The premise of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade sounds like a 1960’s TV precursor to The Truman Show: a sitcom actor (Anthony Newley) walks off the set in the middle of a live episode only to find that the ‘real world’ is in fact a sitcom considerably weirder than the one he left, one in which you can be tried in court for having no sense of humour and your internal monologues used as evidence against you.
In fact, what we get is lighter and more surreal than Peter Weir’s paranoia fest – so surreal that ITV moved it from primetime to a ‘graveyard’ slot after the first episode got poor ratings from audiences used to more a conventional narrative.
Written by creative team Dick Hills and Sid Green, who also wrote the first series of The Morecambe & Wise Show, the idea for the show came from actor, writer and chart-topping singer – and one-time husband of Joan Collins – Anthony Newley, who also starred in it.
Newley said his aim was to ‘achieve humour without setting out to be deliberately funny’ and it’s true that the show has a meditative quality, with the main protagonist spending much of his time indulging in internal monologues which then take on a reality of their own, but its cast of wacky characters – pompous policemen, haughty barristers, amorous women – seems with hindsight to have been an unacknowledged influence on Monty Python.
Among other things, it’s a gentle satire on 1960’s British consumer society and derives much of its interest from Gurney’s commentary on the conventions he sees around him, and his subversion of them, rather than from the plot. Consequently it has a meandering quality like the thoughts of its hero, who also does a lot of spatial meandering around London and the countryside, talking to whoever comes his way: laconic farm dogs, flirtatious cows, a girl on an advertisement for a hoover who seems able to leave her poster at will. There’s a lot of talking in the show.
The series gets better as it goes along with the second half benefitting from imaginative settings and something almost approaching a story arc within each episode. There is the Pythonesque trial in Episode 4, which has probably the best line of the show in it, a foray into Gurney’s mind in Episode 5 with Gurney’s objective being to ‘go out of his mind’ and get some unwelcome guests out of it too, and in the final episode a confrontation with the characters from previous episodes, who fully acknowledge themselves to be works of fiction and demand that Gurney make them more well-rounded so they can function better in the world.
Newley gives a hunched, slightly sinister performance as Gurney, alternately frowning like a madman and smiling diabolically (he even does a cameo as a devil). It’s a strange performance but it works, though its absence of naturalism does require some getting used to, as does the show itself. Once you adjust yourself to the show’s leisurely pace, wordiness and playful philosophising/satirizing in lieu of drama, however, there is plenty to enjoy in this surreal slice of the 1960’s that well deserves its cult status.
Released on DVD on Monday 25th August 2011 by Network.
Watch a clip…