Ace of Wands (1970 - 1972)

A dramatic and popular children's television series that was surprisingly daring and holds up well today. Network UK R2 DVD release.

The Series

Ace of Wands premiered in July 1970 on ITV - Britain's only commerical television channel. Unlike many children's shows at the time, it was explicitly aimed at older children, rather than young children or family viewing, with some very "modern" (for the time) characters and settings, and it played in the post 5pm slots usually aimed for the more adult orientated adventure serials. Running to three series, it told the stories of 'Tarot' - a stage magician who also experimented with genuine telepathic powers and his two assistants who would often come into conflict with others possessing similar powers. Each of the stories was presented as three or four 25 minute episodes, usually ending with a dramatic cliffhanger. Unfortunately, all of the episodes of the first two seasons of Ace of Wands have been lost to time, but the third season remains in its entirety and all six stories are included in this DVD release. .

In The Meddlers, Tarot meets his two new assistants (Mikki and Chas), and has to contest with some very strange goings on in an inner city market that might be the result of a 100 year old curse. Aside from the rather obvious contrivance that Tarot meets two people with the same powers and characteristics as his previous season's assistants, this is a solid episode, with a fully explained wrap-up at the end, and makes a good introduction to the series. The Power of Atep sees both Mikki and Tarot being plagued by sinister dreams of ancient Egypt - Tarot learns from his friend Mr Sweet that a mummy has been stolen from the British museum, and he soon finds himself travelling to Egypt to fight a four thousand year old power, but one that might have a more human face. With the atmosphere of a Hammer horror film in places, this four part story is often very creepy, but has quite a let down at the ending.

In Peacock Pie, a mysterious bank robbery sees the trio come into contact with Mr Peacock - an immensely powerful illusionist who puts even Tarot to the test. One of the best stories in the series, it remains tense throughout, with a fitting conclusion. Mama Doc is certainly the weirdest story in the set, about an obsessive doll collector, who is somewho linked to the disappearance of several scientists. Although quite entertaining, it is full of gaping plot holes, despite a lengthy attempted explanation at the end. Sisters Deadly sees Chas visiting a pair of elderly sisters to celebrate their 100th birthday - but when he finds himself robbing a post office with no recallection, the trio find themselves drawn into a bizarre and sinister kidnapping plot, with some rather unsuspecting "volunteers". In the final story, a four parter called Beautiful People, the trio become suspicious of a small town fête that is giving away expensive items to the poor and elderly, and soon discover that the items have been tampered with as part of a deadly practical joke, leading to a tense and dramatic conclusion.

To a modern viewer, one of the most curious things about the series was the lack of an obvious romantic interest between Mikki and Tarot - although there are very subtle hints between the characters that something might be going on. The pacing of the episodes is generally very sedate, and could probably be compressed to half of its run-time on a modern show, but it helps to build up atmosphere and tension throughout the stories. Fortunately the series manages to avoid delving into parody or the all out humour of most children's television, and is often very dark, although the conclusions can be quite contrived, much to their detriment. Production costs for the series were kept to an absolute minimum, and so most of the action is kept in or around London (except for a soujourn to Egypt in The Power of Atep, achieved with some rather obvious stock footage and suitably disguised sets) and the special effects are also rather dated, with some very obvious blue screen work, but the show looks pretty decent for the time and holds quite well today. There is only minimal incidental music, but the show's title music is very distinctive, composed by future Status Quo member Andrew Bown.

In the lead role of the series is the otherwise little known Michael MacKenzie, and in this third season he was joined by Petra Markham as Mikki and Roy Holder as Chas, both of whom have done some other television and film work, but nothing particularly well known. The trio do give good performances throughout, and help to keep the show straight faced, despite the often daft premises. There are various actors used in the different stories, but only character actor Brain Wilde (best known for his leading roles in Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine) will probably be recognisable, playing Mr Peacock in Peacock Pie and it is a real treat to see him playing a villain even if he is as mild-mannered as ever.

Not as dated as you would expect, Ace of Wands will be a nostalgia trip to all its former fans, but should also appeal to all classic television fans who enjoy fantasy and supernatural series - despite its children's television billing, the series is more than enjoyable for adult viewers, just don't expect fast pacing, top notch special effects or completely hole free plots. Partly recommended.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? The majority of the cast are occasional television actors and there are few recognisable faces.
Any gore or violence ? A few fights, but nothing brutal.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Who is it for? Fans of classic television adventure shows with a hint of magic and mystery will find plenty to enjoy here.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.33:1. Colour.
The picture quality is generally good - the series was shot on a mix of film and video, so there are jumps in quality between the exterior and interior shots, but it is more than watchable, and probably looks as good as it did when originally broadcast.
Audio Original English mono - sounds fine.
Subtitles None
Extras The four discs set includes:
  • A new documentary including various interviews with the cast and crew as well as some photos from the lost stories with lots of details and stories about the series. In three parts, 15 minutes each, anamorphic widescreen.
  • Newly recorded audio commentary (on the three Sisters Deadly episodes) with Michael MacKenzie (Tarot), Petra Markham (Mikki) and the show's producer Victor Pemberton, a continuous commentary over all three episodes talking about the making of the series, with some interesting stories. Certainly worth a listen.
  • Two bonus television episodes, Mr Stabs from Dramarama (1984) and Dutch Schlitz's Shoes from Shadows (1975), telling the further adventures of the occult 'Mr Stabs' character who appeared in the second series of Ace of Wands. The image and sound quality is the same as on Ace of Wands. 25 minutes each.
  • Image Gallery with various photos from all three seasons. Presented as a video file, sadly not scrollable and without music.
The set also includes an 88 page booklet about the series, including details and reviews of all of the episodes, including the first two seasons. Fully illustrated.
Availability Only available in a complete four disc boxset.
Region Region 2 (UK, Europe) - PAL
Other regions? Not available elsewhere.
Cuts? The episodes are believed to be fully uncut and are the original UK television prints (even including the original "advert break coming up" signals and the 'end of part' cards).



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 26th June 2007.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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