THE STRANGE WORLD OF GURNEY SLADE - The Complete Series / DVD Review

We'll begin
With a spin
Traveling in
The world of my creation
What we'll see
Will defy
Explanation


Back in 1960, ATV's The Strange World of Gurney Slade was greeted with much bafflement on the part of its audience. It allegedly generated enough complaints from its prime time audience that after the transmission of the fourth episode it was eventually shunted into a late night slot. Mind you, it must have left Lew Grade scratching his head in puzzlement too when he saw the results of what he presumably thought was a match made in heaven and a licence to print money with a sit-com written by writing partners Sid Green and Dick Hills for 1960s wonder boy Anthony Newley, whose pop career was in its ascendancy that year after his unexpected success in a spoof Elvis Presley musical Idle on Parade (1959).



The ballad from the film, 'I've Waited So Long', took him to the top of the British charts and a three year string of hits began, including some novelty pop numbers 'Pop Goes the Weasel' and 'Strawberry Fair'. Years later he looked back and declared of his rapid rise, "overnight I had this incredible power" and certainly Newley was a precocious talent and he'd been acting from the age of 14 with a string of small parts in British films to his credit, including a memorable Artful Dodger in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). The premise of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, an off-beat six part series that featured Newley on a personal journey through his own stream of consciousness, focuses on an actor (Newley playing his own alter-ego it seems) who walks off the set of a television show and into a bizarre fantasy world created out of his own imagination, full of his personal hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities.

It clearly belongs in the tradition of the British surrealist imagination that stretches from the nascent psychedelia of Lewis Carroll, the nonsense poems of Edward Lear, and on to The Goon Show with its absurdist logic, stylised aural grammar and abstract exploration of a post-war world.

Incidentally, the scriptwriter of Newley's Idle on Parade was John Antrobus, who regularly found work through the writers' cooperative Associated London Scripts where he met and collaborated with Spike Milligan. The collaboration with Milligan would produce the equally strange The Bed Sitting Room in 1963 and its notion, as Milligan observed, that "man has no option but to continue his own stupidity" is something to bear in mind when looking at Gurney Slade within the body of work that Newley produced through the 1960s in musical theatre and on film.

So where did Gurney Slade come from? It's difficult, in hindsight, not to recognise it as purely Newley's idea. Hills and Green were comedy writers who had a knack of working with light entertainers and comedic actors, having developed their talent with Dave King in the 1950s and whose success as a comedy star took them to NBC in America in 1959 to work on his live shows for the Kraft Music Hall series. They returned to Britain with King and continued writing for him into the early 1960s. Post Gurney Slade, they picked up from where Galton and Simpson left off on the Sid James vehicle Citizen James in 1961 and, while working on The Alma Cogan Show, they met up with that other duo Morecambe and Wise. Their ATV series Two of A Kind was the result and the rest is showbiz history. Hills and Green were therefore regarded as a safe pair of hands when it came to Grade giving the go ahead for Newley to make the series.
'What Kind of Fool Am I?'
Newley was, when you look at the sheer eclecticism of the work he produced during the 1950s and 1960s, continually striving for the next big thing, for something new and innovative that would perhaps confirm his position, and his penchant for self-indulgence in his own insecurities, within the cultural zeitgeist that spanned those decades. Sadly, his merits as a singer-songwriter-performer have been forgotten, perhaps tainted by the revelations about his personal life that encompassed his renowned capacity for womanising but also the allegation in a 2002 biography that he was an older man's 'kept boy' while he attempted to revive his career in the 1950s.

This is a shame because the one thing that Gurney Slade trades on is Newley's adept use of his own personality and charisma. In fact, for me, it is Newley that is the driving force behind the ATV series because it is brimming with the inventiveness he was noticed for in his playing of multiple roles within the cast of a 1956 experimental four-person revue called Cranks. Written by John Cranko and John Addison, it was sufficiently popular enough in London to transfer to Broadway. It was his experience in Cranks, which dispensed with sets and relied on John Addison's music, clever lyrics and surprise tactics to hold the attention, that must have influenced his own ambitions in musical theatre. It clearly fired his desire to direct and Gurney Slade, with his trademark obsessions all over it, is notable for its lack of a director's credit on the series that suggests he was its main creator in collaboration with Hills and Green.

Although it may have been posited as a 'sit-com' to Lew Grade, and the presence of Hills and Green as writers was perhaps an attempt to back up this claim, Gurney Slade is not a 'sit-com' within the conventions of either Hancock's Half Hour or The Army Game, two of the earliest examples of videotaped, multi-camera studio based comedy of the era, often taped live in front of an audience. It may mock those conventions in its opening episode but the series was shot entirely on film and expressly used the film grammar of single camera production to address its audience, complete with Newley talking to them via the fourth wall.

Its surrealist style perhaps also follows in the wake of Richard Lester's work with Milligan and Sellers on Associated Rediffusion's mid 1950s sketch comedies The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d and A Show Called Fred and most significantly in his film collaboration with Sellers on The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959) with its stylistic use of speeded up motion, jump cutting and visual non-sequiturs. He would use this Academy Award winning subversiveness to transform the film careers of The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Gurney Slade, its precursor in many ways, is as visually clever and narratively anarchistic as Lester's work from that period - reflecting the fictional world of the Beatles, as prisoners of their own fame, overlapping into reality.
"If only I'd had my teeth in at the time..."
In the first episode we find ourselves in the typical suburban home. The Pagets have just moved in. The wife is ironing, the son is doing his homework and the mother-in-law is unpacking. This stereotypical setting then includes over-friendly neighbours discussing the best way to prepare eggs and look after your roses. Albert Paget (Newley) absconds from the living room and walks off what is now clearly a television studio set, conversations about eggs drifting through the soundtrack, pursued by a horrified floor manager (an early appearance from Geoffrey Palmer).

Paget, or should that be Newley's alter-ego Gurney Slade, stands at a street corner, buttons his overcoat and, as a metronomic beat is heard, he hails Max Harris's well known theme music with an exaggerated hand gesture of playing the piano. It's a visual and aural motif that will appear throughout the series, usually in the opening moments of each episode. Harris's musical theme seems to mark time throughout the series and is often used as a bridge between one interlude and another within a single episode.

The other convention that is established here is the use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound. Objects and animals have their own voices (sometimes voiced by Newley or by guest artists) and Newley's narration provides the Gurney Slade character with an inner monologue that is married to the action on the screen. Typically, Newley reacts on screen to this inner-monologue and forges a relationship between his physical performance and the soundtrack of his voice that has been recorded later. Your enjoyment of the series will depend on Newley's performance, his vocal idiosyncracies and physical tics as well as the surreal tangents that the monologues take. His actual speech is synchronous within the filmed footage, but in much of the first episode it is often out-of synch in a deliberately off-kilter manner, and his 'thoughts' are usually expressed purely by facial mannerisms and the pre-recorded narration.  

In the opening episode, for instance, he sits on the Embankment and berates the crummy sit-com he's just escaped from and thinks being able to choose your neighbours would be more appropriate in such situations. At the same time he also wonders what other people are thinking and we hear the inner monologues of various passersby on the soundtrack. "If only I'd had my teeth in at the time..." muses one middle aged woman and you are left to conclude that scenario in your own mind. Then he attempts to create a new language, full of onomatopoeic tongue twisters, and has a conversation with a dog. And so on and so forth in the singular style of matching ADR to the shot footage as well as synched recording on location.

Inanimate objects are charged with a life of their own. When he attempts to steal a newspaper from an unoccupied news stand in the park, the paper's headlines instantly criticise his meanness with 'Can't You Afford Twopence Halfpenny' as he sifts through the stories out loud in his own mind. He re-enacts one of the headlines with a statue and, when he throws the newspaper into a dustbin, the dustbin itself re-reads the story of a '21 year old girl found not guilty of thumbing lifts from lorries'. He also shares a chaffeured car with an economist and listens in to a man whose "head must be going mad with figures" but who is in fact more worried about remembering a girl's telephone number and visiting his mistress than he is about an impending take-over bid in the city.

The bending of reality achieves its apogee when the woman (Una Stubbs) in an advertising hoarding for a new hoover, the Klean-o, leaps into life and, smitten with her, he follows her down the road towing the hoover behind him. Or does he? The scene cuts to a bystander at a bus stop who simply sees Gurney on his own and behaving very oddly, underlining that the audience has a privileged view into this inner-reality and that its spell can be broken. This is achieved rather neatly in one shot where the camera pans from Gurney and the hoover advertising girl dancing down the street together via the point of view of the man at the bus stop who can then only see Gurney.

To emphasise the Lewis Carroll nature of the programme's approach we next see a title card 'Gurney in Wonderland' and this is followed by a speeded up sequence, accompanied by the kind of piano music you would expect to hear accompanying a silent movie, of Gurney and the woman, holding the hoover between them as if it was their child, walking to a bandstand in the park. It's a sequence that epitomises the playful, childish nature inherent in the series, with the 'Please keep on the grass' and 'The picking of flowers is allowed' signs, as they dance through the park, further signals that Carroll is influencing the surreal stylings.

All of this is seemingly reversed when the woman vanishes as he attempts to kiss her and she returns to her advertisement. The close up of him shedding a tear reinforces the view of Newley as 'the sad clown', a role he would often exploit throughout his career. The narrative also completes self-reflexively with a return to the sit-com of the opening where the family is watching a programme about a man trying to sell a vacuum cleaner. It's here that Gurney announces "I'm a walking television show. I can't get away from them. Big Brother is watching me, and Big Dad and Big Mum. The whole family's watching me. I'm like a goldfish in a bowl..." and comments on the constructed reality of commercial television and its advertisements that break up the programmes, the expectations of its audiences and the desire to escape the public world and reassert the rights of the individual.
'Oh, What a Son of a Bitch I Am'
The second episode opens with a slow tracking shot towards Gurney, who has his back to the camera. He's stood in the middle of what looks like an airfield and again it's a wide angle shot that emphasises that this is film and not set in the confines of the television studio. Despite the windswept location, his voice-over explores the etiquette of dating and the desire to meet young women without all the rigmarole of introductions at cocktail parties and the formalities of courting. He wants the girl of his dreams (more underscoring of the dream-like nature of the programme) by his side right there and then. The airfield becomes an imaginary dancehall where he hopes to find her.

This again taps into the public/private persona of Newley who, as we discussed earlier, gained a reputation as a womaniser and as someone who suffered through many insecurities that eventually led to several failed marriages. Increasingly Newley would take these private problems and make them the subject matter of his various musical theatre works and in 1969, they became the centre of a self-indulgent Fellini-esque confessional, a mid life crisis with songs, in the equally pretentious and bizarre film Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness?

Gurney is perhaps then the first iteration of a number of similar semi-autobiographical characters that would re-emerge in Newley's work, from Littlechap in Stop the World - I Want to Get Off (1961), the downtrodden Cocky in The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd (1965) and finally to Heironymus Merkin in the titular film. Indeed, these emotional insecurities are present and correct in the series as Gurney remarks that he is "reaching that dangerous time in a man's life where he has got to think in terms of a mate, a home builder, a friend for life."

His womanising has to be replaced by a search for ideal love. Immediately he thinks about this, a blonde haired young woman (Anneke Wills here billed as Annika Wills) appears, picking wildflowers, and we hear her own private thoughts on the soundtrack. The cruel irony here is that, of course, Wills revealed later in her book Self Portrait that after they met on Gurney Slade she and Newley had an affair that resulted in an abortion and in 1962 the birth of her daughter Polly, while he was still married to Ann Lynn and already had Joan Collins in his sights as the next Mrs Newley. Life imitating art and vice versa, his behaviour and attitudes towards women, often regarded as selfish and cruel, would eventually become the subject of the song 'Oh, What a Son of a Bitch I Am' in Merkin.

Their meeting in the episode is well handled, using purely their voice-overs to conduct the conversation, an imaginary exchange that they could not have in reality, and it seems to evoke their feelings about each other, accompanied by some lovely, stylish shots of Anneke in close up with Newley slightly out of focus in the background. Again, his alter-ego Gurney considers a new language, one made of sounds perhaps, to communicate his love for her. Their inner-conversations overlap to the brink where they almost physically articulate their love but then they slip into the routine of small-talk while slow dancing on the tarmac. Wills herself recognised that Newley was producing something innovative, "surreal and groundbreaking" for the times, as she notes in Self Portrait, and that rightfully "it should take its place in the history of British comedy."

Gurney's love is later abandoned and he symbolically buries it under a makeshift gravestone on the airfield, concluding "you get nowhere if you don't talk to them and yet you get the brush off if you do." There's a surreal sequence where he attempts the 'love at first sight test' with a group of women and discovers that it is entirely possible to achieve this, then having to pair off one of the women with a duplicate of himself.

The fragility and complexity of the male ego, and Newley's was a particularly fine example of its vulnerability, was clearly a powerful and sensitive issue in the context of the 1960s, where the erosion of post-war deference was only just beginning and pressures to conform were still exerted through social conditioning and mass media. He questions the husband of a typical family out for a walk in the park, asking him if the woman he married was the woman he would have chosen in the first place. Again, it's a bizarre iteration of what might appear to be Newley's own attitude to relationships. "If you've made a mistake," he offers to Frank (Edwin Richfield), the rather puzzled husband, "go out and find the right woman for you." And yet, it also reflects the consequences of the freeing up of social and sexual mores of the later 1960s, where a younger generation would not be beholden to the expectations of the previous one. Frank abandons his wife and sets off to find the woman he should have married in the first place and his abandoned wife decides that two can play at that game and disappears, looking for her next husband. Gurney is left with their three children.

Later, after Frank stops a woman in the street and passionately kisses her, Gurney imagines, through a series of voice overs, the woman going home to her own husband and relating the incident. He imagines the husband calling the police and we next see Gurney arrive on the corner of a street to witness Frank's arrest. The youngest child questions Gurney about growing up, a constant theme in the series and in Newley's work, and he conflates the rejection of growing up and the episode's theme of the rejection of conformity with "You don't have to do something because everybody else does it, do you?" He also argues with the boy in the pram about the childhood belief in Santa Claus and fairies, claiming that these ideas will soon be forgotten when he grows up. However, the first of several figures representing good and evil appears - a pointy eared fairy played by Hugh Paddick here and later in the series an appearance from a Satanic version of Gurney himself - and these symbols also crop up, as guardian angels and figures of temptation, in Newley's film Merkin.

The fairy grants Gurney and the children a wish and they find themselves in a rubbish dump littered with the various parts of female mannequins from which Gurney suggests the children construct their ideal mother. Again this taps into stereotypical gender constructions, first featured in the vacuum cleaner ad, and Gurney's failed attempts to 'read against the grain' of such texts about the idealised woman and the image of the nuclear family. Richly symbolic and suggesting that we make our own ideals out of the material granted to us, the sequence shows them constructing this figure who is then transformed into the mother who abandoned them earlier. Gurney closes the episode with a plethora of mixed up nonsensical words and proverbs and the family that was momentarily broken up through a selfish search for the ideal wife or husband is reunited. Meanwhile Gurney's back at the airfield and the imaginary dancehall, still searching for his partner, grabbing the camera, dancing with it and directing his small talk down the lens and directly to the audience.

In episode three, Gurney ponders on the world of the ant and what it would be like working in an ant colony. The equivalent in human terms, he muses, would be trying to carry grand pianos round all day in your mandibles, if indeed you had a set of mandibles. He goes on an extended journey through the countryside, concerned that you are always being observed by many eyes "bird's eyes, cat's eyes, sheep's eyes, bull's eyes... butterflies, customs and excise..." At a crossroads (with a sign that pointedly indicates the way to Gurney Slade, itself a village in Somerset, and to Cuckold's Comb where "some Elizabethan shilly-shallying" took place) he wanders off to a farm where several conversations ensue with dogs and cows and where the standard human/animal view of the world is reversed and the animals view the humans as their livestock.

As the dog and Gurney discuss the ability of ants to carry grand pianos, a farmer and his wife have a fight in the background, the wife is thrown to the ground and then a farmhand gives chase on a bicycle. The pair are later seen in the road where the wife wildly gesticulates to the farmhand and then they proceed to cut down a tree. This silent sequence resembles something out of James Broughton's 1953 film The Pleasure Garden and as Gurney ponders what he should wish for when he discovers a wishing well nearby, the sound of sawing and construction dominates the soundtrack as the wife and farmhand get to work.

His wanderings allow the film unit to capture some of the beauty of the English countryside in glorious monochrome photography, often evoking some of Dick Bush's work on Miller's version of Alice in Wonderland (1966) where Gurney is very close in the foreground in juxtaposition to the landscape as he ponders the centuries of fighting over something as basic as a handful of grain or a bag of corn. His reflections on history extend into a sequence where he chats to Napoleon (John Bennett) about how a supply of corn may well have tipped the scales in his favour outside Moscow. He's not particularly delighted to discover that Napoleon has his own supply of grain behind that hand he always tucks inside his uniform. "Je suis alright Jack," Napoleon smarmily informs him.

Later, Gurney joins in with a scarecrow serenading him with 'Greensleeves' and has a conversation with a rather flirty cow called Caroline, voiced seductively by Fenella Fielding, about the virtues of hand milking over the use of machines. As she says, "how would you like your lactic glands stuffed into a vacuum cleaner?" These conversations with animals are both a variation on the "four legs good, two legs bad!"attitudes between human and animal that featured in Orwell's Animal Farm and, of course, when Newley would be 'talking to the animals' in the 1967 musical Doctor Doolittle. Meanwhile, the farmer's wife and the farmhand seem to have constructed some sort of lethal trap for the returning farmer and as the sounds of his demise are heard in the background, Gurney clearly sees the advantages of joining the animal and insect kingdom. It seems to be an easier life, after all.
'there's always a joker in the pack'
Episodes four, five and six are perhaps the three episodes where, as has been noted elsewhere, the series more closely parallels The Prisoner. The fifth episode is set in a court room where, having made "a television show recently and they didn't think it was very funny", Gurney is now charged with having no sense of humour. The irony is that Gurney Slade itself didn't succeed with its own audience, garnering enough complaints about its content to enforce a move to a late night slot.

Was this prescience on the part of Newley, Hills and Green? Whatever it was, the series was self-reflexively turning its attention back to the way television was increasingly becoming a ratings battle between ITV and BBC. One of the ways that the BBC sought to address this was through the development of the sit-com, leading to huge hits like Steptoe and Son and perhaps Hills and Green were reflecting on the balance between populism and elitism that the BBC struggled with in the face of ITV's increasing commercialism. 

Apparently Gurney has failed "to raise not one titter" and is now being judged by Princess Eleanor, a fairytale figure who is reputedly the one who never laughed. Archie, a traditional music hall comedian, in the vogue of Charlie Chester or Max Miller (perhaps repeated later in the clown character of Stop The World and the 'on the boards' music hall tradition as represented by Bruce Forsyth in Merkin too), is Gurney's defence and whose stream of limp jokes about starving dogs and men in the street are dismissed as inadmissable evidence by the prosecution, played by the wonderfully dry Douglas Wilmer. This is all shot in stark black and white on minimal sets, creating a sense of surreal unease and displacement as it conducts a debate about the nature of humour. 

The prosecution shows a clip, from an imagined episode of Gurney Slade presumably, where Gurney typically muses on a bus about the advertisements he sees. One particular ad, for countersunk screws, strikes him as over-enthusiastic and he contemplates the background of the man in the poster and wonders what his parents now think of him, working in advertising as a "fully fledged countersunk screwer." He then moves on to the role of the countersunk screw in holding together the modern world around us and suggests, "Even Diana Dors must have at least one. Of course, it'll be gold plated." Gurney's cynicism is later brought into, forgive the pun, sharp relief when his battle against the overt commercialisation of everyday objects becomes a variation on the the old 'for want of a nail' proverb as his executioner seeks to repair his damaged axe.

Herbert Pledge, a shop steward from the Tensile Steel Manufacturing Company (and visually and verbally resembling Sellers's Fred Kite from 1959's  I'm Alright Jack), gives evidence against Gurney's sketch about countersunk screws, pointing out its factual errors and that due to its lack of humour "the matter will be referred to the union sub-committee to form a sub-committee to report on its findings to a special sub committee which will inform the management of its findings in due course." Gurney, as the voice of Newley, Hills and Green, uses Pledge's reaction to the sketch to examine the subjective nature of humour when he proposes that Pledge might find a man whose life is "wrapped up in self-locking panic bolts" a subject of humour. "I would find that quite amusing," confesses Pledge but he adamantly finds "nothing funny in the countersunk screw." 

The next witnesses are a typical television audience and this turns out to be Frank and his family who appeared in the second episode. There are some very amusing remarks from the prosecution about quiz shows that give away prizes as representative of an audience with varied tastes and Frank regards Gurney's sketch as "clever... not funny... clever" while his wife claims "I didn't understand what it was all about. Besides that, I don't think it ought to be allowed. Bad for kids." One wonders if this was typical of the complaints that greeted ITV after the first episode of Gurney Slade went out because it all sounds horribly accurate.

The episode returns to the power of advertising and the construction of images for the purpose of selling when Gurney asks the jury to analyse the advertising poster for countersunk screws. Gurney compares the enthusiastic smile of the man in the poster to the similar expressions on the faces of Columbus, upon discovering America, and Pythagoras, when sorting out his isosceles triangle. He contends that the man in the advertisement is guilty of false selling and has no right to be so enthusiastic about a countersunk screw. This culminates in a cross-examination of Richard Brown, the model in the advertisement, and where Brown admits that the smile in the poster is his "'New Discovery' look. The 'look what I've found after all these years' look."

It concludes with a prescient allegory about media manipulation, a press hungry to pay for the life story of the defeated man and to champion the cause of Gurney's humour, and the nature of fickle television audiences. And Princess Eleanor is provided with a good titter when Gurney's executioner has to repair his axe with... a countersunk screw. It is a bitterly ironic ending and together with the stylised court room scenes offers a pessimistic view of the individual versus mass conformity (the jury is a group of men in identical garb of flat cap and white muffler - similar in style to the later Peter Cook appearances in the 'Dagenham dialogues') that would not seem out of place in McGoohan's The Prisoner
'I'm All I Need'
For episode five, Gurney Slade again occupies a series of highly stylised studio sets and self-reflexively manipulates the medium. Gurney is sat in a temple with a garden telling a group of children a fairy tale about a magic tinker who grants a wish to those he visits. This is of course picking up on the themes briefly alluded to in various episodes about the granting of magical wishes and iconic fantasy figures such as fairies and princesses. 

The motif of the storyteller indicates not only a through line to the surreal fantasy of 'The Girl Who Was Death' episode of The Prisoner but it is also repeated in Newley's film Merkin, its Fellini-esque narrative beginning with Newley's alter-ego spinning a tale to his children and their grandmother (played by Newley's own children Tara and Alex and actress Patricia Hayes representing his mother Gracie) and includes the fantasy of Newley as a neurotic film director attempting to present the film of his own life. 

One of the children, a young boy, is asked why he didn't stop in and watch the telly after he interrupts the tale. "There's nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story," he offers as an excuse, reminding us that this is in effect a television show within a television show. Gurney explains the nature of fairy tales to the assembled children and the magical figure of the tinker as "an allegorical figure who represents our innermost thoughts."

It also underlines Gurney's similar role as Newley's alter-ego, as a symbol of his own 'thought' as well as the universal figure of Santa Claus, that myth of the imaginary folkloric benefactor handed down from generation to generation. This opening is also remarkably close in flavour to the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl's
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for which Newley and Leslie Bricusse wrote the songs, including the very appropriate 'Pure Imagination' whose sentiment fits rather well with this episode, especially Newley's concept of a Gurneyland that is "anywhere, where anything can happen, up here in your mind, in your head."

The scene switches to two partygoers, Albert (Bernie Winters) and Veronica (Coral Fairweather). They are mismatched simply because Albert doesn't think much of Veronica. Gurney, inspired by the children's faith in Gurneyland, where anyone who isn't beautiful can wish themselves beautiful, brings Albert and Veronica together simply through the power of imagination. However, providing people with self-esteem can have consequences and Veronica now simply sees Albert as some lothario attempting to have his way with her. "A beautiful woman can't tie herself down to one man. I've got to think about all the others. They need me as well," she observes, mirroring the themes of sexual emancipation that Gurney set in motion in episode two.

The fictional tinker (Charles Lloyd Pack) arrives and the power of imagination not only produces the proverbial rabbit out of the hat to entertain the children but it also provides Albert with a drink. Albert's drink problem will resurface in the final episode. Gurneyland and its imaginings are clearly a metaphor for Newley's own creative spirit which he sees as unfettered as that of the children able to believe in Santa Claus, magic tinkers and the desire to be in Gurneyland. The conclusion of the episode takes place in Gurneyland, inside Newley's mind as it were, after Gurney concludes that is where the children, the tinker and Albert have vanished to. He realises he'll have to rescue them and wonders how to get them back with "You can go out of your mind but how do you go into it?"

His mind is depicted as a modernist equivalent of Dante's pilgrimage into the circles of Hell and also bears some resemblance to Jack Shampan's architecture created for the corridors of the Village in The Prisoner. It is full of rooms such as the Depression Room and Memory Room and, self-knowingly, he describes it (and his ego and id) as "quite a big mind, but then they always said I had a big head." He runs a finger over one of the control consoles and finds it spotless, claiming "at least it isn't a dirty mind" and, continuing the theme of ego and id, good and evil, he then encounters a horned version of himself, the Satanic equivalent of the fairy he encountered in episode two. This and the depressed version of himself he meets later offer Newley even more opportunities to show how versatile a comic performer he was.

His evil persona (again a trope Newley would re-use in Merkin with Milton Berle playing the devilish and corrupting influence of showbiz) tempts him with ideas of ridding his good mind of the children, Albert and Veronica by making it a nasty mind corrupted by strip joints, after hours drinking and mucky French films. The good Gurney rejects this: "Now look, I refuse to be corrupted just because a lot of people haven't got a mind of their own and choose to use mine instead." The problems continue to accrue with some of the children imagining their relatives into life within Gurney's mind and the episode's amusing self analysis continues when he watches himself perform 'Strawberry Fair', which indeed was a hit for Newley in the same year, and mockingly observes of the appreciative audience, "I should have thought that would have driven them out" and of himself, "Funny, I always had the impression I sang better than that."

Gurney, in a desperate bid to declutter his mind, decides his subconscious was right. He'll have to go and see that mucky French film just "to be out of my mind again" and to return the missing children and their relatives to the real world. It's a clever episode, exploring the borderlines between sinfulness and innocence and all the while observing Newley's own showbiz ego with refreshing candour. The fantastical exploration of Gurney's mind is highly allegorical and perhaps reflects some of the themes about moral judgements in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Robert Richardson's view, in Literature and Film, that the film has an "overpowering sense of the disparity between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is" also suggests in similar fashion that the post-war world that Newley and Gurney inhabit is one of artifice often built out of negative subconscious impulses and actions.
'Who can I turn to when nobody needs me?'
With the final episode Newley, Hills and Green complete their commentary on the artifice of television with a group of what one presumably would call 'the money men' visiting the studio and being informed about what each element of the production does, including a disparaging assessment of Newley himself ("you say this is a performer... what does it do?") and a meta-textual acknowledgement of the conventions of television within the episode where they interact with the captions that open the show, for example.  Newley's guilt complexes about himself are again lampooned when the studio manager (James Villiers) regards their performer as "a new model... that has a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand. You pay it about £500 a week and it'll do practically anything." Gurney is presented as a machine, a creature to be manipulated for the sake of entertainment and the character is depicted as only partially autonomous from the unseen director up in the studio gallery.

Indeed, this is the most metatextual of all the episodes, referencing jokes and characters that appeared in all the previous five installments and giving Gurney his own self-reflexive ability to understand that he was "born" in the television studio six weeks previously and is now steadily counting down the time until "he comes and picks me up." The characters featured in the series reappear and the prosecutor from the case of the countersunk screw demands, "Briefly, we should like to know what is to become us." Gurney confesses that they no longer have a future or function and explains that he hadn't intended to create them in the first place and that "I wasn't supposed to do anything like this. I wasn't supposed to think of you characters at all. But I didn't want to do the ordinary television comedies so I thought up you lot."

This is in essence a modernist version of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author where an author's creations demand he or she complete their story and not leave them unfinished and where, just as in Gurney Slade's exploration of the artifice of television and the context of the fourth wall, Pirandello poses questions about the nature of time, consciousness, reality, self-awareness and illusion. It's also worth noting that the fantasy and comedy aspects of this script also resemble The Twilight Zone's 'Five Characters in Search of an Exit' and The Goon Show's 'Six Charlies in Search of an Author' and the self-consciousness of the series is surely reflected in 'Fall Out', the equally revealing final episode of The Prisoner

The characters all demand that Gurney provide them with a proper background; the prosecutor doesn't know what he likes to eat in restaurants, Albert simply drinks all the time and Frank and his son can't go home because Gurney never wrote one into the script for them. "It's quite obvious you've given no thought to our future at all! I submit, Gurney Slade that you are guilty of providing us with inadequate lives" demands the prosecutor. Claiming it's too late to do anything about it, the shadowy figure in the studio gallery reminds Gurney he still has another twenty minutes.

When he strikes up a conversation with Anneke Wills, she at first blindly agrees to follow him wherever he goes as she completely loves him. However, she soon realises that he hasn't given her an age when he reassures her that she'll fall in love again. Claiming he pictured her as 18 or 19, she suddenly realises, "Oh, in that case I think you're a little too old for me. Wasn't thinking of settling down yet. Just think, when I'm thirty you'll be forty. An old man!" Disgusted, she exits the scene, probably reflecting many of the attitudes of the young women that the older Newley himself was clearly enamoured of and eventually was put aside by.

Gurney argues these characters don't have another life and they just have the one that the author gives them: "All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the bit that the author gave them. They're not like real people." The prosecutor gets more and more angry about their fate and believes they are condemned to wait. Even though Gurney refuses to agree with that, the shadowy figure in the television gallery has already decided their fate. "Yes, they do sit and wait!" he observes as the episode fades out to what would have been a two and a half minute advert break.

They decide to have a party (or rather the director in the gallery decides for them) and the girl from the vacuum cleaner advert once again materialises, performing a dance, while the magic tinker offers to show off some new tricks "that'll bring the house down." He's looked on with disdain by the fairy (now played by Graham Stark) that Gurney met in episode two. This becomes a competition between the old school music hall acts that the old man represents and the fairy and his magic wand, perhaps a symbol of the new entertainments such as television and cinema that were, at the time, forcing theatres to close and variety acts to find a new home in the television studio.

Eventually, a "gentleman from the Characters Bureau" arrives and promises them all new jobs with new authors, with various characters now being employed on other ATV and Associated Rediffusion shows like No Hiding Place and Emergency Ward 10 or in fictional Lionel Bart musicals about Oliver Cromwell. The fairy ends up in a new Enid Blyton book, Anneke faces the horror of taking off her clothes for a French film and the prosecutor has a role in Boyd QC and worries that he'll be living his life on "insufficient evidence". Naturally, this just underlines the use of formula and stereotypical characters in various fictional creations, be they literary, musical or televisual.

"Right...cue Anthony Newley," is the order issued from the gallery that brings this fascinating exploration of reality and fiction to an end just as Gurney Slade reaches towards a sense of his own autonomy as a character. The revelation of who and what Gurney is concludes the series on an unsettling but very appropriate note.

Presumably because of its failure with a mainstream audience at eight thirty on ITV, with only four episodes transmitted in that slot until mid-November 1960, then the rest shown after eleven at the end of November and with a late-night repeat of the series three years later, Gurney Slade disappeared into obscurity. Remembered well by the few that could recall it, it only ever once resurfaced as part of a March 1992 edition of Channel 4's TV Heaven, in an archive television celebration of 1960. This release finally restores its reputation as one of the truly innovative fantasy shows of that decade, one that was using ideas and texts in a very postmodern vernacular that was arguably a little too ahead of its time. Its legacy can be seen in Lester's films with The Beatles, the Commedia dell'arte based 'Love You Til Tuesday' early career of David Bowie and in the surreal postmodern chaos of Monty Python.

Hopefully, it also reaffirms that Anthony Newley was one of most talented men alive in Britain at that time and that he was, when given the material, a performer of rare ability. His legacy, beyond the less appealing aspects of his private life, lives on in the incredible songwriting prowess and musical theatre success of his numerous collaborations with Leslie Bricusse, his recording career and now, I would hope, in the renewed interest in The Strange World of Gurney Slade, newly transferred from the original 35mm film elements specifically for this release.

Special features
Promos
Three promos featuring Newley doing direct to camera pieces from the set, one advertising the transmission of the series at 20.35, one of Newley on location with a dog commenting to a poster advertising the series (and underlining the presupposed failure of trying something different and the appeal of Newley's public persona) and one final one with Newley simply smirking at the camera.
Galleries
Production & Behind the Scenes: A selection of on location images from what looks like episode three, some images of Una Stubbs and Newley on location from episode one and others that were clearly used for the Klean-o adverts in the series, various portraits of guest stars, Newley and some behind the scenes shots.
Promotional: A number of portraits of Newley alone and then with writers Sid Green and Dick Hills
Anthony Newley: Shots from Sunday Night at the London Palladium, The Anthony Newley Show and some miscellaneous portraits.

To celebrate the release of the DVD catch the special screening at BFI Southbank on 11 August 2011

The Strange World of Gurney Slade
ATV 1960
Transmitted 22 October 1960 - 26 November 1960 (Episodes 1 - 4 shown at 20.35, 5 - 6 at 23.10)
Released 15 August 2011 / Network DVD / 7953388 / 150 mins approx / Region: 2 - PAL / Subtitles: None / Sound: Mono - English / 1.33:1 / Black and White / Classification: PG

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Comments
2 Responses to “THE STRANGE WORLD OF GURNEY SLADE - The Complete Series / DVD Review”
  1. GTI says:

    If The Strange World of Gurney Slade is ahead of its time, then it looks back too (to 50s Absurdism, N F Simpson and The Goons). I have watched the first four episodes so far and with much enjoyment. The filmwork is superb, and it is interesting to reflect on how much worse it would probably have looked if made in 1970, 1980 or even 1990. Wonderful to have them all in circulation...and timely somehow, but I can't explain why. It does feel as if its time may have come again.

  2. Surely the 'Archie' in Episode 4 is Archie Rice, Osbourne and Olivier's 'The Entertainer'.

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