Unexpected snake tales couldn’t get any badders for Steve Canavan

When I was growing up there was a tele programme called Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected which, I think, went out on ITV on Sunday tea-times.

Thursday, 4th November 2021, 3:45 pm

It featured some slightly trippy opening titles (from memory, some flames and the silhouettes of what appeared to be a group of naked dancing women … quite erotic for a 14-year-old Catholic boy) and then Roald Dahl himself would appear, sat in an armchair in a dimly lit room, wearing a shirt, tie and cardigan, looking about 124-years-old, and introduce one of his short stories.

I think I watched it because I was – like pretty much every other young person in the UK – a huge fan of the author from his brilliant books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Gerrie the One-Legged Gecko With Terrible Urticaria (one of those may be made up).

But this Tales of the Unexpected was more for grown-ups and there was one that has always stuck in my memory, mainly because it was so horrifically scary I didn’t sleep for some 18 weeks afterwards.

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It was the story of a bloke reading in bed when a snake – a highly venomous one (I seem to recall the story was set in India) – slithered under his sheets, up his legs, and onto his stomach. You couldn’t see the snake, just the bulge in the sheet – which of course made it all the more scarier.

The entire half-hour that followed remains the tensest bit of TV I’ve ever watched, as the man – terrified and sweating profusely – waited motionless, not daring to move an inch for fear of a deadly bite, until his friend returned home. Not much else happened, but it was absolutely gripping. The whole episode built to the moment his friend finally whipped the duvet cover off, to reveal … nothing. The snake had vanished.

Then, in the final scene, just as your heart-rate was returning to somewhere approaching normal, the man reached into a drinks cabinet for a whiskey, where, you’ve guessed it, the snake lunged down and bit his arm, killing him. Sunday tea-time! Good god, it should have had an 18 certificate.

It instilled in me a lifelong fear/fascination of snakes, which I was reminded of this week when I got talking to a woman I play badminton with.

It turned out her day-job is taking animals into schools, but we’re not talking cats or dogs or any other fluffy cute creatures.

She dealt in snakes and tarantulas and all sorts of weird and wonderful specimens. She mainly goes to primary schools, the idea being that if children are introduced to these animals at an early age, they won’t be scared of them later.

‘The first thing I do is make sure kids don’t watch while sat on their parents’ knee,’ she told me.

I enquired why. ‘Because I guarantee when I bring a snake out, their mum or dad will twitch or stiffen, and just that little movement,’ she added, raising her finger to emphasise the point, ‘can make a child scared and fearful.’

Which makes perfect sense.

I mean my mother was absolutely hysterical about snakes. When one came on the TV, she would scream at us to change channel before fleeing from the room as if being chased by an Insulate Britain protester with glue on his face. My mum, famously, even climbed out of a staff room window at the primary school where she worked when a pupil wandered in with a grass snake he’d found.

Little wonder, then, I have grown up with a fear of reptiles.

My badminton friend revealed that at her home she keeps three tarantulas (‘one of them you have to be careful with – she runs at you and tries to bite your fingers’) and two Royal Pythons.

I sat up in alarm at the mention of the word python.

‘They’re lovely,’ she insisted. ‘Of all the types of pythons, they’re the best to keep. They’re tiny – they only grow to five feet.’

My Aunty Lynda is five feet. That’s not tiny.

I told her I wouldn’t want to live next door to her, given these stories you hear about snakes escaping, slithering into drains and ending up in a neighbour’s toilet.

She laughed and told me that was ridiculous.

“Have yours ever escaped then?” I asked.

‘Only the once,’ she said. ‘We keep them in a tank under the stairs and one day my son left the lid off.’

“So there were two pythons slithering around your house?” I said, horrified.‘Yes, but it was no bother,’ she replied, as calmly as if sharing a recipe for lemon meringue. ‘We found them quite quickly. Apart from Monty. He was a bit trickier but he eventually turned up in the tumble-dryer.’

Presumably they didn’t iron him afterwards.

Alas, despite the fact I wanted to chat for longer (mainly so I could find out her exact address and make a mental note never to go within a five-mile radius), we were called back on to the badders court (Margaret and Derek wanted a mixed doubles) and our conversation came to a close.

I can’t wait till this week’s badders night – who knows what else I’ll discover.

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