It’s surprising to realise that Doctor Who has rarely used the Industrial North as a setting. We have seen adventures set in futuristic factories and warehouses, visited the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in Mark of the Rani and had a few romps into Steampunk. Big Finish has touched on it in The Peterloo Massacre and Industrial Evolution but that landscape of terraced houses, looming smoke-belching factories and municipal buildings that could be found from Birmingham to Newcastle has remained the province of Coronation Street and contemporary drama. So having the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe land on the corner of a cobbled street in Will Hadcroft’s The Resurrection Plant feels quite fresh.
Not that this is the actual North of England. In fact the TARDIS has brought our friends to Calico Three, a small habitable planet where the rural colony the Doctor remembers is in the grip of an unexpected mechanisation. What’s more the factories are capitalism run wild, with human workers mere expendable cogs in the machine. But nobody minds because on this planet everyone can be brought back to life thanks to the Resurrection Plant, even if occasionally they change gender along the way. The travellers investigate but are soon captured, just in time for a factory accident to lead to the creation of a terrifying mutation in the newly grown humans.
The author captures the the characters of the regulars extremely well. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor can be hard to capture in print, since so much of his character is in his delivery, but here he’s compassionate, curious, mischievous and has moments of righteous indignation. Jamie and Zoe both get moments to shine on their own too. The story seems to be setting up as a Frankenstein-influenced piece about Ren, a technocrat facing up to consequences of treating his workforce as commodities, together with a fearsome but misunderstood monster, but there’s a second act twist which takes us into another kind of drama, one that I was worried was going to ruin the authentic Sixties atmosphere that Will had recreated. Thankfully he skilfully avoids this.
Fraser Hines has been sharing his enjoyable Troughton impersonation for a while in Big Finish audio plays and books. It’s great to hear it again. Elsewhere he is an excellent reader in general and tells the story with animation and a good pace. Similarly impressive is the soundscape.
There are echoes of The Rebel Flesh and The Quatermass Experiment, but ultimately this is a great original adventure. It tells a story probably too difficult for the television series of the time to realise well, and instead takes advantage of the freedom of prose. An excellent addition to this year’s mini-Troughton celebration, along with the recently released animated recreation of The Abominable Snowmen.
Will Hadcroft of course is a friend of mine and its been marvellous to see him achieve the ambition of writing an official Doctor Who story. He’s previously written several novels and many moons ago an adventure for my old fan audios Fine Line, called The Chattath Factor, which has recently been re-released on Youtube. It was a marvellous story to end my fan series on.
Network continue their quest to release the obscurest shows from British television’s past. I’m fairly knowledgeable about cult TV but I’ll admit I had never heard of The Clifton House Mystery until I received it as a Christmas present. One of a series of children’s supernatural dramas produced by HTV in the Seventies and it would seem the most obscure. Is it a lost gem or a forgettable turkey?
Conductor Timothy Clare, his wife Sheila and his three children Jenny, Steven and Ben move into a large detached house in Bristol. They briefly meet its previous inhabitants, the elderly Mrs Betterton and her granddaughter Emily, but she seems oddly anxious to leave a house she has lived in most of her life. Emily meanwhile tells Jenny in secret to look out for “the Grey Lady”. Steven is inexplicably drawn to buy an old Victorian soldier’s helmet being sold at the house auction. As the family being to settle in, a series of supernatural events afflict them. Objects fly out of their hands, Steven sees a screaming man’s face in the helmet and Jenny does indeed meet a ghostly elderly woman. After a dinner party for Timothy’s prospective American agent goes frighteningly wrong, the family turn to an amateur ghost hunter Milton Guest for help.
Watching The Clifton House Mystery today, the first aspect that struck me was the almost complete lack of any emotional sub-plot for the protagonists. If this was being made today, there would definitely be a link between the emotional health of the family and the hauntings. Perhaps friction between the parents who seem rather caught up in Timothy Clare’s career and their neglected children? Or teenage growing pains for Jenny being linked to poltergeist activity. Or generally the lack of any obvious affectionate behaviour between anyone. Then there is Milton Guest, a middle-aged apparent bachelor, who admits he’s never seen a ghost, even though he lectures on them. Here’s a character who could have been portrayed as a rather tragic or suspicious, like George Tully in Sapphire and Steel, but instead is almost immediately taken at face value after a few polite protests. But all that is left deep down in sub-text in favour of plot exposition and the most straightforward of reactions to everything from the haunting to the state of the house.
Simply because this is a children’s drama does not automatically prevent it from being scary. Executive producer Patrick Dromgoole had previously overseen such memorable teatime chillers as Children of the Stones and King of the Castle, and would go on to produce Robin of Sherwood in the Eighties. All these programmes had great atmosphere and memorable moments of fear. But here is a series that seems to actively pull back from anything genuinely scary. It’s two best horror moments, the ghostly screaming face, and later a moment when Jenny walks into her brothers’ bedroom to find the Grey Lady standing watching them, who then turns to look directly at her, are cliffhangers which are promptly cut away from, with no real follow-up. Mostly the story plods through its six episodes, steadily building up its story with no real urgency. The family might be disturbed and inconvenienced by the haunting, but there’s little real threat.
This series belongs to that sub-genre where the ghosts act as a window into history, rather than being malevolent creatures. In this case the children and the audience learn about the Bristol riots of 1831, when 4th and 13th Dragoons were summoned by the mayor to quell a mob which had laid siege to the city hall whilst protesting about their lack of representation in parliament. The Dragoons had eventually charged the crowd resulting in 4 deaths and over 80 wounded.
Playing ghost hunter Milton Guest, Peter Sallis is the only really recognisable face in the cast, and he delivers another one of his affable Yorkshireman performances. The four children all give those kind of stage school performances that you often find in children’s television, competent but not very naturalistic. Probably the best scenes of the series are actually in the first episode before the hauntings start, as a group of nosy, gossipy locals and the family pour over the contents of the house auction. At this point the show feels as though it could go into Jack Rosenthal territory, before the main fantasy thread appears.
The Clifton House Mystery was co-written by Harry Moore, a writer and producer often associated with Sherlock Holmes related dramas, as well as another children’s ghost series The Georgian House. His co-writer was Daniel Farson, a great-nephew of Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, and best remembered as British television’s first onscreen investigative journalist.
The only extra on the DVD is a gallery of some publicity and set photos of the cast. I love the way Network are releasing so much vintage television on DVD, obscure discoveries as well as series which already have a fandom. But not everything vintage is automatically great and The Clifton House Mystery is nowhere near as interesting or stylish as other supernatural titles as Sky, Shadows, or Sapphire and Steel. Give this one a miss unless you are a completest like me.
When I started thinking about Outcasts, in my mind it was a series just a few years old, and I was shocked to find out it was actually broadcast in 2011. Nevertheless its striking how little impact this expensive primetime BBC1 science fiction series seems to have made. A quick google search reveals no dedicated fan sites, only a few reviews on newspapers and general purpose geek TV review sites. In the comments section underneath them, a mixture of short thoughts evenly divided between bouchets and brickbats. Creator Ben Richards tried to generate some excitement with teasing a few things which might have happened in season two but to no avail. No streaming company was rushing to Kudos’ door for more stories from Carpathia and it seemed there was no one campaigning for more. And revival campaigns are surely one of the defining factors of SF fandom?
Looking back there hasn’t been a really successful show about colonising a planet, despite the apparent strengths of such an idea. Neither Earth 2, or Terra Nova lasted more than a season and Outcasts continued the trend. Distant space colonies of explorers and farmers it seems, are more a place we like our heroes to visit, have an adventure, then blast off again to somewhere new. Post-apocalyptic survival tales seem to fare better. The Walking Dead and Survivors have both tackled themes about setting up a new society from the ground up and hooked us into the characters and their plight, yet both had more than their share of soapy storylines. Maybe when we go into space we’re always looking for new worlds to explore, preferably with interesting lifeforms to fight or fall in love with.
Perhaps another lesson to learn from Outcasts is that a great episode one is still important. Maybe a Netflix series can afford a slow burn when all the episodes are simultaneously online, although I wish they didn’t indulge in them quite so often, A weekly series however needs to grip from the first night. Most of the really negative, virulent reviews of Outcasts are based on the first episode. Watching the whole series I agree with some of my guests that the series does improve but the drag factor of the first two slow episodes sets a gloomy tone that later episodes never really shook off, even as the plot picks up momentum. At the same time some of the reviews themselves are weirdly hysterical. For example one newspaper asked if Ed Wood Jr (the notorious low-budget director) was in charge. Whatever else can be leveled at the programme, the production values are first class.
In this episode, I’m joined by Nicky Smalley, Dr Rebecca Wray and John Isles to talk about our rewatch of Outcasts and what we think worked and what didn’t. There’s some interesting discoveries along the way.
Cast Hermione Norris – Stella Isen Daniel Mays – Cass Cromwell Amy Manson – Fleur Morgan Ashley Walters – Jack Holt Eric Mabius – Julius Berger Michael Legge – Tipper Malone Liam Cunningham – Richard Tate Langley Kirkwood – Rudi Jeanné Kietzmann – Lily Isen
Production Created by Ben Richards
Written by Ben Richards, David Farr, Simon Block, Jimmy Gardner, Jack Lothian
Produced by Radford Neville Co-produced by Jörg Westerkamp, Thomas Becker, Vlokkie Gordon, David Wicht Executive Produced by Jane Featherstone, Faith Penhale, Matthew Read, Simon Crawford-Collins, Ben Richards Directed by Andy Goddard, Omar Madha, Bharat Nalluri, Jamie Payne
Production companies Kudos Film and Television ApolloMovie Beteiligungs BBC America BBC Wales Film Afrika Worldwide
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As I explain at the end of the episode, this show marks the end of season one. The podcast will be taking a hiatus until Summer 2022, whilst I concentrate on other work. But it will be back. Thanks for reading.
It’s tempting to describe Kinvig as an artistic imperfection, there to make the rest of Nigel Kneale’s television work look even better in comparison. That would be nonsense of course. Nobody involved in this 1982 ITV sitcom wanted it to be anything other than a great success. It’s a fact that Kinvig was not a successful programme in terms of ratings or on the Audience Appreciation Index. The debate lies in whether Kinvig is an unappreciated rough diamond, a textbook disaster, or something in-between.
Kinvig concerns a lazy repairman called Des whose life permanently stuck in neutral. Apart from his good-natured twittering wife Netta, his only friend is Jim Piper. Des indulges Jim in his obsession with unknown mysteries – UFO’s, Atkantis, psychic powers etc. He’s shaken out of his lethagy when beautiful Miss Griffin enters his life, first as an angry customer, then as a seductive alien who tells him he is the only man who can save Earth from the evil Xux. Or is it all in his mind? (Answer: Yes it is)
If it wasn’t written by Nigel Kneale, the writer of classics like Quatermassand the Pit, 1984 , Beasts and The Woman in Black, it’s doubtful that Kinvig would ever have been released on DVD or enjoy any cult status at all. Who remembers SF sitcoms The Adventures of Don Quick for example, or Luna for example? As it is, of my two guests for this episode, only Charles Auchterlonie had seen it before, whilst Tim Reid came to it completely fresh. Chas and Tim already have an excellent podcast of their own – The Randomiser where they discuss Doctor Who and Red Dwarf. I’m a big fan, as well as knowing them as friends from way back in early noughties of Doctor Who internet fandom. In fact I’ll be guesting on a future edition of their show.
I must take a moment to praise Andy Murray’s excellent production notes and his definitive book on Nigel Kneale’s career Into the Unknown which came in very useful when researching the programme.
Overall, most episodes in this series end up championing the show of the week, but I’ll confess that this episode is a bit of demolition job. Hopefully you will think it is an entertaining deconstruction.
Dennis Kinvig – Tony Haygarth Netta Kinvig – Patsy Rowlands Jim Piper – Colin Jeavons Miss Griffin – Prunella Gee Buddo – Simon Williams Mr Horsley – Patrick Newell
Production Design – Michael Oxley Costume Design – Sue Formston Written by Nigel Kneale Produced & Directed by Les Chatfield
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Since I started this blog, my Out of the Unknown articles have been the most popular posts, so this series was a natural to cover on the podcast. In fact, making this episode and watching these episodes alongside Stephen Hatcher and Dylan Rees has only deepened my appreciation of this remarkable adult SF drama, as well as my frustration that so many great episodes remain lost.
There have been other good adult SF dramas on television. In the last decade probably the best UK example of a serious anthology has been Black Mirror, but even that thoughtful series can be criticised for being narrowly focused on media matters and its formula summed up as “a new media technology brings out the worst in everyone”. A couple of years ago Channel 4 did a co-production with Amazon Prime, Electric Dreams, adapting stories by Philip K Dick. Some of them were excellent, but Out of the Unknown has such an impressive range of stories and authors, covering genres from comedy to chiller.
I felt the best way to cover this anthology was for myself and guests Dylan Rees and Stephen Hatcher to pick an episode each to concentrate on, as well as a general appreciation. It was a formula that worked particularly well and I’m going to apply it again on other long running series.
Out of the Unknown Essential Facts
Producers – Irene Shubik, George Spenton-Foster, Alan Bromley Story Editors – Irene Shubik, Robin Parks 4 seasons (1965 – 1971)
For more information on Out of the Unknown, including my reviews of all the existing episodes, start here.
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The Nightmare Man was one of the first titles I wanted to cover with this podcast series, however finding the guests to talk about it proved harder than I expected. It seems this BBC SF/Horror serial is even more obscure than I thought and quite a few of the people I thought had seen it and would like to talk about it, revealed themselves unaware of it. Happily Ian Taylor, who I had met through amateur dramatics, was a big fan. So much so that he had created a horror discussion group on Facebook named after it. John Isles had not seen it but was keen too, so I lent him my DVD copy, and we were away.
The Nightmare Man is a very entertaining horror B-movie in four parts, adapted from a yarn by David Wilshire. It feels like a slightly more adult Doctor Who adventure, except the timelord has not turned up and its left to the local police, with a little military assistance, to save the day. Inverdee, a Scottish island preparing for winter, is shaken by a violent murder. A woman resident appears to have torn apart by something with super human strength. We know hoarse-breathing killer with blood red vision is out there, but exactly what is he is the central mystery. An alien, a drug-crazed madman, or something stranger?
Atmospheric, filled with likable characters and well paced over four half-hour episodes, The Nightmare Man should be better known but perhaps coming out before home video really took off meant that it could only live in memories of the few million who watched it on BBC1 in the summer of 1981. Hopefully this podcast should direct a few more people to seek out the DVD. It would certainly be a good choice for BritBox.
Cast James Warwick – Michael Gaffikin Celia Imrie – Fiona Patterson Maurice Roëves – Inspector Inskip Jonathan Newth – Colonel Howard Tom Watson – Dr. Goudry James Cosmo – Sergeant Carch Pat Gorman – The Killer
Written by Robert Holmes from the novel Child of Vodyanoi by David Wilshire Produced by Ron Craddock Directed by Douglas Camfield
A definite change of tone for this episode and possibly the most serious drama I’ll be covering in the series. Not to mention being a BAFTA award winning production. Threads is Mick Jackson and Barry Hines’ coal-black spectre at the feast of television. A dramatic portrayal of the effect of nuclear war on Britain, including the then new theory of a nuclear winter. What makes Threads such a shocking watch is not the graphic radiation injuries, the shootings or the wrecked towns and cities, it is the complete loss of hope, kindness and any kind of compassionate humanity. As far as this film is concerned, not only will the immediate survivors be quickly reduced to merely surviving, but their descendants will be barely be better than stunted savages.
Before that grim, almost surreal last act, the film is an expertly written and produced drama documentary, full of well-observed Northern characters and believable detail, as Sheffield City Council prepares for a possible attack, whilst the populace get on with their lives, feeling helpless and detached from the news of conventional war in the Middle East.
To discuss Threads I was glad to invite Rik Hoskin, writer across many platforms from award-winning comics to novels by way of games and audios, and Andrew S. Roe-Crines, lecturer in political science at Liverpool University. The latter has already contributed to my Tripods episode.
Cast: Karen Meagher – Ruth Beckett Henry Moxon – Mr Beckett June Broughton – Mrs Beckett Reece Dinsdale – Jimmy Kemp David Brierly – Mr Kemp Rita May – Mrs Kemp Harry Beety – Mr Sutton Ashley Barker – Bob Phil Rose – Medical Officer Michael O’Hagan – Chief Supt. Hirst Steve Halliwell – Information Officer Brian Grellis – Accommodation Officer Peter Faulkner – Transport Officer Anthony Collin – Food Officer
Producer and Director – Mick Jackson Writer – Barry Hines
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Star Cops is a series which has grown on me over the years. When it was first shown on BBC2 back in 1987, I watched it but left with the impression it was distinctly average. In trying to get away from one set of SF clichés, it had ended up embracing a whole bag of detective tropes instead. Years later I bought the VHS videos at a charity store and viewing it again it seemed a lot stronger and cleverer than my 21 year old self had given it credit for.
When I was canvasing friends for what TV shows they would like to talkabout on my potential podcast, Star Cops was mentioned quite a lot. So much so that this is my first four handed episode, with regulars Kevin Hiley and Dr Rebecca Wray joined by Peter Grehen, a friend and writer who I had first met through BBV as the author of Sontaran: Silent Warrior and later asked to write an Agents of Psyence script, which sadly was never made. I was slightly worried that some guests would get marginalised but I’m pretty happy that we all had our say, whilst keeping the episode down to a reasonable length.
Important credits to know about Star Cops as you listen:
Main cast David Calder – Nathan Spring Erick Ray Evans – David Theroux Linda Newton – Pal Kenzy Trevor Cooper – Colin Devis Jonathan Adams – Alexander Krivenko Sayo Inaba – Anna Shoun
Production Team Created by Chris Boucher Written by Chris Boucher, Philip Martin, John Collee Produced by Evgeny Gridneff Directed by Christopher Baker, Graham Harper
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It’s time to take care of a little unfinished business. Back in 2020 I was kindly invited by Dylan Rees onto the podcast Doctor Who – Too Hot for TVto discuss the legendary TV21 Dalek comic strip. I was in the process of moving house at the time so my own copy of the strips and other related books were locked away in storage, so I had to rely on my memories and the internet for details. It all worked out in the end I think Dylan and I created a fun episode. However there was one story which neither of us could remember a single detail about. It has variously been listed by fan sites as The Emissaries of Jevo or The Seeds of Arides (the comic strip had no individual chapter titles) and ran between issues 90 and 95.
As the supposed guest expert on the show, this has irked me since and Panini’s recent restored release of the TV21 comic series in a glorious new edition last November 2020 has given me a chance to upgrade my collection and refresh my memory.
This is certainly the definitive reprint of the British classic comic strip. Thanks to Gerry Anderson’s own archive and contributions from collectors, many of the original artboards have been digitally scanned, supplemented by scans from the best surviving issues of TV21. Digital technology and printing is now at a stage where these 104 pages not only look as good as they did coming off the printing press in 1965, but it in fact often better. Bight colours zing, and the skilled draughtsmanship of Richard Jennings, Eric Eden and Ron Turner looks sharp and detailed. Well presented in bookazine format on quality paper and supported by some excellent archive articles, this is for my money the best Doctor Who publication of 2020.
The Emissaries of Jevo was wholly illustrated by Ron Turner and written David Whitaker, Doctor Who’s script editor who wrote the large majority of the strip, with supplemented help from Angus Allen. The spacecraft “Guardian” and its crew from the planet Jevo is despatched on a secret mission to Arides to destroy a mutated species of plants. The flowers, infamous for their pollen which destroys all rival organic life, have mutated to gigantic size and now threaten to poison the galaxy. Unfortunately the ship is captured by the Daleks, who are quite happy for these flowers to unleash galactic genocide. Through a ruse, Captain Kerid persuades the Dalek Emperor that Daleks are vulnerable to the seeds too and his ship is released. When the Daleks discover the trick, they pursue the Jevonians, who heroically choose to complete their mission, even though it means certain extermination.
Despite its silly premise about mutant space pollen, this is a typically good example of the strip. Whittaker had developed a general rule that when the Daleks faced human looking opponents they would always lose, but in this story that guideline is cleverly bent. Although the Daleks destroy the Jevonians, it is an empty victory since the the flowers are destroyed and even the Emperor has a moment of doubt about whether they can ever truly conquer the human spirit. Curiously the crew of the good ship “Guardian” are described throughout as androids, yet this has no bearing on the story at all. We do not learn if all Jevonians are androids or just their astronauts, we never see them use any robot abilities and the crew certainly seem to have a full range of emotions. Kirid and his second in command even have a violent argument that ends with Kirid punching his subordinate in the face.
In good piece of continuity, the Daleks used a magnetrap to capture the spacecraft, just as they had used on Robot 2K a few weeks earlier. As was discussed on the podcast, magnetism is something of go-to for Whittaker whenever it comes to Dalek science, possibly because it was a bit of science that most schoolchildren would have learnt about. The Emperor voices a chilling piece of Dalek philosophy too. When Kirid tells him the apocalyptic threat posed by the seeds, the Emperor replies “Daleks are not android, human or animal. Why should we prevent these plants achieving what we are dedicated to achieve…?”
Ron Turner’s artwork is as splendid as ever. “Guardian” is quintessential Turner design. Loosely based on the Bluebird jet plane, its a riot of fins, flanges and intakes. The Daleks meanwhile are piloting claw-like space fighters that look impressive in action. Explosions are another Turner speciality and this story has some particularly good examples, my favourite being a Dalek scientist being ripped apart by an exploding gun.
In his introduction, editor Marcus Hearn describes the comic strip as the most enduring artefact of Sixties Dalekmania and I would agree. Their influence on the programme goes right up to the present day with the recent Dalek YouTube series and the visuals of Dalek saucers and armies in the 21st century series, clearly show the echo the comic. Even the fabulous look of the modern bronze Daleks has something of a Ron Turner feel to it. All the strips are exciting and accessible, but the best of them have depth too, as expanding that Dalek empire we heard about but the series could never afford to show us.
The Daleks is available to order from panini.co.uk, priced £9.99.
This first statement can be read as a symptom of age. My inner dad coming out. But its fair to say that it is quite rare for something genuinely innovative to appear. So much that people think is new and daring has often been done before. Take characters being meta-textual, self aware of the format they inhabit. Long before Fleabag was giving conspiratorial glances to the camera, or Gurney Slade worried about only having 25 minutes of existence left in his final episode, the Marx Brothers were bringing the audience into the artificiality of their adventures. Back in the 18th century, Lawrence Sterne was redefining what a novel could be with the tragicomic diversions of Tristram Shandy, and he in his turn was drawing on the Baroque poets of the previous century. All artists are standing on somebody else’s shoulders.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade has antecedents in The Goons, James Thurber’s humorous stories, Hancock’s Half Hour and Anthony Newley’s previous television shows. Nevertheless, in 1960, when the television sitcom was still inventing itself, there was nothing quite like it on the small screen, a fact that would ultimately doom it to cultdom rather than mainstream success. It’s a lazy cliché to say that some creative endeavour defies description. Besides which, I do have a few adjectives to describe these six episodes: odd, amusing, inconstant, clever, and a little too often – rather smug.
The debut episode opens with the start of an unimpressive domestic sitcom about a working class family: harassed wife, cheeky kids, interfering mother-in-law and boring neighbours inviting themselves in. In the midst of it all and already clearly distancing himself is the man of the house – Gurney Slade (played by Anthony Newley). When it comes to his first banal line of dialogue, Gurney can’t take it anymore and walks off the set, past the floor manager, and out into what seems at first to be the real world but in fact is a fantasy created by his imagination, mixing mundane backgrounds with characters such as talking rubbish bins, conversational dogs and advertising posters which come to life. At this point we could be watching an actor’s nervous breakdown from the inside, but the programme never explores that bleak reading, even if it never contradicts it either. It prefers instead to suggest that we are joining the protagonist in “Gurneyland”, as he describes it in the fifth episode. That’s about it as far as the overall story is concerned. Gurney, virtually free of all commitments, wanders along musing about modern life and going on flights of fancy. The first three episodes are much more free form, almost like an illustrated stand-up routine. However the second half becomes slightly more narrative driven. Gurney is put on trial for producing an unfunny comedy show, has to venture inside his own mind to deal with some squatters, and finally is challenged to take responsibility for the characters he has imagined over the previous episodes.
Anthony Newley created the series alongside Sid Green and Dick Hills, at the time two of the most in-demand comedy writers in British television. It is a definitely a young man’s view of the world. Our hero often runs up against older men who are stuffy, hypocritical or unreliable authority figures. A politician who is only concerned with his young mistress, or a music hall bore of a comedian trading in ancient jokes. Meanwhile women remain resolutely two-dimensional, mostly unobtainable objects of desire, reflecting perhaps Gurney’s admitted failures to make any meaningful connections with girls. Mention ought to be made though of Joy Stewart, who has a reoccurring role as a stereotypical suburban wife/mother, who is involved with some of the most likeable sequences, remaining resolutely domestically minded throughout. In that she is a symptom of what stops this series really striking home. All the characters are cartoonish stereotypes aside from Gurney. What’s more, the show actually congratulates itself on being too clever for the average viewer. So there is a hint of Emperor’s New Clothes. Don’t find this funny? You’re obviously not sophisticated enough.
Ostensibly a comedy series, it’s never laugh out loud funny but more endearingly whimsical. Moments that made me smile tend to involve the talking objects, such as the farmyard dog who regards the farmer and his employees as part of the livestock, or a bin which likes the read the newspapers that are thrown into it. Elsewhere in a moment of dark humour, Gurney helps a couple of children to assemble their perfect mother from a collection of female mannequin parts left on a tip. There’s some funny daft jokes too. Examining the control room inside his imagination, Gurney is glad to see “At least it’s a clean mind.” Later on in the same episode there some amusing physical comedy as he is trying to giving a speech whilst fending off an invisible elephant, which eventually picks him up in its trunk.
The monologues are less successful, coming off as sub-Galton and Simpson material. I could imagine Tony Hancock or Harold Steptoe delivering Gurney’s sour comments on an actor fronting an advertising campaign for screws, or imagining how much easier his life could be if he could simply choose his wife from a army style line-up. But in Newley’s hands they become selfish whinges rather than amusingly pompous. I generally enjoyed the show more when a little more storyline comes into it.
There are some fine meta-jokes in the final part, just the kind of comedy which Wandavision is currently being hailed for. The prosecutor from the trial episode returns and complains that all he knows how to do is aggressively prosecute. “Suppose I’m hungry? How do I order a meal in restaurant?” In a self-flagellating moment, the girl of his dreams from episode two, played by Anneke Wills who was 17 and having relationship with Newley in real life, is shocked when she finds out the age gap between them. But too often Gurney’s jokes about his failings seem more design to invite admiration for his clear-sightedness, rather than humility.
Director Alan Tarrant makes a real virtue of the its monochrome production. The photography is crisp, the outdoor filming is mobile and dynamic, the more stagey looking later episodes have been thoughtfully designed too and in places anticipate where Doctor Who and The Prisoner are going to go in a few years time. It was one of Tarrant’s first directing jobs and sadly for us, he never produced anything as unconventional again, but would go on to a long and successful career in ITV light entertainment and sitcoms.
For viewers interested in the more fanciful British comedy of Python, The Goodies and The League of Gentlemen, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is a fascinating artefact. It rarely made me laugh but it does stay in the memory and at six episodes it feels perfectly formed. If Newley, Green and Hills wanted to make a singular show, they did succeed, but they should not have given themselves a round of applause for doing so.
Thanks to Network, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is available on DVD, which also contains trailers and photos, and a limited edition Blu-ray containing many more features and Anthony Newley’s contemporary film The Small World of Sammy Lee.