For the last few months I’ve had little ability to do anything much. After Trump’s election, and some health problems with members of my family, I’ve had little chance to do anything other than binge-watch bad 90s TV on Netflix with my mouth half-open.
But my mental health is starting to improve, so I’ve been making an effort to watch my huge pile of unwatched DVDs, and to read my massive to-read pile. One thing I’ve chosen to watch recently was a sitcom from 1960, because nothing in that could remind me of the rise of the alt-right.
A half-hour television show. Half an hour to put the world right. What can you do in half an hour? I need at least forty minutes
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is one of those TV series which is legendary among aficionados of vintage British TV, and essentially unknown among anyone else. It’s a sitcom — of sorts — from 1960, which was only repeated on TV once, in the mid-60s, and remained unavailable until the 2011 DVD release. It was originally meant to be a centrepiece of ITV’s Saturday night family programming, but the first episode was so staggeringly unpopular that it quickly got relegated to a late-night weeknight slot by ATV, who were embarrassed by its very existence.
It’s also one of the most astonishing pieces of art made in Britain in the 1960s.
Anthony Newley, the star and (uncredited) director of the series, was one of the most astonishing talents in British entertainment history, someone who could seemingly do literally anything. He started out as a child star, appearing in David Lean’s Oliver Twist when he was a teenager, and made a name for himself as an actor. He appeared as an Elvis-like teen idol turned soldier in a low-budget film, and one of his songs from that film became a hit, making him for a time a *real* teen idol — he had eleven top forty singles, including a couple of number ones, between 1960 and 62, and was a massive influence on the Kinks and, especially, David Bowie (much of Bowie’s vocal style was just a Newley impression, especially on songs such as “Bewlay Brothers”).
He then decided that rather than just singing the songs, he’d rather write them, and with his writing partner, lyricist Leslie Bricusse, wrote such hits as “What Kind of Fool Am I?”, “Goldfinger”, “Gonna Build A Mountain”, “Feeling Good” (the Nina Simone song), and the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He also continued his career as a family-friendly entertainer, appearing in films like Doctor Dolittle, becoming a semi-regular on Hollywood Squares, and towards the end of his life having a regular role in the soap opera EastEnders.
So far, so all-round-family-entertainer. But Newley was also the writer/director/star of what Roger Ebert called “just about the first attempt in English to make the sort of personal film Fellini and Godard have been experimenting with in their very different ways” (the postmodern semi-autobiographical sex comedy Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? — and I suspect this is the only time anything that featured Milton Berle or Bruce Forsyth was ever compared to Fellini…). He also recorded this, with the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire:
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is where all these aspects of Newley meet, In 1960 Newley was at the height of his pop stardom, and had made a few TV specials in which he sang and performed comedy sketches. The sketches were written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, who were jobbing writers doing gags for Bob Monkhouse, and who would shortly become the writers of Morecambe & Wise’s first few hit series, with Newley throwing in ideas which they would work up. One of the popular recurring bits in these specials was for Newley and some guests to perform a scene, but to have the characters’ internal monologues, in voice-over, tell a different story.
These sketches were popular enough that the suggestion was made to have Newley, Green, and Hills work up a full sitcom based around the idea. Maybe have Newley have an excuse to sing his latest hit, a few old gags, everyone’s happy.
What the TV company got was something rather different.
I’m a walking television show. I’m like a goldfish in a bowl. I’m a poor, squirming, squingle under a microscope. Leave me alone. Leave me alone, will you? I’ve got a right to me privacy. I just walked out of this, I don’t want to know. Leave me alone. Switch off…
The series starts off seemingly normally, with a typical sitcom family sitting down to breakfast, a neighbour coming round and introducing himself, and chatter about people’s lives. But Gurney Slade, Newley’s character, sits there impassive, and doesn’t respond to his cue. After a couple of prompts to say his line, he gets up, walks off the set, out of the studio, and down the street. He plays air piano with one hand, and the theme music starts.
What follows over the next six episodes is something like what you’d get if you’d asked Samuel Beckett to write Hancock’s Half-Hour — and Gurney Slade clearly owes quite a bit to The Lad Himself (or indeed what you’d get if you asked the writers of Morecambe & Wise to write six short absurdist plays using minimal or no sets a la Waiting for Godot). Slade walks around the streets of London, his internal monologue philosophising about life and the nature of TV stardom, and has conversations with inanimate objects.
Each episode gets successively stranger than the last. The early episodes seem almost like they could have been scripted as standard family comedies — Slade goes to a farm and talks to the animals, who reply with humorous quips, or Slade goes to a dance and tries to chat up a girl (played by Anneke Wills, who went on to play Polly in Doctor Who) — except that they’re filmed as bleak absurdist dramas, the dance hall is instead an empty airfield although the characters don’t treat it as such, and it’s made clear that all the characters only exist in Slade’s head.
I think you’re asking too much. I mean, a character doesn’t have another life, just the one the author gives them. All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the job the author gave them.
By the fourth episode, Slade is on trial for confusing the viewing public and not being funny, with the possible sentence of death hanging over him. The trial (including a re-enactment of the first scene of Twelve Angry Men, and consisting for the most part of an argument about whether countersunk screws are funny) takes place in an entirely black room, with the judge being a fairy-tale princess and the jury a male voice choir who sing their verdict. In the fifth episode, Slade tries to teach a gang of children to use their imaginations, but they decide they prefer his, and all take up residence in his mind, disappearing from the real world.
And the final episode is quite likely the strangest piece of TV ever broadcast up to that point. It starts with financiers touring a studio, where Slade sits unresponsive, thinking about how he was born there six weeks earlier, and it being explained to the financiers that he’s a performer, one of the latest models. Slade decides he’s going to rebel by not doing anything, but we cut to a control room, where the hand of a director is seen, and the director says that Slade will move. Slade then decides, apparently of his own free will, to do what the director has said.
All the characters from previous episodes turn up and complain that they don’t have full lives, that they only existed for a few scenes and don’t know anything about themselves outside that. Slade argues with them about the nature of fictional characters and what the obligations of an author are, all the while ominously counting down the minutes until “HE comes and gets me”.
Slade eventually gets all the characters jobs in other series or books, and waits for his inevitable demise. Then Anthony Newley enters the studio. Slade begs for his continued existence, with Newley implacably refusing to let him live, as Slade slowly turns from a human into a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Newley picks up as he leaves.
You can see why this didn’t go down too well with an audience who wanted something like The Army Game, but it clearly made a huge impression on pretty much anyone who was interested in making TV or films at the time. One can see echoes of Gurney Slade in the series to which it is most often compared, The Prisoner, but Gurney Slade is a far more adventurous series. It’s also a clear influence on some of the more interesting Patrick Troughton Doctor Who stories (especially “The Mind Robber”, but also “The War Games”), and it does some things that Spike Milligan’s Q and Monty Python would do nearly a decade later.
But its biggest cultural influence was probably on Richard Lester. There are shots in this series, especially in the first episode, which are replicated almost exactly in A Hard Day’s Night (I’m thinking particularly of Gurney walking by the Thames in a manner very like Ringo’s walk by the canal, but also of the whole escaping from a TV studio bit). I honestly can’t imagine that film being the same without this series.
And remember, this is a series from *October 1960*, before Kennedy had been elected, when *Pete Best* had only just joined the Beatles, who had still to meet Ringo, almost a full decade before the things we think of as innovative, experimental, TV of the 60s were made. This is a sitcom featuring Bernie Winters and Una Stubbs, on the downmarket commercial ITV rather than the public service BBC.
It’s not a perfect series, by any means — some of the jokes that are intended to work just don’t, and Slade’s particular Colin Wilson-style bargain-basement existentialist rebellion for angry young white men has dated as badly as everything else of that ilk — and at times it’s more interesting for ideas it tries that don’t work than it is actually good. But it’s good often *enough*, and I can’t imagine any broadcaster putting out anything a tenth as interesting today.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is available on DVD from Network for only £6.
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