I am a walking television show. I can’t get away from ’em
You know what one of the best things is about having an unhealthy interest in archive television? There’s always something new to discover. Even after all this time, things surface and – if they’re lucky – get dusted down and rediscovered by a whole new generation. A very special case-in-point is about to hit the DVD shelves.
Back in 1960, a six part series aired across the ITV networks. On the 22nd October viewers were introduced to The Strange World of Gurney Slade. I think it’s safe to say that some were confused, others aggravated. For the first episode, it got a plum spot, just behind “77 Sunset Strip” in most regions…
By the time the last episode aired six weeks later, it found itself in an altogether less glamourous position.
No more were ever made. Star Anthony Newley went on to bigger things. Sid Green and Dick Hills – who wrote it (in close collaboration with the star, one suspects) went off to other work, ending up writing for Morecambe and Wise on their breakthrough ATV series. The show disappeared, never again to be seen by mortal eyes.
Well, not quite. Anneke Wills makes mention of the series briefly in the first volume of her autobiography. The first episode was aired during the TV Heaven series of archive repeats in the early nineties. Those of us who saw it then were bewildered, bamboozled and charmed in equal measure. I know I was. I hoped it might eventually resurface, and here it is. Not only rescued and dusted down, but looking magnificent on newly struck 35mm prints. I was bewildered, bamboozled and charmed all over again. I fell in love with this unassuming, quiet little six-part series. I suspect you will too.
I must confess that I know very little about Anthony Newley, outside of what Anneke Wills mentions in her autobiography. I really only know the name when it crops up in comparison with David Bowie’s early recordings. He does indeed sound like The Dame, or thereabouts. If you want to know more about Newley, I can do no better than to point you in the direction of Cathode Ray Tube, who has written a very fine piece on Newley and how Gurney Slade fits in with the rest of his career.I came to this completely fresh, and Newley… well, he’s wonderful. Looking very like the young Peter Sellers sometime around “Down Among The Z Men” and resplendent for the entire six episodes in raincoat and dark trousers, he’s spellbinding. It’s difficult to take in the rest of what’s going on, because your eyes get drawn to him. He’s front and centre for almost every shot in the series, and he carries it superbly.
The first episode sets things up with economy. We see him as part of an awful suburban family. He sits in the corner not responding to anything else that’s going on. He’s addressed by the mother of the family, and is obviously expected to say something. He doesn’t, leading to mass whispering and prompts from the rest. Instead he gets up, walks out of the house, on the way establishing a beautiful little bit of business where he mimes along with Max Harris’s theme tune in a distracted manner – something he’ll do throughout the series. He’s off – through the TV studio that houses this set and out into the street. He’s free from starring in someone else’s show, and is ready to star in his own. For the next six episodes, we are – literally – privy to his every thought. “Half an hour to save the world”, he muses about the perils of having your own tv show. “I’ll need at least forty minutes.”
We’re broken in relatively gently – Gurney sits on a park bench, having a conversation with himself. He ponders what the passersby are saying, has a chat with a dog (“What d’you think of Rin-Tin-Tin?” “Do me a favour….”). He invents a nonsense language and carries out an entire conversation in it with the next person he sees.
He goes to chuck a rock into the river and is stopped by the rock sternly telling him not to. He tries to nick a newspaper – which instantly holds him to account in the headlines. Eventually he falls into a reverie regarding the pretty little thing who is advertising Klean-O Vacuum Cleaners. Una Stubbs (for it is she) steps out of the poster, and they wander off into an extended silent film sequence in which all normal restrictions are lifted. You can pick the flowers. You can walk on the grass.
Soon enough, the reverie ends, leaving Gurney talking to himself and holding a vacuum cleaner. The girl’s gone, but the cleaner’s still there. How real was all this anyway? That’s just the first episode. Phew.
Episode two starts wonderfully, with a lengthy tracking shot. Newley is tiny in the distance, but begins to come closer and closer. Eventually when he fills the frame, he fires over his shoulder – “took you long enough to get here…” and we’re off again. This week, we’re treated to Gurney’s thoughts on love, marriage and the courtship ritual. He wants the girl of his dreams and suddenly there she is. He stops to talk to a young woman (Anneke Wills, here trading under the name of Annika). Once again, we’re privy to her thoughts. She’s mulling over the same things as he is, but from the female perspective. It’s fairly obvious that both sides are terrified by the whole ritual of finding a partner.
Before too long, we’re off again as Gurney meets a youngish family walking towards him. He stops for a chat with Frank (Edwin Richfield), persuading him that he may just have married the wrong woman. Frank wanders off to find the right woman, leaving an aggravated wife and kids. The wife decides she’s not having any of this, and goes off to find her own soulmate. Gurney is left with the children. We next find them on a rubbish dump, trying to construct the perfect mother out of bits of mannequin, before we finish off the episode back at the airfield with Gurney leading the camera in a gentleman’s excuse-me.
Episode three and Gurney’s still in the country. He’s pondering the work-ethic at length this week – or more precisely, just what an ant does and how much it can carry. Doesn’t he ever get tired of wandering around with the equivalent weight of a grand piano on his mandibles? Answers aren’t forthcoming, so it’s off on an extended ramble around a farmyard, where he encounters the rustic equivalent of the dog from the first episode, not to mention Hugh Paddick as a “wood-fairy”. I kid you not. Presumably Paddick would have been a big name at this point from his performances on “Beyond Our Ken”. Certainly some of his dialogue could have been ripped from that show’s “Charles and Rodney” sketches.
In the background of all this, it seems a classic love-triangle plot is being acted out, with husband, wife and lover all engaging in grand melodrama. Gurney of course, walks through all of this, blissfully unaware – even when a dastardly murder plot is concocted. He’s far too busy talking to a remarkably flirty cow (Fennella Fielding in full on cat’s-purr mode). It would appear that to the animals on the farm we’re the livestock and they’re the ones in charge. And who are we to argue?
A brief conversation with Napoleon (John Bennett) and we’re almost done for another week (“Je Suis Alright Jack”). While the farmer meets a messy demise off camera, Gurney decides that humanity is too much like hard work. Much better to join an ant colony…
Before we know it, we’re into episode four and if you thought things were odd before – you ain’t seen nothing yet. We find Gurney in court, awaiting prosecution. The charge – making a deliberately unfunny television programme. He’s going to be judged by… well, Lady Eleanor of famous myth – “the one who never laughs”. There’s a classic Newgate’s Knocker-type Axeman waiting for the final decision, and the court prosecutor – a hawk-like Douglas Wilmer) is champing at the bit.
The evidence is damning – a full three-to-four minute sequence of Gurney on a bus pondering on the counter-sunk screw. I find myself wondering if this had perhaps been made to show in the series itself, but was jettisoned in favour of something else, to be usefully recycled when the idea for this episode came around.
Gurney’s defendant Archie is no help. A faded music-hall comedian (the loud check patterned suit recalling Max Miller in his prime), most of his “evidence” is rejected for being “unsuitable”. Since Archie’s defence is nothing but a stream of very old jokes, perhaps the prosecutor is right.
Delightfully the typical suburban family called to the witness stand is Frank and his brood from episode two. Although Frank quite liked it his missus doesn’t, stating that such things are “bad for the children”. Such rubbish “shouldn’t be allowed on television”, proving that the more things change…
The jury’s no help either, being composed entirely of identical little chaps in flat-hat and muffler. I’m not going to give away what happens, but needless to say Queen Eleanor finally gets to laugh at something, while we stampede onwards into episode five.
Gurney is now in charge of a bunch of loveable little children, most of whom are hanging on his every word. The exception is one little lad who’s more interested in playing along with the series theme tune in exactly the way we’ve seen Newley do it over the last couple of weeks.
Seated in what appears to be the ruins of a greek amphitheatre, Gurney’s spinning yarns about the Magic Tinker who comes to grant a child’s every wish, and the wonderful world of “Gurneyland” which you can visit if you only dream hard enough. We are interrupted by a partying couple (Albert and Veronica, played by Bernie Winters and Coral Fairweather). Albert doesn’t fancy Veronica, at least not at first. But when Gurney wishes her to be more attractive simply by imagining it, Albert suddenly becomes interested. Sadly, she’s more unattainable than ever, seeing Albert simply as the typical lounge lizard, out for whatever girl he can get.
One small child professes himself to be bored, and when asked why he didn’t stop at home claims “There’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling a bunch of kids a story”. By this point if you’re thinking “The Prisoner!” you’re doing no more than I did. The unreliable central narrator is taken to massive lengths in that show’s “The Girl Who Was Death”, and large tracts of episodes four and six play out like “Once Upon A Time” and “Fall Out”. I’d be willing to bet that at least one person on the production team for The Prisoner saw this at some point. I’m not claiming for one minute that Patrick McGoohan nicked any of this – just that the idea may have percolated unconsciously in someone’s head.
Speaking of unconsciousness, the kids have all decided to visit Gurneyland (after a visit from Charles Lloyd Pack as the Magic Tinker made flesh). Everyone disappears – even Albert and Veronica – to take residence in Gurney’s head. Yes, Gurney’s brain has squatters. Things are getting a bit crowded in there – Gurney takes advice from himself. Or at least, one half of himself.
Got to love those devil-horns. He’s particularly devilish too, tempting Gurney with visions of filthy French Films and bars of low-repute. Following a brief interlude where Newley appears singing, he decides that his darker side is probably right (“I always thought I sung much better than that”). What’s needed to evict his unwelcome visitors (some of the children have now invited their mums and dads) is a bit of French filth. It should do the trick – it’ll put him out of his mind again and ought to restore normality to the inside of his head. By this point presumably any casual viewers loitering near the exits would have fled, which is a shame as episode six is a humdinger.
We find Gurney back in a television studio. Perched on a stool in the middle of a deserted set he’s being shown off to a bunch of money men by the studio boss. Apparently he’s a new model of performer, and unreliable. Has “a tendency to produce jokes that nobody understands”. Gurney knows that his time is up. He’s got 25 minutes to go before HE comes to pick him up. He finds himself accosted by most of the speaking-part characters from the series, most of whom are decidedly perturbed by the fact that not only are they for the chop in 25 minutes, but that Gurney hasn’t bothered to imagine them with more than surface characteristics. The girl from episode two doesn’t know how old she is. Albert has a glass in hand constantly, because that’s what passes for character in Gurney’s head. Frank and family don’t have a home to go to – Gurney never bothered to imagine what their home life might be like.
The prosecutor demands to know what is going to happen to them all – Gurney doesn’t have an answer. The director in the gallery decides that it’s party time. With the Tinker doing his routine, the wood-fairy (alarmingly regenerated from Hugh Paddick into Graham Stark) is unimpressed.
Before this promising rumble can develop any further the party is interrupted by the man from the “characters bureau”, who’s come to reassign everyone. The Prosecutor’s off to Boyd QC. Annike’s off to a mucky French film (presumably, of the type that Gurney was obsessed by the week before). There’s a role in Emergency Ward Ten waiting for Frank’s missus. I wonder if it was one of the episodes that starred Paul Darrow as a handsome young intern?
And that’s it. Six weeks of metaphysical wanderings and wonderings, and Gurney retreats back into the ether from whence he came. I’m so pleased that fifty years later, we’re all getting a chance to see him again. Pretty much everyone I know who’s seen it recently has been blown away by it – I am too. It’s a wonderful series – the way it folds around and back on itself becoming a self-reflexive comment on the nature of series television makes it more or less unique. It even carries it through to the series trailers, kindly provided by Network along with several lovely photo galleries.
If you decide to take a punt on this, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. It looks pristine, it sounds even better, and it’s got two talking dogs in it. How can you refuse? Just buy it. Your life will become better as a result.
Now, about those counter-sunk screws…
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is available from Monday 15th August.