“Tales of the Unexpected!”

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  • Written by: Tony Crawley
  • Published: May 1979 issue of Starburst Magazine

Article Text

At last,we have our own Rod Serling. . . As a creator of short stories, he is wholly without equal in the world. He is renowned for always supplying the most unexpected sting in every tale. His name is Roald Dahl, Welsh-born of Norwegian parents 63 years ago, RAF fighter-pilot in Greece and Syria during the war, assistant air attache in Washington in 1942, and thereafter “something in Intelligence” as they say. He’s married to the American actress Patricia Neal (Day the Earth Stood Still etc) and helped bring her back from a speechless living death after a massive stroke which nearly killed her some years ago. He taught her to speak all over again and return to her career.

People who don’t buy his books may know the Dahl name better from the script of Sean Connery’s You Only Live Twice—or two big children’s movie spectaculars, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (based on his best-selling children’s tome, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). His friends and neighbours know him as an ardent cultivator of orchids—and a man who loves gambling.

For years, though, he has refused to gamble on his stories being churned out as quickie-television. True, he allowed Hitchcock to adapt two for the Master’s own tv series. But no more. Many tv moguls had asked, but none were ever chosen by Dahl to do his stories his way . . . until he ran into Sir John Woolf, executive director of Anglia Television, at a cocktail party around Christmastime, 1976. Then it was Dahl who made the offer the producer couldn’t refuse, not as per usual, the other way around.

“On the spur of the moment,” recalls Dahl, “I said to him something I have scrupulously avoided saying to any other producers: ‘How would you like to make a television series of all my stories?’

Sir John leapt at the opportunity. “Roald Dahl must not only be the undisputed master of the twist in the tail, but in the quantity and quality of his stories capable of being dramatised to make exciting television, he must also be unique. When he gave me the opportunity of selecting up to 24 subjects from his distinguished output, I accepted with alacrity.”

Dahl’s tales are often gruesome, macabre and fantastical. “They’re all a bit grim,” he says, and laughs. “Actually, I admire Hans Christian Andersen much more than the brothers Grimm. Andersen is more sparkly. Grimm can be pretty grim, without being funny. I don’t like anything for children, or indeed much for grown-ups, without a liberal sprinkling of humour or wit. My style is black humour.” At times, very black.

He first began writing when working in Washington. Naturally enough for an RAF pilot (he finished the war as a Wing Commander), the first dozen works were about flying, and published in an anthology called Over To You. His next collections came out as Someone Like You; Kiss Kiss; and Switch Bitch. Hitchcock apart, he has often been asked to sell out to tv. He always refused. So why the great change of heart now?

“I needed the money,” he tends to reply, with a laugh. “I have been carefully hoarding them in the hope of finding the right person—a person I could rely upon to make a big series of the highest quality.”

He could hardly have chosen better than Sir John Woolf. He’s held a special responsibility for Anglia’s drama output since the ITV combine was founded in 1959. But Sir John is, of course, fundamentally, a film man in Woolf’s clothing. With his elder brother, James, Sir John formed Romulus Films in 1949, and made such classics as The African Queen with Bogart and Katie Hepburn in 1952, and Britain’s breakthrough new-wave film, Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top in 1959. Following his brother’s death in 1966, Sir John continued as a solo film producer—winning an Oscar for the Oliver! musical in 1968, and filming the first two Frederick Forsythe books, The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File. Now he prefers to make tv shows—“they’re pre-sold, you see!”

“Sir John seemed a decent chap,” was the Dahl comment on their meeting. “There are so many people in films and tv who you cannot trust. They let you down. I don’t think I mistrust any more people than most people do—it comes down to about 50% of everyone you meet, doesn’t it?”

The much-applauded Dahl stories are perhaps more legend than legion. Counting six children’s books, he’s written but forty tales since the war. But they sell the world over in fifteen languages and are particularly popular in America. That’s important, you don’t mess around with an expensive British tv series (the 24 half-hours will cost £1,500,000 in all) unless the American networks are interested. They were. They are. And so, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected came into being.

Discounting the wartime flying tales, Anglia bought rights for about 35 yarns, and selected 24 for the first batch—to run as two separate series in Britain, one complete series in the States. Dahl helped in the selection, and all the adaptations are carried out by leading English tv scribes (Ronald Harwood included) under Dahl’s supervision and approval. And, for the icing on the cake, he introduces the show every week—in his perfected short and precise manner. (He’s shooting a different set of introductions for the American series). Either way, this notion tends to make the show comparable to Rod Serling’s sterling Night Gallery. It isn’t; this is one story per episode. Better stories, too!

One of the two which Hitchcock first made in the States, Man From The South, kicked off the series in Britain in March (directed this time around by Michael Tuchner). It was not, perhaps, the best of beginnings but for the next couple of months the 10pm date with Dahl became a regular Saturday night alternative for the non-soccer fraternity and Dahl fans, old and new.

Not all the tales work on the box. It’s difficult at the best of times to dramatise the written word; with cleverly honed tales of the macabre, this is a greater problem. Dahl’s style works best on the written page, or indeed read or acted on radio. Anglia, however, pulled out every stop to vault the recognised hurdles. Producer John Rosenberg collected a posse of topnotch writers and directors (including Herbert Wise, Christopher Miles), composer Ron Grainger, some rather 007-style credits from Ted Taylor, and stars aplenty—from both sides of the pond. José Ferrer, Joseph Cotton, Katy Juardo, Jack Weston, Elaine Stritch (superb in William and Mary), and Julie Harris (twice in fact) represent America, while the British contingent included a rare double-act from, of all combos. Sir John Gielgud and . . . Joan Collins.

Sir John Woolf’s favourite of the first batch of nine tales was the second Julie Harris item, Way Up To Heaven, which neatly closed the first series. His producer, John Rosenberg, simply favours them all!

Pert and pretty Susan George headlined the most memorable of all Dahl’s works, the one Hitchcock leapt upon and first helped make into a classic on American tv; Lamb To The Slaughter. This is the only truly perfect murder story I’ve ever read. And I do mean, perfect! That it was not so perfect this time around was not Susan’s fault. She was excellent; John Davies’ direction was not tight enough, and Robin Chapman’s script almost gave the game away when Det Sgt Brian Blessed shouted the word “neat!” It sounded almost like “meat” . . . which is the crux of the murder. Wife bashes hubby over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, and while the police are ferretting about the place for the murder weapon, she calmly suggests they eat the meal she’d been cooking. A leg of lamb!

Roald Dahl says 007’s creator, the late Ian Fleming, was really responsible for the story. They were dining with friends once in Vermont. The roast lamb was so appallingly dry. Fleming said: “She must have had this in the freezer for ten years. She ought to be shot!” Dahl suggested there must be a better form of punishment for her …

After this opening set, John Rosenberg is already well into the throes of producing the next fifteen, when the actors will feature Derek (I, Claudius) Jacobi, Timothy (he, Edward VII) West, Gloria Grahame from Hollywood and return visits from both Sir John Gielgud and Susan George. Tragically, an eye-ailment has prevented Sir Alec Guinness filming his spot in the second series.

“I could probably sell a third series,” says Sir John Woolf, “if Roald would write one. He’s not exactly prolific.” A third set is still a distinct possibility, however, minus Dahl’s imprint and, if Anglia can find them, unexpected tales from other writers.

Dahl does his best, though, writing (by hand) in a ramshackle brick-shed next to his orchid greenhouse, at the bottom of his Bucks garden. The orchids are better heated than he is. He makes use of an old oil heater, and wraps his long legs inside a sleeping bag, as he prepares to frighten the world anew.

“I get my ideas at my desk,” he explains. “Only a little germ comes beforehand then you sit down and slog it out. I just try to think myself into macabre situations. Dreams? Oh yes, I have lots of bad dreams. But I forget them ten minutes after. I can never use them in my stories.”

And fears? What frightens Dahl the way he can scare us? “I was never frightened as a child, except by the dark—walking home alone in the dark and the wind, with the high trees moving in the wind, with less frightened of things as you get older. Being frightened of anything, when you come down to it, is being frightened of death. The older you get, the less frightened of death you become. I was frightened in the war . . . Very odd how you got used to it in the RAF when somebody didn’t come back.

“I suppose people like being frightened for the same reason as I do. I write my stories because they tickle me. If they tickle anvone, I’m lucky.”