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Dramarama 2.7 – Mr. Stabs

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!

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Shadows 1.6 – Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes

Before we take a summer vacation here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, an odd curiosity. Three years after Ace of Wands was unceremoniously cancelled by Thames, the show’s creator Trevor Preston brought back one of the villains for a one-off case. Russell Hunter had starred as the evil magician Mr. Stabs in a 1971 storyline, and he reprised his role in this oddball little adventure called “Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes.” (Say it aloud. It’s as ridiculous as those albums by the 6ths, Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles.)

Shadows was a low-budget anthology of supernatural-themed stories for younger viewers. The first series, made in 1975, was produced by Pamela Lonsdale, who had worked on Ace of Wands and a few other programs for families, like the 1967 Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the long-running Rainbow. I’m not surprised that she’d have phoned Trevor Preston looking for a contribution, since they’d worked together at least twice before.

I was surprised, however, that this was a lot more humorous than I was expecting. There’s more slapstick and oddball plot twists than Ace of Wands displayed in the stories we could see. Mr. Stabs and his servant have fallen on hard times and his magical hand is losing its power. He can get a recharge from a magical glove in an old country house museum, but he gets greedy and also pilfers the shoes that belonged to a mobster from the 1920s. Except the mobster isn’t as dead and buried as everybody thinks he is…

You have to grade on a curve, because this wasn’t intended for overly critical grownups. The story’s honestly not bad, but the no-budget production really was a distraction for me. There isn’t any incidental music in it, and when actors are going for physical humor, there needs to be some kind of ooomph. Imagine an episode of another 1975 videotape series, The Ghost Busters, without either music or a laugh track. That’s precisely what this feels like. John Abineri shows up as a police inspector who can’t get his witnesses to agree whether the villain they’re looking for is called Stabs or Schlitz. You can feel the actors going for gags, although not particularly good ones, and the soundtrack just doesn’t punctuate what they’re trying to do.

In short, it was very nice to finally meet this lost TV villain, and of course it’s always nice to see Russell Hunter in anything, but I wondered whether I might be tempted to order some more episodes of Shadows to sample. Not on the strength of this, I’m afraid! But we’ll see Mr. Stabs one more time, a few weeks down the road…

Stay tuned, friends and fans! We’ll be back next Monday!

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RIP Trevor Preston, 1938-2018

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.

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Ace of Wands: The Beautiful People (part four)

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!

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Ace of Wands: The Beautiful People (part three)

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.

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Ace of Wands: The Beautiful People (part two)

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.

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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 fĂȘtes 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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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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