Anyone reading my last post, about Monty Python's Flying Circus, might have thought that I managed to deal with one of the greats of cult television in what was at best a low-key, if not sloppy, way. Naturally, the real purpose of that post was to bring the subject of Monty Python 'into the room', before I write about Gurney Slade. That is of course also the reason I delineate the TV comedy that I do like in that post.
Since the avowed purpose of this blog since I began it has been to avoid description almost completely and concentrate on analysis, for a very comprehensive blog post which manages to combine intelligent analysis with more description than I would like to include here, I would refer you here So on with the analysis. My first and foremost reaction to Gurney Slade is that I have been putting off writing this post for some months. I have owned the disc for that long, watched it through twice, but I also realise that I have been avoiding watching it because I was half-intending to write my neglected blog post. I realise that this avoidance has been because I perceive this series as one of the greats of cult TV, and while I may be casual in handling Monty Python, I don't want to do this one a disservice. This difference in approach to the two series indicates a completely arbitrary difference of perception. And this lengthy navel-gazing indicates the effect of watching several episodes of Gurney Slade on the same day, and my perceived need to be reflective about it.
If at this point you should wish to break off and read Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica instead, I will quite understand, because I'm going to seem very critical of this show, despite my apparently laudatory comments above. The main reason I wanted to praise up Monty Python on the blog before bringing up Gurney Slade, is that I feel Monty Python gets it exactly right and Gurney Slade gets it so wrong in so many ways. My flight into introspective reflection above, is intended to illustrate both the effect of the show, its main theme, and some indication of the necessary thought to understand this.
The other day I was telling one of my colleagues how I was waiting for the bus to work and a seagull came strutting towards me on the pavement, just exactly as if it was telling me off. She looked at me as if I'd got two heads, and suggested I should keep those sort of thoughts to myself. My point here is that as Gurney Slade so rightly says, we all have a Gurneyland in our head. It is our own personal Gurneyland, and Gurney Slade's own Gurneyland fails because it is his own. Such a reflective show misses it completely by effectively being a passive viewing of somebody else's own personal odd thoughts. The other things is, of course, that while we all genuinely have a Gurneyland, we rightly keep it to ourselves, merely to enable us to live in civilised society. The Strange World of Gurney Slade will not only not encourage viewers to venture into their own 'Gurneyland', but most people's automatic response will be discomfort at the sort of things being made public that most people keep inside. Gurney Slade violates one of the main functions of television for many people: it's a friend, a confidante, an advisor, an escape. It particularly normalises our social reactions and behaviour. For Gurney Slade to do something so 'inappropriate' as expose a man's inner world in the context of a TV show, is to invite trouble. Now you may reply that not many years after this, such things as the exploration of, for example, sexual fantasies, became increasingly socially acceptable, but the social acceptability is what makes us comfortable with them. Talking dustbins and newspaper headlines with personal messages for the reader, have always been the territory of the psychiatrist, and there is no indication here that Gurney Slade is mentally unwell, which would again make it socially acceptable and comfortable for the viewer. Gurney Slade is often compared to The Prisoner, and I find it interesting to note that The Prisoner also had an infuriating effect on its original viewers. However, I feel that the multiple ways in which The Prisoner can be understood was probably its salvation, since it invites the viewer to think about the show and what it could refer to, in a way which ensures it still has its devout following 47 years later. Without these subtexts, Gurney Slade fails to draw the viewers intelligence in in the same way. It is a TV show about a TV show and there is a limit to how far you can go with that.
In my last post I placed the context for Monty Python's humour in intelligent university students' humour. It is difficult to place Gurney Slade's intellectual context in its period, because so much has happened since then. The humour of The Young Ones, for example, which uses may of the devices of Gurney Slade such as breaking the fourth wall and reflection on the medium of television, has come since then and can only colour my view of Gurney Slade. I would therefore theorise that Gurney Slade would finds its ideal audience in the 1950s intelligentsia, of the sort parodied now and then by Tony Hancock. These people would have a background in theatre, would probably hang around espresso bars in the evening, write their own poetry, probably wear black, and be considered beatniks by their neighbours. I'm ashamed to say that I think Gurney Slade's ideal audience, if they have proper jobs at all, would either work in the theatre or at the BBC. And of course this provides another context for Gurney Slade – I feel it is no chance that the studio in which much of the final episode is set, looks very much like an old-fashioned theatre. Gurney Slade is a theatre play. I feel if you imagine it played in a theatre, in a theatre set, it is ideally placed. To compare to Monty Python again, a major device used by Monty Python is to introduce the surreal and unexpected into a familiar world. Monty Python invites the viewer's imaginative participation much more by being set in a world which is very much our own; Gurney Slade is set in a theatre director's world.
Somewhat late in this blog post, I must also confess to a personal dislike of Anthony Newley. The place in the fifth episode where he breaks into song, shows his metier for what it really is, and introduces a bizarre 'variety' element into a surrealist comedy. I also feel he is too young for the role he is trying to pull off, and as a result comes off a bit too clever. My mention of variety above has made me think also of what the Great British Public's expectations of comedy at that time would have been, and I think they would have been much closer to variety, such as the Arthur Haynes show I reviewed recently, and which I felt was more to the taste of my mother or even grandmother. In addition to the faults I describe above, Gurney Slade came at a time in history that was in no way ready for it. That's what happens when you give the Golden Boy free rein to make a television show without stopping him. I have no doubt that Lew Grade wished he left him to singing and scripted parts in films.
My conclusion, therefore, is that if you want to watch a heavily reflexive, surreal, TV show, referencing the intellectual world of TV and theatre up to 1960, this is for you. If you want a good laugh and a cult show you will be able to talk to people about, stick to Monty Python or The Young Ones.