Sunday nights in the late 70’s/early 80’s here in the UK were great for TV. In my household we’d religiously watch That’s Life, a weird hotchpotch of hard hitting investigations into very dark subject matters with lighter fare which was designed to make the audience titter and guffaw (they loved vegetables that just happened to be shaped like genitalia). Going from a hard-hitting expose to a carrot shaped like a penis was sometimes very inappropriate but it worked somehow. This was all presided over by the ultra-camp Esther Rantzen (sometimes wearing a mumu).
After that was The Professionals, a very masculine (and thus, very camp) crime/action series tellingly made by the same company who made The New Avengers. These have now been reissued on Blu ray and are well worth seeking out. I fancied Lewis Collins like crazy.
Last, but certainly not least, there was Tales of the Unexpected. This gem of a series told a different story every week and each episode was introduced by Roald Dahl. You may have heard of Dahl as the writer of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Matilda and other classic children’s books. But he also wrote short stories for adults, many of which were very dark and had a twist in the tail. And that’s precisely what this series was based on. Most episodes were written by Dahl but not all. He introduced each episode from what appeared to be his favourite comfy chair in front of a roaring fire. His introductions were just as brilliant as the stories themselves. And these tales were executed (pardon the pun) very well indeed- in fact, a bit too well.
This programme was the last thing I saw every Sunday night before going to bed. I remember not sleeping most Sunday nights because of this and Mondays at school being very tiring affairs.
A number of the episodes of Tales of the Unexpected have stayed with me as they terrified me as a child. I bought a boxset containing all of the episodes recently and can report that they still terrify me.
The opening credit sequence was enough to have me cowering behind the sofa. Creepy organ and saxophone music that sounded like the ultimate in sleaze and menace. Over this were images of silhouetted dancing naked women, guns, lion-like gargoyle faces, tarot cards and skulls. Nothing traumatising there for a 5 year old boy. The woman dancing in front of the flames was later referenced in the video for Cities In Dust by Siouxsie and the Banshees (as if Siouxsie couldn’t be cooler- she then shows she’s a fan of this TV programme).
I’ll recommend the two episodes that freaked me out the most. Firstly, theres The Flypaper written by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one). A schoolgirl who doesn’t feel like she fits in is preoccupied with other stuff going in her life when she quickly comprehends that the accidental stranger on her bus in fact being a bit too over-friendly and overfamiliar with her. She decides to get off the bus to try to get away from him. And that’s all I’m telling! When this was transmitted here in the UK it seemed like kids were going missing every other week. This grim tale reflected what was going on in society at that time all too well.
The second is Galloping Foxley. A man on a train recognises the bully who regularly beat and humiliated him at boarding school. The young Foxley is played by the always brilliant Jonathan Scott-Taylor from Damian: Omen 2. I went to private school myself after passing an exam which was designed to allow poorer families to send their ‘academically gifted’ children there without having to pay the hefty fees. Whilst I experienced no bullying or brutality from my fellow peers, I did very quickly pick up on how oppressive the actual system was, the teachers especially. I started within this system in 1986- the same year that corporal punishment was outlawed in all schools in the UK. My timing was impeccable! I could see that the angriest teachers hated this decision and would rather have been inflicting some kind of painful punishment out on us for some real, imagined or fabricated misdemeanour. Friends have told me about when they went to school in the days of such physical punishment and were themselves beaten. One friend tells me of his time at a strict Catholic school where they were beaten with a studded leather strap. If they didn’t say ‘thank you’ after their beatings they would be beaten some more.
To me the best horror comes from the unembellished factual accounts from people’s lives. Truth is stranger than fiction. And sometimes a lot more warped and fucked up.
Please peruse these two episodes but proceed with caution. They aren’t for the fainthearted. For more episodes click here.