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Unexpected victory: When Anglia’s Tales toppled BBC’s footie favourite

PUBLISHED: 17:48 25 January 2019

Tales of the Unexpected

Tales of the Unexpected

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We often talk about our favourite TV shows which have long gone but this little beauty is still being screened...Derek James tells a tale of the unexpected

Sir John Mills as William Perkins shows his ticket to the guard at Downham Market railway station, He was filming a scene from Roald Dahl’s story Sir John Mills as William Perkins shows his ticket to the guard at Downham Market railway station, He was filming a scene from Roald Dahl’s story "Galloping Foxley" for Tales of the Unexpected in April 1979

I was flicking through the TV channels last Saturday morning when it happened. So many stations, nothing worth watching....and then.

Suddenly I was looking at famous faces in familiar places. Surely not.

The years rolled away and the memories came back.

The shows were old but have stood the test of time so well. I has stumbled across Tales of the Unexpected.

Hayley Mills and Stuart Wilson pictured in an episode of Tales of the UnexpectedHayley Mills and Stuart Wilson pictured in an episode of Tales of the Unexpected

The music, the style, the 
scripts and the surroundings in Norfolk and Suffolk. Strange stories. Wonderful stories. 
Clever stories.

I sat down to watch and the memories came tumbling back. The days when Anglia Television produced some wonderful programmes – from those plays, Survival, not forgetting Bygones and so many more.

It was 40 years ago, in March of 1979, when Tales of the Unexpected was first screened and introduced by the brilliant Roald Dahl who said:

“Do you know what keeps haunting me with just about every paragraph I write when I am 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,” said Roald.

“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,” he added.

His nose was safe.

The first Tales to be screened was an exotic yarn filmed in Jamaica called The Man from the South starring Hollywood star Jose Ferrer and an unknown Australian actress called Pamela Stevenson.

The idea was to get the Americans interested as well....and it worked. The Yanks loved our strange tales and that is one reason why it attracted so many huge stars over the years...they queued up to be part of Tales.

Back in 1976 Roald had asked film producer and the man behind many of Anglia’s great programmes, Sir John Woolf, if he wanted to make a television series of some of his stories?

It was a dream come true.

These two clever and talented men got together to come up with Tales of the Unexpected which was watched by millions of people in more than 70 countries all over the world.

At the time Anglia Television had some of the best programme makers in the country and their work attracted big Hollywood names as well as the best British actors.

Roald agreed to introduce each episode sitting in front of a fire in his drawing room which was actually a set at Anglia House in Norwich.

For viewers in Norfolk and Suffolk it had the added attraction seeing their own surroundings on the telly and some had the opportunity of working as extras with some huge stars.

Oulton Broad schoolboy Paul Spencer appeared in two programmes.

When he was a 12 year old pupil at Norwich School he appeared alongside Sir John Mills, also a former Norwich schoolboy, in Galloping Foxley, about public school bullying.

“This was my story,” said Sir John. “I had a hideous time during my first year in Norwich.”

Then Paul went on to take a bigger role in an episode called The Boy Who Talked With Animals, with American actor Stuart Whitman.

Roald’s writing attracted the biggest names in the business...such as Joan Collins and John Gielgud who appeared in Neck which was filmed at Somerleyton Hall and then Susan George and Timothy West were together in the unforgettable Royal Jelly. A brilliant tale about bees with a sting in the tail.

Susan returned from America for Tales and said: “I don’t know what I have been doing in LA because this is what life is all about. This is acting.”

It certainly was but it was so successful thanks to the backroom men and women working out of Norfolk and Suffolk who helped to make the series so weird and wonderful.

The episode called A Dip in the Pool which was actually the first one made was watched by no less than 11 million viewers, knocking football off the top slot, and Anglia proudly announced at the time:

“Television’s top-rated 
Saturday night soccer programme has been toppled in the ratings by Anglia’s new £1.5 million thriller series.”

Roald, described as the world’s number one storyteller, died in 1990 and it was Norfolk actor Roy Marsden who paid a moving tribute to this remarkable man before one of the episodes was aired.

Today Tales of the Unexpected, is being shown on the Sky Arts during the day. If you can get the channel then put your feet up and tune in...

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