SPEAKING TO THE NME IN 1973 about his tendency to imitate his idols, David Bowie offered a telling example: “I mean, Anthony Newley. I was Anthony Newley for a year. Remember the Gurney Slade series? That was tremendous…”
By that point, the TV show Bowie was referring to existed only in the memories of a stubborn cult. The Strange World of Gurney Slade debuted at 8.35pm on ITV on Saturday October 22 1960, but after four of its six episodes had been broadcast, the audience reaction was proving so volatile that the spooked network shunted it to late-night, to let it die in the graveyard shift.
A curious fate for a series that had launched as a primetime vehicle for one of the country’s biggest stars. An East End prodigy, by the late 1950s Newley seemed an unstoppable cultural force as actor, director, singer, pop star and composer. But Gurney Slade, which Newley created with future Morecambe & Wise writers Sid Green and Dick Hills, was, and remains, a curious show.
Viewers tuning in for that first episode saw this: a dingy living room set, of the kind familiar from a dozen dreary domestic sitcoms. Mum’s doing her ironing, cheeky son is doing his homework, mother-in-law is doing her moaning, and the neighbour has dropped in to drop terrible innuendos. The talk is of what’s-for-tea and boiled eggs. So far, so humdrum.
But something is wrong. In the armchair where the regulation beleaguered comedy father should sit, a frowning Newley is hunched in tension. When it comes time for him to say his line, he refuses to deliver it. The rest of the cast try to cover for him. An unseen prompt whispers the dialogue he’s supposed to speak with growing urgency.
It pays to remember that live TV, and actors stumbling over their lines, was still the norm in 1960. So what happens next must have been all the more startling that first night: Newley simply stalks off the living room set, past the alarmed cameramen, out of the studio altogether. (As he goes, he flourishes his fingers to play an invisible keyboard, and the teasing theme music begins. This unforgettable Max Harris composition later lodged itself in the minds of a generation of kids, when it was resurrected as “the clock tune” in the BBC’s Vision On.)
From here, Gurney Slade only grows stranger. Largely unspeaking, but talking to himself constantly in voice-over, Newley’s cracked actor wanders empty grey streets that transform into a ground-down Wonderland. He has conversations with stones, dustbins and dogs, who all talk back to him. He goes dancing with a woman stepped out of a poster. He sits in as a politician visits his mistress. Sometimes, the “real” people he encounters don’t realise he’s there at all. Episode two finds him alone on a vast, derelict military airstrip. We gradually realise it’s supposed to be a crowded Saturday night dancehall, where he’s struggling to talk to girls.
And so Gurney goes, without rules, a stream-of-consciousness, inner-space odyssey through one man’s disaffection, and Newley’s particular restlessness with the kind of star he’s allowed to be.
The show loosely fits that absurd line of British comedy that includes The Goons and Monty Python. But for all its surface whimsy, there’s something more awkward and disturbing lurking. Mining a trippy, particularly British humdrum suburban surrealism, as much as it influenced Bowie, Gurney Slade can suggest Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. The final episode sees Gurney transforming into a despairing ventriloquist’s dummy while the real Newley comes like a doppelganger to stuff him back into his box. In many ways, with its theme of personal freedom, and its frustration with formula, the show it most closely resembles (or predicts) is Patrick McGoohan’s similarly bridge-burning The Prisoner.
What it sacrifices, it has to be said, is laughs. For a TV comedy, it’s never exactly laugh-out-loud funny. But then, who said it is a comedy? Now immaculately restored for a DVD release – the first time it has been seen in 50 years – and rescued from fading, rose-tinted memory, Gurney Slade stands with its reputation as a one-off fully intact. That it was stupidly ahead of its time is clear: it sashays through the fourth wall the way It’s Garry Shandling’s Show would get around to pioneering three decades later. But that’s beside the point. If it’s difficult to believe this show was allowed to exist on primetime network TV back then, it’s almost impossible to imagine anything like it could ever happen today.
A version of this review ran in Uncut in July 2011