The Strange World of Gurney Slade was a programme that came and went very quickly – just six episodes, broadcast in 1960 – but in retrospect it’s a show that had a strong influence on some notable people and programmes (especially David Bowie and Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner).
At the time, Anthony Newley was a hot property. He’d been acting since the 1940’s (including a memorable turn as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 film version of Olivier Twist) and by the late 1950’s had also enjoyed a string of hit singles. So a half-hour comedy series seemed to be the next logical move.
Gurney Slade was anything but logical though. It’s a bizarre, surrealist trip through Newley’s psyche that appeared to totally wrong-foot the viewing audience, who were no doubt expecting something much more straightforward. The muted critical response and poor viewing figures relegated the last few episodes to a graveyard slot and after the sixth and final episode limped out there were no calls to commission a second series.
The series was written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, although it’s tempting to assume that Newley himself had a considerable input in shaping the content of the show. Green and Hills would become well known during the 1960’s as scriptwriters for Morecambe & Wise, but whilst their material was always solid (for example, they wrote the classic Grieg Skech, later remade with Andre Previn) it rarely displayed the flights of fancy seen in Gurney Slade.
What’s really remarkable about the series is that it was made in 1960. Had it appeared later in the decade, then such a reflective, self-aware programme would have fitted in better with the overall television landscape. But when you consider the type of programmes on offer in 1960, it makes Gurney Slade seem even more out of time.
Is it funny? Well, it doesn’t offer many laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s wry and witty and it certainly isn’t predictable. It’s unashamedly a star vehicle for Newley, who although he’s all but forgotten today, was a major star at the time. His influence can best be seen in the career of the young David Bowie, who during the 1960’s copied Newley’s style almost perfectly.
Episode One sets out immediately to confound the audience’s expectations. We open on a typical family living room, the Pagets, who have just moved into their new home . We see the wife ironing, the son doing his homework and the mother-in-law unpacking. Albert Paget (Newley) is sitting in an armchair, but it’s clear that something isn’t right – he appears to be disconnected from the events unfolding around him. More visitors appear – the lodger and the man next door. Every character (apart from Albert) is a clearly defined archetype and the dialogue is laboured and not terribly interesting.
After a moment, Albert gets up and puts on his coat. He declines to answer the question about whether he’d like a nice egg for his tea, which throws everybody else into confusion. The question is repeated sotto-voce several times, obviously in the hope that he’ll go back on script, but that doesn’t happen. He walks out – and we see that the room is nothing more than a studio-set. Newley strides past the cameras, the bewildered floor manager (Geoffrey Palmer) and escapes into the real world. So he becomes Gurney Slade.
It’s a comprehensive “breaking the fourth wall moment”. And things just get odder as he encounters objects and animals that can talk. He picks up a stone and is about to launch it into the river when the stone asks him politely not to. He then has a chat with a dog, who tells him that he likes Lassie but has little time for Rin-Tin-Tin. When he picks up a newspaper without paying, the headline reads “Can’t You Afford Twopence Halfpenny”.
Later, he becomes enchanted with a poster that depicts a model advertising the Klean-o hoover. The model (Una Stubbs) comes to life and he follows her down the street. Interestingly, we also see a bystander watch him and he only sees Gurney – but not the girl. This implies that whatever Gurney Slade sees, it’s only seen by him (and the audience of course).
With the notion that anything can happen, it’s a busy twenty-five minutes. Most of Newley’s dialogue is prerecorded and then played in to simulate his thoughts. This method is also used when he actually speaks and therefore it means that his words never quite match his lip movements. This is another device that helps to give the programme a slightly off-kilter feeling.
At the end, Gurney returns to his sit-com family from the opening scene, only to find that they’ve been watching him all the time. Although he escaped from the television studio, it’s clear that he’s still part of it. He glumly admits that “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.”