I watched the new release of Tales Of Unease, which ran in 7 episodes in 1970, each presenting a completely different story.
The opening credits have a minimalist electronic soundtrack giving a sense of mounting doom appropriate to the stories. First we see a plaster head revolving, at first doubled but then the singular head approaches and we see it has one eye opened, and also a slight pinkening on that side of the face implying a frozen head thawing out, before the dissolve to the series name.
Every episode is 25 minutes long, which is as well since not all of them have the potential to be extended much longer. There are no cast members in common, and most of the filming is in studio sets and mostly contemporary locations. One story is set in New York though we can only work that out from seeing the skyline through the fake window. As with the shows like Shadows Of Fear and The Frighteners of the same era some of these stories stay within the bounds of conventional “thrillers” with humans doing the utmost badness that they can do with the aid of technology, there are a few which play with ideas of “the paranormal” without explaining the underlying malice. There are several writers, including Andrea Newman who also produced A Bouquet Of Barbed Wire and other triumphs.
Ride, Ride broadcast 30th October 1970
Arthur is one of several groovy young students at the art college. He hasn’t made an entry for the end of term show because he’s cynical about the need to toe the line and produce the work that the lecturers expect. He’s much happier working on his motorbike.
He goes away and comes back for the college dance, in which everyone jerks and sways to the latest psychedelic sounds in their jazzy shirts and flared trousers.
He meets a strange woman called Sarah Stone who insists he has to give her a ride home on his bike.
But Sarah vanishes whilst they’re on the road, and when he finds the address she told him to go to, an old man tells him that the woman describes died in an accident weeks ago. Also, no one at the art college remembers the incidents he tells them about. And then it all happens again.
I suppose the obvious interpretation is that the crucial incident occurred unseen early on, and everything after that was a restless soul trying to realise what had happened.
Calculated Nightmare broadcast 6th November 1970
In the canteen of the office of a modernised business, young Dave is chattering to Moira about all the electronic control systems in the building, and how the important men upstairs are planning a lot of job cuts based on criteria applied by the main computer according to their programming.
Upstairs, Mr Harker and Mr Johnson are feeling pleased with themselves, and awfully smug about all the redundancies dictated by the march of automation.
However they can’t get out because someone is playing around with the electronics, and soon a recorded message tells them clearly to withdraw and rewrite their report using new criteria, as they can’t go ruining the livelihoods of men who’ve spent years dedicated to the company. And if they don’t, they’ll get asphyxiated.
Asphyxiation-by-electronics was also the way Michael Cashman’s character was killed in his office in series 2 of Bird Of Prey (1984) .
The Black Goddess broadcast 13th November 1970
The only historical story, this takes us back to a coal mine in the Rhonda in the 1930s. Bill thinks there is an unseen menace pervading the pit but the other miners think he’s talking rubbish, especially when he thinks he can make out a black figure flickering in the shadows at the edge of vision.
There is a roof collapse and an urgent rescue mission is mounted. And only one man comes out, talking nonsense about what he saw.
It’s Too Late Now broadcast 20th November 1970
Sarah runs the house in the country where her husband (credited simply as “Sarah’s husband”) works in a windowless study, typing away at his latest mastrepiece and not acknowledging the trays of food she takes up to him.
Acting on impulse she locks him inside. He soon starts banging and yelling and demanding to be let out. However Sarah now finally has the chance to reflect and talk about the life she’s had and what she didn’t have, and how it’s too late now and her husband’s promises to change are coming too late and aren’t believable.
Superstitious Ignorance broadcast 27th November 1970
The London housing market as seen by first-time buyers Edward and Penny, who are renting a flat in Chelsea but are looking at run-down postcodes that are now becoming fashionable, where they can do lots of fixing-up and make a profit in a few years time.
The rather decrepit mansion occupied by Mrs Laristo and her 5 grubby children is hard to enter without getting the estate agent around, and he doesn’t want to hang around much either.
Surprisingly our heroes never think to ask about the state of the bathroom or kitchen, which ought to be concerning since this family are all living in one room and Mrs Laristo keeps insisting they must stay out of the upper rooms because great evil dwells there. Of course that means they insist on going in.
Of all the stories this is the one that could have been expanded to a full-length feature film, to put more on the ambiguity about whether the “superstitious” ideas have some substance (a similar theme taken up in much later supernatural thrillers such as The Skeleton Key). The portrayal of the Laristo family is leaning into stereotypes of central Europeans/Romani although it’s not really clear what ethnicity they are supposed to be.
Bad Bad Jo Jo broadcast 4th December 1970
The New York instalment, though it’s all occurring in a single studio set, of the luxury apartment of hugely successful author Kayo Hathaway, creator of the Bad Bad Jo JO franchise of books and film adaptations. All these stories do an awful lot of infodumping in dialogue but here we get all the work done in the first minutes by Hathaway himself on multiple phone calls, just after he woke up from a bad dream whilst violent news reports flickered on the TV screen unwatched.
He is expecting an interviewer from a “fan magazine”. When they turn up he insists he’s not interested in talking about current affairs. He’s against the Vietnam War simply because it’s a waste of US tax dollars, and he’s planning a move abroad to avoid paying any more. He thinks the masses are impotent and they like his violent entertainments, which he describes as works of “camp”, like their creator.
Of course this is all a big plot to wreak a comeuppance on this cynical wastrel, with a homophobic edge to the denunciation he is served. There may be coincidental similarities with the tone and intent of Ben Elton’s Popcorn from the mid 90s, but it’s extremely unlikely there was any conscious connection. Overall this is the most interesting story. If it was to be expanded to an hour or longer it might need a more elaborate plot, like the one Elton devised.
The Old Banger broadcast 11th December 1970
Susan and John are keen on training their racing pigeon. They also have a useless old car which seems to have reached the end of its time. Rather than pay a scrap dealer to deal with it properly, they decide to remove the number plates and abandon it in south London.
But the dear old banger doesn’t want to be abandoned, and it seems to be a sentient vehicle like in the later Disney Herbie film series. Everything is moving in a lightly comic tone, especially John’s interactions with Eric, his rather more practical and mechanically-minded relation.
Just when it seems we’ve reached a happy magical conclusion, everything goes dark and unpleasant, and it turns out this wasn’t the comedy episode after all.
None of these stories stay around long enough to become too creepy, and there are no jump-scares. The Andrea Newman episode is closest to being a simple “tale of unease” with no conventional shocker elements.
I like all these old anthology series, though I can’t forget Robbie Coltrane’s parody of Orson Welles, leading in to the parody of Tales Of The Unexpected by Hugh Laurie, Siobhan Redmond and Emma Thompson, in series 1 of Al Fresco (also featuring Ben Elton as a writer and performer). Fry & Laurie fans: note the appearance of “Marjorie”.