Between March 1979 and May 1988 nine series of a ‘twist in the tail/tale’ British television programme aired. Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected began life as an adaptation of 25 of the author’s short stories from his collections Someone Like You (published in 1953) and Kiss Kiss (1960). To coincide with the first season of programmes being broadcast these stories were published by Penguin in 1979 in an anthology called (unsurprisingly) Tales of the Unexpected.
Dahl originally presented these episodes of suspense and dark humour himself, from a studio set made up to look like his drawing room, along with a crackling fire. He also offered a short explanation of how he came up with each tale; an intriguing insight into how his unique mind worked. The programmes only differed from the original text in that, while the stories often left the reader to make up his or her mind as to what really happened, the television versions generally presented a ‘tidied-up’ ending so the viewer was given a more definite conclusion.
It wasn’t the first time Dahl had appeared as host of a story programme. He had presented the CBS series Way Out in the US in 1961; a collection of 14 eerie yarns, comparable to science fiction show Twilight Zone, of which some concepts were then reused for Tales of the Unexpected.
During series two four episodes penned by other writers were included, and the title shifted to Tales of the Unexpected - Introduced by Roald Dahl. In series three Dahl bowed out of the introductions on a regular basis, returning only for two further episodes in series four and eight. Series four had two of Dahl’s adapted stories but from then on the episodes were contributed by other writers. As you would expect, the Dahl-penned narratives were generally the cleverest and most interesting, although one last one of his, The Surgeon, was included in the ninth series and, strangely, given Dahl’s considerable skill at developing creative plotlines, this was one of the most predictable stories of that final season.
The storylines ranged from the banally believable (man who was bullied at school thinks he sees said bully on the train 60 years later) to the interestingly eccentric (man is found dead, identical twin nephews line up to inherit his wealth but one was witnessed at the crime scene – nobody can tell which one) to the downright bizarre (stray cat enjoys the sound of adopted owner’s piano music, lady decides cat must be reincarnation of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt).
Despite the title of the programme a lot of the later tales were actually a bit ‘expected’. Although you were often able to see the twists coming early on in the show (it was rare that you needed to have the super-sleuthing skills of Miss Marple or Poirot to work out what was going to happen) but the shows often had quite a bit of black humour thrown in and were enjoyable enough regardless. And there was always one episode, personal to each viewer, that actually did freak you out a little bit - although you would never actually admit it.
The most memorable part of the show was the opening titles; a jaunty little tune which wouldn’t have sounded out of place playing on a carousel at a fairground and a slightly racy silhouetted dancing lady. I say dancing; it actually looked more like she was attempting to replicate the movements of a dressage horse but don’t worry about that…she’s writhing about and she looks a bit nudey!
Tales of the Unexpected was a big success for Anglia Television; it was the most popular drama they had ever shown at that time and it was later sold to over 70 countries worldwide but the fact they got to produce the show at all is down to a social coincidence. Roald Dahl had been holding on to the rights to his stories for a considerable amount of time, even though there was always a great deal of interest from both television and film companies in bringing them to the screen. However, in 1976, Dahl met one of Anglia’s founders and now their drama guru, the film producer Sir John Woolf, at a party; Woolf obviously impressed him as Dahl then offered him the chance to turn his writing into action.
The shows weren’t big budget productions, but they still managed to cram in a huge amount of celebrity guest stars, including some heavy weight acting names: Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud and Michael Gambon all put in appearances. Alongside them you could also find the gifted likes of Harry H. Corbett (Steptoe and Son), Denholm Elliott (an enormous filmography: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Trading Places to name but two), Richard Briers (Ever Decreasing Circles, The Good Life) and Timothy West (again, an extensive back catalogue, including Brass, A Very Peculiar Practice and The Monocled Mutineer) amongst many more. Joan Collins (Dynasty) appeared on three occasions during the run; each time appearing as a vampy sort and in one instance seducing a very lucky vicar.
In 1988 the decision was made to cancel Tales of the Unexpected; there had been criticism that the quality of the mysterious stories had been declining and so, after 112 episodes, the spooky tome was closed and placed back on the bookshelf.
Looking back at the multitude of episodes on offer (they’re all available on DVD) they are generally pretty watchable even in those where you can see what’s coming. There’s a wealth of acting talent on offer (it’s always fun to try and spot cameos from people who went on to be big stars) and while some storylines meandered a bit, others (particularly Dahl’s) were deliciously dark and comedic.
And the music gave you the perfect opportunity to practise your dressage moves.