❉ A full, serious study of a fine, rich, fascinating show.
When Anthony Newley’s comedy series The Strange World of Gurney Slade first aired on ATV in late 1960, the fact was that, as Newley himself later declared, “nobody had ever seen anything like it before on British television”. At the time, the majority of viewers seemed baffled by the show (though a young David Bowie dug it big time). For decades it languished almost completely unseen, the subject of hazy late-night ‘did you see..?’ pub conversations, until Network released the whole series on DVD in 2011.
Now, sixty years after it was broadcast, Gurney Slade has developed a fairly mighty reputation, suggesting Newley was indeed ahead of his time all along. Here it becomes the subject of a new entry in Obverse Books’ Silver Archive series, a full, serious study by Andrew Hickey. That Gurney Slade deserves such attention is beyond question: it’s a fine, rich, fascinating show. Whether it rewards near-academic analysis, though, is another matter. A great deal of mystery lingers around the series. Newley wasn’t credited as writer or director, but he clearly had a great deal of creative input. To what degree, though? Sadly he’s no longer around to enlighten us, and nor are most of the people involved in the series (or indeed the relevant paperwork). As such, this book is left making informed guesses on the matter, as well as so much more besides.
Hickey’s work here is never less than thoughtful and intelligent and it’s delivered with a pleasing lightness. The problem is, for all its considerable merits, Gurney Slade is a mess, a freewheeling melange of ideas and influences, not least the febrile contents of Newley’s mind. Any attempt to unpick that risks being on a hiding to nothing. Anything can be dissected and analysed, of course, and it would be anti-intellectual tosh to suggest that it’s wrong to try. But very little here actually illuminates the dark corners of Gurney Slade, or manages to deepen and broaden one’s appreciation of it. The book does acknowledge the fact that by its very nature, Gurney Slade is full of unresolved ambiguity, but it also seeks to clarify and resolve it, which experts call ‘having your cake and eating it’.
There’s an entire, detailed chapter on the issue of whether the Gurney Slade character is effectively Anthony Newley himself, but the whole thing could usefully be summarised as ‘um, sort of, yes’. Another section upbraids some moments of unguarded internal monologue for being less than savoury and presentable, but that’s internal monologues for you, surely? There’s also the very real problem of deconstructing a show that’s all about deconstruction, and which is indeed swift to deconstruct itself, putting the main character, and, well, itself, on trial by the fourth episode. It’s a slippery beast, and unfortunately this volume often finds itself on a hiding to nothing.
There are some curious assertions here, such as the idea that half of the show’s episodes being made on location and the rest in the studio implies a ‘rethink’ – surely that would have been a straightforward budgetary decision, made at the very start? And the enigmatic trailers (present and correct on the DVD) would seem to make much more sense if they were promoting the 1963 repeat run, when Newley was riding high with the success of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.
There are striking omissions, too, especially given that the subject matter is so specific. A chapter on the series’ music discusses the strange after-life of Max Harris’ theme tune, but not the fact that it became the basis of Newley’s corking 1961 song Bee Bom. The terrific 1963 film The Small World of Sammy Lee, starring Newley, is touched on only in passing, and dismissed as being of no specific relevance – but that was expanded from a forty-minute 1958 TV play, Sammy, in which Newley was alone on a single set throughout, giving it pretty strong links with Gurney Slade.
In terms of its influence and legacy, Gurney Slade is often cited as a forebear of Peep Show, and while that’s not entirely clear-cut, it does at least bear some consideration, but that isn’t so much as mentioned here. More damagingly, neither is Newley’s November 1961 TV special The Johnny Darling Show, co-written with Leslie Bricusse, which is so akin to Gurney Slade it’s virtually a follow-up (or at the very least, a thematic missing link to Stop the World…). Examining that would be genuinely revealing, not least in terms of the question of Gurney Slade‘s authorship, and overlooking it completely, when it’s been available to view in full on YouTube for years, is really baffling.
On the other hand, the book doesn’t hold back on lengthy discussions of the Theatre of the Absurd, Menippean satire and Gurney Slade achieving gnosis, which establish some possible context for the show, but doesn’t develop those ideas far enough to draw any useful conclusions. Ultimately, then, they don’t add much to one’s appreciation or understanding of the series – to put it another way, what’s that got to do with the price of fish? The book is much stronger when exploring the influence of Tony Hancock’s contemporary sitcom work, though it doesn’t entirely convince by suggesting that the likes of The Bedsitter could represent Galton & Simpson returning the favour.
The intentions here are highly admirable, then, but overall it never quite achieves lift-off and remains underwhelming. Gurney Slade is a hall of mirrors, a woozy maze of characters and notions, and this isn’t robust and nimble enough to map them all out properly. Perhaps it’s not even possible, short of subjecting Newley himself to in-depth psychoanalysis, which would seem on the unlikely side now Or perhaps Gurney Slade simply needs to be watched rather than fathomed-out. In many ways, like other surreally-inclined pop culture touchstones from Alice in Wonderland to Strawberry Fields Forever, to experience it is to understand it.
❉ ‘Silver Archive #6: The Strange World Of Gurney Slade’ is available in e-book and paperback, published 1 September 2020. RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Click here to order directly from Obverse Books.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.