If I had to name my favourite novel, I would probably have to say Wuthering Heights. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the ingenuity with which we move deeper and deeper into the narrative, with a narrator eventually telling us what somebody said to somebody who told his tale to somebody who told her tale to somebody. I love the cleverness of a multi-layered narrative, and in this fifth episode of The Strange World of Gurney Slade we have at least four levels of reality. This being Gurney Slade, all the levels feature Gurney Slade.
The outermost layer of the story is the one we inhabit ourselves, as the viewers. Gurney Slade makes a habit of breaking through the fourth wall into our world, and this episode is no exception:
“Why didn’t you stop indoors and watch the television?”
“Nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.”
Normally it is Gurney himself who breaks the fourth wall, but this week he is much more the passive victim of events that sweep him away and make him lose control of his own life, and that extends to the fourth wall break, which is perpetrated by a child. The moment where Gurney starts the theme music with a flourish of his fingers on an invisible piano is also taken from him this week, and is done by a child instead.
The second layer is the one we are watching when the episode starts, with Gurney telling a story to a group of children. He talks about a magical tinker who can grant wishes, and just as he is explaining that his story is fiction and there is no such thing as the tinker, his imaginary creation makes an appearance. Gurney is losing control of what happens in his own reality. At the beginning of the series we saw him escape from reality into his own mind, and it seems this is no longer a safe haven for him.
Gurney has been telling the children how wonderful “Gurneyland” is, expecting them to understand that he means the fantasy world inside one’s own head:
“It’s where anything can happen. Gurneyland’s up here in your mind, your head. Like you know when you’re lying in bed asleep and you think you can play football better than Stanley Matthews, or when you’re running faster than anybody in the world, or you’ve dreamt that you’re a film star, that’s Gurneyland.”
But these are children, and they take a literal approach. If Gurneyland is that fun, they are going to go there, and instead of inhabiting their own fantasy worlds they disappear into Gurney’s own mind. That takes us into the third layer.
We can clearly see why Gurney wanted to escape from reality into his own mind at the start of the series. It’s neatly divided into rooms, so unpleasant aspects of the mind like depression can be kept behind closed doors, although they do look rather flimsy. Things are now clearly going wrong in his mind. The children are going where they please, and his only means of getting rid of them is to take the advice of “the wicked side” of his nature, amusingly represented by a version of Gurney with his hair teased up into two horns. Before Gurney finally accepts the idea of focusing his mind on immorality to get shot of the interlopers, he makes a quick visit to the deepest level of the story, watching himself singing in his own mind. This is an interesting one, because Gurney is watching himself performing “Strawberry Fair”, which was a 1960 hit for Anthony Newley, so is this breaking the fourth wall in the opposite direction to the initial break, with the character observing the actor who plays him? The song is a parody of the old folk song, but it’s more than that because it was presumably created as a reaction to the rather dull Beverley Sisters version of the song that was released as a B side in 1959. Actor and character start to merge, both fighting the humdrum with surreal humour as the tool they use.
The episode left me with just one question: why does Newley’s ring move to his fifth finger when he performs the song? Any Anthony Newley fans out there who can explain that in the comments section? Give that some thought, and then come back to the Junkyard for the final part of our “binge watch” of The Strange World of Gurney Slade at 9pm GMT today. “I’ll just let my mind wander and then I’ll follow it.” RP