Tales Of The Unexpected at 40: A Precursor To Inside No. 9 and Black Mirror

For its 40th anniversary, we revisit Roald Dahl's classic series that kept us guessing and inspired some modern anthology greats...

Tales Of The Unexpected was an anthology series of imaginative and compelling dramas each with a “twist in the tale” produced for the ITV network by Anglia Television. Anthology series on British television had been decidedly sci-fi orientated, hitherto, with the BBC series Out Of The Unknown (1965-71) capitalizing on the imported success of the granddaddy of them all, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The story has it that Anglia’s Drama supremo Sir John Woolf had a chance meeting with Roald Dahl, master of macabre tall stories, at a Christmas party in 1976. Dahl asked Woolf, “How would you like to make a television series of my stories?” Woolf immediately saw the potential and commissioned Dahl to adapt some of his best stories for a series to pitch to the ITV network.

The series began life as Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected on ITV 40 years ago, in March 1979, and ran for nine successful seasons until 1988. Dahl, who penned 33 of the 112 tales – including all nine episodes of the first season – also introduced each tale. Originally, Anglia planned to have Peter Ustinov launch some of the episodes but in the end Dahl, sat in a wing chair by a cosy fireside, became a fixture. The second season included two stories from different writers and the program reflected this by dropping Dahl’s name from the title to become simply Tales Of The Unexpected.

The Man From The South, filmed on location in Jamaica, was chosen as the opening episode. Dahl’s cleverly constructed screenplay, about a macabre wager between a young American couple and mysterious stranger, starred the internationally well known Jose Ferrer and (the then unknown) Pamela Stephenson. Within six months Stephenson would find fame as the “female 25%” of the newly-launched BBC satire Not The Nine O’clock News – Victoria Wood having turned down the opportunity.

further reading: Black Mirror – Everything We Know About Season 5

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The series debuted on Saturday (yes, Saturday!) March 24th, 1979 at 10 p.m. on ITV. It had tough opposition from Match Of The Day, but it would regularly beat the football in the ratings, although the one week it lost out to The Eurovision Song Contest. Revenge was swift as the episode A Dip In The Pool beat the 1979 FA Cup Final Highlights (an exciting game that ended Arsenal 3, Man Utd 2.)

Each “unexpected” tale was introduced by a memorable title sequence, which featured a silhouetted dancing woman. Karen Standley from Berkshire, who worked as a secretary, took a day off to record the sequence – she wasn’t a professional dancer, just happy to “throw some shapes” for the camera, she told Anglia At 40 in 1999. She was clad in a white body stocking with white greasepaint on her face, arms and legs – which took forever to remove. “The greasepaint kept melting under the hot studio lights…” she revealed to 2001 BBC talking heads show I Love 1980, “It took three baths to wash it all off. But it gave me money, nothing staggering – but I got a new outfit!”

further reading: The Twilight Zone Reboot Review

The combination of dancing and shots of a roulette wheel and revolving gun make the sequence somewhat reminiscent of the opening to a Bond film, albeit with added skulls and tarot cards. It was soundtracked by the ear-worming strains of Ron Grainer’s equally memorable jangly theme tune, which itself was to become a staple of many a TV theme album in subsequent years. This iconic and potent double-whammy of imagery and music would (from November 1980) become synonymous with the Sunday evening “post-bathtime ritual.” A generation of youngsters would be allowed to stay up late to watch, on the proviso they went directly to bed afterwards! In retrospect the content of some of the episodes would no doubt have provided some visceral nightmare material.

Tales Of The Unexpected soon gained a reputation for attracting a very high calibre of acting talent. One memorable episode, “The Umbrella Man,” featured acting colossus Sir John Mills, making the first of three appearances, as an ageing conman. Also notching up three appearances was Joan Collins, appearing with her namesake Pauline Collins in “A Girl Can’t Have Everything,” about a couple of actresses struggling to find work. Steptoe & Son star Harry H. Corbett made his final TV bow in writer J.J. Maling’s “The Moles.” Corbett and Fulton McKay played businessmen turned would-be bank robbers who ask for help from a seasoned “cracksman” and ex-con played by Bill Owen.

The international side of the series emerged as Frank Sinatra Junior was teamed up with Psycho star Janet Leigh in “Light Fingers.” One tale was written by the winner of a TV Times short story competition. As well as a £200 prize, Aileen Wheeler’s script – a tale of a destructive pop star – became “Blue Marigold and starred Toyah Wilcox, herself a pop star of the day, carving out some impressive acting roles in Shoestring and Minder (both series incidentally also debuted in 1979).

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The series was very successful and sold to over 70 countries worldwide. It came to an end in 1988 with a tale called “Mr Know-All,” starring Topol as a roguish archaeology professor and ladies’ man. ITV preferred to spend their money elsewhere, cutting back on drama in favor of the rubbery satire of Spitting Image, which was a better ratings prospect on a Sunday by the late 1980s.

further reading: The Twilight Zone: Revisiting George R.R. Martin’s Episodes

Despite anthology series being a relatively rare format these days, two in particular are markedly the natural inheritors of Dahl’s canny take on the uncanny: Inside Number 9, the work of League of Gentlemen alumni Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, is a clever mix of drama, jet black comedy and just the right portion of sinister goings-on. Charlie Brooker, like his League of Gentlemen peers, has produced some deliciously twisted and imaginative tales in Black Mirror, a clever and often incredibly prescient manifestation of his love of the darker side of life with a dash of The Twilight Zone thrown in for good measure.

So what of the future? It seems the “twist in the tale” format has plenty of life still as we currently await a reboot of Tales Of The Unexpected (as reported in November) after a gap of over thirty years.

Five Tales to try…

Suggesting just five must-see episodes is no mean feat considering the sheer volume of great possibilities – these are my personal favourite five, all are available on a 19-disc DVD box set and YouTube. I am not trying to be definitive here, these are just a personal selection, please feel free to disagree and suggest your own or indeed praise my taste (or lack of it!) in the comments below.

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5. Wink Three Times (1988)

Peter Davison and Liza Goddard play two equally bashful guests at a hotel; both (unbeknown to each other) have been set up by a friend to spend the night with a potential partner, signalling their intentions by winking three times at a particular member of the hotel staff… Much confusion and swapping of beds ensues but the two eventually find each other. The conclusion neatly suggests all isn’t quite as it seems…

4. Royal Jelly (1980)

Timothy West and Susan George are a couple trying to improve the life of a baby who won’t put on weight. West becomes so obsessed with the potential natural goodness provided by honey, he finds himself going through a gradual transformation – of ultimately horrifying proportions…

3. Stranger In Town (1982)

Derek Jacobi plays a flamboyant, theatrically dressed man who is enjoying his new surroundings, acting the clown and impressing young children with his larger than life personality. The stranger has a secret which eventually catches up with him and he decides he must quickly move on. He transforms himself into a forgettable “average Joe,” even removing the lifts in his shoes that made him appear taller. He slips away unnoticed by anyone – or so he thinks…

2. Lamb To The Slaughter (1979)

Susan George (again) and Brian Blessed star in, arguably, the most memorable episode of all. The fourth episode of the first series, “Lamb To The Slaughter is a deftly played half hour. It answers the question of how one might commit the perfect crime and hide the evidence in a deliciously neat conclusion. Susan George said to TV Times in 1980 of the episode: “Believe me, making ‘Lamb To The Slaughter is the best time I’ve had on a production for five years. I told them: I don’t know what I’ve been doing in Los Angeles because this is what life is all about. This is acting.”

1. The Flypaper (1981)

A genuinely unsettling episode with scary moments aplenty. In his filmed introduction to the episode, Roald Dahl said of this fine tale by the writer Elizabeth Taylor: “(It) is so neat and nice and spooky, I only wish I’d thought of it myself.”

Several schoolgirls go missing in a rural community. News reports of the latest disappearance disturb shy teenager, Sylvia (Lorna Yabsley) staying with her Grandmother (Peggy Thorpe-Bates). On a visit to her music tutor, Sylvia spies a furtive old man and suspects he’s following her. On the bus home, Sylvia is suddenly confronted by the stranger who climbs aboard and sits next to her. The decidedly creepy old man, played with sinister relish by the excellent Alfred Burke, makes her deeply uncomfortable with his intense probing manner. Sylvia is relieved to be rescued by a seemingly kind older woman, a gift of a part for Pat Keen. The kind lady takes Sylvia to her home and insists she have some tea to overcome the traumatic events of the bus… The twist is very well done, delivering a chilling lesson about how little anyone really knows a stranger – good or bad.