Expect (Tales of) the Unexpected

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Roald Dahl led a curious double life in the 1970s. He was already widely known as a popular author of children’s fiction, with his books appearing frequently on Jackanory and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach (now rarely seen TV version) being regulars in the Christmas TV Schedules, but he had yet to be rebranded as the children’s author dujour. On the other hand, your parents probably still knew him as the author of adult short stories; spicy tales full of murder, deceit and sex. It was these stories, some of which (though by no means all) were renowned for their sting-in-the-tail endings, which initially fuelled Tales of the Unexpected, a long-lived anthology series produced by Anglia Television.

The relatively small British regional station, based in the South East of England, had previously enjoyed some success with the anthology series Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries and was looking for another series in the same vein. Roald Dahl’s prolific back catalogue seemed to present an excellent opportunity. This wasn’t Dahl’s first foray into television, of course; in the early 60s, he fronted a short-lived US anthology series called Out There, which adapted several of the same stories that would appear in the later series. It went out back to back with The Twilight Zone in most regions of the US and probably suffered from comparison to the more polished, longer established series. Tales of the Unexpected would prove much hardier.

The first series, billed as Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, consisted of 9 half-hour episodes adapting some of the author’s best known short stories. It was introduced by Dahl himself, sitting in the semi-darkness by an open fire, with his famous ‘writing board’ on his lap. The introductions rarely had any direct connection to the story, but usually consisted of Dahl imparting some macabre anecdote that he had picked up from his long and interesting life. All of this season was filmed in England by Anglia Television and included an impressive array of international guest stars including José Ferrer, Joan Collins, Joseph Cotton, Elaine Stritch, Richard Greene and Sir John Gielgud. Susan George, who appeared in Lamb to the Slaughter, would return in Royal Jelly the following year; an example of several actors who returned in different stories.

This is undoubtedly Tales of the Unexpected’s best series. The stories are the absolute pick of Roald Dahl’s work and although some of them had been adapted on TV previously (Man from the South and Lamb to the Slaughter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and William and Mary on Way Out) these are the definitive versions, introduced by the master himself. The only problem is that Dahl’s stories in print are quite subtle and the ‘twist’ ending is often implicit and left up to the reader to fathom; that’s not so easily achieved on television, so the endings are occasionally quite broadly signposted. Some later stories muff the endings altogether, but that’s not a problem in this first year, where everything seems to come together quite nicely.

Series 2 follows in a similar vein, with Dahl introducing mainly his own stories, although there are a few by other authors thrown in there for good measure – most significantly Robert Bloch’s Fat Chance. I do wonder if Roald Dahl had a hand in choosing the stories by other authors at this stage, as he more than once mentions in his introduction knowing the author personally. However, the inclusion of Genesis and Catastrophe suggests they’re already running short of suitable Dahl stories for the show; this story about the birth of Adolf Hitler is interesting, but it doesn’t really seem to fit the Tales of the Unexpected mould. That said, there are some great episodes here, my favourite being Georgy Porgy, which begins with the all-time classic Roald Dahl introduction, “The possibility that a large woman might one day swallow a small clergyman is one that has always appealed to me.”

The series started to change in its third year. There were fewer and fewer Roald Dahl stories and even the title of the series started to vary from episode to episode. An episode with Roald Dahl introducing one of his own stories was still billed as Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, whereas an episode with Roald Dahl introducing someone else’s story was billed as Tales of the Unexpected Introduced by Roald Dahl. Increasingly however, there were stories that were neither written nor introduced by Roald Dahl and these were billed as simply Tales of the Unexpected. Roald Dahl would randomly return a few times over the years as a narrator, but for the most part, this was the end of his association with the series. There are some good episodes in the third series, but it’s starting to feel a little bit tired, which is possibly the reason for Roald Dahl quitting the series.

For the fourth series of Tales of the Unexpected, Anglia Television made a deal with an American company to have some of the episodes produced in the USA. This proved to be something of a double-edged sword because although the American-made episodes offered some impressive big name actors and shot-on-film production values, they’re very variable in quality. Quite often the ‘twist’ ending of the American episodes s quite clearly signposted, which is part of the reason one wag christened the series ‘Tales of the Bleeding Obvious’.  The number of American episodes increases over the next few series, suggesting that maybe Anglia Television was running out of money to keep making such a high profile series in-house. When the American-made episodes are good, they can be very good; but when they’re bad, they can be just downright awful.

My least favourite episode of the entire run is Wet Saturday, an American episode from the seventh season which seems to entirely miss the point of Tales of the Unexpected. The daughter of a rich and important man commits a murder and to avoid her being arrested, he arranges the elaborate framing of an innocent man for the crime. There’s no twist and no karmic justice, just the rather mean-spirited story of a rich man helping his spoiled brat of a daughter to escape justice. If there’s a message there, it’s ‘money and a lack of scruples can get you and your family out of anything’ – it’s like Tales of the Unexpected written by Donald Trump! Stories like this don’t do the series any favours at all and you can fully understand why someone tuning into the series at its mid-point would fail to see why it was so popular.

Compare this to one of the superbly crafted early episodes, like Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter and it’s like a completely different series. That story also had someone getting away with murder, but it was clever, intricate and witty. Somewhere along the line, the American stories lost their soul and the British stories increasingly became cheap knock-offs of the show’s early glory. Now, I’m not saying that some of these episodes were bad purely because they were made in America; Alfred Hitchcock Presents did a superb adaptation of Lamb to the Slaughter over a decade earlier and US TV pretty much invented the half-hour anthology thriller, but somehow they just missed the mark with this series. Somehow it feels like, as an American anthology, Tales of the Unexpected fell in a gap between the 60s heyday and the late-80s renaissance.

The penultimate eighth series of Tales of the Unexpected is very short – a mere 4 episodes – and completely produced in America, but there’s a definite upturn in the quality of both writing and production. Also, quite randomly, Roald Dahl turns up on screen for the first time in 5 years to introduce the episodes In the Cards and Nothin’ Short of Highway Robbery, standing in a darkened studio rather sitting by a roaring fire. I’m not sure how these came about, but it’s a welcome return for the Maestro as the series nears its end. There’s a two and a half year gap between this series and the final series of Tales of the Unexpected, suggesting that there was a belief the series had run its course. The fact that the eighth series is so short and was the last contribution from the American side definitely indicates that the producers across the Atlantic had lost interest.

The ninth and final season was something of a return to form, with Anglia Television producing all 10 episodes in house in the United Kingdom. Over 2 years had passed since the eighth series and there’s a definite feeling that this was an attempt to re-launch the series. Although there are some very good episodes in this collection, such as Skeleton in the Cupboard and A Time to Die, there’s a conscious move away from the dark humour of the Roald Dahl years and towards a more cosy, twee type of story. Four of the episodes are adapted from stories by British author W. Somerset Maugham and although they’re quite cute, they eschew the murder and betrayal that we have come to associate with Tales of the Unexpected in favour of a kind of quaint old-world Britishness.

The Verger, for example, features a superb performance from Richard Briers as a rural verger who rises to the top of the hospitality industry despite being unable to read or write. The ‘twist’ doesn’t work because we’ve already been told early on that he’s illiterate and although it’s very well made and superbly acted, it doesn’t really fit to what we have come to expect from Tales of the Unexpected. It’s a bold move to try and reinvent the series at this late stage, but – like Out of the Unknown’s shift from sci-fi to supernatural – it’s doomed to failure; people get used to a certain kind of thing from a series when it’s been running almost a decade and they don’t like it when it changes. I distinctly remember watching The Verger when it first went out, aged 18, and thinking ‘What? He can’t read or write – is that the twist?’ The series had had its day and although this final run was an exciting return to its early glories, the public’s love of the series had waned.

Tales of the Unexpected was a tremendous series that was cursed by its own longevity. At a certain point the viewers started looking for the ‘twist’ from the beginning of the episode and it stopped being a vibrant drama and became something of a joke. Many British comedy series have riffed on the series, sometimes cruelly, but increasingly with a great deal of affection, as in Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No.9. You could argue that the series lost its way as soon as Roald Dahl parted company, but there were still a lot of very strong episodes and the series has stood the test of time a lot better than a great deal of product from the 80s. The anthology is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, particularly on streaming platforms with series such as Black Mirror and the Twilight Zone revival, and it’d be interesting to see what they could do with Tales of the Unexpected. It’d never be quite the same without Roald Dahl though, as his introductions on the first couple of series will always make them the jewels of the Tales of the Unexpected collection.

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