If I had to write tiny excerpts on my impressions of this show for the cover of a book the following immediately come to mind:
“Consistent thriller regardless of when the crime happens in an episode”
“Cunning and completely ruthless”
“Amazing. Old stories re-used, re-invented; new eye opening plots that chill and sicken.”
“Genre defying in the range of topics and emotions it covers”
“Very realistic and that’s the scary problem!”
That’s how in very limited typspace I’d describe Tales from the Unexpected (1979-1988) – a collection of short stories in crime, mystery and horror – not noir gothic, b-movie or stomach churning ‘make sure you don’t eat first’ horror but a spine tingling, realistic, everyday ‘it could be you or someone you know’ horror. There’s no CSI style reconstruction and deduction, it’s more an illustration of situations how/why happened and who did what though not necessarily in that order.
NOT FOR KIDS (In My Opinion)
The show featured one of the nation’s most beloved children’s writers at his truest in my opinion, the Roald Dahl hinted at in his classics – known for dark and menacing scenarios but with lovable characters; heroes and supporters that you can root for among the baddies, with a dash of poetry and a happy ending. (Also with a sprinkling of serious swearing that makes you wonder how they got published in children’s literature.) They were fairytales and enjoyable for readers, this is a different beast – it depicts life and people as not normally kind, there’s tragedy, a touch of nonsensical comedy but mostly plotting and carrying it out.
There are rarely nice let alone good characters, though many still evoke sympathy or it’s a position of the lesser of evils. They are basically a mix of people usually feeling wretched or pushed, living organisms of memories and hopes/fears and professional opportunists all played so well that this 112 episode anthology doesn’t get stale in terms of art imitating life, grimly.
Tales of the Unexpected ran from 1979-1988, 9 series presented in complete collection here including the 20 episodes not filmed here or originally shown in the UK but in the US. It’s a no frills box set lacking in both extras and sub-titles but the 2825 run time (25min per episode) more than makes up for that. Interestingly enough it’s rated age 12 and I’d find that hard to believe now let alone decades ago. There’s no gore, rare use of nudity and bad language but many crimes are explored and sometimes built up with the sounds if not shown. Assassination, assault, betrayal, bullying, burglary, embezzlement, harassment, murder, poison, rape, shock, suicide (well kinda) and continuing derivatives of types of abuse and including intriguing coincidence all embedded into 19 discs.
The show was initially called ‘Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected’ with the first two seasons being of mixed authorship but mainly focusing on short stories previously published by him (though not the screenplays) and he introduced them all either by a short video message or voiceover. Successive seasons saw his name and introductions dropped from the title as other writers were brought in to continue the format. I’ve read about people’s concerns at the time speculating whether different authors would change the show too much but the general reaction seems placated as to continued or indeed increased quality. For my part I think that there was little difference in the storytelling other than a bit more boldness in bearing in his characters in comparison, a slightly witty tone to the plots and wordier dialogue. It was in the presentation of his stories that I saw the most difference aka ‘big’ theatrical, background music in opening scenes, characters played slightly larger than life and higher colour contrast to the film. Other than those points I thought the later episodes fit right in.
The seasons are episodic and have the same seedy and occult opening and end titles, with lizard lounge style music to accompany.
The plots are generally predictable adept more at storytelling than expounding on a mystery but that might be because of the title – something unexpected was inevitable, nothing farfetched but a believable a twist at the end rather than befuddling the watcher throughout. There aren’t clues or ‘fair/unfair clues’ as such – it’s quite straightforward and then you see if you can guess the ending. There were quite a few ‘wow’ moments of for me, no matter how much I’ve come across people always have other disturbing ways of dealing with each other.
ACTING AND FILMING
The actors are what really make this show imo, they did a convincing job as if method acting, even those who pop up more than once in the seasons there’s no hammy or lazy performances. It’s like seeing people behind their closed doors in addition to the classic British type of filming where it feels like you’re right in front of them instead of looking through a highly contrasted and flattering, unfocused lens trying to be big screen rather than tv. I think the plots were also well suited to theatre making them easy to caricature for the sake of the stage, but I didn’t see that.
A plethora of famous faces appeared in the show including Joan Collins (the only thespian playing themselves repeatedly, ahem), Hayley Mills, John Gielgud, Michael Gambon, Elaine Paige, Amanda Redman, Peter Cushing and many more. Interestingly enough many of the parts were played by older actors, not extraordinary in life but when the majority of roles are 30+ in years and with many a Silver surfer in the cast there can be a patronizing tone to the production whether they are seen as not on top of their game or of the ‘only as old as you feel’ ethos. Not so here – they’re portrayed as people who are mentally/ physically swayed by the circumstances as anyone else would be.
As said before it’s not a graphic show but the depths characters will sink and lengths they will go to is both suspenseful and sobering. The episodes are so well paced that it’s easy to watch them back to back without that groggy, tired effect and the plots are more than sufficiently different to prevent them blurring together.
Being a retro show there could have been obvious special effects, not so sophisticated or CGI as modern filming but it really focused on the actor’s delivery and music, even the settings seemed secondary though they were very well thought out from rural locations to slightly depressing city clone-based housing, basic to well ornamented and lush/posh offices/living spaces to sparse dressing rooms with barely enough space to open the door. They add to the depth of the scene but it’s the ‘living/fleshed out person’ presentation and both the background music & highlighted sounds from the orchestra to everyday occurrence like oil in a frying pan that make it all fit together. The music mostly matched the scenes but there was notable use of flippant instrumentals adding a comic touch to then be severely contrasted in the following moments by something like screeching tyres and misfortune befalling someone.
The most obvious fluctuations in the seasons are with the 20 US produced ones using a darker version of the title sequences and the usual difference in presentation e.g. brighter colour palette and not so realistic. It’s this geographical and cultural lineation that caused any angst amongst viewers and fans, being a bit Marmite like in that people either definitively preferred or disliked our Atlantic cousin’s offerings. I think of them as a variation on the norm which is sometimes welcome especially in a long show. Hey even Poirot went on holidays or to the dreaded, messy countryside totally unsuited to his patent pumps, painfully perfected hair and mustachios but his consistent complaining mollified by a familiar chocolat liqueur 😉
I won’t list or dare describe all 112 episodes but as a taster here are a handful that standout in my memory the most:
2-3 – Galloping Foxley
Roald Dahl seriously introduces this episode as one based on true life, his own experiences in public (boarding) school and they are awful. The story following Mr William Perkins having to face memories of his younger self made into a slave at school after his father has inadvertently insulted a Head Boy (Head of a house). So-called & implied responsible Head Boy then takes it upon himself to vindictively torture the young charge for a year, fully supported by the school system as part of the privilege of taking one’s pick of the litter from the first years and making them into slaves. Mr Perkins feelings finally find a channel of expression but remember, there’s a twist.
2-11 – The Umbrella Man
One of the few whimsical, roundabout stories where bluff and supposed coincidence are at the forefront. A married man and married woman are having an affair right under her spouse’s nose and don’t care who sees them and for some reason an eloquent confidence trickster decides to help them by making them face up to their situation by exposing them. Involving numerous words for pubs, weather and churches a well dressed elderly gent uses silk umbrellas to offer people respite from the rain and apparently their problems.
3-1 – The Flypaper
A harrowing episode involving the stalking, scaring and gaining of trust aimed at a schoolgirl like a fly to honey. A sad reminder to be wary of strangers and the emotions from smugness to glee and fear are almost tangible.
3-4 – Vengence is Mine Inc.
Another emotionally charged episode but this time from a duo who charge for services rendered in the lucrative area of beating others up. A broken nose, a Black eye, if it’s on their list you can buy it and they’re probably open to suggestions – the elation they feel at a job done is on par to the satisfaction of being paid.
4-6 – Shatterproof
A lawyer and a hitman face off in a battle of wits played with all the tension of life or death chess to see who will make it out of the room alive. This is a real turnaround of an episode where most of the setting stays the same and there’s only really one conversation – it all boils down to who is better at their job and can suss out the other first yet the characters challenge and change their roles well.
4-7 – The Sound Machine
We’re surrounded by innumerable frequencies, extremely low to high and most unheard by the human ear. What if a machine could let you hear some of the vast sound traffic going on around and through you? What then if your realized the world is full of possibilities and voices we didn’t acknowledge? An episode that could easily have been botched had it not been played with the right amount of seriousness and belief but the main actor portrays the magnitude of the idea of masses of beings ‘silently’ screaming with the necessary awe and another character pretending to disbelieve the situation.
4-10 – The Last Bottle in the World
What would you do for the last bottle of the best wine in the world, or indeed what would you do with it? Some people seemingly have everything, what can you give them or they give each other that has any poignancy to them? Accolades like the final remnant of the finest vintage are more like quests to conquer and enough of a distraction until the next adventure comes along, especially if you have money to burn. To others though it can mean more than a mere infatuation, it can mean life and death – wine is all in about the tasting, no?
There’s no satire here, it lets the story play out without overtones of commentary until the end; stark and sometimes surprising though at times I could imagine Alanis Morissette’s ‘Ironic’ playing – I wouldn’t say Lady Luck because the twists at the end of each episode happen to both victims and perpetrators, fortune favouring or misfortune mocking either party. There are moments of ‘just desserts’ perhaps for the sake of not totally putting off the non-sadists among us or the optimists hoping the series will continue in the same vein. Rarely does it feel clichéd or silly – but there has to be some of those moments as well as a few well intentioned, sincere and heartfelt ones to keep it going and change the mood a bit before morally denigrating again!
The twisting the plots is generally well done and not too incredible, there are a few though that felt as if the writer wasn’t sure how to end a story and so plonked a semi-believable twist on it but those are as rare as an ending that made me smile. At least it’s nothing like some crime writers I could mention who like to suspend disbelief until it catapults into outer space.
I can’t say I enjoyed this though it was very watchable but that’s because I’ve always been more of a detective fiction than crime drama/fiction buff (the former being more character focused and the latter being more crime/investigation). I skipped over some parts however it’s an anthology where I haven’t bypassed a whole episode. It has dated since the time with the aging and now dead casting, interior design and fashions although the thoughts/feelings, scenarios and motives are still current. Like I always say people are people wherever/whenever they are regardless of looks, culture and belief – the personalities and behaviours stay the same.
This doesn’t entirely fit into the retro tv crime or sci-fi show genre; it’s not humble yet far reaching like Minder (1979-1994), nor glamour & speed like Starsky and Hutch (1975–1979) or supernatural like Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-1971). It’s a novelty series yet it’s not quirky or weird despite the opening/finishing sequence – creepy check, sinister check, appalling check, perceptive check, paranormal not so much but could easily lend itself to it.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1962) – This show was broader in genre spanning the spooky and comedy more but there was crossover with some of Dahl’s stories being used in both. Hitchcock also liked to reassure the audience that the bad guys didn’t get away with their crimes.
Armchair Thriller (1978–1981) – Similar anthology but of a more graphic nature, and introduced by a shadowy figure of the armchair persuasion (quite a few tv shows feature a narrator in an armchair).
WodeHouse Playhouse (1974–1978) – Typical Wodehouse comedic romp involving his short stories expertly covered by the duo of John Alderton and Pauline Collins morphing into new roles each episode as simply as changing clothes (until Pauline left and her part divided between various actresses). I mention this one due to Wodehouse and Dahl being national, witty faves of the ‘old school’.