The last little piece of Ace of Wands apocrypha is, no exaggeration, one of the strangest things I have ever watched. Dramarama was a 1980s anthology for younger viewers, full of one-off science fiction and supernatural stories, sort of the spiritual descendant of Shadows. It ran for seven years, and before I tell you about this weird thing, I’ll tell you why my heart sank a couple of weeks ago.
In 1986, a writer-director by the name of Peter Grimwade found himself no longer in the good graces of the producer of Doctor Who, where he’d been employed for about four years. He took out his frustrations with that producer in a Dramarama segment called “The Comeuppance of Captain Katt,” which is a zero-budget bore about the shenanigans surrounding a popular TV sci-fi show. I watched a bootleg of this a few weeks ago and thought it was the most tedious experience ever, and it didn’t bode well for what Dramarama could do with one last Mr. Stabs adventure, even with the character’s writer and producer, Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale, back in charge.
But there’s a new actor in the role of Mr. Stabs. Instead of Russell Hunter, this surprisingly features David Jason as the villain. By 1984, Jason was starring in two mammothly successful comedies, Open All Hours and Only Fools and Horses, and was the voice of both Danger Mouse and his occasional nemesis Count Duckula. I have a notion that David Jason really enjoyed children’s television, because he’s a pretty big catch for a pretty small show. American audiences might know Jason best as the star of the ’90s detective show A Touch of Frost. Weirdly, another “prestige 1990s detective,” Patrick Malahide from The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, which aired alongside Frost in the US on A&E, is also in this, along with Lorna Heilbron, David Rappaport, and John Woodnutt under some extremely good makeup. This is a prequel to the two Mr. Stabs adventures with Russell Hunter. It’s set in a magical world called the City of Shadows, with Mr. Stabs making his way to the land of “mere mortals.”
So what makes this so weird? Well, turn your mind back to the very early 1980s, before MTV was a concern, but when all these British bands were making cheapo music videos on tape. Not film, tape. If you don’t remember, open up YouTube in another tab and check out Duran Duran doing “Planet Earth” or Spandau Ballet doing “To Cut A Long Story Short” or Kate Bush doing anything from her first three albums, “Army Dreamers” will do. I’d recommend Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon,” but apparently Ozzy’s so embarrassed by that one that it’s been completely scrubbed from sight. “Bark at the Moon” isn’t actually a song I’ve thought about in more than thirty years, but I’m not kidding, this made me say “Holy crap, this is the ‘Bark at the Moon’ video, just twenty-five minutes long.”
It’s more than just the omnipresent candles, strange costumes, videotape, composite special effects, and black, black sets. This whole thing is staged like a video from that period. When Mr. Stabs and his nemesis, Lorna Heilbron’s character, enter a chamber to be judged by three men in dark red robes, I was honestly expecting them to settle their differences with a dance-off. Later, there’s a gigantic staircase behind a huge set of doors. The special effect didn’t allow for the camera to pan up it, which is just as well, because the only thing at the top would probably have been Gary Numan and a couple of synthesizers.
So no, this wasn’t particularly good, but our son did find it pretty amazingly creepy, and I think that if that was the program’s sole remit – to give seven year-olds a few mild shocks – then it probably succeeded. Would it have made a good show had it been considered as a series? I dunno. It would certainly have been an incredibly weird one. Then again, David Jason was probably far too busy in 1984-85 to have made any more of these. As a piece of apocrypha, it was an amusing half-hour… but I’d still have rather had another series of Ace of Wands!