A little over sixty years ago (on the 22nd of October 1960 to be precise) the first episode of a short-lived series starring Anthony Newley was broadcast. The Strange World of Gurney Slade arrived with something of a bang but departed with much more of a whimper. Tumbling ratings and the lukewarm reception it received from a baffled audience were two reasons why it was swiftly demoted from peak-time and into a graveyard slot.
And yet there’s no denying that the series had its fans. A young David Jones (later to rechristen himself David Bowie) was certainly enthralled – his mid to late sixties persona borrowed heavily from the Newley image.
The initial critical response was mixed, but the series did garner some good notices. The Coventry Evening Telegraph (5th November 1960) called it the bright spot of their Saturday evening (and bemoaned that it was now on so late – having been shunted off in favour of 77 Sunset Strip). Kenneth Bailey, writing in The People (18th November 1960) made the point that whilst Gurney Slade‘s ratings weren’t spectacular, this type of experimental programme should be applauded (a letter writer to The Stage and Television Today made the same point).
A repeat run in 1963 was an early sign that the critical tide was turning in Gurney’s favour. Marjorie Norris, writing in The Stage and Television Today (12th September 1963), declared that she “enjoyed it even better than before. It is still as much a break-through in comedy as it was then”. Newley was clearly pleased by her comments, as he penned a thank you letter to The Stage (3rd October 1963), commenting that “the Newley ego took a bit of a dive after the pasting he received on its first outing, and it’s rather heart-warming that Gurney has been given a second chance”.
The cult of Gurney Slade was slowly building momentum then, but it wasn’t until Network released the series on DVD in 2011 that it could really be appreciated and reassessed. What’s especially striking for those of us who came to the series via DVD is how contemporary it felt. That’s no doubt because it’s easy to identify later programmes (The Prisoner, say) who were influenced – either directly or indirectly – by the show. But as the 1960 audience would have had none of these later reference points, coming to it cold must have been a bewildering experience for many.
British television comedy (indeed British television in general) was still in its infancy back in 1960. The BBC may have begun broadcasting in 1936, but the Second World War (and the slow roll out of transmitters) meant that only by the mid fifties was television establishing itself as a dominant force (helped along by the arrival of ITV). The pre-eminent sitcom of the time would have been Hancock’s Half Hour over on the BBC.
ITV also had a crop of popular programmes – such as The Army Game and The Larkins – but they tended to be somewhat broader in tone. When Gurney walks out of a middle of the road television sitcom at the start of the first episode (demolishing the fourth wall even before the credits have rolled) he seems to be turning his back on a series not dissimilar to The Larkins.
This pre-credits faux sitcom is everything that Gurney Slade isn’t – comfortable, cosy and predictable. By thumbing his nose at it, Newley (and his writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills) were taking a broad satirical swipe at this sort of show. The only problem with this is that it risks alienating that section of the audience who likes their sitcoms to be cosy and predictable. Annoying the audience within the first few minutes of the opening episode has to be a record ….
Recording wise the series was split – the first three episodes were shot mainly on location and the last three were studio bound. Heading into episode two, we find Gurney musing about the nature of relationships. He arrives at a deserted airfield – well, deserted apart from a young woman (Anneke Wills). In their imaginations only, the airfield transforms itself into a dance hall and the pair enjoy a dance, after much hesitancy. It’s a remarkable sequence – not least for the fact that both engage in lengthy internal monologues.
In real life, their relationship was far less tranquil – Wills became pregnant by him twice (he persuaded her to abort the first baby, but she was determined to keep the second child – Polly, born in 1962). Given all we know about Newley’s notorious philandering – even after their relationship ended so he could pursue Joan Collins, he still couldn’t keep away from Wills – it gives this episode a subtext which would have been totally absent on its original broadcast.
Episode three was probably the one which snapped the patience of many casual viewers back in 1960. Even more fragmentary than the previous two, Gurney spends most of this episode either musing to himself or talking to the animals (such as a cow, seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding). He does bump into the odd human being, such as Napoleon (John Bennett), who happens to be standing in a field.
Things get really interesting when we move into the studio episodes. Show four finds Gurney on trial. “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny. I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”
That Newley, Green and Hills could accurately foresee the way the series would be received is fascinating. The arguments and counter-arguments brought into play (an average member of the audience found the series clever – not funny, but clever) no doubt mirrored real life discussions generated by the series. Another broad satirical dig occurs when the jury is revealed – twelve men all dressed identically in cloth caps and scarves. Throw in Douglas Wilmer as the judge and you’ve got an episode which is possibly my favourite – for sheer nerve alone.
The recursive nature of Gurney Slade is developed during episode five. Gurney is telling a group of children a story (all about a magical place called Gurneyland). When he later asks them why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television, they tell him that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.” A later trip to Gurney’s subconscious (which is invaded by the children and their families) offers plenty of food for thought about the dividing line between fantasy and reality. The invisible elephant is impressive as well.
By now it was clear that just about anything could happen, so how would the series be brought to a conclusion? The final episode sees a group of executives brought to the studio to watch a recording of Gurney Slade. So despite the fact that Gurney believed he was breaking free at the start of episode one, it’s made clear again today that he – like all the other characters – is a fictional construct. Born in the studio six weeks ago, his time is nearly up.
It’s nice to see most of the characters from previous episodes turn up for a final bow. They’re all given new jobs – Wilmer’s prosecutor lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at the prospect of having to take her clothes off in a French film.
Gurney’s fate is somewhat startling, but for those coming to the series fresh I won’t spoil the ending.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is something that deserves to be cherished. Network’s DVD has been played a number of times and it’s lovely to now have the series on a sparkling BD, packed with a number of new special features.
Three Saturday Spectaculars from 1960 are the pick for me – not only do the likes of Shirley Bassey and Peter Sellers make appearances, but there’s also the chance to see Newley try out the character that would eventually turn into Gurney Slade.
The Small World of Sammy Lee was released on BD back in 2016, but I won’t begrudge its inclusion here, Newley is on top form in this 1963 film, set in a sleazy Soho world where Sammy (Newley) is attempting to stay one step ahead of a Mr Big who’s intent on causing him serious damage. Newly discovered material (an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley) are intriguing additions.
Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts have all contributed essays to a 44 page booket. Pixley’s is the lengthiest and packed with the sort of painstaking detail he’s known and loved for (production information on the series was clearly a little hard to come by, but everything else – even down to how many different cover versions of Max Harris’ theme were issued – is detailed). The essays by Fiddy and Roberts are also well worth reading, although possibly not one after the other as there’s some duplication of information and quotes.
For those who own the DVD, then this BD set offers a considerable upgrade – the picture quality (which was good on the DVD) has received a substantial boost. This, along with the new special features, makes for a very nice package. And if you’re new to the world of Gurney Slade, the BD should be snapped up straight away ….
The Strange World Of Gurney Slade can be ordered directly from Network via this link.