Sapphire & Steel 1.5 and 1.6

If we’re totally honest, I’ve always thought that part five of this first story drags a bit. They had to make the ghost-pretending-to-be-Dad bit run for longer than the plot really needed in order to fill twenty-five minutes. But if you’re seven, and the idea of some thing pretending to be your father fills you with horror, it’s hard to watch in another way. It’s endless.

Our son contends that the spectral plague victim was the scariest thing about this serial, but the real shock came when the ghost-pretending-to-be-Mom turns around and her eyes are incredibly freaky. He leapt out of his skin. We assured him that it’s an old makeup trick, painting weird-looking eyes on the actress’s eyelids, and that brought him down to Earth a bit.

This was just phenomenally good overall. It’s creepy from start to finish, with just a few punctuations of wit and humor. I really loved the part where Lead keeps the trapped-in-time Rob occupied by singing “Drunken Sailor,” while Sapphire and Steel quietly discuss their next move. Steel is so focused that he has absolutely no idea there’s a rousing chorus going on right next to him. We never see Val Pringle’s Lead again after this story. But just like my fondness for Ochre and Magenta in Captain Scarlet, I guess that I have a soft spot for the very minor recurring characters!

Sapphire & Steel 1.3 and 1.4

So last night, after we watched the show and I’d written my customary yammer, I made the mistake of actually reminding our son of the nightmare we’d just watched, and then he had an awful time falling asleep. He was very, very worried about the corridor of time, and whether there were enough old books and things in his bedroom to serve as triggers for things outside time to reach in and take him. What makes it worse is that we have a two-story place, and he has the upstairs to himself. The intrusion in the first Sapphire & Steel serial takes place at the top of an old house…

Beautifully, episode four pauses for breath and a smile as Sapphire lets the children know that there are 127 beings like them, only twelve of them – “The Transuranics” – can, depending on who is telling the tale, either not be trusted or not be used where there is life. That leaves 115, and we only meet a couple of the others in the TV series. Val Pringle shows up as Lead, a huge man who likes home cooking. (Much later, Big Finish did three “seasons” of CD audio adventures and introduced Gold and Ruby as well.)

I love the way that Lead’s arrival brings things to a nice little bridge, where the characters can relax and so can the audience, charmed by the curiosity of Lead, who brings gossip from home, wherever that is, and mentions Jet, Copper, and Silver. But the chaos soon returns, leading to an unbelievably long cliffhanger. It’s about three solid minutes of doors opening and closing, howling winds, eerie noises, angry lights, and spectral figures as the beings locked in the room at the top of the stairs start flexing their muscles.

Our son was very, very freaked out and needed some extra hugs before bed tonight. He really didn’t like that door slamming open and closed!

Sapphire & Steel 1.1 and 1.2

“Maybe Mommy will read you a nursery rhyme tonight?”


Sapphire & Steel is one of my all-time favorite television series, and our son wasn’t even a day old when I told him that sometime when he’s seven, I was going to scare the bejezus out of him with this thing. People who saw this when they were kids will speak of it in hushed tones. Grownups kind of run hot or cold. The very slow, deliberate, lo-fi pace and presentation will either draw you in and keep you enraptured or it will drive you nuts waiting for something to happen. This isn’t a sci-fi action show. These are ghost stories that unfold very, very slowly.

The show was an insanely popular hit in its day for something so downright weird. The third and fourth stories – there are six – ran in a midweek 8 pm slot in most of Britain’s ITV regions, paired with – of all things – the sitcom George & Mildred. I’ve never seen that program, but I have seen some of its American remake, The Ropers, and can’t imagine a weirder pairing of shows on any network in this country! But people tuned into Sapphire & Steel because – and there might be a bit of fan myth here – most of the show’s budget went into its two very popular stars, David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, and audiences were willing to watch them in anything.

Sapphire and Steel are operatives who are called in when there is a major problem with time. Perhaps they are aliens, or perhaps they are angels. We’re never really told. Their enemies are the beings and forces that exist at the beginning and ending of time and which spend all of “the present” trying to break in and take things… take people from our existence. For some people I’ve met, the lack of a solid “sci-fi” explanation drives them bonkers. I always say it isn’t necessary to know. This is a show to watch and engage with, and a show to enjoy the thrill of either being scared or choosing to be scared out of your wits by it.

My older kids… holy anna, about fifteen years ago, we watched the first 30 episodes one a night right before bed, and they insisted on sleeping with me almost every single evening. The girlchild was in tears more often than not. It was so fun – I mean, so bad – that at any given moment for weeks if everything was quiet, I could whisper-sing “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” and she’d scream bloody murder at me to stop it.

Now that he knows that this rhyme can conjure up some scarred and raggedy plague victim, our son’s not all that happy about it either. He hid, he balled up, he asked whether we had to watch a second episode because that torn-up zombie man might be in it, and he called it “TOO creepy.”

And it is. It’s magical.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.