If the whole series of Gurney Slade has offered a sly meta-textual commentary on the artifice of television, then this is taken to its logical conclusion in the sixth and final episode.
A group of executives pay a visit to the studio to observe the recording of an episode of Gurney Slade. The recursive show-within–a-show nature of the series is once again highlighted, as we then meet all of the characters from previous episodes. They aren’t actors though – they’ve been created by Gurney’s imagination and now protest that due to his lack of thought they’re unable to live full lives.
The only character traits they have are the ones provided by Gurney – their other likes and dislikes are unknown and unknowable. The prosecutor (Douglas Wilmer) makes this clear when he tells him that “I submit, Gurney Slade that you are guilty of providing us with inadequate lives.”
Gurney doesn’t believe it’s his fault though. “All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the bit that the author gave them. They’re not like real people.” This is a nod to Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which depicted a group of characters who complain that their author hasn’t provided them with sufficiently rounded personalities and motivations.
But can Gurney help them? There’s a sense that his time is coming to an end. As the arguments between the characters are played out, a shadowy man in the production gallery notes that Gurney only has twenty minutes left (as the episode time counts down). The same man is also able to control Gurney (without, it appears, Gurney being aware of this).
But Gurney does seem to understand that he’s as artifical as the rest. He knows he was born in the studio six weeks ago and he also knows that someone’s coming to take him away. The floor manager and the executives regard Gurney with the same dispassionate interest as the cameras and lights – to them, he’s just another piece of machinery. Are they right?
As with previous episodes, there are sly comments about the television industry in general and this programme in particular. Gurney is described to the executives as someone who “has a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand. You pay it about five hundred a week and it’ll do practically anything.”
There are also moments that seem designed to touch upon Newley’s public and private personas. For example, when he re-encounters the young girl (Anneke Wills) who fell in love with him in episode two, initially she’s still blindly in love with him. But this is only because she (like the others) is a character defined by the character traits she’s been given by him.
When Gurney tells her that he pictured her aged eighteen or nineteen, she reacts to this by telling him that, in that case, he’s a little too old for her. “Just think, when I’m thirty you’ll be forty. An old man!” Newley and Wills would enjoy a relationship for several years following the recording of the series, but was there already something of a feeling of mid-life crisis in Newley’s psyche? That sometime soon he’d find himself rejected by the younger women he desired?
Luckily for everybody (apart from Gurney) they’re offered new jobs by a gentleman from the Character Bureau. The prosecutor, for example, lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at having to take her clothes off in a French film. Therefore every character seems to have been pigeonholed as archetypes, or stereotypes, depending on your point of view.
“Cue Anthony Newley”
With those words, the programme enters its final moments with an ending that’s as memorable and as weird as the final episode of The Prisoner (Fall Out). But as touched upon before, when The Prisoner was transmitted (some seven years later) the sixties were well and truly swinging – back in 1960 it certainly wasn’t. This makes Gurney Slade’s wild flights of fancy even more remarkable.
Although doomed to be a noble, but flawed, experiment, thanks to the 2011 Network DVD release The Strange World of Gurney Slade has gained something of a new audience. It’s also probably the best visual showcase for the talents of Anthony Newley, whose later career was notable for its peaks and troughs.
Below is one of the trailers for the series, which is as idiosyncratic as you’d expect and offers a final, mocking, commentary on a short, but exceptional, series.