1 9 6 1 (USA)
14 x 25 minute episodes
The CBS anthology series Way Out first appeared on Friday 1 March 1961 in the half-hour slot immediately before The Twilight Zone, offering viewers an uninterrupted hour of the weird and the macabre.
Yet, despite the fact that it was hosted by Roald Dahl (pictured above) – then living in America and already beginning to earn a reputation for his sinister, twist-in-the-tail stories about people in strange and unsettling situations – the show was taken off the air almost as dramatically as it had appeared after just fourteen remarkable episodes.
Its sudden demise is regarded by aficionados as one of the saddest in the late-night horror genre.
The idea for Way Out had sprung from New York producer David Susskind, an admirer of Roald Dahl’s stories, who had met the towering Englishman with his wonderfully modulated voice and invited him to adapt some of his tales for television and also host the programme.
Dahl was immediately enthusiastic about the idea and, further, agreed to write the opening and closing remarks, tinging them with his inimitable brand of black humour. He would, for instance, give advice on how to murder a spouse or reminisce on his childhood in Norway where, when somebody died, and the ground was frozen solid, they would sharpen the legs and hammer the body into the ground “like an enormous nail”.
Dahl’s impact on viewers was instantaneous – a review of his first show describing him as “a thin Alfred Hitchcock, an East Coast Rod Serling”.
CBS, though, had set themselves a punishing schedule for Way Out – each episode had to be rehearsed and filmed in just three days in time for each Friday night’s screening.
Nevertheless, with a pool of versatile actors working in the New York theatre who were available to guest on the show – including Martin Balsam, Mark Leonard, Fritz Weaver, Mildred Dunnock and Charlotte Rae – the omens looked good. Until Friday the fourteenth.
The reason for the cancellation did not emerge for a while, but was as simple as it was heartbreaking – Way Out had received excellent audience ratings in the metropolitan areas but had failed nationwide.
Two episodes genuinely made many viewers’ flesh creep: False Face in which Alfred Ryder, playing Quasimodo in a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, found himself unable to remove his hideous makeup (pictured above right); and Soft Focus where photographer Barry Morse changed his wife into an old hag by the use of a chemical solution on her photograph – and then accidentally spilled some on a portrait of himself (pictured below left).
Citing these two stories in particular, critic Jeffrey Frentzen believed that Dahl’s show was actually taken off the air because it “shocked the censors”.
Roald Dahl, who, of course, went on to even greater things as a writer (especially for children) and in the 70s inspired the highly successful British TV series, Tales of the Unexpected, always remembered Way Out with great affection: “I was a pretty young chap then,” he said in an interview in 1978, “and it was amusing for me because it was my first thing on television.”
Among the fourteen episodes, the most highly praised was the first, which happened to be one of Dahl’s own stories, about a wife’s final revenge on her husband, William and Mary, which Marc Daniels directed with Henry Jones, Mildred Dunnock and Fritz Weaver.
The impact of the final scene of a living human brain pulsating in a glass basin was given even greater frisson when Dahl, with a gentlemanly leer, offered comfort to his undoubtedly scared-stiff audience with the words, “Goodnight . . . and sleep well”.