TV Rewind: Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected Is a Macabre Treat

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TV Rewind: Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected Is a Macabre Treat

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

In the mid-twentieth century, anthology television programs were all the rage. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were consistently at the top of the charts. With a new self-contained episode airing each week, these series cultivated our obsession with bizarre, often supernatural stories that scared us so much that we were unable to look away. 

Premiering more than ten years after the conclusion of both of those aforementioned shows, Roald Dahl sought to capitalize on this format in a similar, yet distinctly Dahl way. Made for British rather than American audiences, Tales of the Unexpected began as a vehicle for Dahl to adapt his own short stories for the small screen. By this time, he was already a household name and had risen to prominence for his children’s fiction works. Both James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had been released to tremendous success, and he was fresh off the impressive performance of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (a film that he hated, despite the attention that it brought both to him and his work). Though he grew to fame for his quirky children’s books, it was in his short stories for adults that he was able to fully let loose, examining dark themes of malice, murder, and revenge. 

In 1979, Tales of the Unexpected premiered on British television. With the opening silhouette of the dancing woman and tarot cards, the anthology series invited viewers into the world of Dahl’s imagination, maintaining their wickedly funny and often macabre nature. Like Hitchcock, Dahl’s unmistakable speaking voice demanded viewers’ attention and, each week, he invited them into a warm living room set to introduce the story before handing off the reins to some of the finest working actors of the day. Actors such as Charles Dance, Elaine Stritch, Derek Jacoby, and the late Michael Gambon all made appearances in the series. Like a repertory theater group, sometimes actors would even appear in repeat episodes, playing new roles in different stories.

Episode 4 of Season 1 was an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter, a story made famous from its prior adaptation as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The story follows a housewife named Mary Maloney who is pregnant and more in love with her husband than ever before. After eagerly awaiting his arrival at the end of a day, he tells her that he is leaving her. Mary finds a frozen leg of lamb in the freezer and, in an emotional fit, hits her husband over the head, killing him instantly. In an attempt to cover up the evidence, she puts the meat in the oven and serves it to the policemen investigating his murder. The dramatic irony and suspense comes from, of course, the searching for the murder weapon when the audience knows that it is right in front of them. 

This blend of dark humor and suspense was a characteristic of both Hitchcock and Dahl, and both were clearly drawn to those themes and hallmarks in their respective series, as evident through the adaptation of the exact same story. However, the structure of each presentation differs. Hitchcock’s version is told chronologically, just like the original story. But in the Tales adaptation, the storytelling of the events are altered. Rather than presenting the story linearly, viewers discover the sequence of events as if we are the investigators, slowly learning each element along the way. It keeps its audience at a distance, rather than letting us in on the mystery from the start.

Season 2’s “Poison” is another important episode of Tales. As Dahl tells in his introduction, he is no stranger to snakes, particularly after an incident with a black mamba in Africa. “Poison” follows a man who is convinced that a small snake—a krait—is in his bed and he must remain completely motionless until it can be safely removed from his stomach. In actuality, however, the snake is only in the man’s mind, and as the story moves along, it’s revealed that the central theme is really a harsh look at bigotry and the way in which it can be infecting—like a poison. Dahl often told stories like this; rather than live in the supernatural world of The Twilight Zone, Dahl took Hitchcock’s lead in showcasing suspense that was grounded in real-life truths. By the third season, many of the stories were from other writers, but fit neatly into Dahl’s canon. One such example is “The Flypaper” from Season 3, a tale Dahl admits that he wished he came up with himself.

Fast forward to 2023 when Wes Anderson, the director known for his distinctly colorful and offbeat style, premiered four new short films on Netflix. Led by the Oscar-winning The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, these shorts are all adapted from Dahl tales and, as with the anthology series, it is Dahl’s guiding hand that shapes their execution. Though Dahl himself passed away in 1990, Anderson recruited Ralph Fiennes to play the author and once again introduce them. However, in the shorts, Anderson takes this conceit of a host even further. 

The presentation here is in the style of a stage play or, rather, “reader’s theater,” which marks the most significant difference between the Anderson shorts and episodes of Tales. In the original series, Dahl introduces the story and then leaves, allowing for the actors to do most of the work. In Anderson’s shorts, Dahl is an active participant, telling the story and remaining present throughout. With narration that includes action normally shown rather than told and the inclusion of phrases like “he said,” spoken out loud, these adaptations remind us of Dahl’s presence, perhaps more than even the original anthology series. 

In addition to Dahl’s role in the story, Anderson’s adaptations bring us even closer into Dahl’s reality, with the meticulous recreation of both the 1970s television style and the author’s famous writing hut where he did much of his later work. In the recent feature-length edit of the shorts, the film is prefaced with the following caption: “The following series of telefilms were produced and photographed entirely in the United Kingdom for Channel 7 between 1978 and 1981. They have not been aired since the time of their original broadcast.”

This, of course, isn’t true. But Anderson’s playful introduction does indicate his commitment to the careful recreation of what such films might look like and, in fact, do. A brief online search for videos of this time will unearth footage of Dahl, some of which sees him in that same writing hut, discussing his everyday routine and process—dialogue almost recreated word for word in Anderson’s films. Utilizing classic film grain and the “fullscreen” aspect ratio from TV of the past, Anderson’s films perfectly match the style of Tales of the Unexpected and that period of television. Additionally, Tales did air from 1979 to 1988, fitting nicely into the era of these so called “missing” Channel 7 films. In another fitting connection, one of the Dahl stories that Anderson chose to adapt was “Poison,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the victim of the imaginary snake. Cumberbatch also appeared as Henry Sugar in the flagship short.

Whether it be as a “short,” “feature,” or “missing telefilm,” The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Three More remain wonderfully uncharacterizable. Like Tales, each of these adaptations are darkly hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and always whimsical. Between its inclusion of the author, the bookends of his writing process, and nods to its use of recurrent actors playing different roles a la repertory theater, Anderson’s Dahl adaptations feel like a natural extension of the anthology series. And for those who are hungry for more, Tales of the Unexpected is a strange and welcome treat from a bygone era of television that is worth enjoying alongside a cup of tea or, perhaps, a leg of lamb. 

Josh Sharpe is the Entertainment Editor at BroadwayWorld. His other bylines include TheaterMania, Collider, and Paste Magazine, where he served as the TV intern. To hear about his thoughts about film, TV, and musical theatre, follow him @josh_sharpe22 on all socials.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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