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Dramarama 2.7 – Mr. Stabs

The last little piece of Ace of Wands apocrypha is, no exaggeration, one of the strangest things I have ever watched. Dramarama was a 1980s anthology for younger viewers, full of one-off science fiction and supernatural stories, sort of the spiritual descendant of Shadows. It ran for seven years, and before I tell you about this weird thing, I’ll tell you why my heart sank a couple of weeks ago.

In 1986, a writer-director by the name of Peter Grimwade found himself no longer in the good graces of the producer of Doctor Who, where he’d been employed for about four years. He took out his frustrations with that producer in a Dramarama segment called “The Comeuppance of Captain Katt,” which is a zero-budget bore about the shenanigans surrounding a popular TV sci-fi show. I watched a bootleg of this a few weeks ago and thought it was the most tedious experience ever, and it didn’t bode well for what Dramarama could do with one last Mr. Stabs adventure, even with the character’s writer and producer, Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale, back in charge.

But there’s a new actor in the role of Mr. Stabs. Instead of Russell Hunter, this surprisingly features David Jason as the villain. By 1984, Jason was starring in two mammothly successful comedies, Open All Hours and Only Fools and Horses, and was the voice of both Danger Mouse and his occasional nemesis Count Duckula. I have a notion that David Jason really enjoyed children’s television, because he’s a pretty big catch for a pretty small show. American audiences might know Jason best as the star of the ’90s detective show A Touch of Frost. Weirdly, another “prestige 1990s detective,” Patrick Malahide from The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, which aired alongside Frost in the US on A&E, is also in this, along with Lorna Heilbron, David Rappaport, and John Woodnutt under some extremely good makeup. This is a prequel to the two Mr. Stabs adventures with Russell Hunter. It’s set in a magical world called the City of Shadows, with Mr. Stabs making his way to the land of “mere mortals.”

So what makes this so weird? Well, turn your mind back to the very early 1980s, before MTV was a concern, but when all these British bands were making cheapo music videos on tape. Not film, tape. If you don’t remember, open up YouTube in another tab and check out Duran Duran doing “Planet Earth” or Spandau Ballet doing “To Cut A Long Story Short” or Kate Bush doing anything from her first three albums, “Army Dreamers” will do. I’d recommend Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon,” but apparently Ozzy’s so embarrassed by that one that it’s been completely scrubbed from sight. “Bark at the Moon” isn’t actually a song I’ve thought about in more than thirty years, but I’m not kidding, this made me say “Holy crap, this is the ‘Bark at the Moon’ video, just twenty-five minutes long.”

It’s more than just the omnipresent candles, strange costumes, videotape, composite special effects, and black, black sets. This whole thing is staged like a video from that period. When Mr. Stabs and his nemesis, Lorna Heilbron’s character, enter a chamber to be judged by three men in dark red robes, I was honestly expecting them to settle their differences with a dance-off. Later, there’s a gigantic staircase behind a huge set of doors. The special effect didn’t allow for the camera to pan up it, which is just as well, because the only thing at the top would probably have been Gary Numan and a couple of synthesizers.

So no, this wasn’t particularly good, but our son did find it pretty amazingly creepy, and I think that if that was the program’s sole remit – to give seven year-olds a few mild shocks – then it probably succeeded. Would it have made a good show had it been considered as a series? I dunno. It would certainly have been an incredibly weird one. Then again, David Jason was probably far too busy in 1984-85 to have made any more of these. As a piece of apocrypha, it was an amusing half-hour… but I’d still have rather had another series of Ace of Wands!

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Shadows 1.6 – Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes

Before we take a summer vacation here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, an odd curiosity. Three years after Ace of Wands was unceremoniously cancelled by Thames, the show’s creator Trevor Preston brought back one of the villains for a one-off case. Russell Hunter had starred as the evil magician Mr. Stabs in a 1971 storyline, and he reprised his role in this oddball little adventure called “Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes.” (Say it aloud. It’s as ridiculous as those albums by the 6ths, Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles.)

Shadows was a low-budget anthology of supernatural-themed stories for younger viewers. The first series, made in 1975, was produced by Pamela Lonsdale, who had worked on Ace of Wands and a few other programs for families, like the 1967 Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the long-running Rainbow. I’m not surprised that she’d have phoned Trevor Preston looking for a contribution, since they’d worked together at least twice before.

I was surprised, however, that this was a lot more humorous than I was expecting. There’s more slapstick and oddball plot twists than Ace of Wands displayed in the stories we could see. Mr. Stabs and his servant have fallen on hard times and his magical hand is losing its power. He can get a recharge from a magical glove in an old country house museum, but he gets greedy and also pilfers the shoes that belonged to a mobster from the 1920s. Except the mobster isn’t as dead and buried as everybody thinks he is…

You have to grade on a curve, because this wasn’t intended for overly critical grownups. The story’s honestly not bad, but the no-budget production really was a distraction for me. There isn’t any incidental music in it, and when actors are going for physical humor, there needs to be some kind of ooomph. Imagine an episode of another 1975 videotape series, The Ghost Busters, without either music or a laugh track. That’s precisely what this feels like. John Abineri shows up as a police inspector who can’t get his witnesses to agree whether the villain they’re looking for is called Stabs or Schlitz. You can feel the actors going for gags, although not particularly good ones, and the soundtrack just doesn’t punctuate what they’re trying to do.

In short, it was very nice to finally meet this lost TV villain, and of course it’s always nice to see Russell Hunter in anything, but I wondered whether I might be tempted to order some more episodes of Shadows to sample. Not on the strength of this, I’m afraid! But we’ll see Mr. Stabs one more time, a few weeks down the road…

Stay tuned, friends and fans! We’ll be back next Monday!

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RIP Trevor Preston, 1938-2018

It was announced today that writer Trevor Preston passed away last month. He’s best known for his work on crime series, both ongoing programs like the seminal The Sweeney as well as one-off films, television plays, and serials like 1978’s Out. Most of Preston’s work was outside the scope of this blog, but he did have one fantastic credit to his name. He created Ace of Wands, which we really enjoyed watching last year.

Sadly, none of the Ace of Wands episodes that Preston himself wrote still exist. He also wrote a 1967 adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that is mostly missing, as well as a Freewheelers four-parter for Southern in 1968 which has never been released on home video. So there’s a lot that we’d like to watch together, but can’t!

I’ve been saving two of his other works for a rainy day, though. One of the missing Ace of Wands stories featured a villain called Mr. Stabs. Preston really enjoyed the character and brought him back as the protagonist in two TV plays in 1975 and 1984. They’re included as bonus features on Network’s Wands DVD set. We’ll have to check those out sometime. And as always, our condolences to Preston’s family and friends.

Photo credit: The Guardian.

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