in quite an organic way. You want to know that people are alright with playing around with the text a little bit. And I like to work with people who are nice! [laughs] I can’t stand working with people who have got any element of ego. You just want to have a nice time when you’re working… so I chose people who are nice as well as funny!
I also like to know people will go that extra mile if they find something good. Sometimes you get a big star coming in, they might announce that they have to go onto their other voiceover in five minutes, and just want to get it out of the way. They may not be giving blood, sweat and tears to the project, and I can’t have that!
When I do something I want it to be the very best it can be, even if I’m not being paid. I want to be doing it for the sake of my soul, and it’s great if you can find other people who are also like that. There are big stars who will never compromise and will always give the best, but there are other people who are not like that. It’s just a case of getting that balance.
If the pilot becomes a series, what can we expect?
Hopefully lots of memorable characters, and lots of subversive, weird stuff that you might not get to see on television at the moment. There’s not really much on that’s akin to what I’m doing. It’s a surreal fantasy that’s a little bit spooky and frightening. It’s atmospheric comedy which very few people are taking a risk with at the moment.
It’s closer to things like The League Of Gentlemen or Psychoville, in that it’s more about a world with a different vibe to it than our own. Wunderland should be a bit of escapism, I guess… to spice up your Thursday night!
Can we have a sneak preview, even if it’s just a line from the show, to whet appetites until Thursday?
Oh, god, that’s difficult! I might have to look at the script… I can’t actually remember. I’m onto the next thing now. I feel like I’ve just finished an exam, and flushed all that knowledge out of me!
The introduction is something like: “Good eventide, dear bandits. It’s dead-fingery cold, and the sky’s getting mucky, so sit on your favourite relative and put a damp cloth on your knee. You are about to enter Alice’s Wunderland.”
Which perhaps says it all, really?
I want people to feel like they’re settling down to a little treat, you know? I really like spooky things, and I like things that transport you and make you feel like there is something else out there. If you’ve got any imagination at all, it can just run wild when you’re only hearing things and you have to build up a picture in your own mind.
Oh, and there’s a Northern character in it, so you can test my scanty Northern… [cue laughs from TVO!] as I’ve picked up a few phrases here and there. He says things like: “The only fruit I like is Haribo.” He’s this little kid I played years ago that has somehow stayed alive within me.
This is one of the things I’d develop if we went to series. At the moment he seems like a little shit to be honest, but I think I’d develop him more so that you actually do love him. I like characters that seem like they’re lovely but actually they’re evil, and characters that seem like they’re a nightmare but actually they’re soft – and this character in my mind is a loveable one, but he’s annoying as well. He’s like one of those little kids that you see and just think: “Oh, God… he’s gonna knick something from me…”
Do all these different characters live in your head in their own special world?
I suppose that’s what the radio show is trying to do. I don’t think they all live together at the moment. They’re all a bit segregated inside my head.
I’m like a teenager at times, in that I get obsessed with a phase or a fad and then I get bored and want to do something else. It’d be a disaster if I did something that was really successful and I was offered the chance to do ten series of it, because I’d want to move on. For me, all of those things are quite separate, but the show is an attempt to bring some of that stuff together.
Very interesting interview into the thought processes of Alice! I like the fact that she is passionate about her work. I think people (us the punters!) will feel it if you are not. It’s quite weird but I never normally listen to the radio (my mum does all the time) and she is always saying “You must listen to this radio show, it’s brilliant!” And then I do, and it is! And what is great with the radio is that whilst you are listening you can actually polish your furniture because you are not staring at a t.v screen and you can make your own mental pictures of what the characters may look like and stuff! I was a big fan of the League (of Gentleman) so I reckon if there are echoes of that type of cruel, but wonderful humour, I will love it. Why on earth didn’t anybody make “The League of Ladies”! Women being complicated creatures it would make fascinating viewing!
Excellent! I look forward to hearing this.
Also, terrific photos. And hair.
I am going to be listening with the curtains drawn and under my duvet – with maybe a hot chocolate too, OH and some bourbons…yeah…
Sounds glorious. Can’t wait
I know – this sounds amazing! I’ve recently been re-immersing myself in Jackal Films, and therefore my current perspective on life is that Alice is a genius. Can’t wait for Wunderland!
It is unfortunate that radio shows are not big in the states…wish I could listen in on this one! 🙂
Leigh – it will be on BBC iPlayer worldwide by Friday at the latest. We’ll be providing the link as soon as possible!
Brilliant! my only regret is that i have missd the 2nd episode.