What Kind of Fool Is He?

The Strange World of Gurney Slade on DVD

In Episode Four of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, our eponymous hero is on trial for having no sense of humour and therefore, by extension, creating an unfunny television programme. Slade is philosophical “I still think it could have been funny. Maybe the timing was wrong?” Certainly the timing was wrong, and on the evidence of the rest of this amazing series it was out by decades. For once, the old cliché that a programme was “years ahead of its time” is entirely appropriate: it makes those arch-whimsy merchants The Boosh look like Bootsie and Snudge.

Essentially the series recounts the adventures of Gurney Slade (Anthony Newley) as he takes a journey through his imagination; Slade explores what it means to be in a television programme while questioning the relationship between performer and audience. The series is deeply experimental, and consistently undermines itself by drawing attention to its own mechanics, while at the same time pulling off the difficult feat of continuing to engage and entertain the audience. Or at least today’s audience. Back in 1960 when the show received its first transmission (it was subsequently repeated in 1963), it lasted two episodes in a peak-time slot at 8.25pm before viewer complaints and dwindling ratings had it banished to the 1960 equivalent of the Gulag – 11.10pm after the news.

Part of the delight of The Strange World of Gurney Slade is that as each episode unfolds you have no idea what’s coming, and it’s one of the few programmes where genuinely anything could happen. The show opens with Slade in the familiar naturalistic trapping of a northern soap opera/sitcom but after just a few minutes he refuses to speak his allotted line and instead simply walks off the sound stage despite being pursued by a member of the crew played by a young Geoffrey Palmer. It’s like the UFO episode ‘Mindbender’ only 10 years earlier and without the purple wigs. After his escape Slade nonchantly riffs on an invisible piano which kicks off Max Harris’s wonderfully catchy theme tune. It’s a terrific opening scene and it’s pure Brecht.

When Lew Grade commissioned the series for ATV, and allowed the rising pop star Newley to collaborate with the young comedy writing team of Sid Green and Dick Hills, he was probably anticipating a jolly and slightly zany music show. What he got was a starter of Brecht, followed by a healthy dollop of Pirandello and a side-portion of Beckett. Grade liked to throw a bit of culture into the ATV schedules every now and then to appease the ITA, but he probably wasn’t expecting it from this crowd.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade was clearly too radical in form for the majority of the audience in 1960, but despite the obvious literary influences it’s always engaging. One of the best lines in the series comes at the start of Episode Two when the camera swoops towards the tiny figure of Slade on an airfield. When it finally reaches hims he comments directly to the viewer “Took you long enough to get here didn’t it?” That pretty much sums up the series – playfully drawing attention to the artifice of television alongside the more existential idea of fictional characters hanging around for a week until the audience returns. This concept takes up much of the opening of the series, but in later episodes the scripts even explore the audience’s growing hostility to the programme itself. An episode involving talking animals (which includes a commentary on an ant boxing match “Your thorax is wide open” and a cow voiced by Fenella Fielding) starts to look relatively normal compared to a subsequent story where Slade is tried for his (allegedly) unfunny musings on the countersunk screw.

Of course the big question is whether or not the later studio-bound episodes were a direct reaction to the controversy surrounding the show, or if the writing team simply anticipated a hostile reaction. Production dates appear to indicate the latter, but that’s by no means certain. Either way, the later episodes are deeply weird to the point of becoming unsettling. One features Slade and a group of children on a bleak heath straight out of Waiting for Godot; in this case the children are waiting for the ‘symbolic tinker’ although Slade is quick to point out that the tinker is just “an allegorical figure”. Unsurprisingly the tinker actually appears, although (sadly) so does Bernie Winters. The children end up in Slade’s mind and he has to go on a mission to get them back out again.

In the same vein, the final episode doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as drive a truck through it and then dismantle the truck. All the characters from the previous episodes wander around worried about what they’ll do when the series ends, and Slade tries valiantly to sort everything out (“There’ll be something for you on No Hiding Place.”) in the 22 minutes he has left in the episode. The whole series is resolved quite beautifully, if also disturbingly, but there’s so much going on throughout – so many in-jokes and motifs intertwined in the narrative – that it can be enjoyed over and over again.

As for how funny it is remains an open question. During Slade’s trial a “typical television audience” member is called as a witness. He is asked if he found Slade’s show funny and he responds “Not funny. Clever.” Here, the writers are either demonstrating a nice bit of self-deprecation, or getting their retaliation in early. It’s undoubtedly the case that some people might find the series too clever for its own good and not exactly full of side-splitting one liners. But for this reviewer, the one thing that consistently prevents the show collapsing into self-absorbed whimsy is Anthony Newley’s performance. It’s a thing of wonder.

So much of the series depends on his charm and expressiveness during the long internal monologues; and his ability to remain convincing regardless of the madness unfolding around him is remarkable. There’s a great scene in the third episode where, after the ants have had their battle he delicately and precisely conducts a tiny burial; similarly brilliant is the moment when he conducts his jury in an impromptu bit of choir practice. The critical and popular drubbing meted out to The Strange World of Gurney Slade may have been a setback for Newley, but he was too talented to fall by the wayside that easily.

The programme is really Newley’s triumph. For people of a certain age (that is, my age), Anthony Newley was once a bit of a mystery. He would crop up during the 1970s on lacklustre light entertainment shows doing his Las Vegas act, and was chiefly memorable for his mannered vocals and crazy eyebrows. But in those years immediately after Gurney Slade he was jointly responsible (with Leslie Bricusse) for a number of successful Broadway musicals as well as co-writing Goldfinger, probably the most famous Bond theme of all. Newley was not only talented, but he was so cool as Gurney Slade that even now David Bowie has never quite managed to stop impersonating him. And thanks to this release of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, in all its 35mm glory, at least Newley’s forgotten gem will finally get the recognition it deserves. Network has certainly given it a fitting release with packaging and menu screens that reflect the idiosyncrasies of the show, as well as an informative booklet by Dick Fiddy. This is a high-quality presentation of a groundbreaking series – the perfect package. Although on reflection, it would have been nice if Network had thrown in a screw as a free gift. Countersunk of course.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is available to buy from Network on Monday August 15th. Orders may be subject to some delays – see the Network site for details.

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