❉ Anthony Newley could easily have made a safe, identikit sitcom. Thank goodness he didn’t, writes Andy Murray.
“Network have restored the show in high definition from the original film elements, and it looks, as Bernie Winters might say, “smashin’”. Would that we could all look so sharp and handsome at 60.”
On the face of it, this new release from Network represents a curious pairing – Anthony Newley’s remarkable 1960 TV comedy show The Strange World of Gurney Slade, freshly remastered on Blu-ray, in tandem with 1963 film drama The Small World of Sammy Lee. The latter is effectively a substantial extra, but aside from starring Newley, it’s a very different beast. Together, though, they do work in a weird kind of way – as a celebration of the star, his versatility and a period when he was really riding high.
Now, being successful doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with taking risks – far from it, in most cases – but Newley couldn’t help it. Perhaps he was just easily bored. At the start of the Sixties he was juggling straight acting jobs, comedy and light entertainment work and a chart pop recording career. In 1960 alone he released four Top 5 singles. The last of these, a frantic interpretation of the folk tune Strawberry Fair, veers lyrically off-piste around half-way through, lobbing in references to ‘whatsits’, ‘oojahs’ and the casual, muttered aside ‘well, you know the rest, don’t you’. The following year Newley had a hit with a loose, jazzy reading of – yes! – Pop Goes the Weasel. This also heads off on a tangent at the half-way point, as Newley explains the title phrase, reading out, in plummy tones, a definition he’s looked up, adding ‘in’t that interesting?’ – then going on to offer his own alternative explanation, namely that the weasel went pop ‘coz they upped the price of tuppenny rice to fourpence’.
In both cases, Newley up-ends the song, deconstructing it as it’s happening. He played much the same trick in Gurney Slade (which even features him performing Strawberry Fair in one episode). The series begins with a then-predictable TV sitcom set-up, a family of characters, one of them Newley, sitting around a kitchen set. Except Newley misses his queue to request an egg for his breakfast, and without saying a word he walks off, leaving the set, then the TV studio entirely, wandering about to his heart’s content. He rarely speaks but we hear his thoughts, and thus he converses with anything – a dog, a stone, a girl on an advertising hoarding – that he comes across. Newley could easily have made that safe, identikit sitcom. Thank goodness he didn’t.
Now, The Strange World of Gurney Slade was not a hit, getting a hugely mixed response from viewers and being shunted away to a late-night slot for later episodes. It’s important to note that the show’s subsequently re-evaluation was thanks in no small part to Network, who brought it out on DVD in 2011 for all to see. Here, Network have restored the show in high definition from the original film elements, and it looks, as Bernie Winters might say, “smashin’”. Would that we could all look so sharp and handsome at 60.
In all honesty, Gurney Slade can be something of a half-baked mess. According to the booklet of essays included here, Newley himself later told the Daily Express, “Gurney Slade nearly made it, but it needed more time, more care.” The first three episodes, filmed on location, feel fresh and light on their feet, whereas the last three, shot in the studio, hinge on the idea that the show has already failed, trying a bit too hard as they struggle to sustain the whole post-modern self-post-mortem thing. (That’s right, Newley gets restless and goes off on a tangent half-way through.) But it’s never less than a brilliant, fascinating mess, not least because Newley is always funny and quietly compelling, his face endlessly expressive and watchable, even when there’s not actually much else going on.
Within seven months of the last Gurney Slade going out, Newley was launching his stage musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, having hooked up with new collaborator Leslie Bricusse in the interim. The show, in which an everyman character, Littlechap (originally played by Newley), ponders the great questions of life and love against a stark, expressionist backdrop, clearly comes from the same creative mind as Gurney Slade, the big difference being that Stop the World became a runaway success.
By 1963 Newley was still on the crest of a wave, with Gurney Slade getting its only repeat run a few months after the release of his movie vehicle The Small World of Sammy Lee. In fact, Sammy Lee‘s roots went back even further than Gurney Slade‘s. In March 1958 Newley made a one-hander BBC TV play called Sammy, written and produced/directed by Ken Hughes. It had quite an impact, spawning an American TV version less than eight months later, renamed Eddie and starring Mickey Rooney. But when Hughes got round to making a film adaptation, he went back to Newley and opened the piece up, setting it around the sleazy glamour of Soho rather than anchoring it to the main character’s flat.
That’s not all he opened up: the title grew from Sammy to The Small World of Sammy Lee – indeed, it was due to be The Small Sad World of Sammy Lee right until the eleventh hour, when presumably someone decided that putting ‘Sad’ in the title was just asking the crowds to stay away. (In an on-set promo interview with Newley included as an extra here, the ‘Sad’ was still intact, and even the film’s title card looks suspiciously like there’s space for another short word that’s been yanked out.)
For the most part, the crowds did stay away from Sammy Lee, but it’s now cherished by fans of Sixties British cinema and rightly so. It boasts a killer cast – everyone from Robert Stephens and Warren Mitchell to Wilfred Brambell and Roy Kinnear shows up, with love interest from a young Julia Foster (yes, Mrs BENNNIII!, Doctor Who fans). Dripping with seedy atmosphere and hard-nosed tension, it deserves to be more widely acknowledged as a classic in its own right, but its inclusion here can only be a good thing – plus, the Blu-ray transfer shows it off very nicely.
There are other extras amongst this bumper set. The booklet’s three articles contain some interesting background information but it’s likely that some details are now forever lost to the march of time, with so many of Gurney Slade‘s main players having passed away. There’s often overlap between the articles, but in the circumstances that’s perfect understandable. The discs themselves include several TV specials, not least two Newley-hosted 1960 editions of Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectacular, notable because they see him working with writers Hills and Green and working up ‘thought routines’ built around pre-recorded inner monologues, so the embryonic beginnings of Gurney Slade are right there to watch.
For the full, comprehensive experience it would have been great to have included The Johnny Darling Show, a November 1961 BBC TV special co-written with Bricusse, starring Newley as a pop idol who goes wandering in his mind in the midst of singing his current hit – wherever could they have got that idea? There’s nothing quite like Gurney Slade, but Johnny Darling is a pretty close sibling. A copy of the show survives, but to be fair Network don’t have the licensing agreement with the BBC as with ITV’s archive, so for now it’ll have to remain as an extra on the super-deluxe Blu-ray set of the mind.
Ultimately, then, what kind of impression did they make, this comedy show that not many people watched and this film that didn’t do too well? It’s well-documented that David Bowie loved Newley and continued to sing the praises of Gurney Slade for years. When The Barney Gilbraith Singers deliver the verdict at Gurney’s trial as an overlong chorus and you can almost hear Monty Python‘s Summarise Proust sketch starting to write itself. It’s long been observed that the format of Channel 4’s Peep Show shares some DNA with Newley’s show. You could argue the same of Sara Pascoe’s recent TV show Out of Her Mind, in which she appears as a fictionalised version of herself delivering inner monologues to camera.
Anthony Newley didn’t invent the form and the makers of these shows might never have heard of Gurney Slade anyway – but if you want to believe that there’s some degree of influence there somehow, it wouldn’t be hard. As for Sammy Lee, it found itself being name-dropped like crazy last year because of its strong resemblance to Uncut Gems – likeable ne’er-do-well in a murky world races against the clock to stump up the cash to save his skin. Now, in his memoir I Wanna Be Yours, John Cooper Clarke has declared Sammy Lee to be a ‘monochrome masterpiece’ and confessed that his own stage persona was much influenced by the title character.
❉ Three Saturday Spectacularshows from 1960 featuring Anthony Newley alongside Shirley Bassey, Peter Sellers, Janette Scott, Lionel Blair and others. These variety specials feature Newley’s initial attempts at building the “internal monologue character” that would eventually become Gurney Slade.
❉ Original Gurney Sladepromotional shorts
❉ Extensive image galleries
❉ The Small World of Sammy Lee: The classic 1963 British crime film starring Anthony Newley
❉ The Small World of Sammy Leespecial features: newly discovered archive film material featuring an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley
❉ Commemorative booklet with contributions from Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts
❉ Free streaming of the series’ six episodes from today only when you buy the limited-edition Blu-ray set
❉ ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’ Blu-ray: Pre-order now exclusively from networkonair.com (released 30th November) – includes streaming of the series’ six episodes via watch.networkonair.com. RRP: £27.00 | Cert: 12 | No. of Discs: 3 | Screen Ratio: 1080p HD 1.33:1 | Catalogue no.: 7958348 | Running Time: 156mins + approx. 267mins special features.
❉ 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.