There is some dusty corner of a TV archive which will forever be The Strange World Of Gurney Slade; at least, that is how it seemed for a very long time, as this frequently overlooked series appeared destined to be relegated to obscurity, living only in dim and distant memories of its original broadcast in 1960.
Thankfully, Network Distributing have given the show a new lease of life – having originally brought it out on DVD back in 2011, a special limited edition Blu-ray has now been released for The Strange World Of Gurney Slade’s 60th anniversary. Despite this being a genuinely groundbreaking programme, it seems a great shame that Gurney Slade has not been more widely regarded as a proper landmark in TV, but Network’s HD set will hopefully go some way toward redressing such an egregious oversight.
The series was the brainchild of Anthony Newley, who began as a child actor before later becoming a pop star, songwriter, star of stage and screen, and – for several years – one of Joan Collins’ many husbands. Together with writers Dick Hills and Sid Green – who would go on to produce both television and film scripts for Morecambe and Wise – Newley devised a TV show which was quite unlike anything else British audiences had seen on their screens up to that point.
Gurney Slade upended the public’s expectations not just of sitcoms but also what television as a medium could actually be – Newley’s Gurney Slade was not only a character in a TV show, he was also completely aware that he was a fictional construct, and repeatedly broke the fourth wall. It satirised the world of entertainment, as well as passing comment on the social mores of the time – it was a barely post-austerity period just before The Beatles, let alone the Sixties starting to swing, so if Gurney Slade’s brand of post-modernism had come at the other end of the decade, it may have been more of a hit.
It would be so easy to spend a few thousand words here just extolling the virtues of Gurney Slade, but you can read that elsewhere on this site, if you want to know more about why this anarchic show is so revolutionary and significant, along with being very worthy of your time and attention. Instead, this is a look at Network’s presentation of the programme on this special Blu-ray for its diamond celebration, and whether or not it will be worth doing a ‘double dip’ if you already have the original DVD release in your collection.
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The first thing that strikes you when playing any of the three discs in the Blu-ray set is the rather lacklustre presentation in comparison to the 2011 DVD, which had an animated main menu, using the distinctive theme tune by Max Harris, and also had soundbites from the show when you navigated your way to sub-menus. Here, the menus on each Blu-ray disc are rather drab, just still images – albeit nicely chosen ones – in pure silence. While not a major issue, it just feels like rather a curiously retrograde step.
The DVD release was restored from the original 35mm film elements, meaning that Gurney Slade looked pristine for its first home release; here, the prints have been remastered in HD, with the result that the picture is absolutely immaculate and even more pin-sharp than before. Given that the series is now six decades old, the Blu-ray makes it look as though it could have been made today, other than it being in black and white; this is the major benefit of Gurney Slade having been filmed, rather than recorded on videotape, and the show has never looked better than it does here.
All of the original features from the DVD release are included here, as you might expect. The increasing issue with any TV programmes of Gurney Slade’s age is that the opportunities to put together value added material are ever more limited with the passage of time – Newley, Hills and Green all left us within a few years of each other in the late ‘90s, so the loss of the main creative forces behind the series means we have no opportunity for interviews, featurettes, or commentaries to be produced.
However, Network have managed to put together a decent selection of extras, with the second disc containing three 1960 editions of variety show Saturday Spectacular – two of which have Newley in the spotlight, the other having him supporting Shirley Bassey. All three highlight Newley’s star quality as not just an actor and comedian, but also as a song and dance man, and there are some impressive guest stars, such as Peter Sellers and a scarily young Lionel Blair. As the shows have material by Hills and Green, you can see Newley trying out in their skits the ‘inner monologue’ which would be a hallmark of his Gurney Slade character.
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The final disc is devoted purely to the 1963 British film The Small World Of Sammy Lee, starring Newley as Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman, a compère at a Soho strip club who suddenly has all of his gambling debts called in, and has a few hours in which to grift and graft his way to earning the hundreds of pounds he needs to pay up, in order to avoid a brutal beating from a pair of henchmen. His day becomes a desperate race against the clock, and the question is whether Sammy will pull it off, fail and stand to face his fate, or try and do a runner.
The Small World Of Sammy Lee was based upon a one-man 1958 TV play called Sammy, which also starred Newley. With this film adaptation, we not only get to see a formidable raft of actors in supporting roles – including Roy Kinnear, Derek Nimmo, Wilfrid Brambell and Warren Mitchell – but we also catch a glimpse of a bygone Soho, a seedier and more sordid era, but also a more genuine one than the characterless and gentrified one we have nowadays. Included on the disc are a textless version of the opening titles, as well as an alternate ending, and – perhaps most interestingly of all – interviews recorded on the film’s set with Newley.
Given all the effort put into piecing together an impressive package of extras, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to have missed an obvious candidate for inclusion here – the 1961 Newley vehicle The Johnny Darling Show, a one-off BBC TV special in which he plays the fictional crooner and heartthrob Johnny Darling, who suffers an existential crisis during an episode of his TV show, prompted by warnings of the apocalypse by a disembodied voice. It does share a lot of themes with Gurney Slade, and feels like its spiritual cousin, so it really is a shame not to see it as part of the set.
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Network have also given purchasers of this limited edition Blu-ray set the chance to stream the series’ six episodes for free, and – although not available for review – the set also includes a booklet with pieces by Andrew Roberts, the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, and TV historian and archivist Andrew Pixley; it all helps round out an impressive collection. If The Strange World Of Gurney Slade is not already on your shelves, you should definitely pick this up; if you own the DVD, there is certainly more than enough of interest here to justify you getting the Blu-ray.
All in all, whilst this set does fall frustratingly just short of being perfect, this is still an essential purchase not just for existing fans of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, but also for anybody with an interest in British TV history and wishing to see a neglected gem sparkling like never before. Gurneyland awaits, and in dazzling HD to boot.
The Strange World Of Gurney Slade is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 30th November from Network Distributing.