ACE OF WANDS (1970)

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Ace of Wands

Billed as a 20th century Robin Hood with a bit of Merlin and Houdini thrown in, this superior children's series concerned the adventures of Tarot (Michael MacKenzie), who used his skills to solve a series of bizarre crimes by a number of 'supervillians' who would not have been out of place in Batman.

Ably assisted by ex-convict Sam, Lulli and the eccentric Mr. Sweet, the show constantly pushed back the boundary of acceptable tea-time viewing, with various plots involving people who were turned into dolls which bled when broken, and a substance called 'Nightmare Gas', which caused it's sleeping victims to scare themselves to death. In the final series Sam and Lulli were replaced by Mikki (Petra Markham) and Chas (Roy Holder).

The series was created by Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale. Preston had already cut his scriptwriting teeth on classic British TV shows such as Public Eye (1965), Callan (1967), The Mind of Mr. J.G. Reeder (1968) and Special Branch (1969) and had worked on an adaptation of the children's classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1967) for ABC TV. He later went on to write for The Sweeney, Hazell and Minder as well as one-off drama series’ Out and Fox, both of which he created.

His idea for Ace of Wands came about from the knowledge that kids were watching more and more the cop/drama series of the day and as a result he decided to offer them their own crime series with a heavy fantasy element. Pamela Lonsdale came to Ace of Wands having worked on several other children's series including Smith, The Queen Street Gang and, with Preston on The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Preston had very little to do with the later episodes after Pamela Lonsdale handed over the producer's reigns to John Russell in 1972. The series did very well abroad and sold to several countries including Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Thailand and Yugoslavia.

Most of the action was studio bound and two permanent sets were built; Tarot's apartment complete with security and looking devices, and Mr. Sweet's bookshop and the designers were restricted by budget to just two extra sets per episode. The original title for the series was Tarot and other names were also considered for the central character such as Chandos, Marcos, Dom, Zadig and Omega. Michael Mackenzie was a relatively unknown actor who, although in his late twenties, had only been acting for three years, having previously trained for a career in law. His wife, Ann Holloway, was far better known as Karen Glover, one of Patrick Cargill's daughters in the sitcom Father, Dear Father. While some of the magic tricks were achieved with the use of special effects, many were actually performed for real by Mackenzie, under the guidance of Magic Circle magician Ali Bongo, who was employed as advisor on the programme. Ali subsequently worked with Paul Daniels and the late David Nixon. After Ace of Wands, McKenzie's face was only seldom seen on television although he later returned to TV as devious Dr. Turner in Cardiac Arrest.

Twenty-three year old Judy Loe, then a newcomer to television, played Lillian Palmer, known by her nickname: Lulli. As well as helping Tarot with his stage act she had a telepathic link with him. Since Ace of Wands, Loe has worked an various TV shows including Goodnight and Godbless, Missing From Home and Revelations. The third member of the team was Tarot's loyal cockney friend Sam Maxted, played by Tony Selby. Sam was Tarot's 'right-hand' man and could be relied upon in a fight or for opening locks and secured entrances. Selby, the first cast member to be offered a role in Ace of Wands was later best remembered for his role as Corporal Marsh in the National Service sitcom Get Some In! and also appeared as Glitz in Doctor Who. The fourth regular was Mr. Sebastian Sweet, an antiquarian bookseller played by veteran actor Donald Layne-Smith. Mr. Sweet often acted as Tarot's front man, using his many contacts to help Tarot's investigations. Completing the team was Ozymandias, played by Fred, a Malayan fishing owl.

The series began transmission in July 1970 with "One And One And One Are Four" written by Preston and directed by Russell. P. J. Hammond was invited to write for the second season and has great affection for it, and not without reason: "Ace Of Wands was very good for me" he said in an interview. "It was great fun to do and allowed free reign to the imagination. In a way one could say that it perhaps helped to inspire me with my own project, Sapphire And Steel."

After the second season, Judy Loe and Tony Selby left the cast. Loe had been dissatisfied with her part for some time and was later quoted as saying: "My part was 'decorative' even in a children's programme. I was allowed some intelligence, but was always having to be rescued by the man. Maybe this is the basic structure of society or maybe it's just how men see themselves." Pamela Lonsdale also left the show between seasons two and three. She had been asked to set up the pre-school series, Rainbow. In 1975 she won the British Academy Rediffusion Award for this series and four years later was appointed executive producer responsible for children's drama at Thames.

There was talk of a fourth series but Michael Mackenzie remembers "somebody different took over as Head of Children's programmes at Thames and obviously wanted to do their own thing. The result was The Tomorrow People which, although it ran longer, wasn't, in my opinion, as original, as good or as imaginative -but then I'm biased!". Several years later, one of Ace of Wands' villains, Mr. Stabs appeared in an episode of the children’s anthology series Shadows, and the character returned for a final time in Dramarama, both of which were written by Trevor Preston and produced by Pamela Lonsdale.

Review: Laurence Marcus. January 18th 2005