The event was entitled ‘Curiouser and Curiouser: The Genius of Alice In Wonderland’ and it was a glorious celebration of the Lewis Carroll stories in anticipation of the Disney adaptation, directed by Tim Burton and out next week.

The chance to see Michael Sheen and Sir Christopher Lee read from the original stories, and to hear an appreciation of the enduring legacy of Alice from author Will Self, was too good to pass up, and so we took our seats in the British Library as the two cast members took their place alongside Richard Zanuck, the eminent producer who, it seems, must be introduced with the epithet ‘the legendary’, to enjoy an evening with Alice.

It was an intimate affair, with no more than a hundred people in a small auditorium, there amidst the Carrollians and the haggle of assorted Alices we sat and listened to Michael Sheen reading the first few pages from Carroll’s seminal work, and Sheen did a perfect job, jauntily running through Carroll’s prose and flip flopping logic, and reprising his role as The White Rabbit when the occasion called, it was a great introduction to the evening.

What was instantly clear was despite the familiarity with the story, hearing the actual text again allows us to jettison the myriad screen versions we’ve seen and return to the purity of the language and its ostensibly childish notions. As was noted in the event, the story of Alice is timeless; not only a story for all times, but it has no intended audience classification – anyone can read it and get a lot from it.

The novelist Will Self took the stage next and spoke of the enduring legacy of Alice, and he was his usual dry, verbose Self and fearlessly skewered the issue of the similarities of Dodgson’s and Nabokov’s respective famous heroines. This served as an excellent introduction to another highlight – the BFI’s restored version of Cecil Hepworth’s 1903 film of Alice in Wonderland.

After an excellent introduction, detailing the painstaking restoration process, we sat down to enjoy the 12 minute silent film with live piano accompaniment and while the print was scratched and blotchy the familiar characters came to life. Drawing parallels with the heavy, almost exclusive use of green screen in the Disney film, Michael Sheen noted the use of special effects in the early film, prominently displayed, enjoying the pride with which the Cheshire Cat appeared to float in a bush next to Alice. To be among the first to see that film in its entirety in over a century was a privilege and a testament to the legacy of the Alice stories.

UPDATE: Thanks to HUG reader Michael Brooke, we’ve now embedded the BFI’s YouTube video of this version of Alice below, and it’s worth taking the time to watch.

Sheen took the stage once again in place of the absent Matt Lucas to read the Walrus and the Carpenter, as told by the Brothers Tweedle. Sheen’s sense of fun and varied vocal range made this a wonderful reading. Salisbury said afterwards that Sheen should be hired to read every bedtime story ever told, and it was an effective summation of the moment.

The Q&A began with the evening’s host Mark Salisbury, author of the excellent Burton on Burton, taking the chance to quiz the guests and we quickly found out that all of the panelists had a very early connection to Alice, so early that Christopher Lee for one couldn’t remember a time when Alice wasn’t a part of his world. Richard Zanuck was the consummate Producer, grabbing strands of thought and conversation and drawing them back to the new Disney film, but it was a very entertaining session, with candid insights into the role of Alice in each of the panelists own experience.

Then to the front of the stage came Sir Christopher Lee, who brandished his cane to the audience and playfully said that all Jabberwocks use sticks, then he set about reading Carroll’s poem and it was a moment I’ll never forget. His deep, sonorous tones filled the room as he began, and with every line he psychically grew until he was giving us a real performance, stern eyes held his audience, and his voice grew to a fury before ebbing to a playful end – my words cannot do it justice. The man had an orchestral voice and a presence unlike any I’ve seen.

Hearing this man, with such a history and still a tangible command over an audience was a genuine experience. Carroll’s words have never resonated with me like that. I hope that Christopher Lee is available sometime in 2012 to narrate the end of the world, as only he could do it justice.

It was an event full of wonder and the perfect beginning to a week of celebration of Carroll’s work.

I’ll be at the press conference in an hour or so and Dave will be snapping away on the red carpet this evening for the Royal Premiere. My review will go up tomorrow morning and I hope that, if nothing else, Burton’s film will reignite a passion for Carroll’s peeks into Wonderland once again.