Out of all of the archive television currently missing, presumed destroyed, I think the most exciting and saddening loss is a little-advertised series called Tales of Mystery. Even though the rumours currently flying around of the potential finds of Philip Morris and TIEA are mostly grounded in the likes of Doctor Who and Dad’s Army, a small part of me hopes for this archive gem to reappear out of the sandy film hubs of a foreign land.
Tales of Mystery seems an intriguing prospect just from reading about it and a sense of what it was like can be built from the information we do know about it. The first thing to note is that it is a series of ghost stories and strange tales, entirely set around the writing and persona of Algernon Blackwood. Unlike Edgar Allen Poe or M.R. James, Blackwood adaptations are thin on the ground, either being unmade or wiped from various archives. In one sense we are lucky as viewers as both of his earliest screen appearances do survive and are available to rent from the new BFI Player.
From these two episodes, The Reformation of St. Jules and Lock Your Door (both from 1949) we can get a sense of the style that Tales of Mystery may have taken. Blackwood stars in both of these shorts being a perfect teller of tales in that typical of Jamesian and even Dickensian fashion. Yet Blackwood’s other work is largely absent from the archives with episodes of Suspense (1950), Eye Witness (1953) and even an adaptation of The Listener (1968) for Mysteries and Imagination all being destroyed.
Tales of Mystery on the other hand, seems even more of a travesty as it gives the impression of being the first of its kind. The program ran for three years from 1961 to 1963 and not a single episode survives. It starred John Laurie as Blackwood, the story-teller who appeared in all of its 29 episodes and it hardly seems a surprising casting choice. It can’t be helped that Laurie’s character in Dad’s Army would be an equal teller of spooky tales and perhaps his role as the foreteller of doom is a nod to this series.
Either way, it’s not hard to imagine what Laurie’s performance of these tales would have been like. Likewise, this brings us onto the format of the program which seems to be similar to that of a number of later Gothic programs; mostly M.R. James adaptations with reading-based series from Robert Powell, Michael Bryant and Christopher Lee. The cast list for the show is long so presumably Laurie’s telling would segway into an actual performance of each story with directors ranging from Peter Moffatt (Doctor Who, All Creatures Great and Small), John Frankau (The Agatha Christie Hour, ITV Sunday Night Drama), Jonathan Alwyn (Armchair Theatre, The Avengers, Doomwatch), and even the series’ producer Peter Graham Scott.
Scott is another figure whose history and other work may give us a glimpse as to what Tales of Mystery may have been like. As a director, Scott helmed Hammer’s Captain Clegg (1962) as well as numerous episodes of The Avengers, Danger Man and The Prisoner, but it is his work on Children of the Stones (1977) that is of most interest here. He not only directed the adaptation of Alan Garner’s folk horror mystery but he produced it as well. Because of this, as well as the clear and distinct links that can be made between Blackwood’s writing and the sub-genre of folk horror, it’s easy to visualise the sort of aesthetic palate that the program would have been lent; a sort of cross between Children of the Stones and one of the previously mentioned “read” M.R. James series (especially the Powell series with the episode The Mezzotint being a great potential example).
Even though Blackwood is only listed as the source writer of 6 of the 29 stories online, the episode lists available show that this was a whole series (with three seasons) devoted to the man’s work. What’s even more surprising is the sheer number of obscurities of Blackwood’s work that made it to adaptation. Rather than the more popular works such as The Willows or The Man Who Loved Trees, the series is largely filled with curios and obscurities which makes it even more desirable to find. The Empty Sleeve in particular, a story about an obsession with a rare violin, sounds stunningly creepy.
With all of this information, it’s not hard to imagine what Tales of Mystery would have been like. Imagine, Laurie in some Gothic parlour rolling his eyes and lolling his head but, instead of relating stories of “Olde Eeempty Barrrrns” it would be a gateway into the haunted nightmares of one of Britain’s most underrated horror writers. Added to the fact that this was a series put together by some of the stalwarts of classic genre television; Tales of Mystery is certainly high on my wish-list for future Television finds.