A quarter of a century ago, when I was young and had stars in my eyes and wanted to be a television writer, I daydreamed of making a very off-key and off-kilter cop show called Department of Murder. I spent a lot of time devising characters and plots, and one thing I definitely wanted to do was bring back these villains: the Business Efficiency Bureau, a trio of psychologists and experts who can be hired to literally eliminate the competition. They do so by identifying phobias and driving business rivals out of their minds.
About the only thing you can say against Philip Levene’s “The Fear Merchants,” which introduced the baddies for what would sadly be their only appearance – The Avengers was rarely a show for return engagements – is that it needs one more bit of oomph to make their villainy work. When they learn one target has agoraphobia, they just dump him in Wembley Stadium and that’s it, he’s incapacitated permanently. The episode needed a fear gas or a some sort of mental programming to really push people over the edge once the villains work their efficiency magic to make the episode both a little more believable and sinister.
Otherwise, it’s just so fun! Our son needed a little help following this one, and he had no idea why I collapsed in laughter over one of the all-time great sight gags, where the camera is following somebody dressed like Steed, until Steed and Mrs. Peel come around a corner and it starts following them instead. He also didn’t understand that the Business Efficiency Bureau changes its business from a monthly retainer into a monthly blackmail payment. In his defense, not only is he still very young, but Levene’s script is delightfully subtle about how the hired firm suddenly becomes the dominant partner. But he absolutely loved the great fight that Steed has with Garfield Morgan, who’d later play DCI Haskins, Regan’s boss in The Sweeney. They brawl in a pit with a bulldozer teetering on the edge above them!
In the cast, Patrick Cargill, who we saw in last season’s “The Murder Market,” is the main villain, and the wonderful Brian Wilde is the businessman who bought a lot more trouble than he bargained for. In smaller parts as Wilde’s rivals, there are the familiar-to-us faces of Edward Burnham, Bernard Horsfall, and Andrew Keir, who would star in Quatermass and the Pit later the same year. Sadly, Annette Carell, who was a frequent guest star in British adventure shows of the period, passed away about nine months after this was shown.
Catweazle is usually amusing and entertaining, but tonight’s episode was downright hilarious. My son and I laughed all the way through it, even if one terrific exchange was over his head.
The problems start when Catweazle attempts to send himself backward in time, but instead he’s sent sideways a few miles, ending up on the spire of a nearby village church. This leads to a delicious bit of comic misunderstanding with the vicar, who’s played by the wonderful Brian Wilde (Mr. Peacock in my favorite surviving Ace of Wands story). Catweazle thinks that he’s a sorcerer and the vicar thinks the disheveled old fellow is a suicidal Christian, and they have a wonderful conversation where they completely misunderstand each other but agree all the same!
Things get even more wonderful at the vicarage. Catweazle mentions the farm that he knows, and so the vicar rings them up on his “telling bone.” Catweazle doesn’t understand the technology, of course, and thinks that his host is talking to him at first, which had me in stitches, and then he hears the strange voice from the bone…
Things get even more ridiculous when Carrot has to rescue his friend without Sam, and Sam’s sleeping mother, finding out what he’s up to. The kid comes up with a pretty terrific plan, I have to say! I just loved this one. Even enjoying the others, it is by far the funniest adventure on the first disk of this set. I hope that they sustained this level of comedy through the rest of the series.
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.