❉ Jon Dear on the Network release of LWT’s anthology series script-edited by John Burke.
Childrens’ telefantasy had a good year in 1970 as both Timeslip and Ace of Wands made their debuts, with all surviving episodes available to be purchased from Network, and now thankfully joining them is LWT’s Tales of Unease. This was anthology of seven half-hour episodes that ran for a single series in 1970, before being sporadically broadcast in various ITV regions in the early ‘70s.
Half-hour dramas are a challenge, in that timeframe, decent characterisation and development become broad brush strokes to serve the idea. Atmosphere and tone are the thing and subtlety is an anathema. The BBC’s Thirty Minute Theatre became a training ground where writers such as Dennis Potter, David Rudkin and Jack Rosenthal honed their craft. It follows then that genre fiction works well in this format. The ghost story, the short sharp shock. Wham, bam, thank you M.R. James.
Tales of Unease was described by TV Times (24 October 1970) as “based on black humour, savage irony and matter of fact menace.” The series was script-edited by John Burke, with some of the stories coming from the short story collections of the same name he edited in the late ‘60s. Burke was a skilful writer and adapter, novelising such diverse work at Look Back in Anger, A Hard Day’s Night and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. He’d previously written for the BBC series Late Night Horror and a colourised version of his episode The Corpse Can’t Play was recently released by Kaleidoscope and remains the only surviving episode.
All episodes of Tales of Unease survived but this is the series first commercial release. It was produced by Paul Knight who would go on to helm Robin of Sherwood and London’s Burning.
The first episode, Ride Ride, directed by TV veteran David Askey, tells the story of an art college student, Derek (Anthony Jackson), who meets a girl, Sarah (Susan George), behaving oddly at a party. It’s a story of mystery and disorientation that relies on a shock ending over explanation and almost gets away with it. Having the main protagonist as an outsider (both politically and geographically) lessens the need for too many secondary characters and leaves us to explore the secret of who Sarah is with Derek. But Derek is no more than a cypher, a route via which to discover Sarah, and yet we never really do. We don’t come close to knowing anything about Sarah other than the fact she was killed in a car crash three weeks ago. Why does she appear to Derek in the first place? Why does she make Derek experience events that have yet to happen?
These unanswered questions are all the more frustrating given that precious screen time is wasted early in the episode, with David and another student jumping about on a giant inflatable art installation.
The story ends with David witnessing his own corpse being carried away from a crash. We don’t see the crash, nor the circumstances surrounding it. So was Sarah a harbinger of David’s impending doom? We don’t get an answer to that either. It leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Calculated Nightmare written by John Burke himself is an altogether more effective piece as its theme is straightforward and its purpose understood. Two ruthless business executives are trapped in a highly automated building by an unseen, disgruntled employee. As the danger becomes manifest and the tension builds you become gripped by their plight. Will they give in to blackmail, and will they get out alive?
The story has a neat framing device that gets all the clunky exposition out of the way early on allowing the viewer to get to the main thrust of the story as quickly as possible, leaving the bulk of the piece to be carried by the hugely experienced character actors Michael Culver and John Stratton who sci-fi fans may remember being horribly murdered by Darth Vader and er, Doctor Who respectively. Stratton of course also has a leading role in Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9).
Of course, the businessmen aren’t really characters in their own right, it’s what they represent, not who they are, that is the focus. They are the embodiment of unfeeling capitalism. Upton Sinclair famously described fascism as “capitalism plus murder”, but here the murder is focussed on the fascists. Or as Chuck Palahniuk puts it in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”
It’s in such situations that the TV play comes into its own, as the script and the acting are all that’s needed to carry the piece and here we are in the midst of its golden age. This is the time Armchair Theatre, The Wednesday Play and its successor Play for Today presenting challenging social themes and addressing morally complex issues. It’s depressing and impressive in equal measure just how relevant this episode is.
The Black Goddess, a Jack Griffith short story adapted by Alun Richards, concerns a Welsh miner haunted by a spirt demanding human sacrifice. Trapped by a pitfall and a diminishing air supply, it’s a mournful tale of fate, inevitability and the price of progress. All powerful entities demand sacrifices, to your time, your hopes and eventually your life, be they mythical deities or the NCB. And there’s not much blacker than coal. This one stars Ronald Lewis, whose real life tragedies pales anything seen on screen.
It’s Too Late Now, by Andrea Newman is essentially a one hander from Rachel Kempson (wife of Michael Redgrave) playing an abused wife who’s locked her husband in a windowless room. A superb central performance but perhaps one that would have had had more impact at the time, well, if anyone saw it.
Superstitious Ignorance by Michael Cornish is a class based chiller about exploitation, poverty and privilege. A young middle class couple (Jeremy Clyde and Tessa Wyatt) want to buy a house as a ‘doer-upper’ and evict the poverty stricken, single parent, immigrant family, living there in squalor. The mother, Mrs. Laristo (Eve Pearce) insists the place is haunted, naturally Edward and Penny have no time for such nonsense. This is a highly effective piece that keeps you guessing until the end and demonstrates that the realities of your fears can depend an awful lot on your disposable level of income. Poverty kills, and not just those it directly affects.
Bad Bad Jo Jo written by Midnight Cowboy scribe James Leo Herlihy centres on a retiring comic book writer meeting a couple of over enthusiastic fans. Roy Dotrice has huge fun as the louche Hathaway, whose careless creations have made him famous. The pen is apparently mightier than the sword, and if you live by the pen, well then…
The final episode, The Old Banger, written by Richardson Morgan (Rogin in The Ark in Space, Doctor Who fans) may be the best remembered of the series. A couple (Terence Rigby and Pinky Johnstone) abandon their old, unwanted car on the other side of London, but the car has other ideas…and if you’ve ever wondered how a car can enter a suburban living room without damaging either the house or itself, then wonder no more. A highly effective central concept, with the message that you have to have to take responsibility for your possessions (John is training homing pigeons in case subtext isn’t your strong suit), including when you dispose of them. But this episode is played with a lightness of touch that undercuts much of the menace. Possibly it was more effective in prose.
Ultimately a lack of networking between the ITV regions would mean that not many people got to see Tales of Unease, a fate that would also befall The Frighteners, the next LWT series that John Burked worked on with Paul Knight, and it’s too be hoped this commercial release gives this mixed but innovative, imaginative series the audience it deserves.
The DVD from Network includes extensive viewing notes from veteran Andrew Pixley, and they are certainly very informative although it’s a pity that Johnny Mains wasn’t involved. The world’s biggest authority on John Burke would have added much to this highly anticipated release.
❉ Limited-edition booklet written by archive television historian Andrew Pixley
❉ ‘Tales of Unease’ is on DVD exclusively from networkonair.com from 17 October: https://new.networkonair.com/tales-of-unease/
❉ Jon Dear is a writer and critic on TV and film. He has written for the BFI, Horrified Magazine, Curious British Television and Fortean Times. Jon is the co-host of the podcasts BERGCAST – The Nigel Kneale Podcast, and Due Signori in Giallo. Recent work includes a commentary for the long awaited Blu Ray/DVD release of Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s long-awaited adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Twitter: @AccordingtoJonD
Image credits: © 2022 Network Distributing.