Starting in March 1979, and running for almost ten years, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected quickly became one of Anglia Television’s most successful and widely seen exports.
It holds a very special place in the hearts of those who saw it the first time round, and much of that is due to the iconic title credits, replete with belly dancing silhouettes, tarot cards, and flames licking around scary masks, as well as a cheerfully macabre theme tune courtesy of Ron Grainer, who already had form in providing inescapably catchy title tracks for some of the UKs most loved television programmes (such as Steptoe And Son and Doctor Who).
Very quickly, Tales of the Unexpected gained a reputation as ‘must-see’ television for its mix of dark tales and shocking endings, although there was a house style which meant that there were certain things you really could expect: this was a world of awkward vicars, beautiful bitches (played more than once by Joan Collins), stiff brollies held by men with stiff upper lips, curious advances in medical science, and washed up actors on the hustle for a quick buck.
The show came about as the result of a pitch from Dahl himself, keen to have a stack of his short stories adapted for the screen. This wasn’t the first time his work had been seen on television – some had been used for Alfred Hitchcock Presents almost twenty years earlier, and Dahl himself had already presented an anthology series of his stories called Way Out, which had shared billing with the legendary Twilight Zone in America back in 1961.
If we’re honest, not every single episode is an out-and-out classic. Occasionally, the series is hobbled by clunky ‘80s production values and a lack of confidence in the pace of a short story, where something is lost in the translation from printed page to onscreen adaptation.
The intimate relationship between author and reader of short stories allows for a certain sly ambiguity, whereas the directors of this 25-minute drama often felt the need to make things more explicit (or even change the ending entirely) for their audiences.
‘Vengeance is Mine, Inc.’, for instance, has a rather silly car crash tacked on to the end (and, curiously, a post-credits sequence), and a stone-cold classic short story like ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is, despite its reputation, horribly served by Tales, betrayed by slow pacing and ill-advised editing (transposing a central reveal to the opening of the episode).
You’d be much better advised checking out the version from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, made two decades earlier and in glorious monochrome. It’s twice the length, but feels a lot pacier and is more deliciously brutal in the telling.
But when the programme was at its best, it channelled the true spirit of Roald Dahl – cynical, almost sneering black humour, laced with titillating atmosphere that bordered on the kinky. However fantastical, the show had its tongue firmly in cheek and feet even firmer on ground: as Dahl asked in one of his on screen introductions: can you prove that this didn’t happen?
From the pulp-tastic weirdness of ‘William and Mary’ and ‘Royal Jelly’, to the cold nasty humour of ‘The Way Up to Heaven’ and ‘Neck’, Tales of the Unexpected often delivered a sucker-punch that would linger in the imagination for days afterward. Despite its low budget, the show would attract surprisingly impressive guest stars, such as Janet Leigh, Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Rod Taylor and John Mills.
In 1988, after nine years and critics’ suggestions that the format was becoming stale and providing stories that were very much as we expected, leading to Peter Cook’s sketch suggesting that endings were somewhat predictable [starts at 1:07]…
The series was pulled, although there was the occasional stab at greatness. In the penultimate episode, ‘A Time to Die’, David Suchet stars as a cheating husband keen to bump off his wife, and decides to exploit the then ultra-modern world of electronics to do it. But, as ever, not everything is as it seems.
Tales of the Unexpected continues in repeats on Sky Arts, and all nine seasons are available in a boxset from Network. The spirit is alive and well in programmes such as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (last seen with an excellent feature-length Christmas special) and the sublime Inside No. 9, which is currently filming its second season.
What’s your favourite Tales of the Unexpected episode? Let us know below…