Tag Archives: p.j. hammond

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 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.

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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 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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Ace of Wands: The Meddlers (part two)

This serial continues with evidence coming down stronger on the side of this all being a Scooby Doo plot, with a rich developer called Mr. Dove – that guy in the high rise we saw last time – hiring the dirty musicians to mess with the barely-making-ends-meet people who run the market stalls. This has all been clearly designed from the appearance backward. The scruffy villains are threatening because they’re so peculiar. In a less far-out program, Mr. Dove would certainly hire some large men who look like they can break bones, instead of these weird, gangly, dirty street musicians, but they wouldn’t be weird, only worrying, and this is going for weird.

This story is a little interesting from an archaeological standpoint, I think. There’s a thread about the old stories of old buildings, things that have always been around, photographed throughout time, that resurfaces in a later P.J. Hammond script for Sapphire & Steel. And now that I think about it, Michael Standing’s character, Mr. Spoon, is a spiritual antecedent of Johnny Jack in the final S & S story as well.

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Ace of Wands: The Meddlers (part one)

Back in the seventies, Thames TV looked across town at the remarkable success that the BBC was having in deleting, trashing, and wiping their early color television shows and decided they needed to get in on that action. They even found a perfect candidate for a program that lots of people really loved and would miss if they threw it out. It was called Ace of Wands, a series created by Trevor Preston in which a stage magician with psychic powers – you remember when Uri Geller was actually a comic book character in the Marvel Universe? Kind of like that – matched wits with bizarre criminals in modern London. Tony Selby and Judy Loe played his sidekicks, and his villains included Russell Hunter, Christopher Benjamin, Isobel Black, and Hildegarde Neil. Thames destroyed all of the first two seasons, the vandals. They even dumped Tim Curry’s second credited TV part.

Fortunately, the third and final season of Ace of Wands was spared the ax. It aired from July through November in 1972. Michael MacKenzie was back as the adventurer Tarot, and in the first serial, “The Meddlers,” written by P.J. Hammond, he meets two new associates, Mikki and Chas, played by Petra Markham and Roy Holder. Michael Standing plays the leader of an unkempt street band who seem to malevolently hover over a failing urban market, where fires break out, goods are smashed, and vegetables rot before they should. Rumor has it that a man had been killed there a hundred years ago and placed a curse on the land. Or is there a more real world reason for all the unhappiness and violence?

I didn’t dare ask our son whether he enjoyed it. This is a very slow opener, with very little action, and what action we do see is pretty incompetently staged and edited. Nothing is very strange and certainly not scary, and the whole affair violates the “show, don’t tell” rule to absurd degrees. This episode doesn’t work well, but the engaging characters and realistic mood promise better things. Indeed, better and weirder is definitely to come.

In fact, the thing that generated the most enthusiasm was a strange decision by the set designer. There’s a high-rise towering over the market, and a shadowy man on the top floor keeps an eye on the stalls through binoculars. He has a desk, and he keeps a python in a birdcage, but he has no other furnishings. There’s so much empty space that our son suggested that he could play tag in the man’s office.

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