The 1960 TV series that mixed whimsey, surrealism and philosophy – and one which no one at the time quite understood.
“It’s wonderful to be out of my mind again.”
The Strange World of Gurney Slade sets out its stall from the opening scene, where we are shown what television comedy is (or, more accurately, was in 1960) and then have the rug pulled from under us, letting us know that this is going to be something very different. We first meet Gurney Slade (Anthony Newley) as he breaks the fourth wall and walks out of the bland sitcom that he is a character in, heading out into a world where flights of fancy, musings on life and surreal imaginings collide – talking dogs, advertising posters that come to life, imaginary figures who come back to demand a fuller existence and digs at the artifice of TV all mix with Gurney’s internal monologues as he ponders the mysteries of life in what often feels like a stream of consciousness.
Very little actually happens as the episodes go nowhere, but the trip is a thoroughly engaging one. Episodes often just seem to go from thought to thought, Gurney’s daydreams and musings externalised as a series of often unrelated and unresolved moments. The first episode does this particularly well – I can imagine viewers switching off in droves as the title character ambles along, going nowhere in particular and meeting eccentric and fantastical characters along the way. Most audiences had probably been expecting the traditional sitcom that the show pokes holes in during the opening scene, and so were not just wrong-footed but insulted in the bargain. That Newley was a well-known name and lightweight pop idol probably just confused audiences even more – it’s unlikely that anyone knew just what to make of this at the time. It’s no surprise, then, that this delightful TV show – a huge influence on a young David Bowie, who clearly based his persona on Newley – bombed in 1960 and has scarcely been seen since.
At times, it resembles some archetypal British Sixties comedy – Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, Billy Liar, The Knack, even A Hard Day’s Night – yet the show preceded all of them by a few years. Comparisons have also been made to The Prisoner, interestingly, and there is a certain similarity in the bizarre courtroom episodes that sit as the finale of both series. Notably, here Gurney is on trial for making a comedy show that is clever instead of funny – a nice self-referential moment that carries on to the final episode, which is all about being the final episode, making verbal asides about how unsuccessful the show had been.
Newley (who created the show alongside writers Sid Green and Dick Hills, who would later go on to become the writers for Morecambe and Wise) is excellent as Gurney, a wandering, pondering misfit in a world of absurdity, and the theme tune – an instantly recognisable piece even if you’ve never seen the show – sets the scene for six seemingly unconnected episodes of eccentric fantasy and whimsy, with Gurney as the only constant. In that sense, it’s as much a sketch show as an ongoing story, with each story its own thing that can happily exist as a stand-alone piece. The show is also continually self-referential – the characters clearly know that they are characters in a TV show, and this blurring of reality and fiction, and breaking of the fourth wall to bring the viewer in as part of the narrative, feels smart and subversive even now. This even extends to the promo clips that were shown to sell the show, and feature Gurney – or perhaps it is Newley – mocking the lack of success for the show, neatly blurring the line between fiction and reality, I imagine they would have bewildered viewers even more than the actual show.
The world featured in this show is indeed a strange one – gloriously and charmingly so. You really owe it to yourself to pay it a visit.
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