|1960 on television, and things were pretty much as they had been in 1959, or the rest of the fifties, but there were signs that the sixties were beginning with, if not a vengeance, then some pressing need to change the cultural landscape. One of those media that baffled most in its day but happened to have all the right people watching who thought, hello, what's this, it's interesting, was sitcom The Strange World of Gurney Slade. But was it a sitcom at all? What was its situation? There didn't appear to be one, it was simply star and co-creator Anthony Newley meandering about in a drab overcoat and talking to himself in voiceover; every so often something weird would occur, was this what passed as a joke in Newley's world? Was this what he was really like?
At the cusp of the fifties into the sixties, beetle-browed Newley (1931-99) was one of Britain's biggest stars, graduating from child performer (The Artful Dodger in David Lean's classic film of Oliver Twist) to pop star to erstwhile actor in various movie vehicles. He was not exactly the sort of boy a girl could take home to meet mother, but he was presentable, and despite a self-satisfied air his confidence was addictive, as was a certain irreverence to his persona, and he had a legion of fans. So the obvious thing to do was give him a television show, not simply a variety special but somewhere he could truly cut loose: ATV offered him that chance, and he recruited young writers Dick Hills and Sid Green to bring his ideas to life in a series that would deliberately undercut all the cliches.
Alan Tarrant served as producer and director, another young contributor, and the whole team would go on to some success with what were really some pretty safe, reliable, populist projects. So why was Gurney Slade so weird, unlike anything most of them would ever try again? The reason most of them never attempted the out there projects again was down to this one being a complete flop with viewers: most were confused, angry, and switched off. The closest analogy in sixties television would be Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner nearer the end of the decade, but audiences were captivated by that, and if Slade baffled too, its defiance of expectations came too early in the run of the culture to have many adherents. Somewhere in London, however, David Bowie was watching.
And loving what he saw, so much so that he tried to become the next Newley in his initial try at finding a persona for his creativity. What was he watching? In the first episode, a regular sitcom - or is it? We can see Newley there in the opening scene with typical family and neighbours, but he's not saying anything, he's simply not comfortable. The other characters obviously expect him to interact, but all he does is wrap up some biscuits (Ginger Nuts?) in some newspaper and wander off the set, with the floor manager (Geoffrey Palmer) calling after him. The statement of intent was clear: Gurney Slade wanted nothing to do with normality, with cliché, or with mere conventions of the comedy format on television. It was something determined to be different, and so it was.
The rest of episode one, once that unforgettable Max Harris theme tune is cued by Newley waving his fingers, had him interacting with a talking dog, dustbins and Una Stubbs, who is on a poster advertising vacuum cleaners and steps down for an adventure with our hero. As this was broadcast at prime time on a Saturday night, not the greatest slot for experimental television, the reaction was immediate: ATV's switchboard and subsequently, mailroom were swamped with complaints from viewers who either were utterly confused, or were actively angry, at what they had just seen. The experiment had decidedly not been a success, and though some reviews recognised the ingenuity, most agreed with those complaining that it did not make any sense and too clever for its own good.
Had they stuck with the series over increasingly later time slots, they would probably not have enjoyed it anymore, and all four main players behind it were dismayed they had a turkey on their hands when they had believed they were breaking new ground. But guess what? They were: there's a phenomenon in television where a programme of rare quality that doesn't find a wide audience can become a cult, think It's Garry Shandling's Show from the United States, or Nightingales in Britain, and its fans will light up when it is occasionally mentioned (or they have occasion to mention it themselves). Gurney Slade was one of those, and intermittent repeats over the years kept it low profile, yet warmly recalled by the select few: Bowie was one of those, bringing it up in interviews.
But did Newley, Hills, Green and Tarrant anticipate this poor reception? Making it even more intriguing, after episode two (Gurney contemplates romance and its consequences with erstwhile girlfriend and Doctor Who star Anneke Wills) and three (Gurney ventures to the countryside and interacts with the animals he meets, one a cow voiced by Fenella Fielding), episode four took a darker turn. Here, as would happen to Number 6 in The Prisoner, Gurney is put on trial - for not having a sense of humour, threatened with the executioner's axe if he loses. A single set wonder, it anticipated Monty Python's Flying Circus and its obsession with the absurdities of the law courts, and anything that could be latterly described as "meta" owed it a huge debt of sincere gratitude.
The fifth episode took on a fairy tale quality, and if anything grew even more bizarre, doubling down on the weirdness that had 1960 audiences switching off in their droves as it starts with Gurney entertaining children and comedian (and childhood friend) Bernie Winters, who somehow end up in his mind, which he must enter to rescue them. Lewis Carroll had been cited as an influence on the show, and that was present, but the final instalment had Slade struggling to find roles for the series' characters now it was all over, and concluded on an item of surrealism - the real Newley appears and takes Gurney away now he has transformed into a ventriloquist's dummy - verging on the nightmarish, and encapsulated the tone, both curious, at times laughter-inducing: wildly innovative.
No matter the flop of Gurney Slade, Newley's career didn't suffer too badly, as that year he remained a regular on television, theatre and radio; not to say he wasn't disappointed, but he would go on to write musical Stop the World I Want to Get Off with Leslie Bricusse and find fresh success there. If you're interested in what else he did in 1960, check out Disc Two of the Network Blu-ray release of the TV series, as it features two variety specials he headlined for ATV as well as a Shirley Bassey special where he was the guest star. In these, we saw what he was more accustomed to be appearing in as a song and dance man, with some extra comedy acting, material also penned by Green and Hills, which indicated where his head was at when he came to make the six-parter.
You can see him in sketches in those three specials that could easily have slotted into the Slade character's day, as they feature Newley silently going about his business while we heard his thoughts in voiceover, a benefit of the medium the three men were keen to capitalise upon. In his own specials, he appeared with legendary comic Peter Sellers, dancer and choreographer Lionel Blair, famed acting beauty of the day Janette Scott and others, and it was fun to see them interact, though the programme with Bassey looking cute as a button and obviously much enamoured of Newley was perhaps even more indicative of his comedy ambitions. There he had a couple of sketches alongside a box on a public bench which seems to contain a man playing a piano, a strong hint of surrealism.
On Disc Three we had an entire feature film, The Small World of Sammy Lee, which was intended to launch him to international movie stardom, but, er, didn't. This was 1963 when Stop the World had already been huge, so he shouldn't really have worried, yet it had been based on Ken Hughes' 1958 BBC play Sammy, a half hour, one actor wonder Newley led that garnered praise and arguably set him on his course to fame and fortune. The story of a comedian in a seedy strip club who is to be possibly killed if he doesn't pay the Mr Big he owes £300 to, it was a clear precedent for Adam Sandler's critical hit Uncut Gems of 2019, which followed this pretty closely, setting and profession aside, though the '63 one had the benefit of some vivid scenes of London's Soho that are rich in atmosphere.
Newley carried it well, embracing his mannerisms: interestingly, among the other extras of Gurney Slade promos (weird) and photo galleries is a staged interview for American TV where Newley says he would dearly love to direct his own film. That was the infamous Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? in 1969, a confessional, autobiographical piece that may now be the most remembered thing he made on celluloid, thanks to its seriously misguided belief as to how much an audience would want to be privy to its creator's innermost thoughts, but going way too far in that respect. Yet even there, you could see the influence of Gurney Slade, it had the same sense of humour, the same questioning irreverence, and of course Newley's strong, distinctive voice and personality. One thing is for sure, if you were on Gurney's wavelength, you could forgive Newley plenty, even The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Remember him for his 1960 show that from this perspective clearly affected so many of the right people.
Oh, and the real Gurney Slade? It's a small village in Somerset.
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