Tales of the Unexpected was aired between 1979 and 1988 by ITV. It was produced by Anglia Television, and it proved a big success for them.
The series began as an adaptation of Roald Dahl's series of short stories by the same name. They ran out of adaptable stories (there were a few more they could have done but they did not lend themselves to a TV adaptation) after about one and a half seasons and started using other works. Dahl did an introduction for every story for the first two seasons, but severed ties with the project before series 3. They then ran up until series 9.
The tone varied from story to story but on the whole it has been described as like The Twilight Zone (1959), but with a darkly humorous slant, especially in the Roald Dahl stories. The show had a low budget but the writing lead to an amazing list of Guest Stars including: Cyril Cusack, Anna Neagle, BRIAN BLESSED, Timothy West, John Gielgud, Richard Johnson, Elaine Stritch, Gloria Grahame, Peter Cushing, John Mills, Julie Harris, Wendy Hiller, Joseph Cotten, Derek Jacobi, Janet Leigh and Siobhan McKenna.
Examples of the more famous Dahl stories are William and Mary, in which Mary learns that her husband has cheated death via a brain transplant; The Landlady, in which a seemingly charming old lady is really murdering and stuffing her tenants; The Way Up to Heaven, in which an abusive husband is trapped in a lift, and his long-suffering wife deliberately leaves him there to die, and Lamb to the Slaughter, in which a wronged wife batters her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and then gets away with it by getting the detectives (including BRIAN BLESSED) to Eat the Evidence.
Several episodes are remakes of stories that had already been adapted for other series, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Lamb to the Slaughter", "The Man from the South") and Way Out ("William and Mary").
- Adaptation Expansion: "Flypaper" is based on a very short story by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT one). The short story never names a specific threat, going for all-around paranoia. The episode ends with the very strong implication that the lonely schoolgirl who the story revolves is about to be the next victim of a loving couple of pension-age murderous paedophiles.
- Adaptational Nice Guy: Miller in "Would You Believe It?" morally protests Tanner's plan to steal the statue several times. Miller in "She Fell Among Thieves" is fine with the theft and specifically teamed up with Tanner to learn about smuggling.
- Adults Are Useless: The adults who aren't downright dangerous in "The Flypaper" are either ineffectual or uncaring.
- Affably Evil: Gerry Williams from "Shatterproof", a wealthy, mild mannered and charismatic tycoon (played by Eli Wallach) who finds out that an assassin is sent by his cheating wife Ellen to kill him, only to blackmail the assassin into going over to kill Ellen.
- An Aesop: The end of "Where's Your Sense of Humour?" is a clear warning about what can happen when Joking Goes Too Far.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: "A Woman's Help" - Wealthy invalid Elizabeth Bourdon makes her husband Richard's life a misery - so and addition to having an affair with his wife's attractive nurse, the two are plotting to slowly kill Mrs. Bourdon. But Elizabeth finds out and fires the hot nurse, deciding she'll pick the replacement. She picks one who much more matronly. She happens to be Richard's mother. And she really cares about her son's happiness.
- Beware the Nice Ones:
- Paul Standing, the mild-mannered businessman in "Clerical Error" ruthlessly turns the tables on the blackmailing booksellers who targeted his widowed mother.
- A nebbishy psychologist saves two women from an apparent serial killer in "Number Eight." It turns out he's actually the killer.
- Mary from "Lamb to the Slaughter" a devoted wife who smashes in her husband's skull with a frozen leg of lamb when he tries to leave her.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The motherly woman in "The Flypaper" who saves Sylvia from the elderly stalker turns out to be his partner in crime (murder and probably rape).
- Bittersweet Ending: George Peregrine in "The Colonel's Lady" is convinced that his middle-aged wife is having an affair when she writes a racy bestseller. When he demands that she reveal her lover's name she says the man is actually him, as he was years ago.
- Buses Are for Freaks: In "The Flypaper" the middle-aged kidnappers and murderers target Sylvia on a city bus when she is on her way home from a piano lesson.
- The Cassandra: Bookseller and con artist Michael Carey in "Clerical Error" repeatedly tells his brother that trying to extort money from the Standings is too risky.
- Children Are Special: David from "The Boy Who Could Talk to Animals" saves a stranded sea turtle from a bunch of callous adults who want to make soup out of it. He later disappears and in a dreamlike sequence is spotted at sea riding the turtle's back.
- Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Standing in "Clerical Error" helps her son entrap the booksellers who falsely claim her late husband ordered some very pricy pornographic books from them.
- Creepy Gas Station Attendant: The perpetually smiling, hymn singing (and completely dishonest) gas station owner and mechanic in "Nothin' Short of Highway Robbery."
- Cultural Translation: The opening narration was replaced in the American version.
- Deadly Doctor: Dr. James Carpenter, renowned transplant surgeon, methodically dismembers his controlling wife in "Back for Christmas."
- Deadpan Snarker: Actresses Pat Lewis and Suzy Starr in "A Girl Can't Always Have Anything." Much of their dialog consists of their trying to out-snark one another.
- Disproportionate Retribution: In "Depart At Peace" Lionel gets back at his girlfriend Janet for supposedly calling him boring by displaying a portrait of her in her underwear in front of all their friends. Janet, in her turn gives Lionel a jar of poisoned caviar.
- The End... Or Is It?: The Stranger from "Stranger in Town" assumes he has gotten away with murder, but the confetti that falls from his coat as he's leaving town makes the newsboy suspicious.
- Even Evil Has Standards: The creepy hitch-hiker and serial killer fan in "Number Eight" is disconcerted when told that one of the said killer's victims was a five-year-old boy.
- Gentleman Thief: The elderly con artist in "The Umbrella Man" who tells one of his marks that "no man is worth the tears of a beautiful woman."
- The Ghost: Harry in "Shatterproof" is never seen.
- Gold Digger: Suzy the struggling actress in "A Girl Can't Always Have Everything" blatantly refers to her rich fiancee as a "golden goose."
- Gone Horribly Right: Albert Taylor in "Royal Jelly" feeds his undersized baby daughter royal jelly, hoping this will make her bigger. It certainly does.
- Good People Have Good Sex: In "I'll Be Seeing You," put-upon Roland makes sweet love with his kind and understanding mistress Anna. (This may change when, thanks to an eye transplant, Anna ends up with the icy blue eyes of Roland's hateful wife.)
- Hollywood New England: "The Open Window" is set at a hunting lodge in Connecticut during autumn.
- Horror Host: Tales from the first two series were introduced by the grandfatherly, perpetually cardigan clad Roald Dahl.
- It Must Be Mine!: How the shady archaeologist Tanner feels about the statue he and his partner are trying to smuggle out of Jordan in "Would You Believe It?" ("I'd rather die than give her up!")
- Karma Houdini: In "Wet Saturday," Mr. Princey apparently gets away with framing an innocent neighbor for a murder commited by his daughter.
- Mood Whiplash:
- The final seconds of "Neck" go from farce to horror when it appears that Sir Basil is about to decapitate his wife.
- The end of "Stranger in Town" when the lovable eccentric removes his disguise and reveals why he is really in town.
- Murder by Inaction: In "The Way Up to Heaven," Mrs. Foster leaves to spend six weeks in New York, knowing her husband is trapped in the elevator.
- My Beloved Smother: When Rev. George Duckworth from "Georgy Porgy" was a child, his overbearing mother forced him to watch a mother rabbit give birth. The rabbit immediately devoured her offspring.
- Not in Front of the Parrot: The black parrot in "Bird of Prey" discloses the adulterous affair of its owner's wife and good friend.
- Old Retainer: Jenks the butler in "Neck" who'll do anything to protect Sir Basil.
- Orphan's Ordeal: Sylvia from "The Flypaper" lives with a grandmother who barely tolerates her (which sadly turns out to be the least of her ordeals.)
- Overtook the Series: It started out adapting Roald Dahl stories, but lasted for seven and a half seasons after it had used them all up...
- Quintessential British Gentleman: Played straight with Paul Standing from "Clerical Error": he has a posh accent, a black umbrella, an understated demeanor and a determination to protect the vulnerable.
- Refuge in Audacity:
- Once you know the twist, "Hijack" becomes this as a result of the airplane crew managing to fake a hijacking in order to make off with the cash.
- The titular "Stranger in Town" arrives wearing Impossibly Tacky Clothes, complete with top hat, just to shed his disguise, kill the man who wronged him, and then leave with no one noticing in the slightest.
- Reincarnation: The cat in "Edward the Conqueror" may be the reincarnation of Franz Liszt!
- Sassy Black Woman: Grace, the dance instructor in "In the Cards." ("You mean to tell me you're going to marry that rhinoceros?")
- Scamming the Bereaved: The booksellers in "Clerical Error" send fake invoices for expensive pornography to the families of prominent, recently deceased men, hoping the families will pay to avoid a scandal.
- Table Space: "The Colonel's Lady" opens with Eve Peregrine and her cloddish husband sitting at opposite ends of an enormous dining room table.
- Unexpected Inheritance: Myra in "In the Cards" receives a three hundred thousand dollar inheritance from a maiden aunt she barely knew who "invested wisely."
- Wham Line: The German father at the end of "Genesis and Catastrophe," choosing a name for his newborn son, says "I hope they don't call him Adolf."
- Wicked Cultured: The blackmailing antique booksellers in "Clerical Error" listen to classical music while poring over the obituaries for the next widow to extort money from.
- With Friends Like These...: Beautiful and popular Suzy Starr in "A Girl Can't Always Have Everything" openly condescends to her best friend Pat Lewis. Pat in turn lets Suzy die when Suzy fakes a suicide attempt to win back her rich estranged husband, snagging the grieving widower for herself.
- You Make Me Sick: In "Clerical Error," when sleazy Ronnie Carey insists Paul Standing's father bought expensive pornography from his shop, Paul Standing knowing this is impossible replies "You disgust me."