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.