“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.”
On Thursday October 22nd 2020, a nearly forgotten piece of British television history quietly marks its 60th anniversary, with very little pomp or ceremony attached. Showcasing one of the biggest stars of the day, The Strange World Of Gurney Slade blew the doors off the nation’s TV cabinets, but ended up languishing in relative obscurity.
Ostensibly a sitcom, The Strange World Of Gurney Slade is so much more than what it was purported to be. Given that the actual medium of television was still relatively new, and commercial television still in its comparative infancy – with ITV only starting transmission in September 1955 – this was a show which broke whatever rules there were, resoundingly managing to shatter all normal formulas and expectations, and yet the six episodes were seemingly destined to merely sit and gather dust in the vaults afterwards.
But The Strange World Of Gurney Slade was a programme which made a huge impression on 13 year old viewer David Jones of Bromley, who found himself inspired by the series and its star when it came to launching his own career a few years later, under the professional name of David Bowie; it was even said that the character of Gurney Slade had been something of an influence on Bowie’s own performance as the lead in Nic Roeg’s 1976 science fiction feature The Man Who Fell To Earth.
So, who exactly was the man who had made such an impact on a young and impressionable Bowie? Anthony Newley – the person who inhabited Gurney Slade – had first come to prominence as a child actor, appearing as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist. His big breakthrough as an adult performer came in 1958’s musical Idol On Parade, where he played a rock singer called up for National Service, with the story being inspired by Elvis Presley’s conscription into the US Army.
Newley’s performance of the song ‘I’ve Waited So Long’ – taken from the movie’s soundtrack – saw him reach #3 in the charts, launching a whole new career for him as a pop singer, as well as actor. He also appeared on ITV’s popular variety show Saturday Spectacular, where he was teamed up with writing duo Dick Hills and Sid Green; the pair later went on to produce scripts for Morecambe and Wise when they starred in ATV’s Two Of A Kind, along with their three movies, and then the very first series of The Morecambe & Wise Show on the BBC.
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For his star turns on Saturday Spectacular, Newley worked closely with Hills and Green on developing material for the shows. One of the pieces they developed was a skit in which Newley is engaging in polite, casual small talk with others, but the audience actually gets to hear their inner thoughts being played over the top, revealing what the participants really feel, in contrast with their outward social niceties. It proved so successful, the trio set about making it a central feature of their next project, which ultimately became The Strange World Of Gurney Slade.
Newley is credited with coming up with the name, after he passed through Gurney Slade in Somerset, and was rather taken by how strange it sounded. However, it appears that he was only the latest to be fascinated with the name – as well as Newley’s character, Gurney Slade was also engaged by the English novelist Stephen Bartlett as his pseudonym between the 1920s and 1950s; there was also a 1944 novel by Warwick Deeping, which was entitled Mr Gurney and Mr Slade, following on from his earlier work, Slade.
ITV was still the ‘young pretender’, having been on air for a little over five years by the time of Gurney Slade’s debut on Saturday October 22nd 1960; no matter how downmarket the populist ITV was viewed in some quarters, compared to the establishment figure of the BBC with its Reithian public service values, it was proving a serious challenge to Auntie Beeb’s ratings, openly chasing audiences in order to ensure its survival. One thing which ITV really needed was a sitcom to rival the phenomenal success of the BBC’s Hancock’s Half Hour.
Having transferred over to TV from radio in 1956, Hancock’s Half Hour has been mistakenly attributed with introducing sitcoms to the British TV audience; while it was not quite the first, it certainly helped popularise the format, with tales of pubs across the country emptying and people rushing home when it was on. ITV made its very first bid for sitcom success in 1956, with Granada’s The Army Game, featuring William Hartnell (who famously later crossed over to the BBC to take up the leading role in their new science fiction series, Doctor Who).
The ITV network bosses must have considered it a real coup to bag someone as prominent as Anthony Newley to star in a new comedy. The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, however, was to prove quite unlike anything that had been broadcast up to that point. Audiences were used to their sitcoms being performed in front of a studio audience, and either going out live, or pre-recorded on videotape ‘as live’ (i.e. with minimal editing or breaks in recording) and then transmitted. Gurney Slade, however, was to break a mould which had yet to truly be finalised, and deliver something quite different.
The whole series was made on film weeks ahead of airing, in a single-camera set-up, without any laughter track. For the first three episodes, the show was shot on location, whereas the final three were studio-bound. Right from the very start, Gurney Slade sets out to shake things up: it opens up being seemingly just another conventional situation comedy, and presents us with a typical family – the Padgetts – and their neighbour, all of whom are played very broadly, and are your typical archetypes, bordering very much on what must have even back then felt like cliches.
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Our lead – referred to as ‘Albert’ by the other characters – is decidedly on the sidelines here, and it only happens to be at the point where he is due to deliver a line that things start to go off the rails. In the days when most of TV was performed live, you may well have expected the odd fluff or ‘dry’, where an actor forgets their lines; as in the theatre, there would be someone on hand (and out of shot) to deliver any prompt as may be required. Here, however, ‘Albert’ simply ignores the persistent attempts to try and feed him his dialogue, as well as blanking the rest of the characters.
As everybody else in the scene appears to be left busking it, apparently improvising wildly around what is going on, the camera pulls back and ‘Albert’ walks off the set, leaving his sitcom family behind him. An exasperated floor manager (a young Geoffrey Palmer) pleads desperately with ‘Albert’ as he makes his way across the studio towards the stage door, causing a literal fourth wall break, as the reversing camera shudders and bounces, with a crashing noise being heard as he makes his way apparently into the ‘real world’ (although it may be as much of a fictional construct as the world he has just left).
As if this had not already been enough of an indicator to the home audience that The Strange World Of Gurney Slade is a beast of an entirely different nature altogether, the peculiar theme music – beginning with a ticking metronomic beat – gets properly underway when our protagonist starts to play the opening riff on an ‘air piano’. This tune by Max Harris – who later went on to compose the themes for programmes such as Doomwatch and Open All Hours – has a rather jazzy, discordant style, and the distinctive syncopation makes it a real earworm.
Harris’ composition hit the pop charts, peaking at #11, but it actually went on to have a life far beyond the show. A decade later, younger TV viewers may have heard it accompanying a clock animation on the children’s series Vision On. Anthony Newley also used it as the basis of a song called ‘Bee-Bom’, which – as the flip side to his pop rendition of ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ – reached #12 in the charts in 1961 (as well as being covered later by his friend Sammy Davis Jr.). The main piano riff is uncannily similar to Mose Allison’s 1957 arrangement of Bukka White’s 1940 song ‘Parchman Farm’, so it may have been an influence on Harris, conscious or otherwise.
In the show’s first episode alone, Gurney Slade has a short-lived romance with a woman from a vacuum cleaner advert who briefly comes to life (in the form of Una Stubbs), and he finds himself as the subject of a TV show which his fictional family are watching, adding an extra layer to the surrealism. Having been given a prime time slot at 8:35pm on a Saturday night, hopes must have been high that the series would be a hit, after 12.5 million people tuned in; however, this dropped by a third for the next episode, and the remainder of the run was unceremoniously shunted to post-11pm.
With radio still being in its prime, the home audience would have been familiar with the offbeat, fantastical happenings of The Goon Show, yet the sort of flights of fancy featured in it – as well as in Gurney Slade – had never been seen on TV before. The series may have actually suffered from being at the wrong end of the decade, as it blazed a trail for TV shows which came later in the Sixties, such as The Prisoner, which was equally controversial in its own way. For a UK which was still very strait-laced and austere, Gurney Slade’s world may have been too much of a culture shock.
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It seems the makers either knew or intended that the show would court a negative reaction, as the fourth episode sees Gurney Slade on trial for not being funny. An advert for the show sees Anthony Newley bemoaning the public reaction to his “experiment”, saying that “the public doesn’t like anything suggestive”, and declaiming that Gurney Slade was “before your time”. Whereas viewers are used to characters speaking to them directly in Fleabag, hearing their inner thoughts in Peep Show, or walking off television studio sets in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, it was quite startling and revolutionary in 1960, and may explain the backlash.
The escapist fantasy elements seem to share DNA with the 1947 film The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, as well as 1959’s Keith Waterhouse novel Billy Liar, both of which focused on young male leads who indulge in fanciful reveries. Gurney Slade also has some commonality with the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ movement, which includes such pieces as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Its metafictional nature does strongly bring to mind Luigi Pirandello‘s absurdist play Six Characters In Search Of Am Author, in which the artifice of events is highlighted to the audience.
Thankfully, Newley’s career was not irreparably damaged by the response to Gurney Slade; in fact, it appears not to have affected his prospects at all, as he went on to co-write – with Leslie Bricusse – the lyrics to the title track from Goldfinger, as well as both the songs and score to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory; Bricusse and Newley jointly devised the musical show Stop The World – I Want To Get Off, in which Newley first starred in 1961. The partnership also produced ‘Feeling Good’, popularised by Nina Simone, and covered by such artists as Michael Bublé and Muse.
After its initial airing in 1960, The Strange World Of Gurney Slade only received a full repeat run in 1963, before the first episode was shown on its own in 1992, as part of Channel 4’s TV Heaven series. However, it was only in 2011 that Gurney Slade was released on DVD, with a brand new transfer from the original 35mm film elements by Network Distributing; a recent tweet by Network suggested a Blu-Ray release* may be imminent, and with the show racking up its sixth decade, now would be as good a time as any for Gurney Slade’s world to receive an HD restoration.
A show as playful, creative and anarchic today as it was 60 years ago, and described by Neil Gaiman as what “may’ve been the best 6 episodes of TV ever made“, The Strange World Of Gurney Slade is an overlooked gem of postmodernism, and a television series which is well overdue a reappraisal. Gurneyland is where anything can happen, as well as being the most wonderful place in the world, at least according to our lead: you just need to discover it for yourselves.
*Network Distributing have now announced the release of a Limited-Edition Blu-ray on 30th November, filled with a host of rare special features. It will include streaming of the series’ six episodes via watch.networkonair.com