It was announced today that writer Trevor Preston passed away last month. He’s best known for his work on crime series, both ongoing programs like the seminal The Sweeney as well as one-off films, television plays, and serials like 1978’s Out. Most of Preston’s work was outside the scope of this blog, but he did have one fantastic credit to his name. He created Ace of Wands, which we really enjoyed watching last year.
Sadly, none of the Ace of Wands episodes that Preston himself wrote still exist. He also wrote a 1967 adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that is mostly missing, as well as a Freewheelers four-parter for Southern in 1968 which has never been released on home video. So there’s a lot that we’d like to watch together, but can’t!
I’ve been saving two of his other works for a rainy day, though. One of the missing Ace of Wands stories featured a villain called Mr. Stabs. Preston really enjoyed the character and brought him back as the protagonist in two TV plays in 1975 and 1984. They’re included as bonus features on Network’s Wands DVD set. We’ll have to check those out sometime. And as always, our condolences to Preston’s family and friends.
Photo credit: The Guardian.
Ace of Wands ended its run with an episode that’s pretty frustrating for all the answers it doesn’t give. Roger Fulton, in The Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, had described this story as featuring a “bizarre alien plot,” but that’s not really accurate. Presumably, but not definitively, “Mama” and “Papa” are the two computers that the sleeping Jay, Emm, and Dee have plugged themselves into, and presumably their mansion is possibly a disguised alien ship, but we never learn what the plot actually is. Perhaps an alien presence or force decided to fill the three beautiful villains’ minds with knowledge and their bodies with augmented strength, but we never learn why.
But the real frustration is how badly structured the last half hour is. It ends with Chas destroying the two supercomputers, but it feels like there’s a scene missing after that. A long one. With explanations and/or a confrontation. This has been described as an unresolved cliffhanger, but did they really have those in 1972? Was “The Beautiful People” serial intended to have a fifth episode open the fourth series of Ace of Wands? That doesn’t seem very likely, does it?
What’s certainly true is that the cast and crew had expected to come back for a fourth series, and that’s why there isn’t a satisfactory end for the characters. Perhaps if they had known that this was the end, this half-hour could have been structured a little better, with less time spent with Chas planting the booby trap at the jumble sale, and less film footage of driving around several hours from Essex – good thing Tarot and friends filled the gas tank before they left! – so that at least we could get a final smile and walkoff for our heroes, if not a good resolution to this story.
Apparently the powers that be at Thames TV chose to pass on a fourth series of Ace of Wands in favor of a promising proposal from writer Roger Price for a show called The Tomorrow People. Those saps. As if there weren’t enough reasons to dislike that dopey program already, it deprived us of more stories from this much, much better series!
I’m really loving how our heroes still don’t know just how demented and mysterious their opponents are. Tarot has determined that Emm, the sister played by Vivien Heilbron, is potentially the weakest of the three, the weak link that they can exploit. But they don’t know that Emm is probably the most sadistic and dangerous one, and plots to steal the secrets of psychic powers from Tarot’s mind, whatever the cost to him, in order to watch people die as they bring down airliners from a distance.
This still doesn’t get us any closer to understand who the beautiful people are. “Who are these people?” I asked our son at the ad break. “Mean robots,” he said, confidently. “They’ve been programmed to be super mean!” Is he right? We’ll find out tomorrow when we watch the series’ final episode.
Part two of “The Beautiful People” ends with a magnificent cliffhanger. Our heroes still think that Jay, Emm, and Dee are just spoiled and depraved rich kids. They haven’t been privy to the weird dialogue hints that there is more to them than meets the eye. And so, in the late morning after they’ve closed their private festival, the hippies activate a strange gadget, and all the expensive household goods they’d given away go haywire. Desk fans explode, cuckoo clocks spit gas, hand mixers and vacuum cleaners attack their owners, and a washing machine belches enough bubbles to drown some poor lady.
Almost two years previously, the Doctor Who adventure “Terror of the Autons” had similarly seen inflatable chairs and telephone cords try to suffocate and strangle people, and Doomwatch had a story with a plastic-eating virus that melted airplanes. I think something must have been in the water in the early seventies for all these TV writers to find menace in consumer goods.
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.
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.
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.
I take that back. They could have edited all three episodes into a single half-hour and used the other two parts for a proper villain, and not a misunderstood and lonely old lady. That’s about the only way this would have been entertaining.
Well, there’s Tarot using a silver spoon to hypnotize the antagonist into not being naughty anymore. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before.