Ace of Wands: The Beautiful People (part one)

The final Ace of Wands story is another one written by the great P.J. Hammond. It concerns three very odd, and apparently very wealthy hippies. They travel the country running small fêtes for poor pensioners, making sure each of their exclusively-selected guests leaves the event with an expensive household electronic gadget – top-of-the-line toasters, hand mixers and the like – and don’t allow publicity or curious people like our heroes in.

Interestingly, the narrative of this episode is entirely driven by Mikki’s selfish curiosity. Tarot keeps telling her that these hippies aren’t doing anything illegal and are within their rights to have private events, but they gatecrash anyway, leading to a forced-polite introduction and explanation. Even more interestingly, the hippies’ sinister and weird behavior only finds a sharp edge at the end of the episode, when they begin discussing the fun they’ll have with the “jokes” that the gadgets contain. At the cliffhanger, the clock that they gifted Mikki ignites, filling the car with gas.

Our son watched with a raised eyebrow. “Why are they so weird?” he asked, recognizing that whatever was going on, something just didn’t click. The hippies, played by Edward Hammond, Vivien Heilbron, and Susan Glanville as the bad-tempered and impatient Dee, are absurdly attractive, but also strange enough to keep everybody guessing what in the world is going on.

About which, many years ago, some jerk decided to spoil the hippies’ identity and plan, when it’s not clarified until the very end of episode four, and it made it into all the writing anybody’s done on the story. The very first time I’d heard of Ace of Wands, it was in the pages of Roger Fulton’s excellent Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, which gave away the ending. I’m enjoying watching it with my son, who hasn’t had the mystery ruined. More on this when we reach the finale.

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The Twilight Zone 1.4 – The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine

One thing I hadn’t figured on when watching The Twilight Zone with a six year-old: sometimes Rod Serling’s purple narration is going to go straight over his head. As a case in point, here’s a tale of a fifty-something retired actress, Barbara Jean Trenton, played by the great Ida Lupino. As the episode begins, we see Trenton watching an old romantic film in which she had starred twenty-five years earlier. And Serling says:

“Picture of a woman looking at a picture. Movie great of another time, once-brilliant star in a firmament no longer a part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.”

In other words, we’re in Sunset Boulevard territory, and needed to pause the episode to explain what in the world that meant to our kid.

Lupino is just terrific as the unhappy and unpleasant Trenton, with Martin Balsam suffering stoically as her agent and friend. Unlike the twist in the previous episode that we watched, this one’s sharp turn into the supernatural won’t be such a surprise to grownups, but for kids, it really is a fun one. It’s helped along by Alice Frost, as Trenton’s maid, letting out a completely fabulous scream of horror when she sees what has happened.

When the twist is revealed, our son, wide-eyed, said “That is really scary and mysterious!” Good; he’ll be all ready for Sapphire & Steel in a few years, where such a turn wouldn’t be out of place. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see David McCallum show up to confiscate Trenton’s copy of the old movie. It’s that good.

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Ace of Wands: Sisters Deadly (part three)

The theme of “things were better when we had an Empire” fuels quite a lot of British drama in the sixties and seventies. We’re going to see this several times in The Avengers, and we’ll certainly see it in a serial in the next batch of Doctor Who that we’ll watch called “The Mutants.” In this Ace of Wands adventure, the nuts and bolts of The Major’s plan are left deliberately vague. He plans to kidnap a general, hypnotize him, hold him for ransom, and yadda yadda yadda, the British military will be wearing red colonial uniforms again. There’s so much of this going on in the television drama of the period that it seems that writers were tapping into a sense of resentment and regret.

Of course, Ace of Wands is a children’s adventure series and it doesn’t linger on politics, and so the Major’s powers and plans are nebulous; this is all about the creepiness. It’s a very effective serial for its limitations, one of the better stories to have survived Thames’ wiping of the show.

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At the Earth’s Core (1976)

Well, if we’re miles beneath the surface fighting ten-foot tall telepathic pterodactyls, we must be in an Edgar Rice Burroughs story. After the big success of The Land That Time Forgot, Amicus hired actor Doug McClure to come back to London to make another Burroughs adaptation. At the Earth’s Core was first published in 1914 and was the first in a series of seven novels about Pellucidar, a gigantic land inside the hollow earth. These were hugely influential in their day, and in a very early example of crossovers in fiction, Burroughs’ most famous character, Tarzan, had an adventure in Pellucidar.

Amicus lacked the resources to make a lavish and wild adaptation of the novel, only a cramped and low-budget experience in what’s plainly a stage at Pinewood Studios. But for the kids in the audience, this is equally horrifying and thrilling. In an odd coincidence, our son was asking me about Godzilla earlier this week, and I told him that I didn’t think he’s quite ready for that kind of monster movie yet. He assured me I was wrong and that he was brave enough for Godzilla, and then the prehistoric monsters in this thing had him wide-eyed, hiding, and ready to give up.

It is kind of a shame that the villainous Mahars are such B-movie simpletons, with basic motivations and tame nastiness. The film is kind of hampered by the problem of not having any villains who speak English, but the Mahars don’t do anything that any other baddie in any other movie ever does. At one point, Doug McClure’s local tribal buddy is tied to a rock and he’s given a spear to defend his pal from a monster for the pleasure and amusement of his captors like a fight before the emperor in a coliseum. I kept waiting for the white Mahar to give a thumbs down.

I tease, but this is really an entertaining monster movie. Doug McClure is superhumanly macho, Caroline Munro is gorgeous, and Peter Cushing is amusingly absent-minded and daffy, and the monsters are all ridiculous and rubbery, but just realistic enough to shock and amaze elementary school kids. There are desperate fights, a fire-breathing dragon, twisty mountain labyrinths, quicksand, and hot lava. Amicus wanted to make a movie for boys under the age of ten, and I can’t think of a thing they skipped. They even kept the smoochy stuff to a minimum.

I don’t have much to add to that. It’s true that nothing here really stands out as worth watching for grownups in the way that you could watch The Black Hole just for the set design and music, but this isn’t a movie for grownups. It’s a movie for kids in that great time before they start scoffing at fake blood and firework explosions. If you’ve got a kid that age in your home, you really need to watch this ridiculous, lovely movie with them.

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Ace of Wands: Sisters Deadly (parts one and two)

Victor Pemberton, who passed away earlier this week, penned another fabulously fun Ace of Wands adventure in 1972. This one’s full of creepy old ladies who really have unnerved our son, and one of them is apparently a hundred years old. That claim contradicts what the village postmaster tells Tarot. He says that old Matilda died a couple of years ago…

Whether a ghost or an impostor, Matilda seems to be in a co-hypnotizing act with a mysterious major, and, to test their powers, they hypnotize Chas into stealing £20 in money orders from the village post office. This makes the front page of the newspaper. Even allowing that £20 in 1972 is worth £184.50 today, that really must have been a slow news day.

Sylvia Coleridge, who was omnipresent in the sixties and seventies in the roles of daffy old ladies, plays Matilda’s sister Letty Edgington. As for Matilda, I fear the question is kind of instantly settled by the obviousness of the actor playing her. He might can fool a six year-old, but that’s clearly James Bree dragged up as Matilda, and even though he tries to give her an old lady voice, any time James Bree speaks in any role, all that I can hear is Doctor Who‘s Security Chief sneering “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!

I tease, but this is a really good story, paced extremely well and dripping with menace and malice. We’ll have to wait a couple of days for the resolution, unfortunately, but I remember it being a good one.

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The Avengers 4.2 – The Gravediggers

This morning, I enjoyed explaining to our son that The Avengers features quite a few very eccentric old fellows with very odd hobbies. I also enjoyed explaining what the word eccentric meant; he’d never heard it before. The Avengers is set in a world where dozens of old military men and industrialists trapped in the memory of a glorious past of Empire have retired with buckets of money to indulge their peculiar whims. Often, they’re either exploited or killed by the villains-of-the-week, who frequently use the cover of the eccentrics’ hobby to hide in plain sight.

So this week, we meet Sir Horace Winslip, the first of the eccentric old oddballs in the film series. He’s played by Ronald Fraser and he’s obsessed with old railway lines and hates motor cars. He lives in a railway-themed house with an imitation dining car with sound effects and scrolling scenery, and has his own private mini-train, which our son adored almost as much as Patrick Macnee, who got to ride it. He’s been manipulated by the baddies into funding a jamming system. But Sir Horace thinks its meant to jam the engines of automobiles, when it’s actually jamming early-warning radar installations, just like in “The Deadly Missiles,” an episode of The Bionic Woman that we watched last month.

This episode was written by Malcolm Hulke and it features Wanda Ventham in a small role. It memorably climaxes with Mrs. Peel tied to the lines of the miniature railway with old-fashioned player piano music like an old “Perils of Pauline” chapter. This really did frighten our son a little, but the very fun fight between Steed and a couple of hoodlums on the runaway train kept him riveted. I told him that they used to have a mini-train like that at Zoo Atlanta that I enjoyed riding. Sadly, they replaced it with a boring old full-size train ten or more years ago.

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The Twilight Zone 1.3 – Mr. Denton on Doomsday

As with last night’s viewing, you might make the argument that six years old is also a little too young to catch the nuances and subtleties in The Twilight Zone, but I think our son is mature enough. I think that there are some very important moral lessons to be found among the frights and the fun. I was in middle school when I read the screenplay to “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” and it made a lifelong and positive impact on me. I don’t think six years old is too young at all to be taught the lessons of that important story.

My brother-in-law gifted me with the “Complete, Definitive Collection” edition two Christmases ago. The set is downright amazing, with beautifully restored prints that include many of the sponsors’ messages and “stay tuned for The Danny Thomas Show” spots that were all chopped out for syndication. So I sat down with an episode guide and selected about fifty episodes that we’ll watch for the blog, including old favorites like “Maple Street” and “The Invaders” along with many that I didn’t know but which have some great old guest stars. “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” is one of these. It features Martin Landau and Doug McClure in supporting roles. McClure doesn’t have a great chance to shine, but Landau is brilliantly unhinged and believably dangerous.

But the episode belongs to Dan Duryea, who plays the town drunk, a former gunslinger who grew to hate his life, and Malcolm Atterbury, in the role of a traveling salesman called Henry J. Fate. The name’s a bit on the nose there, but I like how Rod Serling, who wrote this installment, anticipated the way that audiences would be looking for a twist and, gently, subverted it just a little bit. It’s a story about how guns probably aren’t the answer and, as our son will hear when he meets Yoda next month, “wars never made anyone great.”

No, the way the world’s been acting lately, six isn’t too young to hear this.

Anyway, I’ve picked fourteen episodes from the first season of The Twilight Zone and we’re going to watch them in two batches over the next three months. I won’t claim that this first episode was a big thrill – he hasn’t seen much in the way of westerns, and so the world presented in this installment was quite removed from his experience and took a little getting used to – but he enjoyed it, and so did I.

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The Avengers 4.1 – The Town of No Return

You might make a fair case that six is a little young to start watching the adventures of John Steed, top professional, and Mrs. Emma Peel, talented amateur. On the other hand, there are a hundred-odd episodes of this show to see, and I want to watch them again, along with my boy.

You might also make a fair case that we could have not only waited a little, but also started with the earlier, less well-known episodes, instead of going with the ones that Americans know best. That’s fair. Generally, I don’t enjoy the second and third seasons quite as much, despite some great moments. My favorite episode of the entire show is a Tara King one, but my second favorite is “Brief For Murder,” from season three. But we have so many things to watch and so little time, and so I passed on picking up the first two sets from Studiocanal / Optimum last year. I think I made the right choice; as soon as I got the sets of the film series from Amazon UK, one of the many missing installments of the first series, “Tunnel of Fear,” was found. Maybe when I have a little more disposable cash, and somebody issues “Tunnel” on a new box set, I’ll buy that edition!

Anyway, The Avengers was made by the Associated British Corporation, one of the many different commercial television companies in the UK. ABC broadcast in one of Britain’s TV regions from 1956-68 before merging with Associated Rediffusion and becoming Thames TV. Many of these companies were looking for international sales and ABC approached the American networks with The Avengers, which was made, as most British TV programs were at the time, as a mix of videotape interiors and black-and-white 16mm film exteriors. They got some positive interest, but were also told that they really needed to make the program entirely on 35mm film if anybody in America was going to buy it.

Every TV company in Britain was told this. Very, very few listened. Associated British, in one of the greatest television decisions of the decade, decided to go all-in. They were in the process of recasting and rethinking anyway, as Honor Blackman, who played Steed’s principal co-star Cathy Gale – there were three others as well – had left the series, and they needed a new actress with M-Appeal, somebody who looked stunning in black leather fighting evil henchmen twice her size. Elizabeth Shepherd originally won the role of Emma Peel, but after several weeks of filming, having completed “The Town of No Return” and most of a second episode, the producers agreed that she was not right for the role after all. Diana Rigg became the new Emma Peel, and she was rushed in for retakes of the second episode. “Town” was left abandoned for several months, remounted midway through the block of 26 stories, and chosen to launch The Avengers‘ fourth season, in September 1965.

I should pause here and note that The Avengers has one of the most confusing and remarkable production histories of any TV drama from its era. The current school of thought is that the correct order for the series should be the original production order, as the various British TV broadcasters showed the series in different orders, on different days of the week, and the American order was different still. But this is my silly blog and we’re going to watch them in the order that I got to know them, which is the broadcast order… until we get to the arrival of Tara King and things got real weird, anyway.

And yes, there is an American order! It doesn’t matter all that much for now, because the black-and-white Avengers was made for British television and sold to the ABC network later, but its sale is super-important. The Avengers was not quite an all-conquering ratings giant like we’d like to imagine it was, but ABC bought it as a midseason replacement for the medical series Ben Casey, which was cancelled after five years. ABC also picked up ITC’s The Baron as a replacement for Burke’s Law at the same time, so in 1965 there was definitely some financial interest in looking overseas for programming that was less expensive than making new shows in Hollywood.

This seems to have been started by CBS, who jumped on the sixties spy bandwagon by purchasing ITC’s Danger Man and giving it the new name of Secret Agent, and would continue here and there for the next six years or so, with The Saint, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), The Champions, The Persuaders! and other British dramas all showing up in the prime-time schedules, usually programmed against something that was going to win the night no matter its competition, but The Avengers lasted longer on American television than any of the others. US broadcasts began with the third episode of season four, “The Cybernauts,” on March 28 1966. “The Town of No Return” didn’t screen here until September; it was the last of 22 episodes (four weren’t shown), while the first of 26 in the UK.

I’ve written a lot and didn’t leave myself much time to talk about the episode. Our son, happily, enjoyed it, especially the fight scenes. I paused with each commercial break to ask him a few questions to keep him focused. Where did he think all of the people are? Why are the village schoolchildren all on vacation in the middle of the year? This wasn’t a very complicated story, and a good one to start on. It has a pretty small cast of very recognizable faces, including Patrick Newell (later to play a regular character in this show), Juliet Harmer (who would soon play the sidekick in Adam Adamant Lives!), Alan MacNaughtan (The Sandbaggers), and Terence Alexander (a regular guest star face in darn near every British show from the period). The director was Roy Ward Baker, and the story was written by Brian Clemens, who we’ll hear a lot about as this blog goes on. But a thousand words is plenty for now. We’ll see another episode next week.

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