❉ A genuinely bold, brave artist and a restlessly creative man.
“From a certain angle it’s tempting to regard Newley as a rather cheesy showbizzy figure… But look deeper and you’ll discover a genuinely gifted, restlessly creative man who often brought something unexpected into the mainstream.”
It’s September 1963. On a dark street, a smartly-dressed young man stands with a panting sheepdog, peering at a tattered advertising hoarding for a TV show. Addressing the figure pictured on the hoarding, the man says, “Well, it was a noble effort, wasn’t it? You tried. I give you that, you tried. But the public is no man’s fool, you know. The public knows what it wants, and you had no right to even try and suggest something different. Anyway, the public doesn’t like anything… suggestive.”
The man nods down towards the sheepdog. “He thinks you were before your time. Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to reach the time that you’re in.”
The chap in question is writer/singer/performer Anthony Newley, and the picture he’s addressing is of Gurney Slade, the main character from a 1960 TV show played by, um, Anthony Newley. The above speech is the opening to a special trailer shot to mark a repeat showing of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which was every bit as left-field and idiosyncratic as the show itself.
From a certain angle it’s tempting to regard Newley as a rather cheesy showbizzy figure, all Las Vegas residencies, guest appearances on Miss World and The Royal Variety Performance and Being Married to Joan Collins. But look deeper and you’ll discover a genuinely gifted, restlessly creative man who often brought something unexpected into the mainstream, an admirable inclination of which Gurney Slade is a fine example.
Born in Hackney in 1931, by the age of 17 Newley was already a star, playing the Artful Dodger to Alec Guinness’ Fagin in David Lean’s 1948 film version of Oliver Twist (with an almond up one nostril, he later claimed, in order to subtly misshape his face). By his late 20s, rather than having befallen the standard obscure fate of the child actor, Newley was still starring in a string of hit films, including Idle on Parade and No Time to Die.
Simultaneously, he’d managed to launch a hugely successful singing career. By 1959 he’d notched up 31 consecutive weeks on the British singles charts and become something of a fixture on television entertainment shows such as ITV’s Saturday Spectacular. One of Newley’s sketches for that particular programme, written by comedy kings Sid Green and Dick Hills, seemed to strike a chord for all concerned. It showed Newley making awkward small-talk with other characters, but with his unguarded private thoughts piped in as a voice-over. Perhaps there was something in this, they thought.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade, first broadcast in late 1960, was the end result, written by Hills and Green in close collaboration with Newley, who effectively co-directed the show with credited producer Alan Tarrant. The first episode opens with Newley sitting in a family kitchen setting, failing to engage with the banter of those around him. In fact, it becomes obvious that he’s missing his cues for lines. Eventually, he grabs his coat and, with a smirk and a small shake of his head, he walks off the set – because a set is what it is. He leaves the studio and starts parading around London with his every unspoken thought heard loud and clear by the viewer. Sometimes his thoughtful flights of fancy are seen to intrude into the real world, too.
Just think of it: Newley had just turned 29 at the time and had proven himself to be a very popular, multi-talented light entertainer. Given the chance to have his own TV show, he plumped for something so unconventional that is still feels genuinely left-field almost sixty years later. What young celebrity would do the same today? That opening scene alone is pretty much a perfect deconstruction of the sitcom genre – which, let’s not forget, was still in its infancy at the time. It’s heady stuff, so was Gurney Slade some act of career hara-kiri, or was Newley a genuinely bold, brave creative figure?
Undoubtedly it’s the latter, as everyone involved in the show seems to have had high hopes for it. But it wasn’t to be. Gurney Slade was probably just too out-there for early-evening ITV viewers in 1960, and Newley’s established fan base didn’t take to it. After the first two episodes, it was shunted unceremoniously from prime time – 8.35pm on Saturday night – into a late-night time slot.
In fact, the series falls into two distinctive halves. The first three episodes are filmed on location and play out on suburban streets, an abandoned airfield and a farm. The latter three are studio-bound and see Gurney Slade interacting with a variety of bizarre characters, ultimately having to stand trial for lacking a sense of humour. The studio episodes are more self-conscious and not quite so satisfying, but they’re never less than unique. At times, it’s far closer to pure stream of consciousness than to your standard TV comedy show. Perhaps the closest frame of reference would be a leading light entertainer experiencing his own personal take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In truth, the show does teeter right on the brink of being self-indulgent nonsense, but it never quite oversteps the mark, and in fact that high-wire act is a large part of its audacious charm.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade also brought together a mighty cast of 60s British talent. It’s like a Bingo game for fans of British television. Shout ‘House’ if you manage to spot each of the following: Una Stubbs, Douglas Wilmer, Geoffrey Palmer, Hugh Paddick and Anneke Wills (who, incidentally. went on to live with Newley for a time thereafter). Understandably, though, the entire show hinges on Newley himself. He’s a born performer, totally at ease with the camera, and the camera loves him right back, lingering on his wonderfully expressive mush, taking in every mood from camp and cheeky to disgruntled and hangdog. As Gurney Slade, he effortlessly navigates a keen knife-edge between punchable and clubbable.
For some, the surreal tone of Gurney Slade marks it out as it a precursor to Monty Python, but none of the Pythons have ever actually cited it as an influence. On the other hand, it’s a very different beast to another major Python precursor, The Goon Show. They might be near-contemporaries – The Goon Show had just finished its ten-year run on radio – but Gurney Slade offers a very different kind of British surrealism, more restrained and whimsical. It’s certainly no Goons clone.
Indeed, while make observers have detected a kinship with the much later Peep Show, in that they share that ‘interior monologue’ device, it might be closer to the truth to say that the existential crisis at the heart of Gurney Slade makes it more akin to The Prisoner, only with better jokes and less Italianate architecture. Or even Waiting for Godot, but with musical interludes, ad breaks and a cameo appearance by Bernie Winters.
Due to the muted response from the viewing public, The Strange World of Gurney Slade went no further than the one series, and a repeat run in Autumn 1963 didn’t exactly re-ignite the flame. It’s fascinating to speculate about what could have been had the show found an audience at the time. What effect might that have had on the future of Newley’s career, or indeed television comedy as a whole? What on Earth would a second series have been like?
That’s not to say that the show left no mark, though. For one thing, David Bowie, who was all of 13 years old when Gurney Slade went out, was a major Newley fan. Many of his first embryonic recordings bear lingering traces of Newley’s unique uber-Lahndan singing style. Bowie’s pre-fame 1967 single The Laughing Gnome is patently an homage to Newley’s earlier novelty pop hits. Speaking to Michael Parkinson in a 2002 TV interview, Bowie said, “I never thought that I could sing very well and I used to kind of try on people’s voices if they appealed to me. When I was a kid – about 15, 16 – I got into Anthony Newley like crazy.” The source this obsession was pretty specific, as Bowie explained. “Before [Newley] came to the States and did the whole Vegas thing, he really did bizarre things over here. Things like a television series he did called The Strange World of Gurney Slade, which was so odd and off-the-wall, and I thought, ‘I like what this guy’s doing, where he’s going, he’s really interesting’. And so I started singing songs like him.”
In fact, Newley’s pop output often demonstrated a winning eccentricity which show that it’s demonstrably the work of the same eccentric mind as Gurney Slade. His 1960 version of the old English folk song Strawberry Fair gallops along at 100mph and contains the decidedly non-period term ‘So I said to this bird…’ and surely the most joyous bellow of ‘fol-de-dee’ in the history of recorded music.
For a 1961 single release, Newley turned the nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel into a finger-clicking jazz swing-along which stops off midway through for a history lesson about the origin of the title phrase. 1962’s That Noise deploys peculiar sound effects like a rhythm track and a story-telling logic that grows increasingly potty. In 1966, Newley even approached Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop about a potential collaboration, but the experimental pop track they made together, Moogies Bloogies, went unreleased at the time.
Newley’s own listening tastes were no less eclectic. In April 1960, not long before Gurney Slade was made, he appeared as Roy Plomley’s guest for an edition of Desert Island Discs. His musical selections included Russian folk songs (Osipova’s Reaping, Reaping Was the Little Girl), flamenco (Carmen Amaya & Domingo Alvarado’s Sevillanas), South American harp music (Los Paraguayos’ Misionera) and lots of top quality classical (Carl Orff’s O Fortuna, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture). If this was an calculated attempt to appear cultured, it was supremely well-judged. Ever creatively minded, his choice of luxury item was ‘writing materials’.
Curiously, Max Harris’ theme tune for Gurney Slade had its own afterlife too. Fitted with jazz hipster lyrics, and credited, curiously, to successful songwriter Les Vandyke, the distinctive metronomic rhythm track was put to use in a new song, Bee-Bom, which Newley recorded as the b-side to his hit single version of Pop Goes the Weasel only a few months after Gurney Slade was shown. (Sammy Davis Jr, a great friend and admirer of Newley, went on to recorded his own version in 1964.) Later, the Gurney Slade theme became enshrined in the memory of a whole new generation of viewers when it popped regularly in Vision On, Tony Hart’s art show for children, as the accompaniment to a neat little animation about a crazy clock.
Some of what Newley went on to do after Gurney Slade was pretty impressive, though. It was around this time he first got together with his future wife Joan Collins and made the acquaintance of Lesley Bricusse, a former president of Cambridge Footlights turned songsmith. Together, Newley and Bricusse became a formidable songwriting team. Their output included the theme to Goldfinger in 1964 and the songs for the 1971 Roald Dahl adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Their signature song for Wonka, Pure Imagination, was so good that the producers of the 2013 stage musical version of the book couldn’t help but co-opt it for inclusion.)
The pair even collaborated on two musicals which aren’t a million miles away from the peculiar flavour of Gurney Slade. Their 1961 musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off – which is in itself a pretty good description of what the Gurney Slade character does at the very start of his first show – is another tale of an everyman in an expressionistic battle against the dissatisfactions of his daily life. The show spawned several celebrated tunes, amongst them Gonna Build a Mountain and What Kind of Fool Am I?.
Their 1964 follow-up, class war allegory The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd, proved to be an expensive flop, but it did give the world the modern standard Feeling Good, which has gone on to be covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Muse.
Traces of that same strand of nutty solipsism can be detected in Newley’s notorious 1969 film vehicle Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, which he starred in, directed, co-scripted and co-produced, as well as co-writing the songs (with lyricist Herbert Kretzmer). It’s best described as ‘of its time’, which is maybe just as well, as it’s one of the few films of its era not to have received a full DVD release.
Almost universally panned by critics at the time, the film is perhaps the flipside of Gurney Slade, in that here Newley’s leanings towards self-indulgence and pretension come unstuck in one big whacked-out jumble. It can be found online if you’re curious, but be warned: telling, the film’s original trailer chooses not to include a single frame of footage, and starts instead with the rather backhanded declaration, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you about a motion picture that is definitely not for everyone.”
The failure of Heironymus Merkin must have hit Newley hard. He never completed another major original project. Later decades were less kind to him, but then, it would have been hard to maintain the initial momentum of his early career. How could it match up? By the 70s he’d relocated to the States and was an in-demand performer and cabaret crooner. It was a lucrative lifestyle, but can’t have been creatively satisfying. His partnership with Bricusse had disintegrated (as had his marriage to Collins), and Newley was now a true celebrity: famous for being famous, as the saying goes, rather than for his current output.
Newley’s health began to falter by the mid ’80s, but he pulled through and his career was resurgent through the ’90s. In 1992, Newley took the title role in the original UK run of Scrooge, a lavish and wildly successful musical production adapted from the much-loved 1970 film version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, single-handedly written by his former partner Lesley Bricusse. In 1998, he appeared as a new character in EastEnders, namely Vince Watson, an lothario arch-rival to Frank Butcher in the Walford car dealership game. The character was all set to be established as a series regular but sadly, fate intervened. Newley died of renal cancer the following year.
Know, though, that Anthony Newley was a much more complex, intriguing character than his reputation might suggest. Those who grew up during the 70s and 80s could be forgiven for dismissing him an admittedly curious cheesy song and dance man, but The Strange World of Gurney Slade, perhaps his finest yet least-known achievement, dispels that notion at a stroke. The show comes highly recommended for anyone looking to find what makes Newley so fascinating, and to discover a copper-bottom lost TV classic while they’re at it.
❉ Andy Murray is a freelance writer who has contributed to many publications and websites including Big Issue North, City Life, The Wire, chortle.co.uk and SFX. He has written biographies of Nigel Kneale (Into the Unknown, the updated second edition of which is due from Headpress in July 2017) and Russell T Davies (T is for Television, with Mark Aldridge). He is currently the Film Editor for northernsoul.me.uk and teaches Film Journalism at the University of Salford.