So named due to the sting at the end of each outing, Scorpion Tales is a series comparable to fellow anthology programmes of the Seventies, notably Tales of the Unexpected. A platform for the short story on television, Scorpion Tales sits comfortably between the high budget Alfred Hitchcock Presents of the Sixties, whilst paving the way for horror anthologies such as Tales From The Crypt and Chiller in the Eighties and Nineties.
The series opens with a fashionably (for 1978) hypnotic title sequence of scorpions duelling within an undulating ring of flames, set to a progressive rock-inspired theme orchestrated by Cyril Ornadel. The grainy 16mm film titles eventually dissolve to the clinical environment of studio videotape. As such there is an instantaneous drop in production values. Atypical for the period; sets are lit as brightly as a supermarket, flattage occasionally wobbles, and highlights smear across the screen (a side effect of the old tube cameras of the day). It is quickly evident that Scorpion Tales has been made quickly, with purse strings constricted in an era of gross inflation.
Series opener Easterman, penned by The Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy-Martin, introduces hardboiled Detective Inspector Maver, played large by Trevor Howard (The Third Man, Ghandi, Superman). Maver is on the verge of retirement when Easterman, a serial killer with a personal vendetta, attempts to avenge the suicide of his lover. Overall a pacy script, there are some gleefully acerbic lines lifted straight from the tongue of D.I. Regan: “You’re a bastard catastrophe, son!” spits Maver, to a bumbling young detective sergeant. “Get yourself a job in some shop selling… jeans… or gramophone records. But for Christ sake, get out of here!” Diatribes such as these are made all the more memorable for Howard’s wild performance, which although large, is intensely watchable.
There are also smatterings of pathos counterbalancing the aggressive humour. Maver is acutely aware that he has no life beyond a bottle of Bells after his impending retirement, so is willing to risk a confrontation with Easterman, if it means catching his man. It is to be a confrontation from which only one will walk away, yet both are willing to die. Superficially, characterisations seem stereotypical: Maver has no time for “poufs” and “bum boys”, yet such representation is subverted by Don Henderson’s portrayal of a homosexual, which is far from the idealised parody that Maver resents throughout the episode. Overall it is a satisfying play and despite budgetary constraints, achieves a moody action sequence at an airfield, albeit shot by an OB unit on videotape. As such Easterman feels very much like an episode of The Sweeney - and a good one at that - yet recorded on a camcorder on a grey November weekend.
The second play in the series, Killing, is scripted by writing partnership Bob Baker and Dave Martin, best known for creating robot companion K-9 in Doctor Who. Their offering is similarly technically motivated and concerns the exploits of a computer technician hacking his way through a mainframe to launder offshore investments. A young Jack Sheppard steals the show with a nerdy, athletic vibrancy which is years ahead of its time. (There are future echoes of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.) The majority of the action is set within the guts of the computer room, serving as a fascinating insight into the scale and mechanism of computer technologies of the Seventies; rotating reels as wide as dinner plates, a bank of flickering diodes the size of a fridge, and a single display unit delivering simplistic command line functions, humanises the noisy hardware into a tangible, recognisable character. Indeed, Sheppard effectively flirts with the VDU as he engages programmed commands: “What game shall we play tonight?” is a line which recurs throughout the piece.
What the story makes up for in technical aptitude it lacks in basic characterisation. Sheppard has very little to work with and delivers, to his credit, a performance which is both energetic and intensely likable. Less can be recalled of the remaining cast, for no fault of their own. There is a welcome break from the confines of the studio in a glossy filmed segment set onboard a 747, providing a satisfying, if not somewhat predictable, denouncement to the piece. Ostensibly, Killing is a wholly original and plausible idea, yet by Act II, a slightly diluted one. Not for the first time, with echoes of K-9, Baker and Martin prove they’re hot on concept, but a little thin on characterisation.
The Great Albert is arguably one of the more traditional thriller plays within the Scorpion Tales canon, continuing a trend of urban mysticism which became popular throughout the 1970s in series such as Children of the Stones. When a boy senses his family is falling apart, he turns to the pages of an ancient black magic text to bind them together. The charm of the story is that the viewer is led to believe that witchcraft will intervene and somehow avenge the antagonists on the boy’s behalf, but not so. If anything, the play ends with a sobering reality; less a twist, more a wakeup call. Lynn Farleigh is excellent, and beautiful, as the promiscuous mother bent on freeing herself from the trappings of a decaying marriage.
Tony Britton is one of the few redeeming features of The Ghost in the Pale Blue Dress, a seemingly simple love triangle surrounding the fortunes of dying tycoon Sir Wilfred Grafton. There are occasional dramatic flourishes – Grafton blasts his engaged son for being a closeted homosexual at a dinner party – yet what follows is mostly dull and soporific padding. Geoffrey Palmer is saddled with a grossly underwritten part whilst the remaining cast are wan and instantly forgettable. Britton is commanding and a pleasure to watch, yet struggles to make his expositional dialogue at the conclusion carry any credulity.
The show closes on two consecutive scenes of dreary explanation, verbalised through characters clumsily discussing how well their plans were followed through. It’s a lazy, dull patch up of a twist and feels hopelessly tagged on. I have no doubt the plot was carefully considered - conceptually it has merit – but the plot withers in its basic execution and story structure. The revelation comes too late to resonate, by which time one has disengaged from the drama. It is one of the weaker outings of the series, all the more surprising considering it was written by Jeremy Burnham, whose credits include Inspector Morse, The Avengers and Children of the Stones.
Anthony Bate (a familiar face from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Susan Engel (Inspector Morse, Trial and Retribution, Doctor Who) enjoy a dynamic outing in Crimes of Persuasion. Bate is Sir Robert Hames, a corrupt politician who closes a ten-year affair with a mistress who has become rather too hot to handle. Meanwhile a series of disparate, seemingly unrelated terrorist plots unfold, driving the private conflict from the domestic to the publicly political, as Bate pays the ultimate price for a life of gross corruption.
Technically, the play has been carefully assembled, with intercut montages of sabotage, prank calls and racing police cars, serving to counterpoint the scenes of human drama within the confines of an apartment. The interjecting sequences add a level of Hitchcockian tension to proceedings, preparing the viewer for a violent conclusion which is both shocking yet realistically credible. Consequently, Crimes of Persuasion is the most visually arresting episode of Scorpion Tales, benefiting from the added scope of location material to offset the somewhat studio-bound visuals which stilt earlier episodes. There is, for instance, some notable handheld video shot on location in a lift, giving the studio set of the apartment added depth and realism.
In terms of performance, particular mention should also go to Susan Engle, whose downtrodden mistress clearly grows throughout the episode from seemingly fragile spinster to feminist avenger. Memorable, for a wholly different reason, is Christopher Benjamin as a grotesque, Arabian minister with a passion for foreign investment, digital clocks and nubile dancers.
The final tale, Truth or Consequence, follows David Robb (I, Claudius, The Crow Road) as he departs for a secret military training session. What he finds at the base is a mental assault course taking him to the near brink of insanity, or does it? The consequence of his breakdown upon returning home to his loving wife, is left tantalizingly unanswered. Despite the added location shooting used throughout this tale, Truth or Consequence is arguably the most theatrically cerebral play of the series. There is no major twist, as such; it studies depression, fatigue and the balance of reality in a recognisably Pinteresque fashion, punctuating the breakdown and deformation of personality in distinct stages. As a season closer, it perhaps lacks the dramatic twist the series has come to promise, but more than makes up for its absence through an introspective analysis of what is means to be irreparably transformed. For a fifty minute standalone drama, and a cheap one at that, it is both alarming and incredibly well executed.
Scorpion Tales is writ large and performed large, which may take some getting used to in lieu of today’s acting style. The theatricality of performance bears little resemblance to techniques at present, yet in many ways surpasses the current method, favouring subtlety (some would say wooden) over sledgehammer. There are some exceptional performances from Howard, Sheppard, Robb and Engel, which make owning this oddball series a pleasure and a salient reminder that gravitas of performance seems to be thinly rationed in the current generation of television.
Overall, Scorpion Tales belies the age of which it was written. Recurrent themes such as alcoholism, gender boundaries, homophobia and the rage of capitalism over communism are all recognisable attitudes of the time. Yet these attitudes are constantly subverted; Easterman rejects the gay stereotype, The Ghost in the Pale Blue Dress objects to tax breaks for the super rich, The Great Albert is an optimistically magical tale which debunks mysticism, and Crimes of Persuasion asserts feminism and modernity over the male-dominated politics.
Despite its outright cheapness and somewhat archaic production style, Scorpion Tales is a vivid reminder that detached, short form drama is both achievable and successful on a modest budget. As its best it feels like an evening at a theatre of new writing, and in my view can only be a good thing. Television, as a platform for experimentation, is something to be welcomed and perhaps, today, viewers are deprived of the risk that the ever changing anthology series presents. An absence of an experimental series like Scorpion Tales, complete with an eclectic mix of writing and acting talent, leaves a resounding void.
Notes on the DVD Release
Network presents Scorpion Tales on DVD for the first time since premiering on ITV in 1978. All six episodes are presented in their original 4:3 ratio with mono sound. The picture exhibits an occasional dropout on videotape sequences, but nothing too distracting. Location film varies widely with some washed out colours and crushed blacks. Some of the OB location sequences recorded to video are of particularly grainy quality, but acceptable for the period. There are no visible compression artefacts, which is commendable for a presentation of such varied archive material. The mono sound is clear and distinct throughout, a testament to the broadcast standards of the time. Extras on the second disc include a gallery and each episode is complete with its ATV Colour title card, which should please purists.
Theatre Manager, Writer, Film Photographer & Printer, Reviewer, Reader. Secular biped mammal with own views. © Samuel Payne 2016