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Anneke Wills: Gurney Slade, Anthony Newley and me

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Later this month, surreal 1960 ATV comedy series The Strange World of Gurney Slade, conceived by and starring Anthony Newley, is issued on DVD for the first time. Actress Anneke Wills, who would go on to star in dramas include Doctor Who and Strange Report, had a guest role in two of the series’ episodes, but her relationship with Newley extended beyond the series. She talks to Scott Matthewman about the series and the effect it had on her life

What do you remember about filming The Strange World of Gurney Slade?

What do I remember? A lot, of course. Especially because they sent me a little working copy [of the DVD]. And it is awful, because being an actress the first thing you think of is, “Oh! Why did they put me in that lumpy old macintosh that looked like a bloke’s?” That’s not what I remember. I remember being beautiful.

I was a busy young actress at the time. I’d had quite a bit of work. But when I wasn’t working I was hanging out at the wonderful Troubadour coffee house in West London, because that was the most exciting place to be. My agent even had that telephone number, because of course we didn’t have mobiles. So instead of being me stuck by the phone, he always had their number as well.

So I remember he called up to the Troubadour and said, “okay, you’ve got the part for Gurney Slade, with Anthony Newley,” and so I was leaping up and down in the coffee bar, telling everybody.

It was very exciting, because I’d seen him before – in 1956 in Cranks, a musical that he was in. He was completely mesmerising and wonderful in that.

What I remember from that was that he was like a mime, a Marcel Marceau-type character with these white hands on a blackened stage, and just a mask-like face. And the hands were doing something other than the face was wanting them to do. So it was a piece of magic. I thought then, “There’s something about that bloke.”

And then of course he’d done his wonderful pop songs, so we knew all about that. So to get a part in his new series was pretty exciting. I couldn’t wait for that. So then we all met at wherever it was, I can’t remember, got on a bus, and he was on the bus with us. I was watching him, of course, carefully. And I noticed he was chatting up the make-up girl, and I though, “oh well, there’s no chance for me, then.” But he was very mesmerising, was the thing.

The programme is so unlike anything of the era, or since, really. It’s such an unusual thing seeing you standing on a disused airfield, pretending you’re in a dance hall.

And then having an inner voice which is saying, “Oh, he’s noticed me,” and then when I speak, I say [in Cockney accent] “Nah, I’ve got me friend”!

But the point was that for me personally what was going on was, “Ooh, he’s looking in my eyes,” and I was falling in love with him. That’s what happened for me. I adored him, just thought he was incredible.

So we did the filming and that was lovely. And then we did the last episode – I was dancing away with the lovely Bernie Winters, it’s quite funny, the last one – we all had to get out of Gurney’s mind and go off and get other jobs.

A few weeks later we had to go back and do a bit of dubbing and were in the studio doing that. Then people were saying goodbye, and then he looked at me and said, “Okay Wills, come on, home”. Like we were little dogs, you know. So of course I went home with him. And a couple of days later I went back to my little place where I was living, packed a small bag and went off and lived with him. And that was that.

I lived with him, on and off, for two years, and I had his babies. One baby I had to get rid of, because he asked for that. The second baby I said I wasn’t getting rid of, because it was my baby. So I left him and he went off with Joan Collins. I kept my lovely baby and went on with my life.

So that was the other side of him, which was kind of ruthless. But the main thing for me was that after Gurney, I was living with him while we did Stop the World, I Want to Get Off [the 1961 musical which Newley wrote with Leslie Bricusse]. I had a huge part of that, I was largely a part of that creation.

And in a way, if you look at his work, it’s all autobiographical. It started with Gurney, because he was able to express himself there, without being in a film or with a script. He ad the writers got together and made this inner world of his, which was very, very strong in him all the time. He was listening to different drum.

Later on in the 1960s you got the part of Polly in Doctor Who. It’s quite sad in a way that so many of those episodes no longer exist.

All gone!

Well there are a few, here and there. But it was that era that suffered more than most, it seems. So it must be quite nice to see something from that period in your acting career return, like Gurney Slade has done.

That’s right. I went to RADA and everything, but you I was kind of trained by the BBC, really, because I never stopped working. And at that time we had the wonderful dramas, the Play of the Week. And I did quite a few of those, big starring roles. And all of them gone now. Nothing to look back on.

Personally, I don’t mind that, because I’m an old meditator and I think it’s good to let go of it. So not for myself – I find it kind of excruciating, and I only do it because I have to talk to [the press] and then I drop it. I don’t think any actors like watching themselves back. Well, Roger Lloyd Pack does. He loves it! He’ll sit down and watch all of Only Fools and Horses, which is lovely. But I don’t.

So I don’t mind [the gaps in the archive]. But yes, in a way it’s a pity, especially for the Doctor Who fans. They don’t have that continuum all the way through.

But the lovely [1969 ITC drama] Strange Report – and I have to give a little plug here for Network DVD, they’re doing such staunch work. They’re bringing back and remastering these old series for high definition, cleaning it all up and making it beautiful. They did that for Strange Report. And again, that had sort of forgotten in the mists of time. But now, because of Network, there it is – people can buy it. And now it’s spreading itself all round Europe, which lovely.

And that was with Anthony Quayle, and talked very much about the issues of the sixties. So it’s a real thing to be able to see the streets and the colours and the interiors, and the issues that were going on at the time.

So now that they’ve brought Gurney Slade back, it’s brilliant. And it’s so important. It’s like a cog in a wheel of British humour. Prior to that show, we had the Goons. We already, all of us, had had this kind of tuning in with The Goon Show. Tony [Newley] and me, my brother and all our friends, we were all Goon fans. So for us, in a way, to see Tony lying on his tummy and talking to ants wasn’t quite so bizarre.

Although, if you look at it inhistorical terms, people hadn’t taken acid yet. People hadn’t been smoking pot yet. We hadn’t got round to lying on our tummies talking to ants. But Tony did. So he was ahead of his time.

I think the show demands the sort of imagination we take for granted of a theatre audience – and to an extent, radio – but we sort of don’t see in television all that much.

To suspend disbelief. And that was very much what [Anthony] wanted with Gurney. He said that, with television, we hadn’t expanded it beyond the set. So that was absolutely – you know, in the first episode he just walks off the TV set and starts talking to dogs. He’s off, he’s away, he’s stepped beyond the proscenium. And he did the same in Stop the World, I Want to Get Off – in the middle of the action, he’d shout “Stop the World!” Wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

So for television it was unique. And as I say, now he gets put back [in entertainment history]. His spirit must be so happy, chuckling away in heaven. “At last, they’re recognising Gurney!”

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is released by Network DVD on August 15.

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