(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in October 2019)
The 13th of September 2019 was Roald Dahl day, on what would have been his 103rd birthday. Like National Book Day, when children go dressed as characters from their favourite books, the pavements outside schools were dotted with children dressed as Matilda, Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket (or his cavalcade doomed fellow Golden ticket winners), The Grand High Witch, James and George (of distended peach and awe-inspiring medicines fame, respectively), some oddly scaled-down BFG’s and The Twits, to name but a few.
(Incidentally, my costume of choice on National Book Day – Oracle Database 12c: Oracle RMAN Backup and Recovery – never goes down particularly well. Philistines.).
However, just one year I’d like, on Roald Dahl Day, to see somebody dressed as a monstrous child-sized bloated grub, because one thing that people often forget is that Dahl wasn’t just a writer of macabre children’s stories, he was a damn fine writer of scary material for adults too.
The aforementioned grub featured in the episode "Royal Jelly" from the seminal TV series "Tales of the Unexpected", a new-born transformed into bee larvae from over-consumption of the substance of the episode title. Along with a public information film about the dangers of drowning in grain silos – admittedly, not a common peril for a ten year old living in the middle of Coventry – this episode is one of the earliest memories I have of being truly afraid.
Sunday Night in the Court Household was Tales of the Unexpected Night. After the light entertainment japes of Family Fortunes and the mundane and gentle humour of Last of the Summer Wine, what better way to end the weekend than with a dark tale that would cause nightmares for anywhere between one and six nights?
Every episode opened with the vaguely sinister Ron Grainer tune (yeah, the Doctor Who theme writer, a tune later realised by famous Coventrian Delia Derbyshire) accompanied by a Bond-esque silhouetted naked girl dancing in front of flames. Various bits of sinister imagery would flash by – a roulette wheel, a gun, a lion’s head, a devils face (where the eyes suddenly terrifying lit up), and, jolliest of all, a catacomb wall of human skulls.
The dancing girl from the opening credits may well have – along with Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers and the Dukes of Hazzard's Daisy Duke – been partially responsible for pubescence for a great many boys born in the 1970's. I'm not proud.
It’d open to the creased face of Roald Dahl himself sitting in his drawing room in front of a roaring fire, suddenly looking up at you as thought you’d unexpectedly popped around to read his gas meter. Or as though you'd woken up, tied up and drugged, in his front room.
He’d introduce the episode; “There is a place far up in the North of Russia called Pravdinsk, where in the winter, the earth freezes so hard it is impossible to dig a grave when a man dies. So the clever Russians – do you know what they do? They simply sharpen his legs and knock him into the ground with a sledgehammer. This has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re going to see now.”
Thanks a bunch, Roald. That’s an image that’ll be embedded in my subconscious until my Honey Nut Cheerios tomorrow morning. We haven’t even started the bloody episode yet.
His tone was that of a mischievous uncle, friendly and trustworthy, yet sneaking trying to show you something that your parents wouldn’t like you seeing. “Sit down, David,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ve got something to tell you that’ll shit you right up.”
Be warned – if you’re not familiar with Tales of the Unexpected, I have absolutely no qualms about spoiling forty year old television programs in the paragraphs that’ll follow. I'll be talking about my personal top three of scary episodes of Tales of the Unexpected.
“Royal Jelly” (Series 2, Episode 1) is a stone-cold classic, and one that no doubt mentally scarred a great many children around my age. Originally appearing in Dahl’s 1960 short story collection “Kiss Kiss” (which would feature a great many other Tales of the unexpected stories), it tells the tale of Albert and Mabel and their baby daughter. Their new-born child is having difficulty eating and has been losing weight since birth, but Albert – a beekeeper – finds that adding Royal Jelly to the baby’s milk helps. The child downs it voraciously, getting fatter as the story continues. Mabel learns of this and objects, but Albert continues regardless. He eventually admits to Mabel that he’s been eating Royal Jelly himself, and it increased his fertility enough to get Mabel pregnant in the first place. Albert begins behaving oddly, a weird buzzing accompanying his words with thick yellow and dark hairs sprouting from his cuffs. The tale ends with Albert handing Mabel her daughter, now transformed.
"Mind you," he said, turning away from her, gazing lovingly now at the baby, 'it's going to work far better on a tiny infant than on a fully developed man like me. You've only got to look at her to see that, don't you agree?"
The woman's eyes travelled slowly downwards and settled on the baby. The baby was lying naked on the table, fat and white and comatose, like some gigantic grub that was approaching the end of its larval life and would soon emerge into the world complete with mandibles and wings.
"Why don't you cover her up, Mabel?" he said. "We don't want our little queen to catch a cold."
Royal Jelly – Roald Dahl
I was always loathe to watch this episode again, remembering how terrified I was on first viewing. I vividly remember the grub-like creature in Albert’s arms in the final shot, Mabel’s horrified scream drowned out by the buzzing of bees.
False memories are an incredible thing. As an adult, the episode is still wickedly sinister - held together by an incredible performance from the ever-reliable Timothy West – but you see no grub, only a flickering greyscale image of the child’s face. Like the best horror, it’s implied rather than blatantly shown.
How many other people out there who watched that episode when I did are subject to the same Mandela effect of remembering something that they never actually saw?
Roald, feeling strangely benevolent, gives an appropriate warning before the innocuously titled William and Mary (Season 1, Episode 3).
"This is basically a very nasty tale". He's not kidding. When Dahl tells you something is nasty, you know shit is going down.
It opens with the death of William Pearl, professor and research scientist. Mary, his wife, finds that she's been left next to nothing in her husbands Will – but he's also sent her a sealed letter. "To be read to my widow, exactly one week after my death".
The posthumous documentation gives instructions to ring an old neurosurgeon colleague of Williams, a Doctor John Landy, along with other strict instructions – even in death, William seeks to control his wife's life. She is to give up alcohol, television, make-up, cigarettes and to dispose of her telephone.
It turns out that William had made plans prior to his death, that the neurosurgeon Doctor Landy had met with William before. William had agreed to be a guinea pig to an experiment, to have his brain removed from his skull just prior to his death – and that his brain would be kept alive by machinery.
Mary is introduced to the contraption housing her husbands' brain, which in turn is hooked up to an encephalogram. They couldn't save his hearing, but one of the optic nerves is still intact and hooked up to a single unblinking eye.
Deaf and unable to speak, the box housing William can only communicate through excitable pulsing noises. Mary insists on taking William home, despite Doctor Landy's protestations. When Landy claims that William is his own, Mary reminds him that he is still legally her husband. The story ends at Marys house, as she carries out all the activities that her husband forbade her from doing in life – drinking, smoking, wearing pretty dresses, watching television. All William can do from the confines of his life-preserving contraption is stare helplessly at her, bleeping out angry impotent pulses. "I have to say, William - it's heaven having you home. It's like they say – life goes on. And on. And on. And on." William and Mary – Roald Dahl Although the pay-off is somewhat contrived – and the old 'consciousness stuck in hell for eternity' is a well-worn trope (even featuring in a fair few 2000AD Future Shocks, and even the odd tale of mine) the performance from Mary – the wonderful Elaine Stritch – makes it well worth your time. "I personally think this story is funny," opens Roald, once again frighteningly overdressed for sitting in front of his fire, "but if your sense of humour doesn't happen to be the same as mine, then I'm afraid you're going to be a bit disturbed by what goes on." We'll take that as granted, Roald. I don't think anyone's sense of humour is quite the same as yours. In "The Landlady" (Series 1, Episode 5) We met Billy Weaver, our lead, travelling on the train to Bath. He's in Insurance & Risks, travelling to a new office. His travelling companion, a friendly vicar like the ones you only get in television dramas (see Dad's Army, Dick Emery, Derek Nimmo, et al), recommends that he stay in a B&B. Weaver, apparently having been born yesterday, needs the concept of a Bed & Breakfast explained to him. As though the very term isn't self-explanatory. Weaver is dead meat. As Billy spends an extraordinarily long time looking at a Bed & Breakfast sign – seriously, check it out on YouTube as the scene goes on for a comically long time - the landlady is creepily watching him from within, silently urging him to come in. Nothing creepy there; the B&B trade in Bath is notoriously cutthroat. In all seriousness, the landlady is terrifying from the get-go. I wouldn't have stepped in any further than reception before turning around and legging it. As previously stated though, Billy is very naïve. She takes him to his room, being thoroughly unnerving throughout. She's equally as odd when alone and downstairs, talking to her stuffed dog as though it were alive. That night, as the Landlady's insistence, Billy goes to sign the guestbook. He recognises some of the names in it but can't recall from where. The dates against them are from years back, but he can't place them until he suddenly remembers one of the names as being somebody who went missing years back. Like I say, naïve. Rather than run screaming from the building, he joins the landlady for biscuits and tea. He continues to be slower on the intake than the audience – even the ten-year-old me watching – when he notices that every pet the Landlady owns is stuffed. As Billy starts to behave oddly, wavering around as though tired or drunk – or perhaps drugged from poisoned tea – the Landlady remarks how she's done all the taxidermy herself. "I stuff all my little pets, when they pass away. I'm glad you remembered the book, because later, If I forget – and you know now what a one I am for forgetting - I can always pop down and look it up. I still do that every day with Mister Mulholland and Mister... and Mister…There I am, gone again. Bedtime, dear. Up we go."
The Landlady – Roald Dahl
The closing shot, of no surprise to anybody, is The Landlady putting Billy to bed. Before she closes for the night, she wanders the corridors to check out the stuffed dead residents in the other rooms, bidding them goodnight. You may well note that one of them looks remarkably like Ted Danson, although he's not credited. She then wanders back to Billy, pulling on her rubber gloves.
In hindsight, it's worthy of note to mention that not every episode of Tales of the Unexpected was as disturbing or horrific. There were comedic, lighter episodes, but they're not the ones that stuck in the minds of this impressionable ten year old.
Roald Dahl stopped introducing episodes somewhere around the start of the third series, which was about the time when they stopped being adaptions of his own stories – there's probably a connection. As a writer whose adult work often gets overlooked, he's well worth checking out – as a writer of quality short stories, I'd rank him way up there with Ray Bradbury.
"Tales of the Unexpected" was, even at its worst, never anything less than entertaining. If only that it's a great opportunity to see a relative smorgasbord of UK television, film and theatre talent in one place. It lost some of its sparkle as Dahl became less and less involved, but, along with the original series of Twilight Zone, has a far greater level of quality control than a great many other TV anthology series.
I'm looking at you, Tales from the Darkside.
Further viewing/reading; The terrifying Public Information Film about drowning in grain silos? Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsZaMOFEulk. Many of the original stories adapted for Tales of the Unexpected can be found in the two collected volumes; Roald Dahl – The Complete Short Stories Volume One 1944-1953 and Roald Dahl – The Complete Short Stories Volume Two 1954-1988. From these, I'd thoroughly recommend Poison, Skin, Neck, Royal Jelly, William and Mary, Georgy Porgy, The Hitch-hiker and Vengeance is Mine Inc.