Welcome to Gurney Slade day in the Junkyard! We are going to do something we don’t normally do here: a binge watch. With just six episodes, of a little over half an hour each, this series lends itself to that approach. But what is The Strange World of Gurney Slade exactly? Most readers probably won’t have heard of it, and it is definitely an obscure moment in television history, but has gained a small cult following over the years. It was first shown in 1960, and the viewers at the time didn’t take to it, with the series moved to a graveyard slot after the first two episodes, although it did earn a repeat showing three years later.
We start with what appears to be a sitcom, except something isn’t quite right. The actor playing the dad looks shifty and grumpy, as if he doesn’t quite belong there. This is Gurney Slade, played by Anthony Newley, a big star at the time. When it’s his turn to deliver a line, he says nothing. Panic ensues, because of course in those days this kind of show was broadcast live, so we have the kinds of techniques that are used in theatres, with a prompter reminding the actor of the line, while the other actors nervously try to improvise. But it’s clear that Gurney hasn’t forgotten the line, and it doesn’t matter how many times that soft voice says “a boiled egg please, my love”. He’s not forgetful; he’s had enough with acting in this mediocre sitcom, so he walks straight through the “fourth wall”, off the set and out of the studio. Future household name Geoffrey Palmer makes a cameo appearance as the floor manager who confronts him on his way out, but to no avail.
What follows is a portrait of a man having a mental breakdown, but seeming to quite enjoy it. This series is often mentioned as a precursor to The Prisoner, and I can see why, although I would suggest it has more in common with The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. However, that series showed much more of the pain and frustrations of a breakdown, whereas this is more the fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, one segment plays out like a silent movie, and is captioned Gurney in Wonderland.
Almost immediately a stone starts talking to Gurney, and then he has a conversation with a dog (again, this is pure Wonderland). The surrealism is Alice-like too, with the world Gurney inhabits moulding itself around his inner thoughts. For example, his twinge of guilt at stealing a newspaper is reflected in the headline “Can’t you afford twopence halfpenny?” The talking statue would have benefited from a bit of stop motion animation or something of that nature, but we can’t have everything. At least we are being treated to almost an entire episode of location filming, shot on film.
The weirdness is compounded by the dubbing of Gurney’s lines, which extend not just to his thoughts but also a few occasions when he is speaking, making everything feel a bit wrong, and then the Wonderland absurdities are present in reversals of normality, such as the “Please Keep on the Grass” sign. In fact, this reflects more strongly the Looking Glass world, where everything plays backwards to usual life.
With other people appearing to interact with Gurney and at times play along with his fantasies, we are left wondering how much of what we are seeing is actually happening, and we get our answer when the POV switches from that of Gurney to a bystander, and his fantasy companion (Una Stubbs!) and the vacuum cleaner he is taking for a walk both disappear from the shot. Presumably we are getting to the truth at this point: Gurney is simply going crazy, and seeing things nobody else can. He has started living in a fantasy world of his own creation… and then something happens to challenge that again, when he finds the sitcom family watching the television, and thinks he is still trapped inside a television show. Having walked through the fourth wall of his sitcom, Gurney realises there is another fourth wall, and heads through that as the episode ends:
“Leave me alone. Switch me off.”
… and we can’t watch him any more… for now. Have we been drawn into the narrative, only to be rejected with the shattering of another fourth wall? Maybe we’ll find out in episode two…
Our binge watch of The Strange World of Gurney Slade continues at 9am, GMT.
Leave me alone… leave the Junkyard… but come back soon for episode two… RP