Ace of Wands (1970-1972) is one of those weird cultural artefacts which it’s difficult to imagine emerging at any other time. At the dawn of the 1970s and the burgeoning New Age movement, detective, psychic powers were sufficiently in the mainstream consciousness that it wasn’t unusual to find a detective show featuring a legitimate psychic, or a science fiction show treating them as a legitimate scientific phenomenon. Ace of Wands, a children’s adventure serial featuring a psychic stage magician which went to the effort of employing real stage magician Ali Bongo (William Wallace) as magic advisor for verisimilitude, is an entertaining early example.
Ace of Wands follows the adventures of Tarot (Michael McKenzie), groovy 1970s stage magician, who (judging from evidence in the series) generally recruits his lovely female assistants through random encounters on the street which lead him to recognise their untapped psychic potential. Thankfully this potentially sleazy setup isn’t as bad as it sounds, as in this world it’s not just a pickup line – he is genuinely able to establish a telepathic rapport with certain individuals, and the advantages to a stage magic act are obvious. He also employs the aid of a male assistant who does the hands-on work of inventing and building props or gadgets for use in the act. But more crucially for the TV series, he also drives around in sports cars with his friends, solving crimes and defeating evil geniuses with equally unlikely names.
Ace of Wands was created by Trevor Preston, somebody I had always thought of as a writer of gritty crime TV, but who also has an extensive career in children’s TV. His second writing project was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1967), with later significant examples of his children’s work including The Tyrant King (1968) – an odd hybrid kid’s crime series which I should really write about some other time – and The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (1969). He entered the grimy world of domestic espionage with work on Callan (1969-1972) and produced notable work for crime series such as Special Branch (1969-1973), The Protectors (1973-1974), The Sweeney (1974-1978), Out (1978), Fox (1980), Minder (1984) and Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1989-1994).
In the first two seasons (1970-1971), which (like much TV of the era) were wiped and no longer exist in any known archives, Tarot teamed up with bored activist Lulli (Judy Loe) and no-longer-so-dodgy geezer Sam (Tony Selby – Sabalom Glitz in Doctor Who), with sporadic academic assistance from antiquarian bookshop owner Mr Sweet (Donald Layne-Smith). All that survives of the original eight stories are four sets of scripts (made available on the Network DVDs), some promotional and on-set photographs, their descriptions in the TV listings, and (I gather) some poor quality audio recordings made by people sitting in front of the television with a tape deck. During this era Tarot and his friends had run-ins with evil masterminds like Madame Midnight and her paralysis ray, a group of travelling entertainers making children go berserk, and a talking computer with a death trap involving giant chess pieces. This era sadly also includes the story most frequently identified by the cast, crew and viewers (of the time) as the best – Seven Serpents, Sulphur and Salt (1971), the only story in the entire series to involve a genuine supernatural threat, the evil Mr Stabs (Russell Hunter), who talks to his magic-wielding Hand and is hundreds of years old.
The surviving third season (1972) is a reboot of sorts – a new producer took over, the show’s creator didn’t contribute any scripts, and the two original sidekicks had moved on. (The promotional material rather unimaginatively stated that Lulli had married and Sam had set up his own business.) They were replaced by siblings, Mikki (Petra Markham) and Chas (Roy Holder). Mikki was a journalist with an interest in the supernatural and took the “telepathic assistant” slot. Chas was a sceptical photographer with a sideline in inventing all sorts of unreliable gadgets and (like Sam before him) generally ended up playing comic relief. Markham was fresh off appearing in 1970s crime classic Get Carter (1971). Holder’s recent career included Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) and The Virgin Soldiers (1969). Mr Sweet returns for a couple of brief appearances but disappears for the rest of the season – viewed in isolation from the previous seasons, his character sticks out as an unnecessary intrusion, and I expect the writers found the need to work him in to be too limiting.
The best stories of the season are unquestionably the three written by P.J. Hammond, creator of the brilliant fantasy/SF/horror series Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982) and the main reason I had long wanted to watch Ace of Wands. Hammond wrote season opener The Meddlers, effectively orchestrating the meeting of the three main characters as they become embroiled in separate investigations of a scheme to shut down the local market via a fake haunting and a group of street performer bullyboys led by Spoon (Michael Standing) in the pay of germophobe businessman Dove (Paul Dawkins) in search of a fabled treasure.
His next story (and possibly the best of the season) is the third, Peacock Pie, dealing with the decidedly ordinary middle-aged man Mr Peacock (Brian Wilde), a man of little ambition but of immense psychic talent. His encounter with Tarot presents the challenge in life which he had never previously felt, leading him to escalate the use of his talents and posing Tarot with the problem of shutting down somebody far more powerful. Wilde is perfect in the lead role and his character’s petty middle class British ambitions make him the most well realised character of the entire season.
Hammond’s final story is the season closer, The Beautiful People, a story about spoiled wealthy siblings who have never really grown up and see themselves as better than the rest of the world. The three siblings pose as benevolent hippies, running fairground attractions for the poor and elderly, who are given the opportunity to win the household electrical goods they could never afford. The siblings buy the goods at cost, but James (Edward Hammond) alters them to go catastrophically wrong so that they will hurt or even accidentally kill their users. Vivien Heilbron stands out as Emm, the most psychically talented of the three, who wants to steal Tarot’s abilities for herself.
Victor Pemberton (Doctor Who: Fury from the Deep) made a more mixed contribution with his stories. The Power of Atep was the second to air and was the more interesting of the two, depicting a confrontation between Tarot and one of his former assistants, Quabal, now calling himself John Pentacle (Sebastian Graham Jones). Jones captures the self-satisfied petulance of his character very well – a man who is unable to accept that he was never as talented as he thought he was, who deludes himself into believing he is really wielding ancient Egyptian magic, and who ends up causing his own defeat. Sisters Deadly (story five) is less satisfactory – a drastically misguided scheme by a disgraced military officer to hypnotise five old women and Chas into kidnapping a General, which is somehow supposed to assist in reestablishing the old days of British colonialism. Sylvia Coleridge (Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom) is typically delightful as Letty, and there’s a hilarious image of the other four women popping up from behind the bush, but the plot makes little sense and the farcical potential of the situation isn’t adequately exploited.
Maggie Allen, a script editor who writes the occasional script, is not shown off to best advantage by her story Mama Doc. Mama Doc (Pat Nye) is a strange old woman who runs a doll repair shop, owns a huge machine which allows her to exert electronic mind control over people fitted with a device, and kidnaps secret government scientists for tea parties. Although it may have made sense to the writer, it’s impossible to make sense of Mama Doc as a character or what she hopes to achieve from what’s depicted on screen. Wendy Hamilton is very diverting as odd supporting character Posy Peagram, but the story itself is probably the weakest of the bunch.
The weaknesses of that last story are related to the weaknesses of the series as a whole. Although the decision to keep Tarot’s backgrounds and abilities poorly defined are a deliberate choice to increase an air of mystery, the show’s attitude to magic is decidedly schizophrenic. Tarot frequently states unequivocally that certain things are categorically impossible, that magic doesn’t work, that people delude themselves about certain matters – but this is paired with a willingness to accept whatever expression of New Age interests piques the individuals writer’s fancy. It’s not at all clear what makes the psychic abilities of Tarot and others acceptable (apparently including astrology) while other beliefs are completely beyond the pale. Tarot is increasingly shown to be able to do various things which he claims are basic stage magician’s tricks but which just wouldn’t be possible, such as making distant objects appear and disappear. His abilities are such that Mr Stabs, the one villain shown to be a practitioner of genuine magic, believes Tarot to be an unknown member of his ancient order – and possibly we’re meant to believe this, even though the show itself argues against it.
Speaking of Mr Stabs, he was well-loved enough to receive two separate spin-offs in children’s anthology shows, both written by Trevor Preston and included on Network’s DVD set. Shadows: Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes (1975) provides an opportunity to see Russell Hunter in full melodramatic glory as Mr Stabs, making the absence of his original story all the more tragic. The tone of this story is more comic than Ace of Wands. Mr Stabs and his lacky Luko (Kenneth Caswell), weakened by their encounter with Tarot, break into the house of Sir Arthur Inchwood (Gordon Gostelow in fine form) to steal a magic glove and enhance his powers. Deciding to steal the shoes of a dead Chicago gangster while he’s there, he finds himself intermittently possessed by the spirit and robbing banks. While Sir Arthur goes to the police to complain about being turned into a frog, Stabs tries to get rid of the shoes and escape. It’s a very silly story but charmingly played and great fun.
The final stab at generating interest in a series for Mr Stabs came with Dramarama: Mr Stabs (1984). This time around, Preston dropped the humour and went for a sinister, soberly told story of a powergrab within the circle of Stabs’ red-robed black magic associates. It opens with Stabs and Luko tearing away the credits backdrop from within the TV screen and tapping on the glass, looking out at the viewers and threatening them with dire deeds, before moving on to the plot proper. It’s a chillingly sinister kid’s production, full of all the melodramatic trappings but taking itself deadly seriously. Patrick Malahide is particularly good as The Visitor, with just a tinge of Richard O’Brien’s Riff Raff to his vocal performance. David Rappaport (Time Bandits, The Young Ones) is an excellent recasting choice for Luko, more hairy familiar than lickspittle sidekick. Unfortunately, the people in charge of the production refused to bring back Russell Hunter to play Mr Stabs, claiming that he was too old, and replaced him with the drastically miscast David Jason (Danger Mouse, Only Fools and Horses) – a capable comic performer who tries his best to match the tone but drags it towards kid’s panto. The prospect of a full 13 episode Mr Stabs series in the mode of this tryout but starring the original actor is one of the great might-have-beens of children’s fantasy/horror TV.
I wouldn’t argue that Ace of Wands is one of the great underappreciated classics of television, but it’s a genuine snapshot of its era’s concerns and the costume designer took great care to showcase only the very latest in clothing (covering May to October 1972 in the surviving episodes). If you’re interested in British telefantasy of the 1970s, it’s worth a look.