I received this information from the Programme Support Unit at Anglia Television. It’s got just about everything you ever needed to know about this show!
TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, launched in 1979 and subsequently sold to more than 70 countries, topped anything Anglia had ever done before in popular drama.
The £1.5 million initial contract to produce a collection of twist-in-the-tail stories by master of the macabre Roald Dahl resulted from a chance meeting between the author and Sir John Woolf, the distinguished British film producer and Anglia’s drama supremo, at a Christmas party in 1976.
Film and television producers had been falling over themselves for years to get rights to Dahl’s stories without success.
So Sir John grasped the opportunity to land the production rights after Dahl casually asked him: “How would you like to make a television series of my stories?”
The 25 Dahl stories adapted for television were selected from two of the writer’s collections – Kiss, Kiss and Someone Like You – and were a mixture of suspense, horror and black comedy.
Originally it was intended to have Peter Ustinov presenting some of the stories, but in the event Dahl himself introduced each episode, sitting in front of a blazing fire in his drawing room… in reality a specially designed set in a studio at Anglia House.
The first one made as a pilot programme was “A Dip in the Pool”, starring American character actor Jack Weston, and shot on the cruise liner Navarino in the Aegean. Although the first filmed, it was the eighth of nine transmitted in the first run. The second in order of filming, “The Man from the South”, shot on location in Jamaica, was chosen to launch the series on ITV on 24th March 1979.
Dahl’s introductory words to that first televised “Tale” were: “D’you know what keeps haunting me with just about every paragraph I write when I’m doing a story? It’s the thought that the reader’s interest is easily lost. That’s why, as a kind of insurance, I often try to create severe tension among the characters…so that hopefully every reader will be compelled to go on reading or the viewer to go on viewing. The one coming up now is a tension story, and if any of you switch it off before it’s over you’ll be punching me right on the nose. I hope you won’t do that.”
In fact, there was no danger of Dahl’s nose being put out of joint by viewer rejection. The series was an instant ratings winner, with more than half of that first Saturday night’s TV audience tuning in to “The Man from the South”. There was a blip the following week, when “Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” managed only a 30% audience share thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest on BBC1, but thereafter the series was regularly in the Top Ten ratings.
The BBC’s “Match of the Day” certainly met its match in Tales of the Unexpected. On 12th May, “A Dip in the Pool” swamped the FA Cup final highlights, attracting more than 11 million viewers – a 63% audience share.
Anglia was moved to put out a Press release announcing: “Television’s top-rated Saturday night soccer programme “Match of the Day” has been toppled from its long-standing No. 1 spot in the ratings by Anglia’s new £1.5 million thriller series, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.”
“The Man from the South” set the standard in every way for “Tales”. It was a lavish, expensive production, with a cast headed by a major international star, in this case Jose Ferrer, once acclaimed as the Olivier of American acting for his roles in films such as “Moulin Rouge” and “Cyrano de Bergerac”. Also appearing in that first “Tale” was an unknown young Australian actress called Pamela Stephenson.
Ferrer played a flamboyant stranger who goaded a young sailor (another American actor, Michael Ontkean) into making a frightening bet while on holiday in Jamaica. The stakes were high – he could win an expensive car or lose a finger. The action took place around the swimming pool of a Montego Bay hotel.
From the outset, Sir John Woolf had his sights firmly on the American market for the prestigious new series. By using big-name stars, top directors (Herbert Wise among them) and evocative locations, he knew “Tales” would prove irresistible to TV executives there. And so it proved, with Anglia announcing, even before the British launch, the sale of the first series to United States’ networks for £1 million, followed a few months later with a £1.25 million deal for a second batch of shows.
The galaxy of star names was almost a “who’s who” of film and television on both sides of the Atlantic – and the pairings of co-stars was eye-catching. Joan Collins and John Gielgud teamed up in “Neck” – Collins as the seductive Lady Turton and Gielgud as a disapproving butler. The filming took place at Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, one of many East Anglian locations used for the dramas.
American actor Joseph Cotten, who had made his screen debut in “Citizen Kane”, joined top English theatrical Dame, Wendy Hiller in “Edward the Conqueror”, the story of a couple whose relationship was put under strain by the woman’s obsession with a strange cat.
Susan George, fresh from a string of successes in Hollywood glamour roles, returned to British television for the first time in five years in “Lamb to the Slaughter”, playing a housewife who beat her husband to death with a frozen joint of meat. She said: “Believe me, making ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ is the best time I’ve had on a production for five years. I told them: I don’t know what I’ve been doing in Los Angeles because this is what life is all about. This is acting.”
She took another memorable lead role as a mother in “Royal Jelly”, the tale that launched the second series on ITV in 1980, teaming up with Timothy West in a creepy story about bees and a baby that would not put on weight.
One piece of casting that caught the public imagination brought together Joan and Pauline Collins in “A Girl Can’t Always Have Everything”, and Joan also co-starred with Pauline’s husband John Alderton in “Georgy Porgy, a saucy tale about a vicar and his wife.
Joan’s record of appearing in three “Tales” was matched by John Mills, who starred in “Galloping Foxley”, “The Umbrella Man” and “Operation Safecracker”. Among those notching two apiece were John Gielgud, Jack Weston, Susan George, Julie Harris, Pauline Collins, John Alderton, Derek Jacobi, Amanda Redman and Andrew Ray.
Other luminaries of British stage and screen to grace the credits of a Dahl story were Bernard Miles, Michael Hordern, Ron Moody, Roland Culver and Cyril Cusack. And there was a liberal sprinkling of star names from across The Pond, such as Elaine Stritch, Rod Taylor and Gloria Grahame.
Sir John Woolf would have liked a third series of Dahl stories, but there were insufficient available and Anglia turned to other writers to sustain the series. With the standard set, the American appetite proved undiminished, so much so that some of the later Tales were actually made in the States, with all-American casts, an inevitable development but one with which Sir John was less than enamoured.
The first post-Dahl series still had a very British feel, however, with Denis Quilley, Simon Cadell, Suzanne Danielle and Sean Barrett cast as an airline crew in “Hijack” and pop star Toyah Willcox starring with Ralph Bates in “Blue Marigold”. It was quite a departure for the then 23-year-old High Priestess of Punk, who played a successful model who ruined her career with drink, greed and jealousy. Toyah declared she was heeding the warning of her character. “I recognise this is a dangerous business and I have no plans to fail in it,” she told the Daily Express. She has remained true to her word.
Robert Morley turned up playing a businessman in an episode called “The Party”, and revealed he started work as a vacuum cleaner salesman. “I don’t often play businessmen, but when I do I always sympathise with them. I was very lucky to get into something else,” he said.
The following year Michael Craig, who featured in Anglia’s opening programme in October 1959 – via clips from Ipswich-shot scenes of “The Angry Silence”, in which he was starring – played a man suspected by his wife (Dorothy Tutin) of having an affair in “The Eavesdropper”. And waifish “Gigi” star Leslie Caron sought revenge as the long-suffering wife of a bullying French husband in “Run Rabbit, Run”.
Derek Jacobi mesmerised a community with his clown-like antics in “Stranger in Town”. Jacobi, no stranger to elaborate make-up and costumes, as viewers of I, Claudius will recall, had to put in plenty of preparation time for his hirsute and bizarrely-dressed character in this production – and even more for an earlier role as a tattooist in “Skin”. In the latter, much of which was filmed in Paris, he played the character both young and old, and needed four-hour make-up sessions. While the make-up girls worked at making his face young or old, artist Tom Taylor painted a huge facsimile tattoo on his back.
“Steptoe and Son” star Harry H. Corbett, who died from a heart attack in March 1982, took his final television role alongside Fulton Mackay from “Porridge” and “Last of the Summer Wine’s” Bill Owen as a businessman turned bank robber in “The Moles”. Hitchcock’s “Psycho” shower victim, Janet Leigh, starred alongside Frank Sinatra Jnr in “Light Fingers” during the same run.
The following year’s offerings included “A Sad Loss” in which actress Hayley Mills found herself stepping outside the law – just as her father had done in two earlier “Tales”, when he portrayed a safe-blower and an umbrella thief.
Former teen heart-throb David Cassidy took on two of the most challenging roles of his career – by playing identical twins in “Heir Presumptous” – while fellow American Van Johnson, an idol from another era, played an ex-airman on a nostalgic return visit to England in “Down Among the Sheltering Palms”.
Peter Cushing temporarily turned his back on horror to take a leading role in “The Vorpal Blade” while Dame Anna Neagle starred in “The Tribute”, her first television drama for some 20 years. By coincidence it was with Anglia that the star of more than 30 films made her TV drama debut in 1960 – playing the head of a South-East Asian convent captured by Communists in “A Letter from the General”.
Other American stars were also seen in editions of “Tales” during the year and the one that followed. Sharon Gless from Cagney and Lacey, played against Dick Smothers – one half of the Smothers Brothers comedy duo – in “Youth from Vienna”.
Gayle Hunnicutt adopted her real-life role as an American living in London for “The Luncheon”, based on a short-story by Jeffrey Archer, and movie star Richard Basehart starred as a criminal expert and lawyer aiming to commit the perfect crime in “Turn of the Tide”.
International stars George Peppard and Kevin Dobson – “A-Team” leader and Crocker in “Kojak” respectively – played Vietnam war veterans renewing a mutual dislike in civilian life in “Dirty Detail”, which led off the next series. And comedy entertainer Tom Smothers followed in his brother’s footsteps by making an appearance – as a faithful chauffeur who saved his tycoon boss and two friends from an impending scandal.
The run also featured famous TV law enforcers from both sides of the Atlantic in unusual characterisations. Britain’s Roy Marsden took time out from his Dalgliesh role in Anglia’s P.D. James serials to play a Government minister in “The Mugger”, while Don Johnson, from “Miami Vice”, was cast as a fast-living romantic novelist in People Don’t Do Such Things”.
Two 1988 series featured such stars as Charles Dance, Zoe Wannamaker, Pauline Collins, Joss Ackland, Richard Briers, Patricia Routledge, John Alderton, Peter Davison, Liza Goddard, Glynis Barber, Nicholas Ball, Michael Brandon, David Suchet and Topol.
“Tales” continued, via repeats, right through to December 1990 – ending with a second showing of the Dahl story “Vengeance is Mine Inc”, as a tribute to the author who had died the previous month. Before the programme, Roy Marsden paid a personal tribute to Dahl.
Star-studded and lavish Tales of the Unexpected may have been, but it also gave some “unknowns” a taste of fame. Best remembered of them was the dancer who performed for the opening title sequence dubbed by one newspaper as “the sexiest dance on television”.
Karen Standley was a 27-year-old secretary and housewife from Berkshire, and took a day off to record the sequence.
“The moves were my very own,” recalled Karen, who never danced professionally but got the job because her boyfriend at the time worked for Top of the Pops and was contracted to make the titles for Tales of the Unexpected.
She was seen only in silhouette on screen and for the recording had to wear a white body stocking and white tights, with white greasepaint on her arms and legs to achieve the necessary effect.
“The greasepaint kept melting under the hot studio lights,” she said. “It was horrible and uncomfortable and it took three baths to wash it all off. But it gave me some money – nothing staggering, but I got a new outfit out of it.”
“I was just told to look as sexy as I could and I made it up as I went along. I got a fair amount of fan-mail – mostly adolescents who wanted a picture of me. I suppose I was their fantasy woman.”
Karen is now a mother of two and works as a receptionist in a hospital accident and emergency department.
“Tales” was a twice-in-a-lifetime experience for Suffolk boy Paul Spurrier. As a 12-year-old child actor, Paul, who lived at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, and attended Norwich School, was chosen to appear alongside John Mills and Anthony Steel in Galloping Foxley (PIC) – a story of a man haunted by memories of public school bullying. He then had an even bigger role as “The Boy Who Talked With Animals”, partnering American actor Stuart Whitman in the story of a lad who found animals better company than people.
The ironic thing about the latter role was that he was actually allergic to animals because of asthma. “I can’t even keep birds,” he said. “The dust on their feathers makes me ill.”
Paul had a number of other television roles as a teenager, but did not have ambitions to make acting his life. “The profession is far too precarious,” he said in 1981, favouring a career as a film director. “I would dearly love to get behind a real film camera. That’s much more interesting than hanging around for hours and having to study lines.”
Paul stopped performing when he was about 18, and now runs his own film and TV production company in Battersea. In l998 he made his first film.
The “Tales” link also brought unexpected success for a 54-year-old widow Aileen Wheeler from Gravesend in Kent, who won a TV Times competition to write a short story. She received a £200 prize, beating more than 11,000 other entries. And when she went to receive her prize from Anglia’s executive producer Sir John Woolf, she learned that her story was to be used in the series. It was called “Blue Marigold”, and Toyah Willcox was cast in the lead role as a self-destructive model.
Aileen admitted it was only the competition that had spurred her into writing the tale. “My head is always full of ideas for plays and stories, but I never get round to putting them on paper,” she said.
THOSE UNEXPECTED TALES
There were a few tales of the unexpected associated with the filming of Anglia Television’s prestigious series.
Arranging a drama shoot on location is always a nightmare of logistics, and just occasionally everything that can go wrong, will.
Probably the worst moment in the “Tales” operation came when it was decided to create a little piece of Jamaica at Saunton Sands in North Devon for the filming of “The Boy Who Talked With Animals”.
Artificial palm trees and grassy sunshades were ordered from a London scenery firm. But on the journey down to Devon, some of them were damaged when a lorry caught fire. Eventually everything was in place – apart from the English weather. Un-Jamaica-like leaden skies were augmented by a wind of almost Caribbean hurricane proportions that wrecked the set. Crew arrived one morning to find the artificial palms shredded along the beach. To make matters worse, the location was accessible only via the seashore, and the soft sands of Saunton proved impossible terrain for some vehicles which got bogged down hundreds of yards from the action. The whole shoot over-ran and some sequences had to be filmed later on the Norfolk coast.
“The Boy Who Talked With Animals” was Anglia’s most expensive “Tale”, eclipsing “The Man from the South” which was actually shot in Jamaica itself!
Despite the most careful planning, stunts sometimes have their unexpected moments too. One which went spectacularly wrong involved a staged car crash in Norfolk in 1981 during filming for “Death Can Add”. A remote-controlled Mercedes was set up to hit a ramp, crash through a barrier, take off over a steep embankment and burst into flames in mid-air. But the car veered off course, narrowly missing one camera team and careered down the embankment straight towards another camera position where the crew had to jump for their lives. The camera was destroyed and two people were taken to hospital with minor burns.
JOHN MILLS’ SCHOOLDAYS
Truth was as strange as fiction for actor-knight John Mills when he took the lead in “Galloping Foxley”.
He played a man haunted by memories of bullying and brutality at a public school – a plot that bore an uncanny resemblance to the miserable time he spent at a school in Norfolk 60 years earlier.
Scenes for “Galloping Foxley” were also shot in Norfolk, just a few miles from the scene of his boyhood trauma.
“This is my story,” said Sir John. “I wanted to do it because it applied to me. I had a hideous time during my first year at the school.”
He recalled how he was made to stand holding a jug of icy cold water over his head. “The bullies would stand around and when your arms sagged they would whip you with wet towels.”
WHAT THE BISHOP SAID TO THE ACTRESSES’ SAUCY SCENE
Georgy Porgy, starring Joan Collins and John Alderton, ran into unexpected trouble when the Bishop of Norwich intervened to stop a saucy scene being shot in one of his churches.
Twelve actresses – including Joan Collins – were due to be filmed sitting in the pews naked from the waist up. The story line was that John Alderton, who played the vicar, fantasised about his female parishioners in a state of undress as he delivered his sermon.
But when the bishop found out he withdrew permission for the scene to be filmed. In the end, it was shot in an old crypt converted into a coffee bar in the centre of Norwich. And the actresses were not naked after all – they all wore body stockings. Joan Collins could not be present when the scene was finally filmed. Her place was taken by a stand-in.
TAILS OF THE UNEXPECTED…
Animals also had a part to play in Tales of the Unexpected. In “Edward the Conqueror”, starring Dame Wendy Hiller and Joseph Cotton, a cat was central to the plot. A wonderful two-year-old British cream with the somewhat unusual name of Lulu (he was a boy) duly joined the cast, along with his near-identical brother -Katrina – as stand-in.
In the story – which was shot in particularly difficult and wintry conditions in a mill house deep in the Norfolk countryside – a stray cat responds to the wife’s piano playing in such a strange way that she becomes convinced that it is a reincarnation of the composer Franz Liszt. Unfortunately, from the moment the feline star arrived on location it decided it didn’t want to know poor Wendy Hiller, (whom it was supposed to adore) and attached itself instead to Joseph Cotten (whom in the story it was supposed to hate).
Dame Wendy, a cat lover, struggled (quite literally) to achieve the necessary scenes of affectionate closeness with the cat, and was scratched for her pains! Needless to say none of this showed up in the final cut and “Maestro” emerged a star.
When asked why her male cats had female names, Lulu’s owner explained that all her cats were named as kittens, before anyone had bothered to establish which sex they were. As luck would have it , more often than not, the toms ended up with girls’ names while the queens got the boys’ names!
In “The Absence of Emily”, starring Anthony Valentine and Frances Tomelty, it was a dog which got all the attention. While filming was going on at the Feathers Hotel in Holt, Norfolk, word swiftly got round that the little Jack Russell bitch, was in the care of the RSPCA, having been found abandoned, left tied to a tree. Like all good stories there was a happy ending when one of the chambermaids offered the newly-named “Emily” (what else?) a home.
STING IN THE TALE
Timothy West discovered hidden talents as a beekeeper while filming “Royal Jelly”. As Susan George’s apiarist husband in the story, he had to shoot scenes at the beehives unprotected – while everyone else from the director to the cameraman was clad in boiler suits and face nets to guard against stings.
The only precaution Timothy West took before he lifted the top from a hive was an anti-hystamine injection.
The real beekeeper, Peter Beckley, said: “Timothy West was exceptionally good with bees. He has a keen eye and a calm manner and handled them with ease.” West felt an affinity with the bees too. “I might take this up,” he said. “I know my wife (Prunella Scales) likes the idea.”
And the sting in the tail: Only one person got stung – the company doctor who was standing by in case of injury to the actor.