Saturday, 17 September 2011
"ALL GONE TO GURNEYLAND"
(ATV, 22/10/1960 - 26/11/1960)
"I have hundreds of ladies running through my mind. They daren't walk."
'Thus, briefly, Newley was in time with the ephemera of pop culture rather than show business. Indeed, since his rivals were dismissed as agent-made brain-deads - such as Cliff Richard's Bongo Herbert character in Espresso Bongo - Newley came as near as the trade got to an "intellectual" before the music business developed its self-consciousness and self importance.'
(Nigel Fountain, 'Between Elvis and the Beatles', The Guardian, 16/04/1999, p.16)
The Strange World of Gurney Slade is a DVD release to treasure; ATV's utterly unconventional TV comedy is finally available to enjoy in all its bizarre glory, 51 years after its first broadcast.
The show started out with a large audience yet was moved to a post-11pm timeslot as its viewing figures declined; there were no contemporary reviews in The Guardian or The Times. Despite this critical indifference, it is effortlessly subversive, with a humour that is by turns dry and surreal. Tropes of British television that were already hoary by 1960 are mercilessly satirised, as Newley's agitated Slade walks out of the set of the sitcom he is in. The nascent consumer society of Macmillan's Britain is dexterously skewered throughout, with Newley dancing with a vacuum cleaner and multiple digs at the influence of advertising: 'who am I to ruin the advertising business?'
The series has a leisurely, reflective pacing, with Gurney given to philsophising about marriage, romance and the role of corn in the Napoleonic wars or conversing with cattle. Episode 3 evokes the languorous pastorialism of Powell and Pressburger or, as noted by Frank Collins, the rarefied film The Pleasure Garden (dir. James Broughton, 1953). It can also be considered a sedated, thoughtful development of the Goon Show's madcap anarchism. Newley himself figures as a hipper, yet oddball variant on Hancock's English everyman, as happy going to see French films as is in essaying his skiffle-folk classic 'Strawberry Fair'.
As the series develops, there are pre-echoes of later 1960s exercises in the bizarre: The Prisoner and Dr Who: The Mind Robber; episode 5 takes place within Slade's own bonce: the curious 'Gurneyland', filled with devils, tinkers and children. Episode 6 evokes Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) in its deconstructionism: the previous characters of the series retuning to beseech Gurney, requesting life beyond the confines of the series.
For me, the absolute peak is episode 4, where Gurney - and by extension, the series itself - is put on trial for 'having no sense of humour'. The episode can be considered part of a lineage of absurdist trial scenes that includes Kafka and Welles's The Trial, The Prisoner: Fall Out and Dr Who: The Stones of Blood (and, unwittingly, the misbegotten Trial of a Time Lord). Slade is opposed by a motley array of characters including a hangman, a trade unionist, a prosecuting counsel (Douglas Wilmer) and a sullen, fairy tale princess. He is 'supported' by a George Robey-citing music-hall comedian Archie, his punchlines trailing - notable in the wake of John Osborne's Archie Rice. The Entertainer - first staged in 1957 - was adapted for film by Osborne and Nigel Kneale in the same year this series was broadcast.
The main evidence shown to the courtroom is footage of Slade on TV, delivering a rambling, deadpan routine about a countersunk screw. This is a minimalist comedy of mundanity, with Newley extemporising on the merits or otherwise of the said screw. It is just possible that writers Sid Green and Richard Hills may have been taking notes from Pinter's The Caretaker, which opened in London on 27th April; Slade's routine could be considered an altogether more light-hearted counterpoint to Aston's unsettling dramatic monologues.
Newley went on to considerable commercial success on stage with his collaborations with Leslie Bricusse, though less with his directorial film debut, the supposed grand-folly of Can Heironymous Merkin Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? : 'You may squirm but you will not want to walk out'. (John Russell Taylor, The Times, 26/06/1969). As said, The Times did not review TSWOGS, did but mention it glowingly alongside Newley's appearance in The Johnny Darling Show (TX: 12/11/1961), which itself sounds interesting: 'he regarded a world faced with catastrophe in a programme of uncomfortable but wittily expressed desperation'. (Our Special Correspondent, The Times, 18/11/1961, p.4)
The series is beautifully shot, on film; this is television unafraid to be influenced by innovative developments in radio and theatre, crafted by the future writers of Morecambe and Wise and the one-off talent that was Anthony Newley. The Strange World of Gurney Slade is an example of 'Television of the Absurd' to rank alongside Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Though, in truth, Gurneyland is a whole lot odder. For more thorough and erudite thoughts, read Frank Collins and John Williams, who was one of the people to recommend this wonderful series to me.