Half hour dramas are a challenge, in that timeframe, decent characterisation and development become broad brush strokes to serve the idea, and subtlety is an anathema. The BBC’s ‘Thirty Minute’ 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 adapted from a series of short story collections edited by John Burke. Broadcast on LWT in the autumn of 1970, only the first two episodes survive and neither (as far as I can tell) have been released commercially.
The first, Ride Ride, directed by TV veteran David Askey, tells the story of an art college student, David, who meets a girl, Sarah Sands, 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 Sands is with David. But David 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 RTA three weeks ago. Why does she appear to David in the first place? Why does she make David experience events that have yet to happen?
And where did David get that awesome shirt?
These unanswered questions are all the more frustrating given that precious screen time is wasted on 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?
Actually I just want to know if they’re a couple or not.
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.
There’s a lot that Colin Baker murders in Doctor Who.
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 of Play for Today, of Armchair Theatre and The Wednesday Play presenting challenging social themes and addressing morally complex issues.
And questionable haberdashery.
As these are the only surviving episodes of Tales of Unease it’s difficult to know how typical these two are of the six in the series or how consistent the quality was (I’m intrigued by episode six, The Old Banger, about a car that won’t be left to die). Calculated Nightmare is much better than Ride Ride but another strength of the half hour format is that it never outstays its welcome.