Tales of the Unexpected TV RETROSPECTIVE

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DONNA CUTTRESS looks back on the dark and mysterious television series, Tales of the Unexpected.

Roald Dahl was host of Tales of the Unexpected
Author Roald Dahl headed Tales of the Unexpected for its first two series.

Tales of the Unexpected, from Anglia Television, ran for nine series beginning in 1979.

From the opening titles, with the infamous lady dancing in front of various images of luck and chance to the notable music composed by Ron Granier, each ‘Tales’ is a compact episode of menacing, comic and moral theatre.

The first two series were hosted by Roald DahlSat in his armchair, fire roaring, he would talk briefly about the forthcoming episode. Many of them were adapted from the short stories in his anthologies, ‘Kiss Kiss’, ‘Somebody Like You’ and ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’, hence those series were called ‘Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected’.

As his association with the series ended other writers, such as Jeffrey Archer ‘ The Luncheon’ and Ruth Rendell ‘A Glowing Future’ took over.

The episodes attracted some of the biggest acting names of the time. Sir John Gielgud ‘Neck’, Sir John Mills, ‘The Umbrella Man’, and Elaine Stritch ‘William and Mary’, were amongst them.

They were filmed mostly in Norwich and the East Anglia area. It was only towards the end of the series run, that episodes were filmed abroad, mainly the US, enticing American actors.

The stories verge on the macabre and nearly always hold a righteous message. Many of the deadly sins were touched on among them; Greed, ‘The Orderly World of Mr Appleby’, Lust, ‘Taste’ and pride, ‘Blue Marigold’.

Some of the episodes are fantastical, science fiction, for example ‘William and Mary’ and ‘The Sound Machine’, where a botanist invents a contraption that can hear what plants are saying. Who can forget the scream from the flower when it’s stem is cut?

Certain episodes have become famous; ‘Royal Jelly’ starring Timothy West and Susan George, is one that seems to be remembered not only for West’s transformation into a bee, but also for its horrific ending. Dahl’s uses autobiographical content to tell the tale of ‘The Galloping Foxley’.

A story of a boy and his bullying experiences at boarding school. ‘Skin’, starring Derek Jacobi, is a tale of artistry, tattooing and exploitation. A man carries a masterpiece tattooed on his back, should he sell his own skin when he falls on hard times?

An original story ‘Man from the South’, has long influenced films and directors; a sailor and his girlfriend meet Carlos, a gambler. The sailor boasts about his lighter and it’s dependability. The gambler bets he cannot light it ten times without fail, or the sailor will lose a finger.

In ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, the story always had a twist, even if the viewer could guess it and rolled their eyes at the ending.

Some of the episodes are dated, scenery moves and telephones ring after they been answered, but the acting is always straight and the viewer was guaranteed a familiar face in each one.

Comedy and the sinister combined and even though his association with the series ended quite early, Roald Dahl’s, mischievous and malicious influence extended over each episode.

The series ended due to falling viewing figures, and complaints over the stories and their predictability sealed its fate.

Sadly ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ finished in 1988, but is currently being repeated on Sky Arts and available on DVD and downloads today.

You can read about the Tales of the Unexpected episodes here.

What is your favourite episode of Tales of the Unexpected – tell us in the comments section below!

Tales of the Unexpected Theme

Liverpool’s DONNA CUTTRESS writes horror/suspense short stories,and has been published by Crooked Cat Pub. and Siren’s Call Publications as part of Women In Horror month. Follow here on Twitter @Hederah


  1. A great summing up, Donna. Although, as you stated, the end twist was very often obvious, they were always well worth watching. I used to enjoy them when first on, am now enjoying them again on Sky Arts.


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