One of the archive television events of 2011 was the DVD release of ATV’s 1960 six-part series, ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’.
Gurney, devised and performed by pop singer and former child actor Anthony Newley (he was the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 film of ‘Oliver Twist’), and written by the team of Dick Hills and Sid Green, is an odd character who lives through his own imagination – an idea which would be developed in Newley’s first stage musical collaboration with Leslie Bricusse, ‘Stop The World … I Want To Get Off’ (1962).
A cult classic since its first showing (at first in a primetime slot but then relegated to after 11.00pm), and subsequent 1963 repeat, ‘Gurney Slade’ is sharp, clever, funny, and full of quirky and original ideas.
There’s a couple of talking dogs, a billboard girl who comes out to dance, a floorshow in Gurney’s mind, and even a court case over whether the show is really funny – featuring Douglas Wilmer (Sherlock Holmes for the BBC in 1965) as prosecuting counsel. The mind of Gurney Slade is a tangled web of thoughts, visions, a fairy in an Italian suit, and some half-created characters.
Showing the influence of the Goons and looking forward to the Fringe and Monty Python, ‘Gurney Slade’ was an enormous gamble for both ATV and their young protégé who had only previously fronted variety shows, and appeared in one film referencing the drafting of Elvis into the Army, ‘Idle on Parade’ (1959).
Critics approved, but viewers did not, and were left bemused, confused, and cross. However one young viewer was impressed enough to develop a new, Newley influenced persona – one David Jones, who found fame as David Bowie. Compare his hit ‘The Laughing Gnome’ with Newley’s ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ if you’re not convinced.
As for Newley, he was to have a turbulent decade ahead following Gurney – divorce from actress Ann Lynn and a dalliance with the young Anneke Wills (Gurney’s perfect miss from episode two) was followed by a high-profile marriage to Joan Collins, which produced two children, an audio collaboration with Peter Sellers (Fool Britannia) and a film ‘Will Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?’ (1969).
Professionally, ‘Stop The World …’ was followed by ‘The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd’ (1964) and there were more films – ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’ (1963) and ‘Sweet November’ (1968). Notably, too, Newley collaborated with John Barry on one of the great James Bond themes – ‘Goldfinger’.
Gurney Slade flags up Anthony Newley’s comedic gift and timing, and his talent as an actor. It is sad that his death at sixty-seven in 1999 prevented us from hearing his insights on this rediscovery of his before-it’s-time comedy. But for any fan of quirky humour, or of Newley himself, this mini-series is a must-see.