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Ace of Wands: Mama Doc (part one)

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.

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Ace of Wands: Peacock Pie (parts two and three)

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.

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Ace of Wands: Peacock Pie (part one)

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.

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Ace of Wands: The Power of Atep (part four)

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.

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Ace of Wands: The Power of Atep (part three)

We’ll pause for a moment from the mysteries of Egypt to mention another mystery. Was Ace of Wands ever shown in America, and, if so, which episodes?

This is going to read a bit like “A guy I met swears somebody claimed to have a missing Doctor Who episode,” or “Don’t I recall a bit in the Book of Ezekiel where the wheel landed on a primitive Nazca line,” because I can’t quite prove this, but here goes. TV stations used to get an annual copy of this book, and I can’t even tell you the proper name of it. I always called it “The Syndie Bible,” a big catalog of series, serials, and movies that stations could purchase, and who to contact. I found a few of these in the UGA Library in the early nineties when I was researching a proposed book I was co-writing, an encyclopedia of American TV sci-fi and fantasy. Then the internet happened and the book became surplus to requirements, as you might say.

In the book, I found a listing for a package of Ace of Wands being offered to American stations in the 1970s and 1980s by a company called D.L. Taffner. I did a little rudimentary hunting and that seems to make sense. Taffner, an American producer, did a lot of work with packaging Thames TV series for the US. His biggest success was with the various Benny Hill shows and specials, but Taffner later started following in Norman Lear’s footsteps and remaking Thames sitcoms into popular American shows: A Man About the House / George and Mildred into Three’s Company / The Ropers, and Keep it in the Family into Too Close For Comfort. In 1987, Taffner financed a pilot for a revival of The Saint that CBS didn’t pick up.

But if any public broadcasting stations – for it was most likely PBS – did show any Ace of Wands in America, which episodes did they show? The package was 13 episodes, but the existing series three is 20 episodes, comprising six stories. So, was this a package of four of the six existing stories, or, more tantalizingly, might this have been the first season, which could have been more likely? Did Taffner have thirteen episodes of the show long after Thames wiped their copies?

Stranger things have happened. In 1973, the BBC made a glacially-paced space drama called Moonbase 3 that nobody watched and wiped their copies a few years later. 20th Century Fox had co-produced the show, thinking that it might run on ABC, and held onto their set. In the early nineties, the Sci-Fi Channel launched, desperate for programming, and bought the show from Fox, surprising all the “telefantasy” fans in the UK who thought that the series was gone forever. I wonder whether the same thing might have happened with Ace of Wands, or whether the package was just 13 of the surviving 20 episodes.

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Ace of Wands: The Power of Atep (part two)

I only have time for a short post today. This is such a great little story. It’s so amazingly 1972 with its depiction of psychic powers and seances. I’ve read about an American supernatural drama called The Sixth Sense that starred Gary Collins and aired that year, and this seems incredibly similar to everything I know of that show, with mediums and spiritualists and ancient powers from thousand year-old priests taken as common and as basic as plumbers and real estate agents. There was definitely something in the air in the early seventies.

Our son pronounced this as being “bad scary,” and he spent the half hour curled up beside Mom, worried and wide-eyed about the possibility of dangerous energy from “the other side.” Great stuff.

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Ace of Wands: The Power of Atep (part one)

Our son reminded us that this was not his first go-round with mummies – he’s seen them as “beasts of the week” in both The Ghost Busters and Monster Squad – but this is his first time dealing with one that isn’t played for laughs, in a proper tomb-of-the-pharaohs, supernatural-horror-from-the-grave sort of way. You add this imagery to the seventies’ interest in psychic powers and seances, and you’ve got something guaranteed to give a six year-old a good little scare.

“The Power of Atep” is written by Victor Pemberton, and it certainly got some inspiration from Hammer’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, released the previous year. This doesn’t have a fellow in bandages shuffling around, it has eerie voices and powers that can possess good people.

Returning to action in this episode, it’s Donald Layne-Smith as Tarot’s friend Mr. Sweet, an antiquarian bookseller who now works with a university in London. He’d appeared in at least five of the earlier, lost episodes. And this time, we get a flashback to one of Tarot’s stage acts. He had a partner on stage called Quabal, and we don’t actually see him. I don’t think our son caught that detail.

This is so much better than “The Meddlers.” It’s a more confident script with a genuine supernatural threat, and it’s far better directed. If I recall correctly, the production will disappoint a little in the next installments, but so far this is off to a fine start.

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Ace of Wands: The Meddlers (part three)

You have to accept a certain amount of fumble in stagy British videotape drama from the early seventies. Still, the surprise appearance of both a whacking huge microphone and, in a later scene, one of the cameras really is amazing. I think that Ace of Wands was made in much the same way that Doctor Who was in the seventies, with the director working from a control booth and cutting from camera to camera. Did he just not notice these intrusions? Was the budget so tight that they couldn’t afford retakes?

I’m certain there’s another accident that happens in the climax, when Tarot reveals all and lets everybody know that the treasure everybody’s looking for – the reason villains are trying to get the people who work the market to clear out – is not a chest full of thousands of pounds, but a chest full of hundred year-old IOUs. The stagehands above the set tipped a cascade of dust and dirt between the cameras and the actors, and Michael Mackenzie got some in his eyes. He delivers his lines flawlessly while simultaneously blinking furiously. I bet that was amazingly uncomfortable!

I didn’t actually ask our son what he thought of this story. I didn’t need to. He waited patiently but wasn’t at all engaged or excited. I’m amazed that they did something so down-to-earth and ordinary to launch a new season and new cast. The other five stories have their share of troubles from tight budgets, but none of them are so darn mundane. On the other hand, he corrected his mother, reminding her that the name of this series is Ace of Wands and not The Tarot Show as she called it, so he’s paying attention!

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