The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Six

gurney 06

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-withina-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.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Five

gurney 05

Gurney is entertaining a group of children with a tale about a magic tinker.  If they’re very good, he tells them, the tinker may visit and grant them a wish.  When they ask him exactly when the tinker will appear, Gurney is forced to admit that he may not arrive today – since Gurneyland (where he lives) is a long way, away.  Gurney then tells them that “the tinker is really symbolic. He’s an allegorical figure, who represents our innermost thoughts.”

He then explains a little more about Gurneyland.  It’s a place where any of your dreams can become true.  You want to be a great footballer, better than Stanley Matthews?  Or maybe the best singer in the world?  In Gurneyland, you can.

The recursive nature of the series is once more highlighted when Gurney asks one of the children why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television.  He’s told that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.”  Shortly afterwards, two partygoers Albert (Bernie Winters) and Veronica (Coral Fairweather) arrive.  And then a few minutes later, Gurney and the children are excited to see the tinker (Charles Lloyd-Pack).

Earlier, we saw Gurney explaining to the children that the tinker wasn’t real – but once he arrives (or at least someone who could be the magic tinker) Gurney is keen to see him demonstrate some of his magic.  Was he actually the magic tinker or just an ordinary tramp?  You’ll need to make your own minds up about that – although it’s not a vitally important point.

What is important is that everybody (the children, the tinker, plus Albert and Veronica) have taken a trip to Gurneyland – quite literally, as they all find themselves transported inside Gurney’s mind.  This is frustrating for Gurney, the point of his story was that Gurneyland is inside everybody (their own personal imagination).  So he’s a little upset to find so many people running amok inside his.

How to get them out?  Once he goes into his mind, he meets his dark side – a horned version of himself.  The bad Gurney suggests drinking and visits to scurrilous French films will instantly make the children want to leave.  Our Gurney is shocked by this and refuses (although at the end of the episode he realises it’s the only way to sort things out).

Gurney’s subconscious is divided into various rooms, such as the Depression Room, the Memory Room and the Common-Sense Room (the last one, he admits, isn’t used very often).  Wandering around his own psyche allows Green & Hills (and maybe Newley himself) to poke some fun at Newley’s public persona.  He admits he has “quite a big mind, but then they always said I had a big head.”

Later on, after he finds that many of the children have invited their parents to join them, he follows them and finds them all watching a version of himself.  He’s singing Strawberry Fair (which was a hit for Newley that year).  After the performance, “our” Gurney reflects that “I should have thought that would have driven them out” and critiquing his own performance he decides that ” I always had the impression I sang better than that.”

Like the previous episode, this is a very theatrical production.  Although the first half is meant to be set outside, it feels stagey and unrealistic (this is a clear production choice, had they wished to shoot on location there’s no reason why they couldn’t have done so).  Newley excels with his multiple personalities and he also plays well off the children.

Although there’s plenty of jokes along the way (such as an invisible elephant that takes a liking to Gurney) it also has some interesting things to say about good and evil, as well as the borderline between fantasy and reality.  It’s another deep and rich episode that covers a lot of ground during its twenty five minutes.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Four

gurney 04

Gurney Slade is on trial.  “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”  Given that by this time the series had been moved to a late-night slot (due to an alarming slump in viewing figures between the first and second episodes) this was a canny piece of prediction by Green, Hills and Newley.

Unlike the first three episodes, which were location based, this is shot entirely in the studio – which means that visually it obviously feels very different.  The courtroom set is quite basic – black drapes form the background, for example (giving a theatrical feel to proceedings).

When Gurney learns that the judge is the fairy-tale figure Princess Eleanor (who’s never laughed) he knows he’s got his work cut out.  Can he rely on his defending counsel, Archie?  Archie is a old-style music-hall comedian – modelled on the likes of Max Miller.  Possibly there’s something of Archie Rice (from John Osborne’s 1957 play, The Entertainer) in his style as well.  He offers a series of painfully unfunny jokes as part of Gurney’s defence, which makes Gurney believe he’d be better off defending himself.

The prosecuting counsel (a typically effective turn from Douglas Wilmer) is convinced of Gurney’s guilt and attempts to prove it by showing the jury a clip from one of his previous shows.  This is another self-reflective moment, as the clip is new – though it could have easily featured in one of the previous episodes.  We see Gurney sitting on a bus, musing about an advertisement showing a man who appears to be delighted about a new countersunk screw.

There then follows a series of arguments and counter-arguments about whether countersunk screws are funny or not.  An average family (the ones we saw in episode two) are called to the witness box.  The father says that the clip was clever.  Not funny, but clever.  The mother was less impressed.  “I didn’t understand what it was all about. Besides that, I don’t think it ought to be allowed. Bad for kids.”  As it turns out, that possibly wasn’t too far removed from the actual response of a good proportion of the audience.

With the jury being made up of twelve men dressed identically (in cloth caps and scarfs) it’s possible to sense a little contempt for the viewing audience.  This is a potentially difficult line to tread, but they seem to have got away with it (possibly because by this time, the people left watching had invested in the programme and its worldview).

Gurney interacts briefly with the jury – and they appear not to realise that he’s the one on trial.  When the foreman asks for a show of hands, Gurney is the only one who says not guilty.  He suggests they talk about it for a while (a clear nod to Twelve Angry Men).

If television is the main target in this episode, then the press aren’t immune either.  Before the jury come back with their verdict, Gurney is offered twenty thousand pounds for his life story.  He refuses, so the press turn to Leolia Plinge (“I will reveal everything.  I first met Gurney Slade at a beauty competition at Tufnell Park.”)

Gurney is found guilty – but he’s unable to be executed due to a problem with the axe.  It needs a countersunk screw to repair it, which makes the Princess laugh (and thereby gets Gurney off the hook).  It’s an ironic ending to an episode that, whilst it’s concerned with humour, isn’t particularly funny.

That’s not a criticism though.  There’s few laughs here, but it does have plenty of well-timed swipes at television makers, audiences, advertising and the media.  The stark setting and the minimal use of music helps to create a sense of tension and unease – which is unusual for a programme that’s supposed to be a comedy.  But by now it should be clear that Gurney Slade is a very unusual programme.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Three

gurney 03a

The Strange World of Gurney Slade was a series of two halves.  The first three episodes were largely shot on location whilst the last three were studio bound.  Episode three finds Gurney in the countryside, musing that even though you may seem to be alone, you are always being observed by “bird’s eyes, cat’s eyes, sheep’s eyes, bull’s eyes, butterflies, customs and excise.”

Gurney begins by wondering exactly what life would be like in an ant colony.  He decides that he wouldn’t last very long – the life of a worker ant simply wouldn’t be for him.  Ants are able to carry approximately ten times their own body-weight – in human terms this would be akin to Gurney lugging around a grand piano (something he finds it hard to imagine).  This is a characteristically off-kilter opening to the episode – it’s hard to imagine many programmes that could feature Gurney’s internal monologue about industrious ants (although it’s possible to find an echo in the early series of Last of the Summer Wine, where plots took second place to inconsequential musings.  Although the three old boys never encountered any talking animals!).

Gurney later stops by a sign.  One way leads to Gurney Slade (such odd names they have in the countryside, he says) whilst the other points to Cuckold’s Comb.  Gurney Slade is a real place, of course.  Cuckold’s Comb is less so.

Episode three is probably the most fragmentary and plotless episode of Gurney Slade.  It’s also the one that has to be virtually carried by Newley alone – either via monologues with himself or by conversations with the various animals he meets along the way.  The most substantial encounter with another human being occurs when he encounters Napoleon (John Bennett) in a field (as you do).  Watch enough archive television and it’s almost certain that you’ll see the same actors again and again.  So only a few days after catching Bennett in the Cadfael story The Leper of St. Giles, here’s a chance to see him again (some thirty four years earlier).

Gurney wanders into a farm and has a lively conversation with a dog, who invites him to take a look around.  There’s a seperate plot which is developed between the farmer, his wife and a farmhand that pays off at the end – although it’s done with no dialogue and no interaction with Gurney.  He then chats to a cow (seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding) who tells him that she much prefers hand milking, as she points out to him that he probably wouldn’t like his “lactic glands stuffed into a vacuum cleaner.”

All in all, this is twenty five minutes that’s hard to adequately describe (and we haven’t even discussed the scarecrow who sings Greensleeves).  As we’ll see in the next episode, even at the time the show was being made it must have been clear that it probably wouldn’t be received with whole-hearted approval.

This one is probably the least engaging of the series, although it’s fair to say that the scattershot approach does generate more hits than misses.  But it’s only a slight dip, as episodes four to six are all very strong.  And it’s tempting to wonder if a young Patrick McGoohan was watching the final three and making notes ….

gurney 03b

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Two

gurney 02

In this second episode, Gurney ponders the delicate nature of relationships.  We open at a deserted airfield which quickly becomes (in his mind at least) a dance-hall.  He desperately wants to meet the right woman – but even if he did, what would he say?

He couldn’t just go up to her and ask her out, as they have to be introduced first – preferably at a nice cocktail party.  He then spies a gorgeous young girl (Anneke Wills, credited here as Annika Wills) and he eventually plucks up the courage to ask her to dance.  Except, interestingly he doesn’t.  Up until the point they start dancing, they don’t exchange a single word (although the audience has been privy to their, sometimes overlapping, thoughts).  And is she the love of his life?  After the dance she rejoins her friend and then exits from the story, so it doesn’t seem so.  Gurney mournfully considers that “you get nowhere if you don’t talk to them and yet you get the brush off if you do.”

This whole sequence shines a light on the rather repressed morals of late fifties and early sixties Britain.  But the irony is that Anthony Newley suffered from no such repression himself.  He enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a womaniser – witness his relationship with Wills, which blossomed after the recording of this episode.  It led first to an abortion and then later to the birth of their daughter, Polly, in 1962 (which occurred at the time that Newley was considering ending his marriage to Ann Lynn so he could marry Joan Collins).

So if you know Newley’s history, it does give these scenes an extra frisson.  And it’s clear that the camera loves Wills’ delicate beauty and their bizarre (largely unspoken) meeting is all the more memorable for taking place in the middle of a desolate airfield.

The theme of love continues with the next sequence as Gurney meets a typical family – father, mother and three children.  He asks the husband, Frank (Edwin Richfield), if he feels that he married the right woman.  Or did he just marry the woman next door, the one he was expected to?  As with the airfield scene, this gently mocks the accepted values of the day.  As the sixties progressed, many things (including relationships) would change and become much more flexible (in a way that would have seemed unthinkable to most people in 1960). Again, this seems to foreshadow Newley’s own restless jump from one woman to another.  How much of Gurney Slade is actually Anthony Newley is an interesting, and unknowable, question.

After thinking it over, Frank decides that yes, he didn’t marry the love of his life – so he sets out to find her.  His wife doesn’t seem too concerned (plenty more fish in the sea) and she exits as well. This leaves Gurney with the children – a boy and girl (both aged about eight) and a baby in a pram.  Even for a series with such a tenuous grip on reality, it’s a little jarring to see the children abandoned.  But Gurney doesn’t seem to mind and he starts a lively conversation with the baby (who seems to be incredibly articulate for an infant).  He still believes in Santa Claus and fairies though – though Gurney tells him that there are no such things.

In the world of Gurney Slade, anything can happen – and a real-life fairy (Hugh Paddick) appears and grants them a wish.  This transports them to a rubbish tip which is strewn with parts of female mannequins.  He suggests to the children that they select the best parts and make a mother.  There’s something rather creepy about this – the stark black and white photography definitely helps to create a vague sense of unease.

In the end though, all is well as the children are reunited with their mother and father.  So what was the moral of the story?  Gurney ends by spouting a deliberately nonsensical series of proverbs, so we can assume that the story had no meaning.  Frank didn’t find his ideal woman and he seems happy to settle for the one he has.  And Gurney’s back in his imaginary dance-hall, looking for another woman to trip the light fantastic with.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode One

gurney 01

The Strange World of Gurney Slade was a programme that came and went very quickly – just six episodes, broadcast in 1960 – but in retrospect it’s a show that had a strong influence on some notable people and programmes (especially David Bowie and Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner).

At the time, Anthony Newley was a hot property.  He’d been acting since the 1940’s (including a memorable turn as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 film version of Olivier Twist) and by the late 1950’s had also enjoyed a string of hit singles.  So a half-hour comedy series seemed to be the next logical move.

Gurney Slade was anything but logical though.  It’s a bizarre, surrealist trip through Newley’s psyche that appeared to totally wrong-foot the viewing audience, who were no doubt expecting something much more straightforward.  The muted critical response and poor viewing figures relegated the last few episodes to a graveyard slot and after the sixth and final episode limped out there were no calls to commission a second series.

The series was written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, although it’s tempting to assume that Newley himself had a considerable input in shaping the content of the show.  Green and Hills would become well known during the 1960’s as scriptwriters for Morecambe & Wise, but whilst their material was always solid (for example, they wrote the classic Grieg Skech, later remade with Andre Previn) it rarely displayed the flights of fancy seen in Gurney Slade.

What’s really remarkable about the series is that it was made in 1960.  Had it appeared later in the decade, then such a reflective, self-aware programme would have fitted in better with the overall television landscape.  But when you consider the type of programmes on offer in 1960, it makes Gurney Slade seem even more out of time.

Is it funny?  Well, it doesn’t offer many laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s wry and witty and it certainly isn’t predictable.  It’s unashamedly a star vehicle for Newley, who although he’s all but forgotten today, was a major star at the time.  His influence can best be seen in the career of the young David Bowie, who during the 1960’s copied Newley’s style almost perfectly.

Episode One sets out immediately to confound the audience’s expectations.  We open on a typical family living room, the Pagets, who have just moved into their new home .  We see the wife ironing, the son doing his homework and the mother-in-law unpacking.  Albert Paget (Newley) is sitting in an armchair, but it’s clear that something isn’t right – he appears to be disconnected from the events unfolding around him.  More visitors appear – the lodger and the man next door.  Every character (apart from Albert) is a clearly defined archetype and the dialogue is laboured and not terribly interesting.

After a moment, Albert gets up and puts on his coat.  He declines to answer the question about whether he’d like a nice egg for his tea, which throws everybody else into confusion.  The question is repeated sotto-voce several times, obviously in the hope that he’ll go back on script, but that doesn’t happen.  He walks out – and we see that the room is nothing more than a studio-set.  Newley strides past the cameras, the bewildered floor manager (Geoffrey Palmer) and escapes into the real world.  So he becomes Gurney Slade.

It’s a comprehensive “breaking the fourth wall moment”.  And things just get odder as he encounters objects and animals that can talk.  He picks up a stone and is about to launch it into the river when the stone asks him politely not to.  He then has a chat with a dog, who tells him that he likes Lassie but has little time for Rin-Tin-Tin.  When he picks up a newspaper without paying, the headline reads “Can’t You Afford Twopence Halfpenny”.

Later, he becomes enchanted with a poster that depicts a model advertising the Klean-o hoover.  The model (Una Stubbs) comes to life and he follows her down the street.  Interestingly, we also see a bystander watch him and he only sees Gurney – but not the girl.  This implies that whatever Gurney Slade sees, it’s only seen by him (and the audience of course).

With the notion that anything can happen, it’s a busy twenty-five minutes.  Most of Newley’s dialogue is prerecorded and then played in to simulate his thoughts.  This method is also used when he actually speaks and therefore it means that his words never quite match his lip movements.  This is another device that helps to give the programme a slightly off-kilter feeling.

At the end, Gurney returns to his sit-com family from the opening scene, only to find that they’ve been watching him all the time.  Although he escaped from the television studio, it’s clear that he’s still part of it.  He glumly admits that “I’m a walking television show. I can’t get away from them. Big Brother is watching me, and Big Dad and Big Mum. The whole family’s watching me. I’m like a goldfish in a bowl.”