The writing magician that was Roald Dahl always had the ability to captivate, so it’s no surprise that a show based on adapations of his short stories fully brought us into his dark, riveting and mysterious world.
Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, (which later became Tales of the Unexpected when the show was expanded to include other writers), was not the first show to develop short stories into a 30 minute TV adaptation. Dahl himself set up Way Out in 1961, a short-lived show focusing which showcased the best ways of trying to kill off your spouse and avoid detection (though most were written purely for TV). He later contributed six stories to the more similar Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Beginning in 1979 and running until 1988, Tales of the Unexpected adapted a short story and brought it to life with a sharp script, mostly well-known actors and more often than not, a shrewd, sharp and cunning twist. And these were no ordinary stories. Whether about killing off a spouse, making money quickly, getting revenge or dealing with an incredible discovery, at its best the show was able to capture the intrigue and suspense of people put into an extreme and often, unenviable position.
When the show hit its creative peak, it was a joy. ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’, about a American stationed in Paris during the resistance who goes back years later to get material for a book, slowly unravels to reveal an eerie aspect of the human condition. ‘A Harmless Vanity’ and ‘Youth from Vienna’ are both more than a clever ending; they capture how our appearance both reflects and affects our personality and the consequences it has on us and those around us.
Roald Dahl stories also tended to stand out. ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ with its ingenious and untraceable method of murder, ‘The Way up to Heaven’ with its delicious sense of karmic revenge, and the psychologically disturbing ‘Georgie Porgie’ are Dahl at his best. The earlier series’ even had an introduction by Dahl which frequently gave a useful insight into his inspiration and intention for the story.
Curiously though, the greatest episode of the show was neither by a well known writer, starred high profile actors or followed any of the common themes. ‘The Flypaper’ by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one) was far more sinister and terrifying than any of the other 111 episodes. Beginning with the police searching for the body of a young girl in a rural town, we soon see an unhappy orphan forced to take piano lessons by her uncaring and critical grandmother. She notices the interest of a creepy older man on her way back but her fears are ignored by her grandmother. Aware that the body of the girl was found, and police are on the lookout for her killer, she notices the same man stalking her a week later and has to try and outsmart him.
As with any show where each episode brought a new set of characters, weaker episodes were betrayed by an uninspired premise that even quality actors could not save. ‘Mr Botibol’s Finest Performance’, of a wealthy lonely man and his love of classical music, is nothing more than a tedious example of how pathetic failure can be. It is arguably Dahl’s worst story and a bewildering decision to adapt. ‘The Party’ highlights the problem critics would have had with the show. An unimaginative storyline, of a boring long-time employee believing he is undervalued, an unlikely set of reactions and a ‘twist’ seen the proverbial mile away.
But what the series strived for, and largely succeeded in, was capturing the creativity of talented short writers such as Robert Bloch, Ruth Rendell and John Collier, as well as Dahl himself, and bringing it to a wider audience. Actors of the calibre of John Mills, Janet Leigh, Joseph Cotton, Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud also elevated it, especially as most stories were dominated by two or three main characters.
While it is easy to mock the low budget of the programme, short stories rarely gain the limelight its literary genre relatives, and few shows have managed it better. Tales of the Unexpected may have lacked the morbid flair of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or the imaginative sense of surreal like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, but for the most part it was brilliant at reminding us the glory in the unexpected.
Years: 1979 -1988
Created by: Roald Dahl
Number of series: 9
Number of episodes: 112