…Roald Dahl. He never seems to have gone out of favour in the children’s market, but when was the last time you tried one of his adult short stories?
Most of them were televised for the long-running Tales of the Unexpected (TOTU)show. That series made quite an impact when it first aired, in 1979.
It wasn’t just the catchy tune, with its suggestion of sex, violence and the supernatural, the stories were, as the title makes clear, cleverly twisted. They were a challenge, a tale that seemed to be moving towards an inevitable conclusion only to be turned on its head at the last moment.
It seemed like the whole country must have been tuning in for them. ‘Did you see..?’ we asked each other in school, at work and on the street. ‘Did you work it out?’
We were fascinated, hooked by the package. What would happen; how could the character possibly overcome their crisis? It was great entertainment. For a while it seemed like we couldn’t get enough. Series two and three followed. At first they were all Dahl’s stories, but gradually other writers of the same vein were introduced.
In those early weeks some of us were so fascinated that we bought the books and read ahead. Even when I knew the outcome I watched them. It didn’t matter that the situations and settings seemed to be looking backwards, so much of what was on our TVs was doing that in less entertaining ways.
What worked for TOTU were the twists. Even though we knew they were coming, most of the sudden reversals were neatly set up rather than tricks. The clues were embedded in the early stages of the story as casual asides, snippets of information that seemed no more than added colour, until the conclusion was achieved.
Take Parson’s Pleasure, a story about Mr Boggis, an antique dealer who ‘always bought cheap, very very cheap, and sold very very dear.’ His clients are those who lived in, ‘comparatively isolated places…large farmhouses and …rather dilapidated country mansions’. Because these sorts of people are a ‘suspicious lot’, Mr Boggis decides to disguise himself as a Parson. He carries a business card:
CYRIL WINNINGTON BOGGIS
President of the Society In association with
for the Preservation of The Victoria and
Rare Furniture Albert Museum.
to give his story credibility and is careful never to park his large car where his victims might see it, as it wouldn’t fit the character of an impoverished and respectable Reverend.
The story begins with Mr Boggis driving along enjoying the beauty of the countryside. His name, you’ll note, is remarkably close to the word ‘Bogus’. He is full of optimism. The weather is suggestive of a good summer to come, and the village he’s heading for is easily reconnoitered because it’s in a valley below the road he’s approaching it on. From his high vantage point he can map out in advance which houses to try, and see the best place to park his car conveniently close but out of sight. He has, it seems, an almost omniscient vantage point, and starts from a position of power, in that he is keyed up with his past successes.
While he can see only opportunity, we, the reader, are already anticipating a reversal. It’s a beautifully layered opening. Dahl has arranged all the information we need before us, neatly interspersing the necessary exposition (explanations) between segments of action so that the narration moves us forward in neat arcs of drama. I won’t spoil the ending, if you don’t know the story. Read it, or watch it. You can do either on the internet. I can give you the Youtube copy, but you’ll need to use a search engine if you want the text, as I can’t seem to upload it.
I hope you do read it. Wonderful as the dramatized version is, the benefits for the writer come from looking at it in word form. Only then can you fully appreciate Roald Dahl’s artistry.
The twist-in-the-tail story has a long and chequered history. While several writers have excelled at them for a while, many have floundered. I think this one is a fine example of what it takes to write them successfully, but be warned, write too many of the same strain and you’ll soon wear out the reader or viewer.
The TOTU series may have stretched over nine sets of series, but I suspect I was not the only viewer who was drifting away long before they were halfway through those years of shows. Even the unpredictable becomes, in a sense, predictably unpredictable if the template isn’t varied occasionally.