ROALD DAHL’S TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED
Who is Roald Dahl?
And why is he writing
all these ghastly stories?
By BOB MARTIN
(originally published in Fangoria #3, December 1979)
Anglia Television, a regional broadcaster in England, has had great worldwide success with their wildlife program “Survival.” Recently, in an effort to expand their world television market, Anglia approached Sir John Wolf, producer of The African Queen, The Odessa File, The Day of the Jackal and Oliver!, to develop a big-budget dramatic series that would appeal to American, English and the international television audiences.
The series, which began broadcasting last month on more than 70 television stations in America, is Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. The 22 episodes to be broadcast this year are all adapted from the macabre stories of the British writer Roald Dahl, who personally supervised the adaptation of his prose into television-script form.
Roald Dahl became a writer almost by accident. Born in 1918 in Cardiff, England, where his father was a ship trader, his first adult job was as a representative of the Shell Oil Company in Africa. With the outbreak of World War II, he entered the British Royal Air Force and trained as a flyer at a British base in Nairobi. In 1941, he was flying a Hurricane fighter over Africa’s Western Desert when he was shot down and badly wounded. Sent back to England, he was subsequently assigned to Washington as Assistant Air Attache at the British Embassy.
It was mid-1941. America had not yet joined the fight, but that eventually began to seem inevitable. Dahl was one of the few people in the U.S. who had actually seen action against the Germans and the Italians, so the Saturday Evening Post assigned C.S. Forester (the creator of the fictional sea hero Captain Horatio Hornblower) to interview Wing Commander Dahl.
After meeting with Forester, Dahl sat down to write some notes in order to help Forester in writing his article. As it happened, the notes grew into a story, the first Dahl ever published; his own account of the African campaign, it was titled “A Piece Of Cake.” The Post paid Dahl a thousand dollars for his work. Dahl continued to write for the Post; 16 articles and stories published during the war were collected in his first book, Over to You.
In the years since the war, Dahl has refined his writing skills in two directions; light fantasy tales for children (though these have their adult fans as well) and stories of the macabre written for an adult readership.
There is a strong connecting link in both types of Dahl stories – in his tales, justice often works with a quickness and accuracy not always apparent in real life. His children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (filmed as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), is a perfect example.
In the book, Charlie and five other children win a tour through Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory. Except for Charlie, each of the children is an insufferable brat, and they come to harm as a result of their own misbehavior – for instance, a young fellow who is constantly demanding sweets is drowned in chocolate. At the end of the tour, only virtuous Charlie has survived. Willy Wonka, assured of Charlie’s goodness, gives him the entire chocolate factory.
Not long ago, a group of librarians in the U.S. publicly criticized the violence in Dahl’s stories. Dahl thereafter expressed his feelings in an interview with John Cameron for England’s Daily Telegraph Magazine, saying, “Silly bitches don’t understand what children enjoy. They like to have people bumped off, in great detail; provided they’re pretty unpleasant characters, that is. You try not to bump off the goodies.”
Similar rules apply in his adult stories – the most unpleasant people get done in most unpleasantly. The virtuous usually survive, and often prosper.
In four decades of writing, Dahl has completed dozens of uncanny tales, and several of these have been adapted for television, most notably for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series of the 50s and 60s. Dahl has also had a hand in screen-writing, reworking his own book for Willy Wonka and adapting Ian Fleming’s books for the film versions of You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The first episode of “Tales,” titled “A Dip in the Pool,” stars Jack Weston as an American tourist overtaken by his own greed; later episodes are illustrated on these pages. Some of the other stars scheduled to appear in the series this year are Alec Guinness, Joseph Cotton, Sir John Gielgud, Julie Harris, Sir John Mills, Katy Jurado and Susan George.
Unfortunately, according to the show’s producers, the first season will virtually exhaust the supply of Dahl stories that easily lend themselves to the half-hour television format. The expected success of the series will, however, lead to a second season of macabre stories, with Dahl taking part in the story selection as an advisor.