In a just world, somewhere, there is a pile of film canisters containing the first two seasons of Ace of Wands. As things stand, 26 episodes of classic fantasy telly are lost to history. You can’t blame the Beeb for this one, this show was a Thames Television production - the company that ran the weekday ITV service in the London area.
Somebody hurry up and remake it quick.
Ace of Wands was created by Trevor Preston and producer Pamela Lonsdale. The show was a magical (no pun intended) adventure series which could well be the closest thing to a rival for Doctor Who that the commercial channel ever mustered. Like Who it was a children’s programme but had an eye on an older audience. Preston convinced Lonsdale that teen viewers were watching crime drama and shows such as The Avengers that populated evening broadcasts.
Preston had already dipped into fantasy having adapted The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Professor Branestawm for ITV. He began his career on the arts programme Tempo but moved into scripting drama and has written for shows such as The Mind of JG Reeder, Callan, Out, Fox, Public Eye, The Sweeney, Ruth Rendall Mysteries and Special Branch.
On 29 July, 1970 we were introduced to Tarot played by Michael MacKenzie with an aloof and wide-eyed Brian Cox cool. Based in a bachelor pad that would do the Galloping Gourmet proud, he is ostensibly a stage magician, illusionist and escape artist. Magic Circle guru Ali Bongo advised the show on suitable acts of prestidigitation for MacKenzie to perform. Tarot also moonlights as an opponent to a mix of eccentric and unusual criminals. It might be that Tarot’s tricks are not just sleight of hand, but there was a touch of doubt even when his foes were decidedly supernatural. Tarot knows how to bluff his way through when needed. His pet owl, Ozymandias, was played by Fred Owl who was a mascot for an assortment of tv shows at the time.
Tarot occasionally consults with an antiquarian book dealer Mr Sweet, Sebastian to his friends (played with gentile charm by Donald Layne-Smith).
Support for Team Tarot comes from loyal ex-con Sam Maxstead, played by Tony Selby who was already a familiar face on British TV having worked with Ken Loach.
Selby had already clocked up credits in No Hiding Place, Alfie, The Avengers, Witchfinder General, and Department S. Catweazle loomed in the future and you might recognise Tony as Sabalom Glitz in Doctor Who or from EastEnders (I’ve just been watching him as a jeweler in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man). There was a touch of the cheeky chappie to Sam who also provided a bit muscle if necessary.
The third member of the team was Lillian Palmer, usually addressed as Lulli. She was played by Judy Loe,an original UK cast member of Hair who had appeared in Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, Man at the Top and Armchair Theatre.
She also has credits for The Gentle Touch, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, The Chief, Inspector Morse, Casualty, Holby City and Doctors. In 1989 she played Commander Kathryn MacTiernan in Space Island One. Allegedly, she also cameos as a vampire in one of the Underworld movies starring her daughter, Kate Beckinsale.
As Lulli, Judy was endowed with a telepathic link that allowed her to communicate with Tarot in an emergency. This was usually demonstrated with portrait shots superimposed over a close up on Tarot’s eye or vice versa.
She was also Tarot’s stage assistant (Loe left the show complaining her role was too decorative).
The first two seasons were 13 episodes each, broken into stories that were generally three or four episodes with those ever important cliffhangers. The second season opener, Seven Serpents, Sulphur and Salt saw Russell (Lonely) Hunter as a menacing magician, Mr Stabbs seeking an occult artifact. Stabbs would go on to have a life in productions for anthology shows Shadows and Dramarama.
Apart from Preston, episodes were written by Dr Who scribe Victor Pemberton and PJ Hammond who would go on to create Sapphire and Steel.
The show was also graced with a distinctive theme song by Status Quo’s Andy Bown and with lyrics by Preston (which I misheard for years, thinking MacKenzie was playing a character called Tarot Khan as a result).
The original titles are lost, but the song remained on the revamp for the third season. I will come back on that another day.