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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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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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