Saturday 15 October 2022

DVD Review: Tales of Unease

Over 50 years since the original broadcast of Tales of Unease, ITV's chilling and unsettling anthology series finally emerges from the vaults to terrify us once again.

Produced by LWT, Tale of Unease ran for one series of seven episodes towards the end of 1970, with the first episode - Ride, Ride - airing the day before Halloween in a late-night 10.40pm slot. Each 30-minute episode came from the pen of a different writer - those contributing scripts included Michael Hastings, John Burke (who also script edited the series), Andrea Newman and Alan Richards - whilst the series was produced by Paul Knight, a man who would later go on to produce 1972's The Frighteners.

Aside from a series of regional repeats in the first half of the 1970s, Tales of Unease would, like so much of the archives, remain out of reach for the majority of TV enthusiasts. A couple of episodes had, in recent years, emerged online but, thanks to Network, the entire series has finally been packaged together into a DVD release. As an added bonus, an accompanying booklet written by Andrew Pixley provides an overview of the series' production alongside some insightful viewing notes.

Being a fan of dark, eerie anthologies - I really must write an overview on ITV's Unnatural Causes one day - the opportunity to view Tales of Unease was impossible to resist. With the DVD in my hands, which features a charming, yet terrifying slipcase that mimics a well-thumbed horror novel, it was time to see whether a series filmed in 1970 still had the potential to pack a chilling punch in an age when, quite frankly, watching the news is more than enough to leave your spine tingling in perpetuity.

The main objective of Tales of Unease was, as the Evening Standard determined at the time, "to impart a sense of unease rather than out-and-out horror" and it's one which the series achieves relatively easy. In terms of "out-and-out horror", very little, if any, surfaces throughout the series and, in fact, it feels very quaint compared to the more infamous horrors of the early 1970s. However, the sense of unease is certainly palpable, and it begins with a nightmarish title sequence which feels remarkable for 1970. As a disembodied and crudely sculpted head spins into the centre of the screen, a series of haunting synths play out before the spinning head, with one eye now open, melts into the title screen.

The series is off to a fantastic start, but what lies within these seven stories? Well, thanks to the numerous writers involved, variety is the order of the day and no two episodes feel the same.

Ride, Ride
is a ghostly tale concerning an art student who struggles to get a panicked girl home on the back of his motorcycle. Capitalism comes under the microscope in Calculated Nightmare as two business executives are trapped in their office by an employee with an axe to grind. The Black Goddess, meanwhile, taps into ancient folklore with its tale of miners trapped underground as poisonous gas seeps into their cramped surroundings. A domestic relationship turned sour is at the heart of It's Too Late Now as an undervalued wife finally takes control of her marriage by locking her husband in a windowless room.

Superstitious Ignorance explores the ways wealth and opportunity provide blinkers to the unexplained, evidenced by an upwardly mobile couple viewing a dilapidated house - with great potential - which contains a variety of horrors. Bad Bad Jo Jo comments on the violence contained within film making as a screenwriter is interviewed by an enthusiastic young journalist. And, finally, The Old Banger is a tragicomic tale about a sentient car - one which is far removed from Herbie - determined to reunite with its owners and seek vengeance for being discarded.

As Inside No. 9 has sublimely proved, half an hour is more than enough to contain a self-contained story which ticks every narrative box as well as chilling your bones. Tales of Unease may not be in quite the same league as the aforementioned show but, quite frankly, what is? What they do share, however, is an almost queasy sense of disorientation, engendered by seemingly ordinary situations being distorted by the writer's imagination. And Tales of Unease shows plenty of imagination.

There are a number of candidates for best episode of the series, with The Old Banger being my personal favourite. Automotive horror is a rare beast, but it's wonderfully played out here as a vengeful motorcar surreptitiously snakes its way across London to settle a score with its previous owners. It's a curious tale, one which finds central characters John (Terence Rigby) and Sue Partridge (Pinkie Johnstone) making their way through a comedy of inconveniences before sliding into the absurd and tumbling headfirst towards a horrific ending. It's unlike anything I've seen and writer Richardson Morgan is to be praised for his contribution here.

Calculated Nightmare is another highlight from Tales of Unease being a tense, psychological thriller packed full of twists and the most ingeniously plotted episode or the series. It's a claustrophobic tale and, as with many of the series' offerings, it focuses on characters who are trapped. Here, the executives Harker (John Stratton) and Johnson (Michael Culver) are literally trapped in their office, but on a more metaphoric level they are trapped by their corporate greed. The final ending could have been tighter - it's easy to spot about a minute before the 'official reveal' - but it's a small criticism of a fine half-hour of drama.

Also jostling for your attention is Superstitious Ignorance, a dark and mysterious episode which poses many questions and, although not all of them are answered, it features a disturbing ending that wrong-foots the viewer - and the central characters - perfectly. As with all of the episodes in the series, the acting on offer in Superstitious Ignorance is a highlight. Jeremy Clyde infuses advertising executive Teddy with the requisite fake veneer such a profession demands, whilst the wonderful Tessa Wyatt gradually finds herself falling under the air of superstition manifested by the excellent performance on offer from Sue Pearce as Mrs Laristo, the existing and troubled tenant who may or may not be what she claims.

As with all anthologies, a couple of episodes fall a little flat. Ride, Ride, for example, may be successful in creating a spooky sense of unease, some fine visual pieces and an early appearance by James Hazeldine, but the narrative fails to make sense. Instead, the second half of the story becomes more and more bewildering. There's a sense of logic at play, but it's one I've been unable to unpick or attribute any sense to. Bad Bad Jo Jo, which features a superb performance by Roy Dotrice, falls into a similar trap, although it's more the ending which jars, being more focused on an act of violence rather than explaining anything of note.

Nonetheless, it's thrilling for Tales of Unease to finally be available. From its spooky opening titles through to the strong performances and unsettling atmospheres on offer, Tales of Unease makes for a curious watch. It may be one for the purists of British TV, but that's the Curious British Telly audience to a tee.

Tales of Unease is available on DVD from Monday 17th November through Network.

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