Strange World of Gurney Slade (The) (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (15th August 2011).
The Show

The Strange World of Gurney Slade (ATV, 1960)

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Although it lasted for only six episodes and has rarely been seen since its first transmission in 1960 (the first episode was screened in 1992, as part of Channel 4’s retrospective TV Heaven strand), The Strange World of Gurney Slade (ATV, 1960) has acquired a strong reputation in the years since its first broadcast. Commissioned on the strength of Anthony Newley’s career as a singer, on The Strange World of Gurney Slade Newley was allowed creative freedom and, working with writers Sid Green and Dick Hills, turned in a series that defied expectations and divided audiences. From its first episode, the show openly discards the conventions of television at the time, and as the series progresses the episodes become increasingly more abstract and self-referential, evolving into a piece of metafiction that channels the Theatre of the Absurd (and especially Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author), something which has led to comparisons with Patrick McGoohan’s later ITC series The Prisoner (1967-8) (for example, see Catriona Wright’s entry about the series on the BFI’s ScreenOnline website). In its use of referential humour that has attracted the (mercurial and often abused and misused) label ‘postmodern’, The Strange World of Gurney Slade has also been seen as a precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) (ibid.).

In his 2009 book about television situation comedy, Brett Mills notes that The Strange World of Gurney Slade is frequently labelled as ‘a “sitcom”, even though it fails to incorporate many of the characteristics’ of the genre (29). Highlighting the episodic structure of the series, Mills states that the ‘series consists of the picaresque adventures of the eponymous character’, played by Anthony Newley, and ‘[o]ther than Slade, there are no recurring characters, and the episodic nature of the series means there is no regular setting or satisfactory denouements to his [Slade’s] adventures; indeed, there’s not much of what might usually be termed “plot” at all’ (ibid.). Further exploring the differences between The Strange World of Gurney Slade and the conventions of television sitcoms, Mills also argues that ‘[t]he programme doesn’t signal its comic intention through either its performance style or the use of a laugh track’ and much of its humour derives from ‘avowedly surrealist and absurd moments […] rather than the construction of a supposedly “realist” world that is the case of much sitcom’ (ibid.).

The opening scene of the first episode suggests a conventional soap opera or sitcom: it opens with an establishing shot of a terraced house and, from there, cuts to a recognisable domestic scene depicting a woman, Veronica Paget, ironing; her husband Albert (Newley) sitting away from her, reading a newspaper; their son doing his homework at the dinner table; their intrusive new neighbour (‘Ramsbothom, with a “t-h”, not a double “t”’); the Paget’s lodger, Mr Hopkins; and Albert’s mother sorting through a pile of clothes. As the scene continues, Albert is asked if he would like an egg. When the clearly bored Albert fails to respond, he is fed his next line by an offscreen female voice, who repeatedly whispers, ‘A boiled egg, please, my love’. As the silent Albert puts on his coat, the actor playing Ramsbothom tries to salvage the uncomfortable situation by ad-libbing, ‘Going for a walk, Albert?’ and following the line with awkward laughter. With this, the artifice of the scene is dropped, and the viewer realises that s/he is faced with a self-reflexive representation of the filming of a domestic scene, and Newley is not playing Albert Paget but rather an actor, Gurney Slade, playing Albert Paget. Breaking the fourth wall, Albert/Gurney Slade/Newley walks off the set, past the cameras and the bewildered floor manager (Geoffrey Palmer), who asserts, ‘You must be raving mad: we’re on the air’. The scene is a bold statement of intent, Newley thumbing his nose at those who would expect him to deliver a conventional domestic sitcom. It’s a very Brechtian moment which seems unafraid of alienating viewers who are expecting a more conventional half hour of programming, which is probably the reason why, during its broadcast in 1960, the series was gradually moved from a prime spot in the schedules to a late-night slot.

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The foregrounding of the mechanics of television in this scene is reminiscent of some of Eric Sykes’ work: in his 1956 comedy Sykes Directs a Dress Rehearsal, Eric Sykes had played a harassed director dealing with the problems created in a television studio rehearsal room, and throughout his career Sykes has demystified the mechanics of television, sometimes with characters who are aware that they are playing roles in a television situation comedy, and reflexive visual gags that foreground the technology involved in the production of television programming. For example, Sykes – With the Lid Off (Thames, 1971), fairly recently released on DVD by Network, opens with a sequence depicting Sykes walking in front of the studio audience and performing as the ‘warm-up man’ to a fictional television comedy, with the camera positioned behind Sykes showing the ‘real’ audience for Sykes’ show. When the ‘real’ show begins, it is halted by the producer of the show, once again played by Sykes, on the other side of the camera; as Sykes – With the Lid Off continues, the producer continually interrupts the show to discuss the logistics of the performances, foregrounding and demystifying the artifice of television and playing with notions of celebrity and performance. From the opening moments onwards, the humour is wholly reflexive, stripping away the veneer of television and reminding the audience/viewer that they are watching a spectacle that is controlled and manipulated by writers, cameramen, editors, directors and performers.

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The Strange World of Gurney Slade demonstrates a similar sense of reflexivity, which continues in this first episode as Slade/Newley, whilst walking away from the studio, plays an imaginary piano as a cue for Max Harris’ title music to kick in. (Part of this music would work its way into Newley’s 1961 song ‘Bee-Bom’, the ‘B’ side of his version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’.) The rest of the episode features Slade wandering through London, his thoughts presented to us via voice-over. Walking along the Thames embankment, Slade picks up a stone and prepares to throw it into the river. However, he is stopped by a small voice coming from the stone, which shouts, ‘Oy, you know I can’t swim: I’d sink like a stone’. Slade looks bemusedly at the camera before deciding to put the stone down. Such Lewis Carroll-esque animism and anthropomorphism continues throughout the series: later in the first episode, Slade has a conversation (entirely in voiceover) with a dog who tells Slade that his favourite television programme is ‘Lassie, of course. I reckon her show’s smashing. I like the way she gives her tail a flick when she sings, “I’m making whoopee”’; in the second episode, Slade assembles a mannequin using parts found on a tip, and the mannequin transforms into a woman who takes on the role of mother to a trio of children that Slade has acquired during his travels; and in the third episode, Slade is told by a cow, Caroline, that ‘it gets a bit boring living in the country sometimes’, and he has yet another conversation with a dog on a farm in which human-animal roles are reversed (the dog claims to run the farm and keeps humans as his work animals, telling Newley that ‘You have to look after ‘em, otherwise they won’t say’). Also in the first episode, the audience is presented with a silent movie pastiche as Gurney gazes longingly at a woman (Una Stubbs) in an advertisement for Klean-O, a new brand of vacuum cleaner; Slade experiences a romantic reverie in which the woman steps out of the advert, and she and Slade walk hand-in-hand to the park where Slade takes the Klean-O woman’s vacuum cleaner onto the bandstand and pretends to waltz with it as his partner. He and the Klean-O woman eventually dance together, but after this the woman runs away and Newley is left alone with the vacuum cleaner. The sequence ends with a title card reading, ‘Alas… The End’. The playful visual humour in this sequence recalls celebrated French comic/filmmaker Jacques Tati, and Tati’s work seems to have been an influence on The Strange World of Gurney Slade – not least of which in elements of Newley’s costume, which recalls that of Tati’s creation M. Hulot (sans Hulot’s pipe and hat).

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Each episode has a central theme, most of which revolve – in one way or another – around men’s roles in modern society: episode two deals with the theme of love and Slade’s difficulty in finding it; and episode three finds Slade exploring the countryside whilst pondering the work ethic. The final three episodes become even more abstract, with episode four finding Slade on trial ‘for having no sense of humour’ in a highly abstract set that contains elements of the iconography of a courtroom, episode five depicting Slade’s journey into his own mind (which he labels ‘Gurneyland’), and the final episode revolves around Slade on a bare sound stage, surrounded by the characters who have appeared in the various episodes and who now complain that they have nowhere to go. The use of abstract sets and locations appears throughout the series, culminating in the denuded sound stage that is the focus of the final episode: for example, episode two begins with a long shot of Slade standing alone on a dreary, deserted airfield. Turning to the camera, he looks at his watch and addresses the viewer directly, telling her/him, ‘Took you long enough to get here, didn’t it?’ An offscreen voice declares, ‘Take your partners for the foxtrot please’, and in voiceover Slade wonders, ‘Well, I can’t see anyone I know. Never thought I should have brought a girl with me. Not much point in that though. That’s why I came here: to meet someone’. He looks offscreen, and we cut to a young woman collecting flowers on the airfield. With a gesture of his hand, Slade stops the non-diegetic music, and with another gesture of his hand he cues a romantic piece of non-diegetic music to begin. Slade approaches the young woman and asks her, ‘Are you with anybody’. She tells him, ‘Yes, I’m with my friend’. They both gaze off-camera. In a long shot, we see another young woman dancing alone. The use of the isolated airfield is clever and quite brave for television: it’s a form of paradigmatic substitution (the deserted airfield replacing a crowded dance hall) that seems intended to stand as a metaphor for the isolation Slade and the girl experience at a dance.

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In the episodes, Slade frequently reflects on television in critical terms that explore the limits of the medium, and it seems that the audience is invited to share Slade/Newley’s criticisms of television. In the first episode, whilst sitting on a bench Slade observes (again in voiceover), ‘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, and I could do without that lot back there, as well. “How would you like your egg, dear?” The golden years of British entertainment; so much for Shakespeare and Sophocles’. Later, at the end of episode one, Slade finds himself unable to escape from the attentions of the camera. Trying to escape from a police officer whilst attempting to dispose of the Klean-0 woman’s vacuum cleaner, Slade heads into a house and finds a family gathered around the television. The dog that Slade spoke to earlier is in the room, and he addresses Slade, telling him, ‘Come in. There’s a very interesting programme on. There’s a chap trying to get rid of a vacuum cleaner. Come and see’. Expressing a moment of self-awareness to rival that with which the episode began, Slade observes in voiceover, ‘I am a walking television show. I can’t get away from them. Big Brother’s watching me, and Big Dad and Big Mum. The whole family’s watching me. I’m like a goldfish in a bowl [….] Leave me alone. Leave me alone, will you. I’ve got a right to me privacy. I’ve just walked out of all this. I don’t want to know. Now, leave me alone. Switch me off. I’ve got a right to me own privacy’. With this, the programme ends as Slade hurries away down the street, glancing back at the camera to make sure it isn’t following him.

The criticism of the medium of television is foregrounded in the fourth episode, in which Slade is charged with the crime of ‘having no sense of humour’, having been involved in a television show which was not felt to be funny. He is to be judged by Princess Eleanor who, as Slade notes, is ‘the one in the fairy tale, the one who never laughed’. As the episode progresses, Slade finds that not only does he have to defend himself from the charge of not having a sense of humour, but he has also been accused of making jokes that were ‘calculated to undermine our entire social structure’. Members of the viewing public, ‘Mr and Mrs Typical Viewer’, are brought in to testify, who claim that Newley’s humour was ‘not funny; [but] clever’. With this episode, The Strange World of Gurney Slade seems to anticipate the complaints that would be made about it, almost as if Hills, Green and Newley knew which aspects of the series would prove unpopular with the general public but didn’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator and weren’t concerned that the show may be perceived as ‘not funny; [but] clever’.

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The final episode takes place on a deserted sound stage and most explicitly refers to the conventions of the Theatre of the Absurd and, especially, Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author. The episode opens with Slade alone on the sound stage. The lights come on, and a group of businessmen come onto the stage, escorted by a guide, and enquire about the technology. They point at the camera, asking what it is for and echoing each other’s comments. ‘What are these?’, they ask, pointing to the titles that are playing in one corner of the screen. ‘Those are the captions’, they are told. Referring to Slade, one of them asks, ‘You say this is a performer. What does it do?’ They are told, ‘Well, this is the thing we actually transmit to the public. It goes through various motions which are calculated to entertain or amuse the viewers’. However, the group of men are told that Slade ‘has problems [….] a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand’. ‘How does it work then?’, one of the men enquires. ‘Well, we pay it about five hundred pounds a week, and it’ll do anything. It’s an all-purpose model: singing, comedy’, the guide responds. ‘They think I’m a machine. There ought to be a law against people like that. The trouble is, they’re the people who make the laws’, Slade observes in voiceover. Meanwhile, in the control booth the director says, ‘I think I’ll move him off the stool’, and on the sound stage, Slade observes in voiceover, ‘On second thoughts, I think I’ll move off the stool’. With this, the show demonstrates a self-awareness of the ways in which Newley-as-performer is objectified and manipulated by the text. Referring to himself as the character, Newley observes in voiceover, ‘Well, this is it. Six weeks ago today, I was born here in this very theatre [….] Now there’s twenty-four minutes to go, and I’m all alone. Nothing to do until he comes and picks me up’: the ‘he’ is ambiguous, but given the self-reflexive nature of the show we presume that the character Slade is referring to the performer Newley.

The director decides to ‘bring in some other characters’, and some of the characters from previous episodes appear behind Slade. Making the episode’s strongest reference to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the prosecutor from episode four says, ‘We should like to know what is to become of us. You see before you a group of characters for whom you are entirely responsible. You have created us, in one or another of your television shows. What we should now like to know is what future plans you have for us’. ‘You see, I have only got about another twenty minutes myself, and then he’s going to fetch me. I’m not doing anything either: I’ve got to go away’, Slade responds: ‘I wasn’t supposed to do anything like this; I wasn’t supposed to think of you at all. But I didn’t want to do the ordinary television comedy, so I thought up you lot. If he finds you here when he gets here, you’ll be very annoyed, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to take care of yourselves’. (His continuing references to waiting in this episode seem to invoke Samuel Beckett’s classic piece of Absurdist theatre, the 1953 play Waiting for Godot.) Slade decides to spend the remaining twenty minutes of the episode giving the characters a little more life, and together they decide to hold a party. At the end of the episode, Slade introduces the characters to a man from ‘the Characters Bureau’ who has found new homes for them in shows like No Hiding Place and Emergency Ward 10.

As this brief synopsis of the final episode might suggest, like the final few episodes of Patrick McGoohan’s later series The Prisoner, the final three episodes of The Strange World of Gurney Slade are so self-referential that they may alienate some viewers. Making scattered references to the Theatre of the Absurd, the work of filmmakers like Jacques Tati and silent comedy, the series as a whole could be seen to be either ambitious or navel-gazing, bewitching or alienating

Episodes:
Episode One (23:50)
Episode Two (24:21)
Episode Three (26:07)
Episode Four (29:25)
Episode Five (26:53)
Episode Six (25:49)

Video

Shot entirely on 35mm film, and looking all the better for it, the monochrome series is presented in its original broadcast screen ratio of 4:3. The episodes look incredible, with pin-sharp clarity and good contrast levels. It’s hard to imagine them getting a better presentation than this.

The original break bumpers (reading ‘Follow… Gurney Slade’ and ‘Proceed… Gurney Slade’) are present.

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Audio

Audio is presented via a two-channel mono track. This is clean and always audible. Sadly, there are no subtitles.

Extras

Contextual material consists of:
Promos’ (5:14). A series of promotional ads for the programme. ‘How can you tell anyone about The Strange World of Gurney Slade? I don’t know what it’s about, and I’m in it’, Newley observes in the first ad. ‘They won’t watch it anyway. Nobody watches television now. They’ll just switch it on and use it as a square standard lamp’.

Galleries:
- Production and Behind the Scenes (4:07) . A series of behind the scenes images from the production of the show.
- Promotional (1:34) . A series of images produced to promote the series.
- Anthony Newley (1:07) . Images from several of Newley’s appearances on television shows such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Saturday Spectacular and The Anthony Newley Show.

Overall

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is a very interesting series. In many ways, its major subject seems to be male roles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the wandering Gurney Slade seemingly representing anxieties about men’s roles in the world: like Reggie Perrin (Leonard Rossiter) in David Nobb’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-9), in the first episode Slade abandons a stifling domestic setting (albeit a self-aware depiction of a conventional television representation of a stifling domestic setting), and in the second episode he confronts a married man, Frank, asking him, ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you sure that you have chosen the right mate? [….] Have you married the right woman?’ Slade causes Frank to think about his marriage. ‘I’m just thinking about what this fella says. Maybe I did make a mistake’, Frank tells his wife; ‘I married you because you were handy, so to speak. I always fancied Daphne Robinson, or that little Greek girl at the Deledios Caff – a small, dark piece’. Both Frank and his wife wander off separately, and Slade is left with their baby in a pram and two young children.

The series also seems to promote a Jacques Tati-esque childlike worldview, with Slade – like Tati’s M. Hulot – being essentially a ‘man-child’, unsophisticated, imaginative and curious about the world around him. In episode two, the baby Slade is left with asks Slade, ‘Hey, mister, what’s it like being grown-up?’ In response to this, Slade asserts simply, ‘It’s not worth it, believe me. You’re better off being where you are. If you feel anything growing, hold it back’. It’s almost as if Newley and his writers are suggesting that the best way to combat anxieties over your role in the world is to adopt an innocent, childlike worldview, something which Slade also promotes to the children listening to his tellings of folk tales in episode five, and the concept of ‘Gurneyland’ that is introduced in that episode. (It’s the same message that was at the heart of one of the most celebrated songs that Newley wrote for the 1971 film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, ‘Pure Imagination’.) The exchange characterises the warm, positive nature of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, although there’s a possibility that some viewers may see the series as an impenetrable vanity project – much like Pat McGoohan’s The Prisoner, with which The Strange World of Gurney Slade has in recent years been compared. However, viewers who enjoy experimental television and don’t have an aversion to self-reflexive humour will find a huge amount to enjoy during their travels in The Strange World of Gurney Slade.


References:
Mills, Brett, 2009: The Sitcom. Edinburgh University Press

Wright, Catriona, 2003: ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’. [Online.] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1374548/index.html


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The Show: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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