Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tales of the Unexpected Rehabilitated

I am completely sure I have blogged about this show here before, but since for the life of me I can't find the post, it may just be that I have mentioned it in passing. Anyway, what I have probably said about it before is that I loved this show as a child, finding it terribly sophisticated and really attention-grabbing. I have probably also said that I have recently had a set of the whole first series and found it incredibly dreary. Actually, given that that was my opinion it is not very surprising if I haven't blogged about it.
Nonetheless today I thought I would give it another go. Unless you're a fanatical completist and want the every-episode-ever box set (on something in the region of 473 DVDs), or fancy buying it one series at a time, I have a recommendation. Buy the 'best episodes' box set, which comes on ten DVDs and is manageable. If you live in the UK the most affordable way to get it is used from Cex at £12.00. I have also realised two things about this show - one is that the quality is more patchy than I remember from my youth. The other is that I have read elsewhere on the internet today, that beyond the second series the episodes weren't actually written by Roald Dahl. What I'm saying in a roundabout way is that buying the 'best of' box set will excuse you from seeing the duds, but that I have a feeling any viewer will be hard pressed to like every episode of such a long-running series.
I came to it again, willing to give it another go. To my astonishment, I found that it was really gripping. I popped a disc in the drive while cooking, and found that I kept stopping to turn round and look at the screen. I am delighted to find that my early memories of this show weren't as wrong as I thought they were - it was perhaps just that I wasn't watching the best episodes.
In fact I am so delighted that I an rushing this into print so that Tales of the Unexpected can be rehabilitated in the view of Cult TV Blog, without watching my way through all the discs. Naturally it may be that some of the episodes are not to my taste, but that will just confirm the theory I have come up with above.
Of the episodes I have watched, I would have to say that they have retained their power to terrify and horrify. For example on the disc in the drive at the moment is The Stinker. This episode accurately creates the feeling of being on the receiving end of bullying and so can only be an alarming experience for the viewer. I'll Be Seeing You is an apparently fairly conventional tale of a man and a woman who loathe each other stuck in a marriage, relieved for the husband only by the affair he is having with a woman who is steadily losing her sight. Without spoiling the story, the unexpected thing in I'll Be Seeing You is truly ironic, would have been horrible for him in reality, and was probably a bit of a triumph of technology at the time. I particularly like the economy with which the horror is developed in The Landlady, featuring the scariest landlady in world history (pictured). The Landlady takes the premise of Arsenic and Old Lace and somehow makes it so much more twisted than it was to begin with. I particular love the element of sexual frisson the landlady gets from her guests.
One of the things I have managed never to notice about this show is the absolutely stellar cast of stars. Joan Collins for a start. John Geilgud to be going on with. Even I can't moan at Really Big Names, because their acting ability tends to be so good that they enhance the show! There are also a number of familiar faces from TV of the period, but I'm going to be good and not moan about it.
So despite my recent disappointment at seeing this programme again, I'm now finding it rather difficult to think of anything critical, but I'll have a go. I suppose the obvious criticism is that if you don't take to anthology series, you won't like this. It is in the nature of the medium that the episodes will vary from each other in style and quality. I would also say that if you are watching this as a fan of Roald Dahl you are going to be disappointed beyond the first couple of series. Not only do his introductions to the episodes disappear but I have read that the later episodes weren't even written by him
Otherwise this is very much what you would expect of the higher level TV of the time in terms of appearance and production values. I would recommend it for a viewing if you're not familiar with it.

8 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (1st of what may be several):

Are you at all familiar with Roald Dahl's American TV series?
I'm guessing not; 'Way Out was produced "live-on-tape" at CBS in New York City in the spring of 1961.
Only fourteen episodes were made. Apparently they all survive on kinescope film - just barely. The films generally look like they were stored in somebody's basement, next to the water heater.
Somehow, ten of the fourteen shows found their way into "the collectors market" (the polite way of saying "bootlegs"); I have those shows safe in my DVD wall, and patiently await the excavation of the other four.

'Way Out aired on CBS on Friday nights, just before Rod Serling's Twilight Zone; this was thought at the time to be an inspiration.
The show proper began with Roald Dahl sitting in a CBS control booth, smoking away, as he did a scary/funny introduction to the week's story (Alfred Hitchcock Presents was the template).
The stories: the premiere, "William And Mary", was the only actual Dahl story that they used here; the other thirteen were originals by New York TV writers, to whom Dahl always gave credit in his intros.

In 1961, I was ten years old; my brother Sean was a year older.
Both of us loved 'Way Out. When it went down after only 14 weeks, we were sore aggrieved (well, we really said "pissed off" but not in front of our Irish Catholic parents).

By the way, Roald Dahl was in New York at that time because his then-wife Patricia Neal was doing a Broadway show. He became acquainted with David Susskind, a major TV producer, who had the idea of using Dahl as a TV host - thus, 'Way Out.

Next time out, I think I may talk about Tales Of The Unexpected, which played in US syndication in a slightly different form than in the UK (which I learned when I got the DVD sets).

Any questions?
(Not that I'll be able to answer all of them ...)

John said...

Yes. Just, 'where do I buy it?'.
That's the trouble with the TV blogosphere - you find so many shows you want to see!

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (again?):

I can only tell you where I got my DVDs.

On the sidebar of Mitchell Hadley's blog, you'll find the name of Martin Grams.
His website includes a "store" called Finders Keepers Classic Video, wherein Mr. Grams deals in DVDs of varying vintages, from the whole of TV history.
I've acquired many ancient TV shows from Mr. Grams over the years, some "official", others not quite; the two 'Way Out DVDs are among the latter.
Because Mr. Grams deals in the USA, I'm assuming that his DVDs are Region One, so if you've got an all-region player, you're home (if not, well ...).

I can't recall if you've ever mentioned YouTube (sorry if you have and I missed it). Some of the extant 'Way Out shows can be found there.

Next time, the USA syndication of Roald Dahl's Tales Of The Unexpected (it's a complicated story ...).

John said...

Oh thank you for that, I'll have a look. I have found the episodes on youtube.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (It's Memory Time!):

A wise man believes only in lies;

Trusts only in the absurd;

And learns to expect ... the Unexpected.


When Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected came on US TV in the fall of 1979, the first thing viewers heard was Roald Dahl's voice, speaking the above words.
On screen, we saw a carousel horse, shot in shadows on a "black limbo" set.
Then another, and then another - and finally a whole carousel in full operation, over Ron Grainer's theme music.
As you well know, that's not what British viewers saw.
I didn't see the GB originals until I got the Acorn DVD releases years later.
Apparently, the US syndicators didn't think the images would go over in what we in the States call the "Bible Belt".
In the US edition, Roald Dahl's introductions were also done on a soundstage in "black limbo"; Dahl was by himself, standing next to an armchair (I believe he may actually have sat in it a time or three; I'd have to see them again to know for sure).
The US intros were subtly different than those for the GB audience, but the tone followed the Hitchcock Presents style of dry humor.
If you've taken time to watch the old 'Way Outs on YouTube, you'll have spotted a darker manner in Dahl's intros; in '61 he was a new personality to Americans - and this was long before Willy Wonka turned him into a "family entertainer".
The first batch of RD's Tales that played in the USA were the first two batches that played in the UK; this was when they were mainly sticking to the Dahl storybook. I recall that a couple of the shows were non-Dahl stories, and that Dahl was scrupulous about identifying the actual authors (as he had on 'Way Out).
In order to fill out a full-season syndication slate, the producers ordered up some US-made episodes, using American stars and behind-the-camera talent; the producer Stateside was Norman Lloyd, who used much of the old Hitchcock Presents talent pool, up to and including himself.

Tales was a success of sorts in its first US season; here in Chicago, it ran in a post-midnight slot on Saturday nights.
When Tales returned for a second US round in the fall of '80, Roald Dahl had stepped down as host; in his place was John Houseman, who had then entered the "anything for a buck" phase of his career. Houseman remained in the host spot for the rest of the US run (was he seen in the UK? I've heard different versions).
That epigram that started the show was re-recorded by Houseman for the duration.

When the producers reached 100+ episodes, they folded the production and went to five-a-week local syndication.
For this stage of the proceedings, they scrapped all the intros (Dahl and Houseman both) and re-recorded the opening spiel again, using an anonymous American announcer ("Hi, I'm from Nowhere!").

As I said above, I'd never seen the British main title, with its picaresque images, until I got the DVD set.
Honesty requires me to admit that I had seen Benny Hill's takeoff on this a few years earlier, so it wasn't a complete surprise to me.
The Acorn DVDs do not include the American-made shows (there were about twenty or so; I'm not even sure that these played in GB)>

Item last:
When you watch the old 'Way Outs on YouTube ...
... are you watching the American commercials?
Just curious, is all ...

John said...

I've only downloaded them so far but was interested to spot the ads when I checked they worked ok. I certainly will be watching them and always do if a recording includes contemporary ones.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (interim):

Noting that you intend to watch the 'Way Out commercials, what follows is a friendly warning or two:

- 'Way Out's primary sponsor was L&M cigarettes.
Most of the episodes have the same spot, so once you've seen that one, you can safely fast-forward.
There is a "one-off" spot at the end of "William And Mary", the debut episode, that features The Limeliters, who were a folksinging act that went commercial with a vengeance at this time.
The Limeliters had some hit records and success playing night clubs, but what people my age remember most about them these days is their commercials, principally for L&M and Coca-Cola ("Things go better with Coke!").
By the way, the chubby little tenor is Glenn Yarborough, who had some solo success later in the '60s ("Baby, The Rain Must Fall" was one of his hits).
It shows you where I am that I'm actually an aficionado of stuff like this.

- Alternating sponsors were commonplace in US TV at this time.
As its subject matter would indicate, 'Way Out had some difficulties in getting an alternator; L&M was no problem, since Roald Dahl was providing an on-camera demonstration at the start and end of each show, but by midway through the 14 weeks, CBS had to fill the ad time with public service spots and network promos.
At the finish of "Dissolve To Black", which is set in a TV studio, there's a promo by Ed Sullivan for this Sunday night's show; in the context of the spookfest we've just seen, it does play a bit strangely ..
(I don't know how familiar you over there are with Ed Sullivan, especially if you're younger than I am, but his "appearance" here, which was taped and used all that weekend on all CBS shows, was the subject of many schoolyard jokes.)

So have fun, and if you have any questions, you know where to find me...

John said...

Thank you very much! I look forward to having Ed Sullivan's appearance tickle my schoolboy sense of humour!