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.
I think that if they’d edited the first two episodes of this story into a single half-hour, it would be a lot more watchable than it is. Our son says this is very creepy, but I can only barely see that myself. Mama Doc is certainly an eccentric and weird old lady, and we know she’s up to no good, but we don’t know what she wants or what her magical powers might be. There should be a tone of malevolence hanging over this story, but there’s nothing at all there, just a batty old lady who likes playing teatime with old ceramic dolls.
Worse still, the last episode’s cliffhanger of the one doll laughing is not really addressed at all. Nothing supernatural at all happens this time, until this episode’s cliffhanger, when Mr. Sweet saunters casually into Mama Doc’s toy shop and finds Mikki and the two missing professors immobilized and dressed like dolls. It’s a strange image, but we don’t know what it means, because we don’t know who Mama Doc is or why she’s wanted to kidnap these people.
All of this could have been handled with just one little scene in which Mama Doc actually talked about her plan and explained it to her henchman. I had written previously that Roger Fulton’s comparison to Batman wasn’t fair or accurate, but this story’s writer definitely could have improved this script by watching a few episodes to see how Batman‘s writers brought the audience into the narrative and gave them a criminal scheme to follow which they could understand. Surely this improves in the finale?
Some scheduling issues required me to shuffle things around a little and set aside the next Doctor Who story until next week, so we’ll pop back into the third series of Ace of Wands for a three-part story written by Maggie Allen. According to IMDB, her freelance writing credits were not very extensive. She worked more on the production side of television as a script editor for such programs as Mogul and The Omega Factor in the 1970s and 1980s.
This story certainly starts off very odd. Everything seems a bit off; there’s nothing magical or threatening, just a very creepy old lady called Mama Doc, played by Pat Nye, who seems to run a business repairing damaged toys and, for reasons unknown, has a henchman who dresses like a policeman and kidnaps people. Tarot and his friends, including Mr. Sweet again, are looking for a missing professor and the trail seems to lead to the old lady’s shop. But it’s all done without menace or a sense of importance or weight until the cliffhanger, when the henchman grabs another character in the shop and one of the toy dolls seems to start laughing about it.
The grown-up who writes this blog thinks that this story badly needed to introduce the concept of the living doll a whole heck of a lot earlier, but the kid that I’m watching it with found it pretty amazingly effective and about jumped out of his skin when the doll started cackling. It’ll probably be a while before he’ll be ready for those Annabelle movies, I guess.
We doubled up on episodes tonight and I enjoyed them again thoroughly. I’m glad that our son did as well, pronouncing this “pretty cool!” It’s easily his favorite of these three serials. Mine, too!
This is such a clever story. Brian Wilde is so good as the villain, a weird, creepy, lonely guy with psychic powers that he doesn’t understand and doesn’t really care to. He really doesn’t have the imagination to either improve the world or be a real criminal. He’s just a petulant, immature man without any friends, and there’s a slow reveal toward the end that explains why he’s had so little experience relating to other people.
Everybody making this story is just on fire. One of my questions for watching something old and dated by its production is “Did they do the best they could with the resources available?” Unquestionably. You can see the blue fringes around the chromakey, but you can also absolutely feel the imagination and enthusiasm by the actors and the special effects team in making this curious and odd story work. It’s a really entertaining piece of television.
We’ll leave Ace of Wands there for now and come back in a couple of months for the next ten episodes. Our son has requested to not wait as long for the next Doctor Who adventure, so we’ll start it next week instead.
I absolutely adore this story! It was the first Ace of Wands serial that I got in a VHS tape swap in the mid-nineties, and the show went from “this might be nice to see if I can ever find anybody with episodes” to “Who has this?! I must have more!!” immediately.
In it, an armored car leaves a large cash delivery at an abandoned house in a deserted street, and Mikki desires a holiday to a remote seashore that she would never normally visit. Tarot’s questioning leads him to a wild conclusion: the ordinary-looking man that Mikki met outside her bank is an amazingly powerful hypnotist. Mr. Peacock is played by Brian Wilde, who would go on to huge mainstream success with regular roles in the sitcoms Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine later in the seventies.
I learned of Ace of Wands through Roger Fulton’s seminal Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, which suggested the show’s offbeat villains were something like those from Batman. That’s a really poor comparison; Mr. Peacock, Quabal, and Mr. Spoon are far too quirky and strange to be limited like that. But what amazed me when I saw it was how this story by P.J. Hammond takes a very natural turn into becoming almost a pilot for a proto-Sapphire & Steel, and not even remotely like Batman. As Tarot tries to project the seashore image back to Mr. Peacock, it’s accompanied by haunting sound effects and camera tricks, building to the phenomenally creepy reveal of Mr. Peacock watching our heroes through his sitting room mirror, and gently sing-songing “I’m coming to get you,” like a child playing hide and seek. They could have restaged this scene precisely in 1978 with David McCallum and Joanna Lumley in the middle of that story about the railway station, with Wilde playing one of the ghosts.
Bringing this post back to Earth for a moment, one reason among many that Ace of Wands seems sloppy and amateurish even by 1972 standards is that none of the episode endings are actually shot like endings. Events happen until the credits roll. There’s no sense of style, no closeups, no crash of music, nothing visually dramatic at all. The story reaches its cliffhanger moment and suddenly there are closing credits. The episodes, in other words, have their endings edited into place rather than having endings actually filmed or taped. But the cliffhanger to this story’s first episode is so thunderously good that it surpasses the clumsy production. “That was crazy,” our son shouted. “Tarot thought he was on a high building when he was really standing on a rock!” And Chas, standing four feet away from him, was hypnotized into thinking he was trapped in a room with no doors. It’s such a wild and imaginative moment that the thrill completely overwhelms the limits of the production.
I love the early 1970s, when color separation / chromakey was the special effects solution to everything.
This is a good story despite some pretty disappointing issues with the script in the end. Fergus, the Egyptologist who discovered Atep’s tomb, was introduced in part three and does a sudden turn to treachery in part four that simply doesn’t make any sense when weighed against the scenes we have watched. The climax is even more baffling. Unless Quabal, Tarot’s former partner, has rigged up a sound system and wind machines to fake Atep’s ancient power, then Tarot can’t dismiss the reality that somehow this long-dead man still has some kind of power beyond the grave. Yes, Tarot’s belief in “today and tomorrow” is greater than power derived from the past, but this kind of power is still pretty darn amazing, and yet it peters out in a rushed nothing of a climax.
But it works for its audience; our son was captivated and worried by this story. It’s a terrific little horror story for kids, all day-glo glam early seventies videotape that’s just as effective as a big-budget feature film. Speaking of videotape, there’s a bizarre bit of location filming in these two episodes. Expecting what we all know about this kind of production, we weren’t surprised to see a mix of stock film footage of Egypt and 16mm film of our heroes riding around on donkeys in a quarry in Derbyshire or Lincolnshire or someplace. But then there’s also color videotape of some of the same action. I honestly can’t think of any other British TV production that I’ve seen where they went on location with two cameras, one film and one VT.
Well, Quabal and whatever-Atep’s-power-was are defeated in the end, somehow, and we talked about the message behind it. Don’t be obsessed with the past like Quabal was, kids. All this continent-spanning action was because Quabal wasn’t able to accept Tarot breaking up their stage act. When somebody dumps you, go do something different without them. Growing jealous over what you think should have been… that way lies misery.