It can be easy, sometimes, to look back upon the past through a prism of it being inherently conservative in its tastes. To watch a television programme from the past is to look look through the window of a time machine, and the habits and customs of the past usually look antiquated, to modern eyes. Sometimes, however, the past can throw at curveball at the viewer, and this is precisely what happens with any viewing of the 1960 television comedy show, The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, a series that was so far ahead of its time that it left viewers baffled and television companies scratching their heads at what exactly they had just commissioned.
By the end of the 1950s, Anthony Newley was big news. Having had his first major breakthrough as a seventeen year old when cast as The Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 version of Oliver Twist, Newley was part singer, part actor and part songwriter, a product of a British entertainment culture that had its feet firmly bedded in the traditions of the music hall. He spent much of the 1950s working on the radio, on the television in films, but it was the 1959 release of the film Idle on Parade that threw him head first into the A-list of British celebrity culture of the time. When a single, called I’ve Waited So Long, was released from the film, it reached the number three spot in the UK singles charts and established Newley as one of the leading teenage heart-throbs of the time.
With this success followed up with a successful album of ballads called Love Is a Now And Then Thing, it was perhaps unsurprising that a television show would follow, but few would have predicted that Newley would choose a direction so avant garde that, more than fifty years on, it still looks like nothing seen before or since. The company that courted Newley was ATV, one of the patchwork of regional companies which made up the regional independent television network at the time. ATV had a reputation for being the network’s “song & dance” company, producers of Sunday Night At The London Palladium and the company that would – after a brief and unhappy earlier stint with the BBC – push Morecambe & Wise into the national spotlight during the 1960s, so it was perhaps natural that they should have been the company to seek the provide a vehicle for one of the great audience pulls of the time. Run by three brothers – Lew & Leslie Grade (Leslie gets a name-check barely a couple of minutes into the very first episode), and Bernard Delfont – Newley was given a free rein to produce the comedy show of his choice.
British comedy has a long streak of inherent eccentricity and surrealism, which stretches from Lewis Carroll, through Edward Lear, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Viv Stanshall and Malcolm Hardee to modern acts such as Reeves & Mortimer. To say that Newley’s venture into television comedy fits into this genre almost feels like something of an understatement. The first episode of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade opens with a scene from a predictable enough looking situation comedy of the era, but before the opening credits have even run, Newley breaks through the fourth wall, walks out of the studio and out into a world in which the viewer is left listening to his inner thoughts and watching his interactions with dustbins and vacuum cleaners. At the finale of the episode, he wanders into a house, only to find the cast of the situation comedy that had kicked the show off watching him on their television set.
Such surrealism was a little too much for the British television audience of the time, though. After just two episodes, the programme was pushed back in the schedules from a prime time slot to a late evening place after audiences tumbled, and there is stayed for its remaining four episodes. What is signifcant about this is that it would appear that the show’s production team knew that this was likely to happen. The penultimate episode of the series sees Gurney Slade – a name, by the way, that was lifted from that of a village in Somerset – in court, defending himself on a charge of having no sense of humour, whilst the final episode of the series ties all of the previous episodes together with a curiously unsettling ending. Newley’s character, it turns out, is a character trapped inside a television programme which is the very programme that the audience is watching.
The ratings failure of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade wasn’t enough to destabilse the career of its star. In 1961, Newley and co-writer Leslie Bricusse won an Ivor Novello award for the song “What Kind Of Fool Am I?”, and two years later the same song won the Grammy Award for Song Of The Year. In the same year – 1963 – Newley married Joan Collins, by whom he had two children before the couple seperated in 1970, and a year after that he co-write – again with Bricusse – the songs for the film Willy Wonka & The Choclate Factory. Although his career did enter into a decline after this, he continued to work as a nightclub entertainer, but his health declined in his later years and he died of renal cancer in 1999 at the relatively young age of 67. Across film, television and stage, however, he left a legacy that perhaps isn’t as widely recognised as it should be.
What, though, was the legacy of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade? In its open lampoonery of establishment figures such as judges and police officers, we can see traces of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and in his tendency to take off into stream of conciousness comedy there is a hint of the stylings of Marty Feldman. Significantly, however, whereas Python and Feldman came after the great shake-up the the 1960s brought to many corners of British society, Newley’s comedy came in 1960, in the same year as the conclusion of the watershed Lady Chatterey’s Lover obscenity trial and a full three years before the Profumo scandal blew the lid off the sexual proclivities of the wealthy and powerful. Britain was a very different place in 1960 to that which it was by 1970, and Anthony Newley was there at the very start of it, producing comedy that was so far ahead of its time that the watching audience had no reference points with which they could readily identify.
Indeed, one of the most notable characteristics of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade is precisely how simultaneously modern and timeless it often feels. Furthermore, because it was – unlike almost all other comedy at the time – shot on film and on location rather than in a studio in front of a television audience, we might even venture to suggest that this is a series that has more in common with the likes of the very modern – and completely superb – Toast Of London than almost any British comedy made in the four decades which immediately followed it. We can only theorise over what might have happened had ATV held its nerve, seen the first series through to its completion in a prime time slot and then commissioned a second series of it. There’s a chance that a more familiarised audience might have seen the satire of the medium a little more clearly and that it might have become as much a part of the story of television comedy in Britain as other satirical shows of the era, such as That Was The Week That Was. The company didn’t, however, the show didn’t, and Newley soon found himself back in the profitable but safe world of songwriting and light entertainment. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that songwriting and light entertainment’s gain was most definitely comedy’s loss.
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