Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Strange World of Gurney Slade

What to make of Anthony Newley?

The young Tony Robinson wasn’t sure, and he played his son on the West End stage:
 I was awestruck by Tony Newley; he was intense, anguished, and seemed completely detached from the rest of the world. He never spoke to me – that was part of his mystery – but I watched him obsessively from the wings … Every night I mimicked his words, and gazed agonisingly into the spotlight pulling a heartbroken face, just like he did. 
Today, when Newley is something of a forgotten figure, it is hard for any of us to be sure, but I have a feeling he was more important than we realise.

He links two great eras of 20th-century British culture – 1940s cinema and 1960s pop – co-wrote the songs Feelin’ Good and Goldfinger, influenced David Bowie’s singing and was negotiating for a regular role in EastEnders when he died.

So what to make of The Strange World of Gurney Slade?

I have long heard of this 1960 comedy series and recently bought and watched the DVD.

It begins with the hero Gurney Slade, played by Newley, escaping from an awful situation comedy and going out to explore the world.

There he indulges in internal monologues about the absurdities of everyday life that you can imagine in Tony Hancock’s voice. Then a section about the absurdities of dating, featuring Una Stubbs in a very early role, looks forward to observational comedy.

After that things get really strange. There are a group of children – strange symbolic children who resemble the ones you find in 1940s Hollywood films such as The Blue Bird and The Boy with Green Hair.

And it ends with a spot of the absurdist theatre that was popular in 1960s as the characters sit round and waiting to be written into another show.

The cast is strong: Bernie Winters, Hugh Paddick and Fenella Fielding turn up, while the floor manager Newley brushes off as he makes his escape at the start is played by a young Geoffrey Palmer.

But is it funny?

It didn’t make me laugh, but then Charlie Chaplin doesn’t make me laugh even though I can see he is a genius. In the same way, I can see that The Strange World of Gurney Slade is important and interesting.

And the show gives its own answer. At one point Newley is put on trial for not being funny. After rejecting the defence counsel supplied by the court, an awful red-nosed comedian, defends himself. 

If being like him is what is meant by being funny, he asks by implication, who wants to be funny? 

The best comment on the show is to be found in a trailer Newley made, still in character, for its second showing.

As Andy Murray once described it on We Are Cult:
On a dark street, a smartly-dressed young man stands with a panting sheepdog, peering at a tattered advertising hoarding for a TV show. Addressing the figure pictured on the hoarding, the man says, “Well, it was a noble effort, wasn’t it? You tried. I give you that, you tried. But the public is no man’s fool, you know. The public knows what it wants, and you had no right to even try and suggest something different. Anyway, the public doesn’t like anything… suggestive.” 
The man nods down towards the sheepdog. “He thinks you were before your time. Personally, I don’t think we’re ever going to reach the time that you’re in.”


Frank Little said...

Let us hear it also for Max Harris's theme tune - which I am now finding it difficult to get out of my head, now that I have read your post.

Frank Little said...

Gurney Slade also spawned Fancy Wanders, which provided an early TV outing for Joe Marcell, later to make his name on the other side of the pond in Fresh Prince.