Tag Archives: victor pemberton

Ace of Wands: Sisters Deadly (part three)

The theme of “things were better when we had an Empire” fuels quite a lot of British drama in the sixties and seventies. We’re going to see this several times in The Avengers, and we’ll certainly see it in a serial in the next batch of Doctor Who that we’ll watch called “The Mutants.” In this Ace of Wands adventure, the nuts and bolts of The Major’s plan are left deliberately vague. He plans to kidnap a general, hypnotize him, hold him for ransom, and yadda yadda yadda, the British military will be wearing red colonial uniforms again. There’s so much of this going on in the television drama of the period that it seems that writers were tapping into a sense of resentment and regret.

Of course, Ace of Wands is a children’s adventure series and it doesn’t linger on politics, and so the Major’s powers and plans are nebulous; this is all about the creepiness. It’s a very effective serial for its limitations, one of the better stories to have survived Thames’ wiping of the show.

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Ace of Wands: Sisters Deadly (parts one and two)

Victor Pemberton, who passed away earlier this week, penned another fabulously fun Ace of Wands adventure in 1972. This one’s full of creepy old ladies who really have unnerved our son, and one of them is apparently a hundred years old. That claim contradicts what the village postmaster tells Tarot. He says that old Matilda died a couple of years ago…

Whether a ghost or an impostor, Matilda seems to be in a co-hypnotizing act with a mysterious major, and, to test their powers, they hypnotize Chas into stealing £20 in money orders from the village post office. This makes the front page of the newspaper. Even allowing that £20 in 1972 is worth £184.50 today, that really must have been a slow news day.

Sylvia Coleridge, who was omnipresent in the sixties and seventies in the roles of daffy old ladies, plays Matilda’s sister Letty Edgington. As for Matilda, I fear the question is kind of instantly settled by the obviousness of the actor playing her. He might can fool a six year-old, but that’s clearly James Bree dragged up as Matilda, and even though he tries to give her an old lady voice, any time James Bree speaks in any role, all that I can hear is Doctor Who‘s Security Chief sneering “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!

I tease, but this is a really good story, paced extremely well and dripping with menace and malice. We’ll have to wait a couple of days for the resolution, unfortunately, but I remember it being a good one.

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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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