Another chance to see… The Strange World of Gurney Slade 

19 August 2021 tbs.pm/73613

ATV

ATV, 1960

Way, way ahead of its time… and all the better for it.

In 1959 Anthony Newley was an emerging talent on British television. He’d starred in the musical comedy film Idol On Parade which had been inspired by Elvis Presley’s conscription into the US army. A song from the film (‘I’ve Waited So Long’) made its way into the UK singles charts and ushered in a career which would bring him greater recognition as a songwriter as well as a singer. Newley had firm ideas about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, forever trying new ideas. His singing and acting talents made him ideal for the TV light entertainment shows of the day where, in 1960, he found himself fronting two editions of the ATV variety show Saturday Spectacular. The shows were scripted by Sid Green and Dick Hills who would soon go on to write for Morecambe and Wise. As a restless talent Newley wasn’t just content to be fed with material, he wanted to work on it as well. Thankfully Green and Hills were open to Newley’s input and the collaboration proved fruitful.

Like Newley, Green and Hills were keen to explore new territories and between the three of them a new form of situation comedy was created based around a character by the name of Gurney Slade, the name of a Somerset village that captivated Newley’s imagination after passing through it. Gurney would be seen wandering alone in a world of his own making and surrounded by nothing other than his own thoughts while questioning the status quo. The show would mark itself aside from other sitcoms of the day by being made entirely on film rather than being studio bound with an audience or laughter track. At the start of production a fourth member of the team appeared, series producer Alan Tarrant who also contributed to the creative mix as well as aiding Newley with his first outing as director as well as performer.

The opening scene in Episode One sets everything up perfectly, for here we are watching an ordinary run-of-the-mill cosy middle-class family sitcom with Gurney as one of the cast, sitting quietly but appearing edgy and at odds with the scripted conversation. At the moment he is to deliver his first line he remains silent and withdrawn while the other cast members anxiously try to cue him in and cover for him. Gurney’s having none of this and slowly and quietly gets up and walks off the set past cameras trying to follow him while an exasperated floor manager tries to call him back. Between them Newley, Green, Hills and Tarrant have just stuck two fingers up at traditional tedious situation comedy and taken their character out through the emergency exit into the ‘real’ world.

 


 

But Gurney’s real world is very different to ours. As he strolls away from the studio he finds himself in conversation with various inanimate objects such as a dustbin, a rock that he casts into the river and even a newspaper headline expressing its disdain at Gurney trying to ‘lift’ it from the unmanned news stand without paying for it. He also manages a conversation about his dissatisfaction of television with a passing stray dog before enjoying a picnic with a girl in a poster selling vacuum cleaners (the girl returns to the poster but Gurney is lumbered with the cleaner).

Newley’s Saturday Spectacular outings had been a hit with viewers and so the TV bosses were keen to throw their weight behind this interesting new series. ATV London aired Episode One across the ITV network in the prime time slot of 8.35pm on Saturday 22 October 1960, placing it opposite BBCtv’s Saturday Playhouse. Ratings were high, roughly 12.5 million viewers and reviews for the show were full of praise. However, the joy of all this was short lived. It must be remembered that this was still a Britain of only two TV channels, if what was one side didn’t appeal then the majority would be watching the other with nowhere else to go. Those who stuck with ITV on this occasion thoroughly disapproved of what they saw, expressing their disappointment and anger in rafts of phone calls and letters. Many were even upset at its modernist approach, they were obviously expecting the kind of sitcom that Gurney Slade had just walked away from. Unlike the BBC, ITV were not in a position to give a failing series a second chance, especially one allocated a prime time Saturday night slot. The following week the audience figures had dropped by four million and the remainder of the series was soon rescheduled into a post 11pm slot where it was hoped it would appeal to a younger and more appreciative audience.

Those who did stay with it would see Gurney wander into situations that became more surreal with each episode. Storylines revolved around Gurney’s silent musings and contemplation, made available to us via his voice-overs, his philosophies and ruminations often having unexpected effects on the characters he encounters and interacts with. In one instance a man abandons his family after a conversation with Gurney about who and why we love. Gurney doesn’t have the answers, he simply ponders on the question in hand and then questions the outcome. If a situation doesn’t resolve positively, well that’s just what life does.

After a while though, it becomes clear that while Gurney is an observer of all that goes on around him, it’s likely that none of the characters he encounters and interacts with actually exist, they are merely his own creations placed into the situations, most of which he finds himself ill at ease with, but are the result of his own musings and even his fears and frustrations. In episode four he has to defend himself against a prosecution of not being funny by citing pieces about countersunk screws (you have to see this one to understand it) while a character in a billboard poster is grilled over facial expressions. In the penultimate episode the perspective widens as Gurney rubs a tinker’s pot and is forced to explore his own mind. Now we get to ponder if as well as his characters, Gurney Slade is in fact a figment of his own imagination.

 

Courtesy of Network Distributing

 

The series concludes by taking a dark and unsettling turn in Episode Six. Gurney is seen in a TV studio where his every action and interaction is being cued by a producer and director, outside forces controlling his every move and this time, he knows exactly what’s going on. This is his last shot, in twenty-four minutes for reasons of which he is aware but are unknown to us, Gurney Slade will cease to exist, his lack of concern or discomfort over the situation being all the more unnerving. As he counts down the minutes the characters that he has created throughout the series come to say their goodbyes, but are all worried about what will become of them. They line up individually to say a final farewell, Gurney offers them words of reassurance that everything will be fine after which they walk away one by one and simply disappear. Then it’s Gurney’s turn, the nature of his demise not being for those of a nervous disposition.

Parallels can be drawn with The Prisoner and The Truman Show, while the manner in which his characters make their exit provides a pointer towards the series finale of Ashes To Ashes some fifty years later. It was clearly a series ahead of its time, its ending hinting that a second series was never going to happen. Cult TV didn’t really exist as a genre back in 1960 but ATV at least recognised that the show had acquired a niche audience and gave it a repeat run in September 1963, partly to appease those who’d heard about this bizarre show but had missed it on its initial run, but also to see if the show’s supporters had been right in their claim that it really was simply ahead of its time. Again, a late slot was chosen (10.15pm on Saturdays) but this time drew a consistent audience of 7.5 million viewers. The show had aged well.

This was the case when in 1991 Channel Four ran a strand of retrospective TV programming over a season of Saturday nights under the banner TV Heaven. Episode One of The Strange World Of Gurney Slade ignited interest from generations who were more willing to approach the show with an open mind. Of course, had it been made in later years it would have quickly acquired the status of cult TV but would have been one of many. In 1960 though it was there by itself and I like to think it owes its new found interest on DVD and YouTube to its initial failure in the ratings and the furore that it caused among an unsuspecting mainstream viewing public. Patrick McGoohan would rattle their cages again seven years later.

Proceed Gurney Slade…

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You Say

1 response to this article

Leonard Carghill 26 August 2021 at 5:17 am

The piece on countersunk screws seemed to be a not so subtle critique of product marketing with which we have now become almost totally brainwashed with meaningless catchphrases and slogans for all manner of commercial products and services.

One may wonder if the court trial of Gurney Slade provided the inspiration for the trial of Number 6.

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Liverpool, Friday 26 November 2021