DVD Review: The Strange World of Gurney Slade

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What is ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’? Is it a sitcom? Is it a drama? Is it a very clever post-modern discourse on celebrity culture and the ephemeral nature and ultimate pointlessness of fictional characters? Don’t ask me; I’ve just watched all six thirty-minute black-and-white episodes and I’m really not sure I’ve got a clue what was going on…

Over the years Network DVD have carefully mined the TV archives for the very best populist and obscure titles from immaculately-presented boxsets of classic ITC action adventures and pioneering Gerry Anderson supermarionation shows to half-forgotten children’s adventure serials from the 1970s, some of them not even complete in the archives but released anyway for the sake of posterity. By now you might well imagine there’s not much left in the archives save a few old Arthur Mullard sitcoms. But despite such expectations, Network have discovered and unearthed ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’, a virtually unclassifiable production which, incredibly, dates from 1960 (the prints released on the DVD are spotless due to the series being shot single-camera, on film) and stars 1950s singing sensation Anthony Newley (ask your Mum…or even, gulp, your Grandmum) in what was clearly intended by ITV to be an accessible, prime time vehicle capitalising on the actor/singer’s burgeoning popularity. What they got was a wilfully-surreal, head-scratchingly meandering series which so baffled and infuriated its straight-thinking audience that ITV were forced to move it from its prime time slot after four weeks and dump the last two episodes in a post-11pm slot (this, kids, was in a time when ITV didn’t let its dead dog shows decompose in the harsh light of prime time but respected its audience enough to admit when a show wasn’t working and wasn’t afraid to move flops out of the firing line).

Newley plays the titular Gurney Slade who, in episode one, walks off the set of a deadly dull kitchen sink drama (a show which seems to pre-date ‘Coronation Street’ by a couple of years) and just…wanders around the streets having bizarre conversations with himself, people he meets (or dreams of meeting) and even animals. Across six increasingly-bizarre episodes - three of which are filmed entirely on location with the final three acted out on minimalist sets - Slade ruminates on the nature of love and romance (in episode two he contemplates a wordless romance with a pre-'Doctor Who' Anneka Wills), the aimlessness of country life, the nature of humour (rather tellingly in the fifth episode when the series has already singularly failed to tickle the nation's funny bone) and  in a final episode as obscure and barbed as the last episode of Patrick McGoohan's 'The Prisoner' some seven years later, the true nature of celebrity and the disposability of fiction and fictional characters as the little 'supporting cast' the show has built up the previous five weeks are all wheeled out again (look out for 1960s comic Bernie Winters as a party-goer) before being trundled off to fulfil similar narrative functions in other apparently-fruitless dramas. At the end of an episode which has been all about behind-the-scenes manipulation Newley himself steps out of the shadows and Gurney Slade slowly turns into a garish, grinning wooden puppet...Newley's ultimate condemnation of what celebrity and fame had turned him into?

If nothing else 'The Strange World of Gurney Slade' was - and in some ways still is - years ahead of its time, not so much breaking the fourth wall as utterly disregarding it. It's a fascinating, if frustrating snapshot of the perception of one 'celebrity' of the concept of 'fame' in the early 1960s, decades ahead of today's vacuous 'Big Brother'/reality TV culture but more than this it's a peculiar and somewhat warped look at the mundanities of life once all the artifice has been stripped away. Its lack of a coherent story or anyone readily identifiable as a 'character' may puzzle modern viewers; just imagine what it must have done to a black-and-white TV audience for whom the Second World War was a recent memory from just a decade and a half ago. Its quirky piano-riff theme tune and exagerrated incidental music suggest a warm and cosy family sitcom but 'Gurney Slade', having no recognisable 'sit' and precious little obvious 'com', defies any real categorization, even fifty years after its sole UK broadcast. It's really quite unlike any TV show I've ever watched and while I can admire the gall of it, the pioneering spirit which created it and the bloody-mindedness of both Newley and his writers creating something so wildly off-centre, I'm really not sure whether watching it is an enjoyable experience or an utterly pointless one. Should you choose to visit 'The Strange World of Gurney Slade' it's probably best that you're left to decide for yourself...

'The Strange World of Gurney Slade' is available from Network DVD on August 15th

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