(A slightly revised version of this blog was published in the Huffington Post)
When I got back from the Edinburgh Fringe at the start of last week, the newly-released DVD collection of The Strange World of Gurney Slade was waiting for me – a TV series by the immensly talented Anthony Newley so obscure that even the word ‘cult’ cannot be attached to it, although its style allegedly influenced the young David Bowie.
When originally transmitted on ITV’s sole channel in 1960, the first two episodes were screened to general apathy at 8.35pm on (from memory) Friday nights, but were then quickly moved to the graveyard slot of 11.10pm.
The Strange World of Gurney Slade was far too strange and avant garde for the mass audience and did not quite have the right ingredients to be a cult for Guardian-reading trendies.
But strange and quirky it certainly is.
The Prisoner – which, when first transmitted in 1967/1968, received high levels not of apathy but of active dislike, became a lasting cult success – I suspect, partly because it was screened in the US so had a wider fan base… and partly because it was transmitted on ITV at 7.30pm peaktime on Sundays
But, The Strange World of Gurney Slade is weird even for a surreal neo-Brechtian fantasy. Even so, it was but a mild trial run for Tony Newley’s 1969 all-stops-pulled-out feature film jaw-dropper of a Fellini-esque fantasy Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Merchant Humppe and Find True Happiness?
Newley – a creative all-rounder – singer, songwriter, actor, director, fantasist – will be remembered, if at all, as an idiosyncratic performer and writer of mainstream songs. But he should also be rated as a considerable experimental creator of visual fantasies.
I have blogged previously about my only encounter with Tony Newley – and it was a very favourable encounter. He impressed me as a person.
TV producer Danny Greenstone knew Newley peripherally through theatrical agent Jeremy Hicks, who had been the company stage manager for Newley’s West End musical The Good Old Bad Old Days and spent a year working with Newley at the Prince of Wales theatre in London.
In The Good Old Bad Old Days, Newley played the Devil and wore horns and a tail, the edge of which he used in the show to peel an apple. Before going on stage, he always took a swig from his ‘honey flask’. Danny Greenstone says:
“Lord only knows what formula was in there but it did contain honey as well. After taking a swig, he would stomp on stage, perform and stomp off again on cue. As he came off stage, he would reach for the honey flask again and, referring to the the bit of business or gag or song he had just performed, would mutter under his breath: ‘Masterly…. Masterly….’.
“During the interval, his favourite thing to do, with various members of the cast – but notably with Bill Kerr – would be to sit and watch videos of The Bilko Show, one of his very favourites.
“For the 50th performance of The Good Old Bad Old Days, he and his writing partner Leslie Bricusse wrote parody lyrics to fit all sixteen of the show’s songs for a celebration party held in the circle bar of the Prince of Wales for all the cast and crew. I have that recording. I also have a whole recording of the show from start to finish and it’s a crime that the original cast recording (once available on cassette and LP) has never been made available on CD.
“When my daughter Katy was about eight years old I took her to see Newley perform at the Dominion Theatre in London, where he was appearing as Ebeneezer in Bricusse’s musical adaptation of Scrooge!. I had rung him beforehand to say we were coming (we had front row seats) and asked if we could come round and see him after the show. It was New Year’s Eve.
“In typical Newley fashion he said: ‘No! Come round before… and then come round after…‘.
“We met him in his dressing room, which was lovingly adorned with posters from the films he’d appeared in and we spent a good half hour just chatting happily. He laughed his way through at least 28 of those 30 minutes while removing the scalp latex that covered his own hair during the show in which he had a long grey wig as Ebeneezer Scrooge. We both watched, transfixed, as he removed the makeup and prosthetics.
“He took Katy’s hand, kissed it, took her programme and wrote on it – with a silver gel pen – To Katy – you are very beautiful. I still have it. I don’t think it meant very much to an eight year old, but it meant the world to me.
“He told us of his plans to create a musical based on the life and career of Charles Chaplin. We wished him a very Happy New Year ahead and much success with everything.
“The Chaplin musical (co-written with Stanley Ralph Ross, an American who also wrote for the Batman series and the Monkees series on US TV, was doomed to never get onto Broadway or anywhere near the UK.
“The Chaplin estate denied Newley rights to portray the image of the Little Tramp character for reasons we can only guess at.
“And three years later, after a fleeting appearance in BBC TV’s EastEnders and far more sumptuous but likewise fleeting appearances as The Bishop in BBC TV’s The Lakes, Tony Newley was dead.”