There have been fourth wall breaks throughout this series, but this is the ultimate fourth wall break, because it lasts the entire episode. We start with some people taking a tour of a studio where The Strange World of Gurney Slade is being made, and looking straight at the camera. They treat Gurney as if he is no different to a piece of equipment, and one that is working but “having problems”. This is going to be a scathing attack on the television industry.
“It has a tendency to produce jokes that nobody can understand.”
Everyone is clearly having a huge amount of fun with this. The actors stand and look at the captions, as if they are visible in the studio (it’s just a shame they didn’t quite line up the shot correctly for the whole sequence, but they were trying to do something extraordinarily difficult in 1960). We get one final example of Gurney starting off the theme music with a flourish of his fingers on an invisible piano. I’m going to miss seeing that.
Anyone interested in ontology should find this episode fascinating. The main focus is on the various characters who have inhabited Gurney’s world throughout the series, who are all troubled by their lack of true identities, beyond the requirements of the scripts. Most disturbingly, the executioner from the courtroom episode doesn’t have an identity behind the mask. If this were being made nowadays as an episode of Doctor Who, the mask would probably be removed to reveal featureless skin underneath, but the implication is troubling enough. The characters also fret about what happens to them when the series ends. It doesn’t seem to be a case of just popping out of existence. These people are doomed to an eternity performing the same actions. They seem to think they will be stuck for years living empty lives once Gurney has gone. But the writers can’t quite bring themselves to be that cruel to the characters they have created, and a “gentleman from the characters bureau” turns up to give them new roles. In another attack on the television industry, there is an attempt to discard one of the child actors, and each and every character gets typecast or, in the case of Anneke Wills’s love interest for Gurney, has to see her life take a very depressing turn, heading off to film a French porn film.
The really clever thing about all this is that Gurney doesn’t quite behave like he is a character too, and yet a grim fate awaits him. The shadow of the imminent arrival of a mysterious man hangs over the episode, with the director in the gallery counting down the minutes to the end of the episode. Gurney’s actions are also being controlled from the gallery, and he is apparently unaware of that fact, although he does realise that he was “born” six weeks ago. When the mysterious man arrives, it’s like travelling through another fourth wall that we never quite realised was there…
“Right, cue Anthony Newley.”
This has to be the most astonishing and disturbing end to a series I’ve ever seen. The actor playing Gurney arrives, playing himself, and Gurney is paralysed in stages until he becomes a dummy. The moment is accompanied by a musical screech, like watching a scene in a horror movie. It’s shocking, and incredibly clever.
Throughout this whole series there has been a strong sense that everyone making it knew it would not be well received. Astonishingly, Green, Hills and Newley seemed to genuinely understand that they were making a style of television that didn’t belong in 1960 and would not be accepted by the viewers, or at least that’s what comes across throughout the series. It’s decades ahead of it’s time. In fact, 60 years later I’m not sure if television has even reached the level of inventiveness and intelligence yet that would make this a palatable series today. But at least The Strange World of Gurney Slade has at last found its audience, albeit a cult following that has flourished over the years by word of mouth. Let’s keep that going. Tell anyone who will listen how amazing this series is, how astonishing it was that this got made in 1960, and how anyone with even a passing interest in the history of television needs to experience the brave, funny, disturbing, and above all strange world of Gurney Slade.
“I’m sure Gurney would have liked to have said goodnight, and to thank you for watching. Good night.” RP