Sunday 22 May 2016

Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88)

Tales of the Unexpected was a British anthology series made by Anglia Television which had a long run - nine seasons from 1979 to 1988. The episodes in the first season were based on short stories by Roald Dahl who provided a brief introduction to each story. Most of season two was also based on Dahl’s writings with a few episodes adapted from the works other writers. From season three onwards Dahl’s involvement was minimal.

The oddest thing about this series is that it reverts to what was by 1979 a very old-fashioned format - the half-hour episode. This is the series’ biggest weakness since many of the stories, despite promising beginnings, don’t really go anywhere. A certain ambiguity and open-endedness may have been a feature of Dahl’s original stories (it’s so many years since I’ve read Dahl that I can’t be dogmatic about this) but while that might work for a short story it doesn’t quite work on television.

This was also a fairly low-budget production. By 1979 British television standards this makes it seem like a bit of a throwback to an earlier era.

While it has its weaknesses Tales of the Unexpected has its strengths also. It’s not a horror series or even a mystery series - these stories are often just odd and even darkly whimsical (if you can imagine whimsy being dark) and the avoidance of standard horror tropes can make for interesting viewing. 

The entire series (of 112 episodes) is available on DVD in Region 2 from Network but the set is alas slightly out of my price range at present. Happily there is a Region 4 DVD release which includes 20 assorted episodes and it’s available for rental.

The episodes I’ve watched to date from all been from the second season.

The Hitch-Hiker is an amusing little tale of an American writer named Paul Deveen (Rod Taylor) who picks up an Irish hitch-hiker (Cyril Cusack). The hitch-hiker won’t reveal what he does for a living but Deveen is about to find out. It’s a light-hearted story that is almost too slight to work but the fine performances by the two leads (especially Cusack) are enough to carry it through. 

Poison is a nicely twisted tale. Harry is an Englishman in India who has a very close encounter indeed with a krait - one of the world’s most feared and deadly snakes. The krait has crawled into his bed and decided that his stomach would be a suitably warm place to have a little nap. Harry knows that the slightest movement on his part will mean death. His friend Woods and an Indian doctor have to find a way to save him, a difficult problem indeed. It’s a tense situation that makes for a fine suspenseful story. And of course there’s a neat little twist at the end. A bonus is having the wonderful Judy Geeson in the cast. My only minor quibble is that the story is obviously supposed to take place in India during the Raj and while the sets and costumes make sense for the time period the 1970s car that Woods drives hits a rather jarring note. 

Taste is a clever story involving a momentous bet. If you’re betting on an absolutely sure thing that’s not really being irresponsible is it? OK you can’t be 100 percent certain of winning, but what if you’re 99 percent of winning? It would almost be more irresponsible not to take such a bet, regardless of the stake. And even the greatest wine expert in the country surely could not be guaranteed to be able to identify an incredibly obscure claret. This is one of the strongest episodes of the series.

These three episodes, all based on Roald Dahl stories, aren’t necessarily  horror tales as such. Some are almost whimsical, albeit in a black comedy sort of way.

My Lady Love, My Dove has a very promising setup but fizzles out disappointingly. Georgy Porgy is just rather distasteful. Depart In Peace is unmemorable.

The Umbrella Man, another episode based on a Dahl short story, is on the other hand an extremely clever idea handled exceptionally well.

Fat Chance is based on a Robert Bloch story but it has the same sort of black comedy feel, as a pharmacist tries to find a way to rid himself of a wife with a weight problem. Of the eight episodes I’ve watched this is the only one not based on one of Dahl’s stories.

The ideas behind the stories are often rather slight. This may well be a characteristic of Dahl’s approach to the short story format. Sometimes it works quite well, when the idea is quirky enough. And some of the ideas are intriguingly original. Unfortunately when the trick doesn’t come off the results are very flat. Dahl’s stories can also have, at times, a rather unpleasant edge to them - unpleasant in a mean-spirited and petty way.

Tales of the Unexpected is moderately entertaining. Having samples eight episodes I don’t really feel compelled to go any further with this series, for the moment at any rate.

The tone is rather similar to the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents series of the 50s with definite and often very strong touches of black comedy. Unfortunately Tales of the Unexpected is nowhere near as successful, with too many of the twist endings being rather obvious. The half-hour format is not always used to its best advantage with too much time being spent setting things up for rushed and often unsatisfying endings.

This series is perhaps worthwhile as a rental (and the early seasons will most certainly be of interest to hardcore Roald Dahl fans) but I wouldn’t really consider it to be worth a purchase.

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