The Strange World of Gurney Slade Review
To say this is a keenly-anticipated release would be an understatement. Of the many now-cult shows that were transmitted in the 60s this has a formidable reputation largely because of the fuss that accompanied it when first shown in 1960 and the fact it has never been seen since (except for a repeat of one episode in the 80s). This could also work against it - sometimes there is a very good reason why some works languish in obscurity for decades. Web forums have been dribbling with anticipation over this release so, 50 years on and with the benefit of hindsight, how does Gurney Slade stack up? I think you really have to look at the series in the context of the colourful life and career of its leading man and co-creator, the late Anthony Newley whose once-tarnished artistic reputation is currently undergoing something of a renaissance.
Gurney Slade (the name is taken from an English village) was the brainchild of Newley and established scriptwriters Dick Hills and Sid Green. At the time of transmission Newley was a very big name in the UK having started out as a successful teen actor in the 40s (he was The Artful Dodger in David Lean's Oliver Twist). He had a consistent film career as a jobbing actor through the late 50s and at the time Gurney Slade was shown in November 1960 he was enjoying massive popularity as a variety artist and singer of novelty pop songs. To give you an indication of the sort of thing he was singing in 1960, David Bowie's Laughing Gnome was written as an affectionate pastiche of Newley's recordings. A very mannered and individual performer, Newley has always been a bit of a Marmite figure and his prodigious career was always marked by self-indulgence as a performer and writer and director. He, Hills and Green had already put together a TV special for ATV in January 1960 and apparently Lew Grade wanted to exploit Newley's popularity further by giving him carte-blanche and a large budget expecting more of the same. Little did he know that Newley had higher artistic aspirations. After Gurney Slade flopped Newley turned his attention to musical theatre. Just seven months later he bounced back spectacularly by co-writing and starring in the enormously successful stage musical Stop the World - I Want to Get Off which brought him fame and adulation on both sides of the Atlantic and which gave some classic songs to the repertoire which are still being sung today. He followed this up in 1965 with The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of The Crowd which, although unsuccessful on a UK tryout tour with Norman Wisdom(!), became another personal triumph for Newley in the USA when he took over the lead role for Broadway. In 1967 however things started to slide when he appeared opposite Rex Harrison in the mega-flop screen musical version of Doctor Dolittle. The two men loathed each other with a passion. Two years later Newley's self-indulgence reached new heights with his big-screen vanity project, the semi-autobiographical Felliniesque Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? The title alone should tell you everything. I saw it on TV in the early 70s and by God it was strange even by the standards of the time. It flopped spectacularly which put paid to his film career and he spent the 70s and 80s in the USA mainly doing cabaret and TV guest spots. By this time his performance style had become so mannered (and regularly imitated by comedians) he had almost become a parody of himself. In the early 90s he was back in the UK touring in stage musicals but his alcoholism was making him rather unreliable (I was told this by a stage manager who had worked on one of his shows). In the late-90s he was to have been a series regular in Eastenders but had to withdraw after a few weeks filming due to illness. He died in 1999 having lived a quite extraordinary life. He had even found time in the 60s to marry Joan Collins! Since his death his tarnished artistic reputation has undergone a significant re-assessment and his achievements in popular culture are now being celebrated. Which makes this an ideal time to look at the long-hidden Gurney Slade.
First of all, this is not a laugh-a-minute comedy, more of a whimsical comedy-drama. Secondly, despite assertions on various websites, Bernie Winters is not a regular in this. He appears in the last two episodes only. Newley explicitly sets out the premise of the series in the first episode. It kicks off with a fairly unremarkable scene out of a standard domestic sitcom of the time. However within a couple of minutes things start to go awry when the leading man (Newley) starts to go off-script and then, mid-scene, walks out of the studio to the floor manager's consternation (a young Geoffrey Palmer). He escapes to the Embankment in London and begins to experience what looks like a lucid daydream. He imagines inanimate objects and animals can talk to him and he ponders the thoughts of passers-by. Even advertising posters come to life and he enjoys a brief idyllic Chaplinesque interlude in the park with a young poster-girl housewife (Una Stubbs) and her Hoover. The penultimate scene has Slade walking into a terraced home to find the fictional TV family he left at the start now sitting watching TV. No wonder audiences of the time didn't quite get it. I'm sure many of the people tuning in were expecting to see that nice young man off Sunday Night at the London Palladium doing a pipe 'n' slippers sitcom with a couple of songs thrown in and instead get a meditation on the impotence of the ordinary man in a rigid society and the frustration of the performer against the entertainment business machine. There must have been quite a few WTF moments.
Anyway as the series progresses, the dreamlike quality continues and each episode sees Slade musing on a particular notion in a specific setting. In the second episode, he examines his relationships with women against the background of an abandoned airfield (very Fellini). In the third, he's in the countryside musing on life as an ant. This episode includes a conversation with a talking cow voiced breathily by Fenella Fielding(!). Episode Four sees Slade in a courtroom on trial for having no sense of humour. Thus far, structurally the series evokes Lewis Carroll's Alice books with its shifting dreamlike locations, its pensive commentating protagonist and its talking animals. Visually, there are explicit nods to Chaplin and references to Tati (Slade is always immaculately turned out in a lounge suit and shorty flasher mac as they used to be called). Thematically it mixes both Tony Hancock and Federico Fellini. By 1960 Hancock had already achieved huge popular success with Hancock's Half Hour in which he exploited the character of the hapless ordinary man caught up in the greater machinations of society and bureaucracy, a theme he would return to throughout the 60s. In fact his feature film The Rebel from 1961 has some resemblances to Gurney Slade although whether he was actively influenced by it or tapping into some new zeitgeist I do not know, but most likely the latter. Fellini's appropriation of dream structures and obsessive navel-gazing can also be discerned although certain themes in Gurney Slade actually prefigure Fellini's Otto e Mezzo released in 1963. The notion of 'the little man' stifled by society and the world around him would be used by Newley again the following year in the stage musical Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and this time he had a phenomenal popular success. However as the 60s progressed many other TV series would come along using similar themes and techniques which would become common currency by the time the decade closed. The promotional blurb mentions both The Prisoner and Monty Python and there are definitely similarities there.
By the sixth and final episode, Newley's grand plan comes to fruition when Gurney, now in a TV studio, brings back characters from the previous five episodes and they indulge in a Pirandello-esque debate about why Gurney had them do what they did and their futures once the fiction they have been in comes to an end. Gurney participates not only as manipulator of the characters in his fiction but also as a passive character in the larger fiction manipulated by the unseen TV controller. Notwithstanding its explicit TV setting this is a highly theatrical episode with a startling downbeat closing scene incorporating quite a bizarre coup de theatre.
One of the advantages to shooting entirely on film is that the soundtrack can be manipulated in a way that can't be achieved on video. This allows greater creative freedom and the way the soundtrack is used in Gurney Slade is – to my knowledge - far ahead of anything else being done on popular television at that time. One of the most noticeable things is what appears to be poor synchronisation between the dialogue we hear and the actors' lip movements. I think this is quite deliberate because it emphasises that what we are seeing exists in Gurney's imagination. It also strongly evokes Italian cinema of the 50s, in particular the films of Fellini. With the release of La Dolce Vita in early 1960 and its consequent succes de scandale throughout the world he, in my opinion, became the single most influential force on 1960s cinema. Newley's Merkin was heavily influenced by Fellini and although La Dolce Vita wasn't distributed in Britain till 1961 it had such a scandalous aura attached to it from the moment of its release in February 1960 I wouldn't be at all surprised if Newley had seen it before filming Gurney Slade.
Transfer and Sound
Unusually for the time this series was shot entirely on 35mm black and white film which has been digitally transferred for this release although a full digital restoration has not been carried out. There is still the occasional scratch and damage visible and some image degradation during dissolves (if you want to see flawless digital restoration of dissolves check out Black Narcissus - stunning). However it would be churlish to criticise these flaws as the original audience would have watched it on fuzzy little 405-line TV screens so what we are getting now is vastly superior in every way. 35mm film always transfers well to modern HD screens particularly black and white film stock of the 60s which was pretty damn sharp. Only a Blu-ray release would offer any significant improvement. Network have chosen to transfer it in an open-matte 4:3 ratio instead of masking it down for widescreen. Given the amount of interest in the show and that the 35mm original is in pretty good shape I'm surprised Network didn't go the whole hog and put out a Blu-ray release. But it scrubs up well enough on DVD.
The sound is mono and clear and undamaged - so clear that the background hiss and crackle does become quite noticeable in the quieter moments. There are also times where the dialogue does appear slightly out of sync with the image but, as already mentioned, I think that's deliberate.
Promos 5m 14s
Some oblique promotional ads for the show. Also included is, by the looks of it, a mid-season ad featuring Newley and the talking dog in which Newley apologises to the audience for not giving them what they expected! But the dog liked it.
Production and Behind the Scenes 4m 7s
What it says on the packet.
Promotional 1m 34s
Mostly publicity headshots for the show
Anthony Newley 1m 7s
A brief gallery of publicity shots of Newley onstage.
A lost masterpiece, a failed vanity project or just Newley having a creative wank? I would describe it as audacious, theatrical, mould-breaking, baffling, pretentious, self-indulgent, whimsical, intriguing, mildly entertaining and influential. 'Ahead of its time' is such a cliché and even Newley used it in his apology ad but this show truly was ahead of its time. Had it aired five or six years later I think it would have received a much warmer reception. Going on the basic knowledge I have of Newley's life and work and looking at Gurney Slade on its own merits, it seems to me that Newley was an ambitious, possibly arrogant self-made man trying to overcome the circumstances of his birth (Being born illegitimate would have been a considerable stigma for a popular artist in the 50s, less so for a writer or director). He appears, at the time of Gurney Slade, to have been a frustrated creative artist trapped in variety hell. Commercial TV proved an unsuitable outlet for his artistic expression but he very quickly found a place for that on the stage and reaped the rewards from that. As far as Gurney Slade goes I found it well-made and intriguing and it does bear repeated viewing. Newley has an engaging if mildly irritating screen presence (he is hardly ever off-screen) but it does lack that tingle you get from watching something you know is truly exceptional. Newley fans will probably 'get' the show more than the casual viewer and for devotees of the quirky it's probably a must-have. It will also add a lot of momentum to the ongoing reappraisal of Newley's achievements. Now all we need is a reissue of Heironymus Merkin. I would buy it.
Please be aware that the Sony warehouse fire has not affected the release of 'The Strange World of Gurney Slade'. Discs can still be pre-ordered from the usual e-tailers and should be expected to arrive within the usual timeframes.