Review for The Strange World of Gurney Slade - The Complete Series
This DVD release is in the 'Holy Grail' category for many devoted fans of archive TV. I'd only vaguely heard of it in relation to a David Bowie interview. (Fans of early Bowie will hear the huge influence that Anthony Newley's singing voice had on his). On paper it sounds like the sort of show I'd love. But sadly I didn't. Which is not to say I hated it, but rather that it came as something of a disappointment. A period curio certainly (with oodles of nostalgic charm), but actually irritatingly tedious in large doses.
As the show opened I could feel myself getting into an increasingly positive mind-set. Great image quality and a superb false start (a standard family sit-com that Newley literally walks out on, into the open TV studio, much to the chagrin of the remaining actors and crew), and a strutting walk into swinging sixties suburbia - but it was there that my elation stopped and the sixth-form cod philosophising began.
Anthony Newley, a very popular man about town at the time (1960), actually conjured up the idea for the series himself, but developed it with two comedy writers (Dick Hills and Sid Green of 'Morcambe and Wise' fame).
The very trippy, typically sixties idea was that Newley would step into and out of suburban reality into his own mind-space where he could converse with animals, pixies, and inanimate objects - questioning received values and knowledge along the way. Which sounds laudable enough until you have to endure the misplaced idealism of Newley stopping a married couple with children and asking them if they shouldn't have both hung on for something better. In Gurney's world everyone immediately sees his point of view so they both happily agree to separate…and not a word from or about the kids who are left with Gurney. Ho hum. Hardly surprising that it was cancelled just four shows in and put into a late night spot for the final two.
A feature of the series, and popular in many later films of the period, is Newley addressing the so-called 'fourth-wall' (i.e. the audience). It's a technique that I have never felt comfortable with and which works rarely (Woody Allen and the Lieutenant Drebben 'looks' in Police Squad being the most successful, after Grouch Marx and Lou Abbott). It certainly doesn't sit well outside comedy. And there's the rub. This series screamed 'comedy credentials' and yet delivers very few laughs.
The other technique used throughout is Newley's 'inner dialogue'. We hear plenty from him - but as a narrator with Newley merely reacting in shot to these thoughts. He does a sterling job but it gets pretty tiresome after a while.
After Newley leaves the surrounds of the sit-com in episode one (where his wife is ironing, his boy doing his homework, and the neighbours are all in discussing how best to cook eggs) we follow Newley (Gurney Slade) out into the street. We then see him do 'piano fingers' as the theme tune kicks in - sassy, cool and infectious, perhaps the very best thing from the series.
Sitting on London's Embankment we hear Newley thinking and he wonders what others are thinking too. That gives a cue for more 'inner dialogue' including that of passers-by, which is predictably mundane. He then attempts to have a conversation with a dog using a language of his own making, steals a newspaper (and the headlines reflect his meanness) and shares a chauffeured car with a businessman who he assumes has a head full of important figures, critical for the smooth running of Britain's economy. It turns out the man is thinking of figures of a different sort (a girl's telephone number). And so it goes.
Una Stubb's then steps out of a poster advertising a vacuum cleaner. They dance down the street together - or do they? When we see it from a man in the street' s POV we see only Gurney - a curious Billy Liar type fantasist perhaps?
And that's all just episode one - a mess of ideas that are neither funny nor particularly thought-provoking.
Episode 2 kicks off with some impressive tracking shots in an empty air-field. We hear the lone figure of Gurney ruminating on how best to meet girls without all the formalities and rituals of courting. The airfield becomes a stage for an imaginary dance meet and we see Newley courting Anneke Wills (with whom in real-life he had an affair). In the episode we hear their true thoughts, though we also endure the formal dialogue of their likely real-life meeting. Tedious stuff - though some of the shots are truly breathtakingly good for TV, monochrome 35mm at its finest.
The only light relief from the relentless pondering is the appearance of a pixie-like Hugh Paddick who appears to contradict Gurney's proposition (to the children he has ended up with from the couple he has persuaded to question their marriage) that childhood ideas soon disappear and are not real.
Paddick offers them a wish and we next see them in a tip trying to pull bits off mannequins to construct their ideal mother. Very Freudian, very surreal and, in the final analysis, rather trite.
The remaining episodes are equally surreal. We see Gurney talking to ants and considering their way of life, as well as dogs and cows on a farm where the humans are being kept by animals (very Orwellian) and with a scarecrow (Oz) and on it goes.
We eventually see Gurney in a courtroom where he is accused of making a TV show that wasn't very funny. Oh the irony!
Extra features on the disc are slight - just three promos and a behind the scenes gallery.
Whilst Network should be applauded for releasing such a curio, and it certainly has a huge cult fan-base, I would recommend caution for the casual buyer. Whilst there is much to enjoy from a historic perspective (this was very much a product of its time and, airing in the early sixties, can be seen as a clear start point to that swinging era) and the print is excellent (even on the single layer DVD-R I was sent for review purposes) in my opinion it just isn't funny and it isn't clever. Apart from that I loved it.