❉ ‘Our sherry tonight’: The auteur’s all-star anthology series gets a dusting-down from Network.
Readers of a certain age will recall that at the beginning of the first episode of Ripping Yarns (1976-79), ‘nice’ Python and all-round good egg Michael Palin can be seen in false beard, broad brimmed black hat and black cloak standing atop a windswept cliff. Attempting to introduce “tonight’s story”, he consistently gets his lines wrong, at one point mistakenly mentioning “our sherry tonight”, while an out-of-shot Terry Jones feeds him the lines and ends up completing the introduction.
If you watch the first volume of Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, it’s clear that dear Michael was having a pop at the introductions performed by the well-known, bearded, cloak and hat wearing Citizen Kane (1941) director and Domecq Sherry promoter. By 1973, having a ‘name’ narrator set the scene for an anthology series of macabre stories wasn’t a new idea: the most famous example is The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), which was presented by its creator Rod Serling, while other contenders include Out of This World (1962), hosted by Boris Karloff, and perhaps Great Mysteries’ closest TV predecessor, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962).
True, in some of his preambles dear old Orson is clearly reading from prompt boards (as Sir Michael spotted), but don’t let that put you off. Each episode begins with Welles walking through a derelict building, a sequence has been put through the Top-of-the-Pops-circa -1973 colour filter, accompanied by a marvellous John Barry theme of primitive synths and hammered dulcimers, which sounds like an unused take from his recording sessions for The Adventurer (1973-73). It was a bit of a coup for Anglia Television to get both Welles and Barry – they weren’t really known then for their drama output – and the combination of the two is quite addictive as a prelude to “tonight’s story”.
While Welles’ sequences have been shot on film and (not altogether successfully) processed onto video, the Mysteries themselves – and they’re really more cautionary tales than mysteries – were all recorded on video in an electronic studio with little or no location filming. Because this method of producing TV drama has been virtually abandoned, the finished result looks more like a stage play than the frenetic, location-heavy drama of television today. But this only adds to the atmosphere, with brilliantly detailed, vintage performances from the actors that could only be accomplished after a week or so’s intensive rehearsal.
With one eye on a transatlantic sale, the stories usually feature an imported American star, such as Eli Wallach (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 1966) and Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad, 1968-73) or, where they don’t, an English actor known in America: Harry Andrews, Donald Pleasence and – no surprises here – Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It’s also rewarding to see early performances from future luminaries of stage and screen, among them the Michaels Gambon, Kitchen and Elphick, as well as Janet Key (Mrs Jack Regan) and Phil Davis (in just about everything from 1973 up to the present day).
Based on stories by solid writers like Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Balzac, the stories vary from modern day to historical, ghost stories to espionage to crime thrillers, with a small cast of characters under some kind of pressure. Perhaps that’s why the episodes are so solidly characterised and plotted. A helluva achievement in stories under half an hour long, and they can be prescient, too: ‘For Sale – Silence’ has an electronics expert turning the table on a blackmailer thanks to newly developed surveillance equipment. At the end in his epilogue, Orson offers an opinion that, looking back from 2019 to the early ‘70s, seems depressingly ahead of its time: “How is it possible to live in a world where technology has destroyed privacy?”
Maybe the producers saved the best scripts for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, because ‘La Grande Breteche’, starring the latter and Susannah York, and ‘The Leather Funnel’ with Lee, Jane Seymour and Simon Ward, are close to being the best of this first volume. ‘La Grande Breteche’ invokes the spectre of Edgar Allan Poe in the story of a cuckolded husband who devises a macabrely ingenious solution to dealing with his wife’s lover, while ‘The Leather Funnel’ is classic Amicus portmanteau film material, with Lee’s sinister academic revealing unpleasant secrets about Simon Ward’s girlfriend. The other contender for best of the bunch is a quietly chilling version of W.W. Jacobs’ ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, tensely and atmospherically directed by Alan Gibson.
The only real criticism I have is the condition of some of the episodes – occasionally the picture strobes, rolls and there’s some picture interference – but that’s no doubt due to the condition of the master recordings. All in all, with the nights drawing in, Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries is a great way to spend half an hour curled up on the sofa enjoying some razor-sharp storytelling and top notch 1970s TV acting. It’s also a chance to see where Anglia Television’s other anthology series Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988) developed from.
For all the ribbing in Ripping Yarns¸ I like to think Michael Palin was a fan of the series all along and, thanks to Network, he’ll enjoy revisiting the inspiration for “our sherry tonight”.
❉ ‘Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries: Volume One’, is out now on DVD from Network Distributing, RRP £15.00. Click here to order
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.