Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ronald Dahl's 'WAY OUT Television Series

Roald Dahl with a prop from "William and Mary."
You have no doubt viewed The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond... tales of the macabre that often lend itself to a twist ending. Often rerun on television and widely available through the market of DVD, these programs have since become mainstream -- often with an episode or two from each series that became imbedded into one's subconscious, never to be forgotten again. But one horror anthology of the time (circa 1961) has since fallen into obscurity and requires a quick revisit. 'Way Out, which aired over CBS on Friday evenings, back-to-back with Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Having never been released commercially on VHS, DVD, or rerun on television in more than 50 years, few are aware of this rewarding program. Even more surprising is the fact that the program featured author Roald Dahl as the weekly host, and you would think Dahl's name would lend credence to an official DVD release.

Not ironically, when you consider the literary field, Roald Dahl's short stories appeared in a number of Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies, and adaptations on Hitchcock's weekly television anthology. It could be said that his stories, along with Henry Slesar and Robert Bloch, were perfectly suited for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Dahl's "Man From the South" was originally scheduled for the evening of January 3, 1960, deemed unacceptable for telecast by CBS executives, and pulled shortly prior to airtime. Speculation, according to one columnist, was that the subject matter was "too gory." The story told of a young man in Las Vegas who accepts a wager that he could not light his lighter a specific number of times without fail... lest he lose a finger to a sharp blade. An executive at CBS was quoted of saying that rescheduling the broadcast "was only postponed to a later airdate because of its similarity to another rather gory segment, 'Specialty of the House.'" (The episode titled "The Dusty Drawer" replaced Dahl's story that evening and "Man From the South" would air at a later date.)

This incident, however, may have left a bad taste in the mouth of the author, who no doubt looked forward to seeing his gruesome story dramatized on the screen with horror icon Peter Lorre. In September of that year, the premiere broadcast of the new season was an adaptation of Dahl's "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat." The story told of a dentist's wife who paid occasional visits to "Aunt Maude in Baltimore." Aunt Maude, however, was actually The Colonel, a wealthy codger to whom she unwillingly plays paramour until a rich widow neighbor of the Colonel's caught his eye. Enter the coat, a wild Labrador mink, to serve as a parting gift. Mrs. Bixby, accepting the terms of the unsanctioned separation, found herself with a problem: how to bring the mink back with a suitable explanation? She pawns the coat and explains to her husband that she found a pawn-ticket in the cab. He insists on picking it up, does so, and promptly presents his wife with a surprise windfall -- a small, rather limp fur neckpiece. Adding injury to insult, she spots her Labrador mink walking out of her husband's office -- around her husband's attractive young dental assistant. 

Roald Dahl, host of 'Way Out
"It was one of the less diabolical, less grisly entries in the series," wrote a reviewer for Variety. "Perhaps a direct result of the lighter tone, but it came off more amusing than this show's average episode." This comment suggested the network's insistence of stories less gory, and to appease Roald Dahl, who may have written a letter of disappointment to the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" would not have been the type of story one came to expect from Alfred Hitchcock, this may explain why he chose to take up the directing reins for this episode... a personal touch to express sincerity of Dahl's beloved literary properties. 

Roald Dahl in Central Park for screen tests.
Enter stage left, producer David Susskind. Having fulfilled his contractual obligations for The DuPont Show of the Month, and working alongside Jacqueline Babbin (whom he jointly produced The Heiress, a 1961 television production based on the Henry James novel, Washington Square), the two merged a joint operation to lure Roald Dahl to weekly television. Mike Dann, Vice-President of Programming for CBS Television, was enthusiastic. David Susskind's Talent Associates and CBS-TV jointly developed a new half-hour mystery anthology titled "The Haunted," to replace Jackie Gleason on Friday nights, effective March 31, 1961.

Liggett & Myers, one of the largest sponsors to bankroll television programs at the time, was approached by Susskind during the final week of February. The sales pitch was a series "to comprise offbeat yarns in the Roald Dahl manner, rather than ghost stories or straight whodunits." Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl's macabre sense of humor derived from spoiled little brats who received their just deserts -- evident in the 'Way Out episode "The Croaker." 

By mid-March, the proposed title changed from "The Haunted" to "Ghosts" and by March 15, settled on 'Way Out. (Note the apostrophe in the beginning of the title, as depicted on the screen.) Executives at Liggett & Myers agreed to sponsor the program with a 14-week commitment. Dahl participated in a photo shoot and camera tests in Central Park, complete with a set of books and telephone, avoiding the horror-hosts firmly established across the country for late-night horror films. The first two broadcasts were originally slated for adaptations of Dahl stories, to establish the style and format for what viewers were to expect. (Only the first episode of the series, "William and Mary," was adapted from a Roald Dahl story.)

Roald Dahl in Central Park for screen tests.
The premiere broadcast was not well receptive among the critics. "William and Mary" concerned a dying professor, whose brain was of such great value as to be preserved and kept alive while the rest of his body was thrown away. A machine that pumped blood into the gray cells made it possible to converse with what was left of the professor. It was sweet revenge for his wife who was constantly reprimanded for smoking cigarettes. So now it was her inning and she taunted "him" while blowing smoke in his "face." Oh yes, they let him have one eye so that he could see what was going on around him. The smoking aspect was considered by many as a deliberate product placement for the sponsor, but when one reviews the original 1959 short story, Mary Pearl was indeed a smoker and her habit was among the many condemned by her husband. 

One critic compared the series to The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond, remarking: "What Susskind apparently tried to do was top these originals. Still copying and not originating." Another remarked, "Witness to this wild orgy of nightmarish imagery must have shuddered at what popped out of the tube where once Jackie Gleason disported briefly... Television is hardly ready for this kind of grisly business." Roald Dahl went way out beyond human perception but warned it was not for children or those with queasy innards. 

At present, eight episodes of 'Way Out are available for viewing on YouTube. Take note that these were uploaded without permission from the copyright holders and are subject to removal. If you want to take a moment and watch a couple of these delightful gruesome stories, you can find them fairly easy with the YouTube search engine. Of the eight, the most rewarding is an episode titled "Side Show," concerning henpecked Harold, a skeptic who is smitten with Cassandra, the Electric Woman at the side show. With an illuminating light bulb for a head, she entices him to help her escape from the brutality of the carnival side show barker. An inanimate object seeking the affections of blood and bone? You be the judge.

A friend of mine and myself are presently seeking any publicity photographs, newspaper clippings, archival documents and anything that could be used to further our research into the production of this television program, for potential use in an up-coming book. Especially photographs. Please drop me a line if you have any leads. 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a photo currently on ebay (02/05/18)

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