Ace of Wands
Season 3 (1972)
If Ace of Wands were half as good as its theme song it would be an enduring classic whose legend was alive and well today, rather than a half-forgotten ember in the annals of children’s television history. Only the final season of the series exists (transmitted the year I was born), so perhaps I’m doing it an injustice and the previous two were dynamite. After all, loveable cockney rogue Tony Selby appeared in those as a regular. Trevor Preston’s idea was to make a kids’ show that wasn’t obviously playing to kids (hence the leads are all grown-ups, to one degree or other), but you wouldn’t know it from the undemanding plots and patronising dialogue. Of the six Season 3 stories, there is but one that rises above the mediocre. So it might not be the best show to seek out for nostalgic or plain curiosity value.
Tarot (Michael McKenzie) is a stage magician and escapologist come investigator and specialist in the supernatural. A sort of psychic Sherlock Holmes, with a dapper fashion sense on the frillier side of John Steed’s sophistication. Every few weeks he becomes embroiled in a new case, invariably having brushed up on his skills in a particular occult art that proves crucial to defeating the villains. He’s wont to enter trances, which prior to the third season involved donning contact lenses to enlarge his pupils. For the final run they look permanently dilated, which could mean he’s stoned, but more likely he’s tripping his nuts off.
By the third run, he’s in need of a couple of new assistants. Selby’s off to play more loveable/semi-threatening cockneys while Judy Loe went on to regular work in TV and theatre, as well as mothering Kate Beckinsale. In came Roy Holder as Chas and Petra Markham as Mikki, siblings who only compete for how irritating they can be. Invariably Chas wins hands down, with Mikki content to explain that she can sense something. Holder was a former child actor. He became a regular in Ronnie Corbet sitcom Sorry! during the ’80s (appearing in about half the episodes; if that series seems like it was interminable, it’s because it very nearly was). More impressively, he played mercenary Krelper in one of the very few classic ’80s Doctor Who stories, The Caves of Androzani. In Ace of Wands, he has the air of a performer who might be scooped up for a Confessions of a… movie at any moment. Ali Bongo was the magic tricks advisor; he went on to the much more celebrated Jonathan Creek.
Ace of Wands was abruptly dropped in favour of The Tomorrow People, a series that endured for the rest of the decade but is loved by almost no one (in their right minds, anyway). It’s difficult to judge if Wands deserved a longer stint from what survives. If it is representative of the first two seasons, definitely not. But Preston had pretty much moved on by Season 3. He may have felt the show was safe with PJ Hammond, but this isn’t quite the Hammond of Sapphire and Steel.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ace of Wands is that a series so accepting of occult and supernatural dabblings, as practiced by its hero, should be scheduled in a children’s TV slot. It’s the sort of thing any dyed in the wool Christian would have a fit over. But in the era of The Owl Service and later Children of the Stones, this seems par for ITV’s course at that point. It would be difficult to imagine the much more staid BBC taking such a laissez-faire attitude to the minds and morals of the nation’s minors (well, publicly anyway). Of course, the truth is there’s very little here that pushes the limits. The occasional possession, but in a purely mind control sense. But how many parents came home to find their little darlings playing with a Ouija board or messing with a Tarot pack? And did mutilations at the talons of angry owls that didn’t want to be poked by tiny inquisitive fingers increase? Surely every kid in the nation wanted a pet like Ozymandias?
3.1 The Meddlers
The first of the third run benefits from atmospheric footage of rubbish-strewn ’70s streets, although I’m a sucker for footage from most films and TV series of that period (less for the jarring contrast of videoed studio interiors). They reek of atmosphere no matter the genre. Hammond’s script is an uninspired affair in which a trio of street musicians (the titular meddlers) put the terrors into a local street market. There isn’t anything in the way of the supernatural here, and it’s quite clear the meddlers are working for a Mr Big in the first episode (Mr Dove, played by Paul Dawkins as a hygiene-obsessed weirdo with a pet snake).
On the plus side, Michael Standing (as Spoon) makes for the most sinister spoon player this side of Sylvester McCoy . There are a few nice little affectations too, like the chauffeuse (Norma West) who speaks for Mr Dove. But the storyline is weak, and this may be a kids’ show, but the spoon-feeding (ahem) dialogue explaining magic and the supernatural quickly becomes annoying. The best line goes to Barry Linehan’s Mockers; “It happened to Sodom, Gomorrah, the Elephant & Castle. It’ll happen to you“.
3.2 The Power of Atep
It’s time for the old Egyptology plot line, always a reliable staple. Written by Victor Pemberton, The Power of Atep concerns an ancient Egyptian physician to a Pharaoh (“the Rasputin of his day”), and the attempts by an old stage partner of Tarot’s to take Atep’s power and defeat his former-colleague. It sounds more promising than it is.
The first half is quite watchable, and there’s a scene in which Tarot and Chas dunk themselves into the Thames, which doesn’t look especially pleasant. Unfortunately, things go resoundingly downhill once the trio arrive in “Egypt”. Which happens to be a sandpit in Surrey.
I was continually reminded of The Goodies (“Australia, here we come!“), which may be appropriate as there’s something of the Bloddie about Holder. The whole endeavour is so shamelessly cheap, it’s almost endearing. But not quite. Donald Layne-Smith also appears as the now semi-regular Mr Sweet. He isn’t the most engaging of elderly sidekicks.
Sebastian Graham Jones doesn’t seem to have many acting credits, but he makes for an effective villain; John Pentacle (geddit?). He certainly has more presence than McKenzie, and resembles a sadistic David Duchovny. Indeed, getting MacKenzie to act against himself probably wasn’t then most genius of creative decisions (when Pentacle poses as Tarot). The duel scene between them starts of well, though, with Tarot turning a gun into some flowers with much more panache than the awkward jump cuts in The Meddlers.
3.3 Peacock Pie
This is the main (only?) reason to investigate Ace of Wands. Hammond’s second of three stories for the third season is as close to a classic of its type you can imagine, and inventively directed by John Russell. The kitchen sink scale favours the budget, as the mild-mannered but power-of-suggestion-gifted Mr Peacock stages bank robberies and mental jousts with Tarot from the comfort of his own bedsit.
While it suffers from the problem of revealing the workings of the plot too soon, also seen in most other stories of the season, this is so eventful, insightful and well-staged that it scarcely matters. The armoured van heist early on, in which Russell cuts between the empty house the guards are taking the cash to and the bank where they think they are, is remarkably confident. No less so the various hallucinations the trio (and particularly Chas) succumb to at various points. These range from the mere spatial (Chas thinks he is in a white walled room, Tarot on a high ledge, when they are mere metres from each other in a front garden) to the rather creepy climax of the second episode, which alternates between “young” and old Mrs MacFadyean repeating “Cup of tea for you?” to a freaked out Chas. Dorothy Frere plays the older Mrs MacFadyean, Peacock’s landlady, with a winning air of confusion and concern.
Brian Wilde is outstanding as Mr Peacock, particularly to anyone who knows him only as Last of the Summer Wine’s Foggy. He comes across like Nicol Williamson’s Merlin by way of Alan Bennett (“Simple ways, simple tastes. That’s me”). It’s a lovely touch that really, he’s just lonely, isn’t in it for the money, and even goes off to recuperate on a CSO beach at the end. He’s still the most intimidating villain of the series, though. Witness his “I’m coming to get you“, in the first episode.
The victory over Peacock is a little on the simplistic side (and Tarot pulls something similar in the next story too, which doesn’t help), and one wonders about the rather un-PC “He’s a freak” comment regarding Peacock (the old school idea of witches as a uniformly bad bunch seem to be run with here). But, even if the regulars are never going to be top-drawer performers, some of the dialogue raises a smile. “He’s not an idiot” responds Mikki to the idea that Chas might go back to Peacock’s place. Which of course, he just did. If Michael MacKenzie didn’t just sound like Peter Egan but could also act as well as him, it would be a benefit. Also, I’m not surprised Mikki gets rather jealous over the manageress of the hotel where Tarot (finally!) stages a show; Valerie Ost is sublime as Steed’s one-time only sidekick in The Avengers episode Dead Man’s Treasure.
3.4 Mama Doc
In contrast, this story from Maggie Allen is quite awful. Pat Nye plays the title character, a mad old loon with a passing resemblance to Barry Humphries’ Les Patterson, who wandering about her playhouse in a tent talking to no one in particular about her lovely dolls. She also has the ability to make human dolls, so maybe this was inspired by Doctor Who’s The Celestial Toymaker. It’s certainly as tedious, and just goes on and on and on.
There’s a steady stream of strangeness in Mama Doc, but it’s all one-note grotesquery. Like an unwelcome trip inside the head of a loony. Unpleasant might be the best way to describe it, and repetitively so. I suppose you might call it unpleasant TV for youngsters’ but they might just see Mama Doc as another crazy old person. I found it closer in tone to something like that freaky Ted Post movie The Baby. Knowing Mark Gatiss likes Aces of Wands makes sense, since it’s evident Mama Doc could have been a strong influence on League of Gentlemen.
It’s very clear Tarot reads his Supernatural Encyclopaedia between stories so he can sound knowledgeable about some new subject he’s suddenly incredibly talented in that miraculously proves completely essential this week (“I’ve been experimenting with telekinesis. I’m sorry I alarmed you, Mikki”). Except he does bugger all for most of this one and proves painfully dim when it comes to working out what Mama Doc is up to. This is understandable during the first episode where Mama Doc is borderline incoherent, and not in a good way. It’s unfortunate too that trickery to defeat a lonely old person is exactly how Peacock Pie ended.
I was so unenthused by this one, I ended up passing the time wondering how many costume changes Tarot undergoes per episode. But even that didn’t really engage. This gets an extra half point for Wendy Hamilton, who effortlessly acts everyone else off the screen and actually makes the proceedings interesting when she’s in a scene. I love her “Oh, will I do?” in response to Holder’s request for a doll.
3.5 Sisters Deadly
Another from Victor Pemberton and, as with the last two stories, there’s an old bugger/bat/both up to no good in a two-up two-down. Although this one also has a cellar. It rather rubs it in your face that a series where there are generally no surprises plot-wise after half an episode should dress James Bree in a frock and expect us to believe he’s an old not-so dear. Kids were no doubt much more gullible/short-sighted in the ’70s.
The first episode is probably the weakest, a load of gubbins with an astrology clock and Holder being thoroughly Holder. The plot, such as it is, sees some elderly types attempting to get revenge over the end of the British Empire. Or something. It’s all a bit feeble and inconclusive.
Where it succeeds, making the second episode probably the best of this run outside of Peacock Pie, is that Holder is able to stop being Holder for a bit, hypnotised into thinking he is a British Army corporal. We get Tarot being quite clued-up and almost Doctor Who-ish as he tries to break Chas’ possession, interrogates Letty Edginton (Sylvia Coleridge, The Seeds of Doom’s Amelia Ducat), performs a succession of (quite deft) magic tricks and lies on a bed of nails. Holder is so much better as a squaddie and the final episode features a well-played scene where Tarot quizzes him on the major’s plan.
On the “action” front, the second episode, finds scary old biddies looming around Mikki’s car like very slow zimmer-framed velociraptors. There is also a glut of stock footage during the final episode’s war games sequence (much as there was for “Egypt” in The Power of Atep). But at least the OAPs getting the better of the army boys verges on Goodies-ish. This one isn’t really all that good, but it is much, much better than Mama Doc. Best exchange: Chas: Do I look like the sort of person who goes round stealing postal orders?” Mikki: Frankly, yes.
3.6: The Beautiful People
So, the final ever Ace of Wands (although not the final ever TV to feature Ace of Wands characters; see below). Hammond’s script isn’t bad as such, although the Episode Four reveal is triple-headed turkey, but it can in no way sustain the plot requirements of four episodes
Edward Hammon (Jay), Vivien Heilbron (Emm) and Susan Glanville (Dee) play a trio of Machiavellian post-Hippies who go around giving away freebie white goods to (mostly, it seems) OAPs. Their overt philanthropy is less than genuine, however, as they take enormous relish in the havoc caused when the booby-trapped devices go wrong. It’s a rather curious, unexplained scenario. Is this Hammond’s essential suspicion of Flower Power coming out (the generation that favours getting back to the Earth and rejects technology are revealed to be utterly dependent on it), just as Nigel Kneale would voice similar sentiments in The Quatermass Conclusion?
Notably, the dodgy types are as youthful as the villains of previous stories are aging. Was there an overt decision not to have any of the baddies approximate the ages of kids’ parents? But, since the makers have a thing about the elderly, did they want intend to freak out the kids over staying with gran and gramps? Why, particularly, is it OAPs who get the ropey gifts? Because their shocked incontinence in response would be more amusing? (The under-privileged are also beckoned to but I didn’t see many/any of them.)
The trio of “spoilt little darlings” (whom Chas refers to as “berks”) are clearly enjoying themselves being weird, and to be fair to them, their offbeat performances are quite effective; the problem is, they’re given the same lines on a loop for four episodes. Edward Hammond seems to be very on the cusp of the Bowie androgyny thing by way of public-school brat. He also bears a passing resemblance to Kenneth Williams, which works reasonably well. Susan Glanville appeared in such classics as Intimate Games, Sex Farm and The Sex Thief. She’s the one really getting into going to the hate side. Heilbron is full of amused, slight sauciness when playing opposite an unresponsive Tarot (who nevertheless shows a glimmering of libido in the first episode when Chas checks out the birds at the side of the road).
There was a point during Episode One where I wondered if Hammond wasn’t going to mess about with time. But no; it’s just Chas going up to play darts again. The writer does actually have a reveal for the last episode, a change from the formula. Unfortunately, it’s rubbish. And the “blow it up” solution, with no epilogue, might induce one to believe Tarot and co also died in the explosion.
Then, a number of the episodes have strange non-cliffhangers. The third just sort of stops, as if it was conceived as one long story (like the four-part version of The Five Doctors). On the other hand, the climax to Episode Two is sheer joy. A crazy mixer! A hopping-mad vacuum cleaner! Angry foam engulfing an old codger! Also, even where the visuals in this show are less than effective, the soundtrack is often quite good. The Beautiful People is replete with weird repetitive laughter, and music that sounds like a strangled goat.
Given that it’s his final appearance, Tarot comes on all tatty looking in the first couple of episodes, presumably because he’s out in the country and wants to blend in. So it’s a relief to see him back in suit and bow tie later. Maybe (unknowingly) ending the show on an explosion is a kind-of positive; after all, it worked for The Young Ones.
Shadows: Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes
This one-off from children’s anthology Shadows arrived three years after the last Ace of Wands, and picks up on Russell Hunter’s Mr Stabs, who appeared in the first Season 2 story Seven Serpents, Sulphur, and Salt. Stabs is accompanied by Luko again, this time with Kenneth Caswell replacing Ian Trigger.
Stabs, an immortal with powers stemming from his serpentine glove (I wonder if Chris Bailey saw this prior to writing Kinda) finds he is on the wane and so embarks on a quest to secure the Black Glove of Mendoza. He does so, but also manages to change his footwear. His new shoes just happened to belong to notorious gangster Dutch Schlitz and they have the power to possess Stabs with the spirit of the mobster. Comedy hijinks ensure, including the transformation of nobility into a toad and the reconstituted gangster himself.
This is nicely made; it looks much more impressive than any of the Ace of Wands episodes. And Hunter is very good, ably supported by Caswell. But it is also a bit of a one-joke premise, with Stabbs experiencing back-and-forth personality changes under the influence of the shoes (“Just a little present to myself from myself”). There’s a nice line in florid dialogue, but it’s very slight overall.
Dramarama: Mr Stabbs
Nearly another ten years, and another appearance on children’s TV from Preston’s Stabbs. This time David Jason takes over from Hunter and, if he isn’t a patch on the original, he’s reasonable. Where Mr Stabbs succeeds is with an engrossing, eventful script.
Stabbs is found at an earlier point in his personal history, called to engage in a contest to win the Black Glove of Melchisedek from a sorcerer of the same name with weakening powers. Because there’s a sense of mythos here, and a challenge to be met, the comic asides carry much more effectively. This is another advance stylistically too, well staged and atmospheric. There’s even a bookend of fourth wall breaking, always (well, usually) nice to see.
The cast is surprisingly strong; John Woodnut aged up as Melchisedek, Patrick Malahide, and David Rappaport as the latest incarnation of Luko. Rappaport is cast as a mistreated midget and is continually insulted while wearing a furry costume. I bet he was chuffed. This is really rather good, and as a footnote to Ace of Wands is more than acceptable.