The Wednesday Play: The Night Gallery – They’re Tearing Down Tom Riley’s Bar (1971)

In a different age, Rod Serling would have become one of America’s most famous popular playwrights. Instead, Serling is best known as the man who did the introduction to every episode of The Twilight Zone. Where’s the justice in that?

Serling wasn’t just the narrator of The Twilight Zone – he was its creator and wrote many of its most famous episodes. He was also the man who turned French author Pierre Boulle’s satirical novel La planète des singes into the sci-fi film classic The Planet of the Apes

After The Twilight Zone ended, he went on to create and introduce the similar anthology series Night Gallery. This aired from 1970 to 1973 on NBC in the US and was initially part of wheel series Four In One, which included McCloud, SFX and The Psychiatrist. Each week, Night Gallery presented an individual fantasy play, usually original, sometimes an adaption of a classic story by a famous author such as HP Lovecraft. The tales were usually macabre, usually written by Serling and always featured a painting and Serling in its introduction.

While few of the episodes achieved the ‘classic’ status of some of The Twilight Zone‘s, there were some notable Night Gallery plays. They’re Tearing Down Tom Riley’s Bar was considered by Serling one of his two greatest works and was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Single Program on US television in 1971.

In this tale of ‘paint, pigment and desperation’, former WW2 paratrooper Randolph Lane (William Windom) has spent the previous 25 years selling plastics and not feeling particularly special. His company doesn’t value him, he has to fight every young upstart on the way up, and then there’s the guilt: his wife Katie died years ago of pneumonia and he wasn’t there to help her or take her to hospital.

And now, 25 years to the day that he started work Pritkin’s Plastic Products, he gets fired without even a gold watch for compensation. Worse, a company is getting ready to destroy his favorite drinking spot, Tim Riley’s Bar – the very place where Randy’s homecoming from Europe was celebrated, where his Dad sang ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ to him, and where Katie and he used to go together and gaze into each other’s eyes.

But in true Serling style, this is no ordinary play and there are ghosts. All the same, there are no scares, nothing truly supernatural, only the horror of the passage of time and the inevitable sense of aging too quickly. It is about, as Serling says in his opening narration, “the quiet desperation of men over 40 who keep hearing heavy footsteps behind them and are torn between a fear and compulsion to look over their shoulders.”

I would say enjoy – but prepare to be moved, at the very least, by one of America’s best writers – in any medium.