The Strange World of Gurney Slade was a series of two halves. The first three episodes were largely shot on location whilst the last three were studio bound. Episode three finds Gurney in the countryside, musing that even though you may seem to be alone, you are always being observed by “bird’s eyes, cat’s eyes, sheep’s eyes, bull’s eyes, butterflies, customs and excise.”
Gurney begins by wondering exactly what life would be like in an ant colony. He decides that he wouldn’t last very long – the life of a worker ant simply wouldn’t be for him. Ants are able to carry approximately ten times their own body-weight – in human terms this would be akin to Gurney lugging around a grand piano (something he finds it hard to imagine). This is a characteristically off-kilter opening to the episode – it’s hard to imagine many programmes that could feature Gurney’s internal monologue about industrious ants (although it’s possible to find an echo in the early series of Last of the Summer Wine, where plots took second place to inconsequential musings. Although the three old boys never encountered any talking animals!).
Gurney later stops by a sign. One way leads to Gurney Slade (such odd names they have in the countryside, he says) whilst the other points to Cuckold’s Comb. Gurney Slade is a real place, of course. Cuckold’s Comb is less so.
Episode three is probably the most fragmentary and plotless episode of Gurney Slade. It’s also the one that has to be virtually carried by Newley alone – either via monologues with himself or by conversations with the various animals he meets along the way. The most substantial encounter with another human being occurs when he encounters Napoleon (John Bennett) in a field (as you do). Watch enough archive television and it’s almost certain that you’ll see the same actors again and again. So only a few days after catching Bennett in the Cadfael story The Leper of St. Giles, here’s a chance to see him again (some thirty four years earlier).
Gurney wanders into a farm and has a lively conversation with a dog, who invites him to take a look around. There’s a seperate plot which is developed between the farmer, his wife and a farmhand that pays off at the end – although it’s done with no dialogue and no interaction with Gurney. He then chats to a cow (seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding) who tells him that she much prefers hand milking, as she points out to him that he probably wouldn’t like his “lactic glands stuffed into a vacuum cleaner.”
All in all, this is twenty five minutes that’s hard to adequately describe (and we haven’t even discussed the scarecrow who sings Greensleeves). As we’ll see in the next episode, even at the time the show was being made it must have been clear that it probably wouldn’t be received with whole-hearted approval.
This one is probably the least engaging of the series, although it’s fair to say that the scattershot approach does generate more hits than misses. But it’s only a slight dip, as episodes four to six are all very strong. And it’s tempting to wonder if a young Patrick McGoohan was watching the final three and making notes ….