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The 'Roald Dahl' Musical Odyssey - Part TWO
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• Posted by: Clint Morgan   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Sunday, July 31, 2022, at 4:28 a.m.
• IP Address:

Part 2: Twisted TV "Tales" for Grown-Ups (and Superior Offerings for Their Offspring)

Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988)
• TV anthology series, featuring several episodes based on various short stories by Roald Dahl
• Episodes aired from March 24, 1979, to May 13, 1988 (9 series in total)
• Main title theme and score composed by Ron Grainer

NOTE: For the purposes of this review, I will only be rating music from the show's "Series 1," the first 9 episodes of which are based on various Dahl short stories. IF time allows, I'll get around to watching the later seasons.

In the same vein as 'Way Out, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of the Unexpected was a long-running anthology series on ITV that dramatized many of Dahl's macabre stories, with the author himself introducing each episode from his cozy study. Regarding the first group of episodes, Dahl nicely sums up his approach: "When writing [adult] stories, I cannot seem to rid myself of the unfortunate habit of having one person do nasty things to another person." As such, the darkly funny Tales all end with a shock twist of some kind while also commenting on social themes like domestic abuse, infidelity, and obsessive-compulsiveness (to list a few). If any of that intrigues you, then this show just might be a worthwhile guilty pleasure.

Australian composer Ron Grainer contributed the show's original music as well as its peppy main title theme. Grainer later commented: "The theme for the series is a cheekily innocent counterpoint to [Dahl's] wicked sense of humor." Indeed, the theme sounds exactly like something you would hear on a carousel calliope at the circus, but when you hear the music in conjunction with the psychedelic opening credits montage of James Bond-worthy female dancers, casino parlor imagery, and grinning gargoyles, you know you're in for a trip. For film score listeners, it's important to remember that this was a show in the late '70s and '80s, and the score epitomizes that sound. The style of the music also varies considerably from episode to episode; in some cases, it's debatable whether or not music was even necessary. This is perhaps no more obvious than in the series' premiere episode "The Man from the South," a visually pleasing but somewhat pointless retelling of a story about a simple wager gone dark that was already masterfully adapted in a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The newer adaptation, while beautifully filmed in Jamaica, strongly acted, and backed by a more characteristically ethnic-flavored soundtrack, sorely lacks the deep-rooted sensuality of the 1960 version starring Steve McQueen and a brilliantly deadpan Peter Lorre as the titular antagonist. (The earlier version, consequently, is almost completely unscored, and remains all the better for it.)

As such, the remaining 8 episodes of "Series 1" are a mixed bag with some horribly dated music, especially those that exploit the romance genre (the cheesy sax solos in Episode 2 "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" are the worst offender). Intrusively meandering mellotron solos are not uncommon either, often risking deflating tension in some episodes (e.g. Episode 3 "William and Mary," in which Elaine Stritch makes for an effectively sympathetic and hilariously droll Mary). Grainer occasionally infuses the music with classicism, notably classical guitar solos in the terrifying Episode 5 "The Landlady," and Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas in the excellent Episode 6 “Neck.” The skittish, prickly sound of that instrument can be a great choice in the right circumstances. A wonderful exception to the norm is Episode 7 "Edward the Conqueror," in which music actually serves a central, diegetic role in the narrative. That episode follows an elderly woman who's convinced that the feral cat she rescued from a fire is the living reincarnation of Hungarian composer Franz Lizst, much to the chagrin of her doubtful husband. The soundtrack features the solo piano works of Lizst, Bach, and Schumann—call me biased, but it's my favorite episode of the lot.

The only commercially available music from Tales of the Unexpected is the show's main title theme, which was included on a 1980 compilation LP record entitled "The Exciting Television Music of Ron Grainer" along with several other popular themes at the time. (Adorably, the front cover displays the mugs of thirteen actors from the show's "Series 1" in a circle, while the back cover lets you match the stars' names with their faces*.) That swinging title theme is the show's lasting identity, its counterintuitively upbeat personality a challenge to appreciate—much less tolerate—outside of context. Unless you were alive during the late '70s and '80s and have nostalgia for that theme and the show (or you're just morbidly curious to see what all the black comedy/macabre genre has to offer), you could skip this without much harm. Perhaps it's time for a reboot...

(True story: Last week, as I was watching a scene from Episode 8 and simultaneously typing this, my older brother—who coincidentally was born in the early '80s—overheard the background music in a separate room and casually commented on his way to the kitchen, "Boy, soundtracks have come a long way, haven’t they?" Thank goodness.)

Music as heard in "Series 1": **½

Listen to the Main Title Theme here:

All 100+ episodes are available to watch here:

*This "bonus feature" would have been welcome on any of the Lost TV soundtrack albums of the 2000s.

Danny, the Champion of the World (1989)
• Live-action TV movie, with a screenplay by John Goldsmith (based on the 1975 children's book by Dahl)
• TV premiere date (UK): April 29, 1989
• Music by Stanley Myers

Ever since he publicly condemned the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl became extremely apprehensive about the idea of another one of his children's books being adapted for the medium. So it was somewhat of a relief when, in 1989, Thames Television finally brought one of his most personal stories, Danny, the Champion of the World, to life on the small screen with the author's own stamp of approval. In fact, it was one of three Dahl adaptations to premiere on TV within the same year. An update on Dahl's own 1959 short story "The Champion of the World," Danny follows the adventures of a clever young lad and his mechanic father in the English countryside. Together, they conspire to overthrow a local businessman's nefarious plans to buy their land by poaching his game pheasants. The book features the necessary tropes that define nearly all of Dahl's stories for children: horribly nasty grown-ups, an empowered young protagonist, and an underlying dark sense of humor. Likewise, the movie—directed by the late Gavin Millar and starring Jeremy Irons and Robbie Coltrane—is both wholesome and charmingly inoffensive, but not essential viewing by any means. Thankfully, it is elevated by an excellent cast—led by a memorably villainous Coltrane as the greedy Mr. Hazell (long before he famously played a certain "big, friendly giant" in an alternate magical universe)—and the naturally heartwarming chemistry shared between co-stars (and real-life father and son) Jeremy and Samuel Irons*. Despite comments I've read from other reviewers, I loved seeing Jeremy Irons approach his role in such a clearly supportive manner as he did, allowing his son's natural talent to carry the day as the titular hero (this is Samuel Irons' only screen acting credit to date).

The score for Danny, the Champion of the World was composed and conducted by BAFTA-nominated composer (and Hans Zimmer's mentor) Stanley Myers. Not shockingly, the score embodies pleasantly melodic, purely orchestral, inoffensive children's music of a generically classical spirit, with a flighty main theme that doesn't quite congeal until late in the movie when Danny and his father set about overthrowing Mr. Hazell. Hazell and his goons are treated with a cheeky 4-note motif ("up-and-then-dowwwn"), usually played by the bassoons and double basses. (Is it on-the-nose? Sure. Does it owe inspiration to a certain opening motif from a certain Beethoven Symphony? Absolutely, but 'ey, why not? It's a kids' movie!) Many of the character-building bits for Danny are left unscored, which didn't bother me at all, frankly; Irons' acting in general is good enough to convey necessary pathos. The climactic scenes when the heroes prevail and the villain gets his comeuppance are the highlight of the film, and Myers' music plays to the humor and triumph in these moments equally sufficiently. The score remains unreleased on album, but as this was a small, made-for-TV movie, it's unlikely to happen. Anyone who appreciates flighty yet competently rendered children's orchestral music will find little fault with Myers' safe approach to this family-friendly adaptation, but it's not the end of the world if you miss it. This general style would inform Myers' subsequent music for yet another Dahl adaptation the following year in The Witches, but with frustratingly mixed results.

Music as heard in the film: ***

Listen to the End Titles cue here:

*An early scene between the two lead actors includes a bedtime-story reference to the titular character of Dahl's classic The BFG—a convenient tie-in for the British-animated TV movie from the same year.

Breaking Point (1989)
• Live-action TV movie (a remake of the 1965 MGM film 36 Hours, loosely based on Dahl’s "Beware of the Dog")
• TV premiere date: August 18, 1989
• Music by J.A.C. Redford

A not-so-great remake (judging by lukewarm reviews) of the already less-than-great 1965 WWII thriller 36 Hours, Breaking Point was a major broadcast event for the emerging Turner Network Television channel that quickly faded from memory after its late summer premiere in 1989. Assuming the roles previously played by James Garner, Rod Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint are Corbin Bernsen, John Glover, and Joanna Pacula, respectively. As such, the movie remains a "rare find" on home video nowadays and is unseen by me. (Fun fact: The movie was directed by Peter Markle, who went on to direct several other movies and episodes for television, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The X-Files*.) From what I have read, this version of the story focuses more on the "forbidden romance" subplot of the original (between the American and the refugee nurse), with an added subplot involving the American's wife.

The music for Breaking Point was written by J.A.C. Redford—a talented, Emmy-nominated composer whose résumé also includes orchestrating, arranging, and conducting duties for James Horner, Thomas Newman, Danny Elfman, Rachel Portman, and several others. Redford's assignment for Breaking Point was likely one to "cut his teeth on," so to speak, and since this was for a fledgling cable TV network that failed to garner any critical recognition, no soundtrack album was ever issued. A couple of extended clips from the movie can be found on YouTube, but the only music I heard in those consisted of synth-dominated suspense filler. Based on that material alone, I would venture to guess that the rest of Redford's score is nowhere near as impressive as Dmitri Tiomkin's appealing music for the 1965 film. (To anyone who has actually seen the movie, feel free to comment.)

No rating.

*Of those episodes directed by Markle, "Redrum" from The X-Files Season 8 is a standout.

The BFG (or The Big Friendly Giant) (1989)
• Animated TV movie, adapted by John Hambley (based on the 1982 children's novel by Roald Dahl)
• TV premiere date (UK): December 25, 1989; subsequently released on home video throughout the 1990s
• Music and songs by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe; orchestral arrangements by Brian Ibbetson and David Cullen

I have only two regrets in my lifetime. One of them is taking too many shots of Crown Royal Whisky the night of the first U.S. Presidential Debate of 2020*. The other is not finding out sooner that there was a movie adaptation of The BFG in existence until I was already past the age of 18. (Fortunately, YouTube had become a thing by that time, which made it easier to track this sucker down and take in all its nostalgic glory.) I confess, The BFG is my favorite Roald Dahl book—one I highly recommend to all kids and their parents—and I will forever cherish the memories of my Dad reading it to me at bedtime as a kid before I began reading novels solo. (The story itself started out, as many often do, as a bedtime story told by Dahl to his children before he eventually wrote it down.) For those who are still in the dark, The BFG tells the story of an orphan named Sophie who befriends a benevolent giant, simply named "BFG" (short for "Big Friendly Giant"). With the help of BFG's "dream magic," the two hatch a plan to save the children of the world from vicious, human-eating giants. It's one of Dahl's funniest, most imaginative, and uniquely empowering tales that merits repeat enjoyment for all ages.

Not long after its 1982 release, the novel was adapted as an animated TV movie by Cosgrove Hall Films, airing in the UK on December 25, 1989 (unbeknownst to "8-months-old Clint" at the time). It wouldn't be available to own on home video in the U.S. until the late '90s, and even then, it's not something you ever hear come up in current conversations about "the greatest animated movies of all time." Still, based on merit alone, "adult Clint" finds the movie both charming and impressively faithful to the novel ("7-or-8-year-old Clint" would have gone nuts over it), and the film's strengths thankfully outweigh its weaknesses. While not in the same camp as concurrent animated features from either Disney or Don Bluth, the animation in The BFG is certainly good as far as kids' cartoons go, reinforcing the opinion that Dahl's stories and the characters described therein are all tailor-made for the medium. It still manages to scare on occasion, particularly the opening scenes leading up to Sophie's kidnapping and the latter sequences involving the more gruesomely threatening Giants. By far, the movie's strongest assets are its terrific vocal performances, notably TV actor David Jason as BFG and Amanda Root as Sophie. Their scenes together, which constitute about 90% of the movie's runtime and retain much of the original dialogue from the book, are staged in a way that perfectly conveys Dahl's humor and pathos. It's a joy to watch such an unusual portrayal of friendship in a kids' movie being brought to life as genuinely and carefully as it is here. The screenplay is well-paced and only rarely gets bogged down by one or two inexplicable musical sequences (more on that later). Also effective is Angela Thorne as the Queen of England, whose pristine royal inflection and unaffected one-liners are sure to amuse anyone outside the movie's target audience. (According to multiple sources, Dahl himself stood up and applauded the film after one screening of it, which is probably the highest praise it ever needed.)

Bringing any fantasy world to life, especially one as sweeping as The BFG's, is something most film and television composers dream of. In this case, the talents of pop/rock musician Keith Hopwood and TV composer Malcolm Rowe were involved with creating the movie's soundtrack, one that blends '80s synth-dominated "dream music" with traditional orchestral fantasy elements. The resulting soundscape is not unlike something you'd hear from Joe Hisaishi or even Vangelis at the time (I wonder if Vangelis' music specifically was temp-tracked). Thus, one's tolerance for music that frequently resembles "mock-up" demos, however accessible in their mix, will determine your enjoyment of this score. Furthermore, those quick to dismiss the film and score entirely might miss out on some smart attempts at narrative cohesion, which alone gets kudos from this listener. The themes in The BFG are easily identifiable, albeit rather simplistic and anonymous in their constructs. Sophie is represented by a simple yet beautifully tender idea for solo piano (introduced in "The Owl's Flight"), and is occasionally rendered on oboe or pan flute in the opening scenes (the bubbly "Sophie's Bath"). An ominous, repeated 4-note "Danger" motif is hinted at on eerie synths at the outset of "The Owl's Flight" and on hammered dulcimer in the following "Giant in the Street." It "sounds the alarm" in many moments involving Giant peril thereafter (it becomes aggressive by the finale sequence in "Giant Awake" and "Return to the Choppers"). Representing Sophie and BFG's "Great Plan" to save the world is an emerging, heroic theme indicated by a rising 6-note melody; hinted at in "Flight to Buckingham Palace," it finally takes off with symphonic gusto in "Helicopter Flight to Vortex" before a disappointing fade-out closes that cue. A broadly magical "Journey" theme accompanies the BFG's launch back into Giant Country in "The Getaway" and reappears later in "The Fishing Village" as Sophie and BFG return to embark on their first "dream-blowing" adventure together. A secondary, nebulous "chase" theme plays over the opening credits ("The Vortex") and again in the first half of "The Getaway."

Not featured in the film are the songs "Two Worlds," which forms the basis of a recurring "Friendship" theme, and "Mirror, Mirror," which is an arrangement of Sophie's theme. The primary "Two Worlds" melody reveals itself in "The Fishing Village," and again in "The Boy's Dream," as Sophie and BFG bond over their shared adventures. (Its rising and falling melodic line merits comparison to Joe Hisaishi's song contributions in his concurrent Studio Ghibli soundtracks, namely My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service.) Sophie's theme, the "Danger" motif, the "Great Plan" theme, and the "Friendship" theme all rotate in whirlwind succession in the cool, ethereal "The Queen’s Dream," a pivotal moment in the film in which the Queen learns of the terrible crimes of the human-eating Giants in a dream specifically concocted by Sophie and BFG. It is in the score's second half where the energy of the orchestral performances really makes an impression on all of the themes, thanks to the robust arrangements by Brian Ibbetson and David Cullen. (Cullen, as it turns out, worked extensively as an orchestrator for several of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical productions and subsequent adaptations.) Cues like "Helicopter Flight to Vortex," "Giant Awake," and "Fleshlumpeater 1 & 2" contain some engaging action-adventure material suitable for a children's feature film score. The triumphant finale of "Return to the Choppers" and "The End" provide satisfactory closure to the "Great Plan" and Sophie themes, highlighted by gorgeous solos for English horn and flute before full strings elevate Sophie's theme in the latter cue. One last send-off of the magical "Journey" theme and a triumphant statement of the "Great Plan" theme conclude the score on a high note. The music for the end credits scroll are culled from various score highlights but not included on the album.

While the score earns its emotional moments, the songs unfortunately represent children's film music at its most cloying and forgettable. Only two made it into the actual movie, but even then, they just pad out the running time, ultimately cheapening an otherwise solid adaptation. (The primary melody in the dreadful "Sometimes Secretly" does reappear during a "dream-building" scene.) Admittedly, the infectiously goofy tongue-twisters in "Whizzpopping"—complete with tastefully applied flatulent noises—solicited a half-hearted chuckle from this listener thanks to the enthusiastic performance of David Jason as BFG. (Once you've heard it, though, you'll have no need to hear it ever again.) Regardless of any melodic potential therein, all of the songs beg to be skipped, their unbelievably cheesy instrumental backing enough to make you want to stuff your ears with giant pickles. Lame songs aside, the score serves the movie well enough, but the soundtrack's dated rendering and overall anonymous personality fail to really engage the listener's imagination. Adequate thematic development as well as a few robust action highlights for the full ensemble save the score, thankfully, which ultimately merits a weak three-star rating from this listener.

Luckily, master of orchestral film music John Williams would eventually have the opportunity to give the concept the magic touch it deserves in Steven Spielberg's 2016 adaptation.

Score: ***
Overall: **½

Just to get it over with, listen to "Whizzpopping!" here (at your own risk):

*For anyone wondering, it involved a drinking game and the number of times Donald Trump interrupted both Joe Biden and Chris Wallace during the debate. I lost count… and consciousness soon afterward. It wasn't even good whisky, come to think of it. If only I could be convinced that it was all just a terrible dream!

Stay tuned for Part 3! To quote Angelica Huston: "You are in for a treat!" wink

Previous entries in this series:
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