“It’s Only What You Think That Matters … Only What You See”

David Sheldrick on Ace of Wands

First published August 2000

“A 20th century Robin Hood with a pinch of Merlin and a dash of Houdini”. This was how Tarot, hero of Thames Television’s new children’s adventure series was colourfully described at the series’ inception in 1970. As an outline for Ace of Wands‘ central character it was a potent pot pourri, and indeed the series as a whole can be seen as a kind of creative melting pot for a variety of influences – both on-screen and off – which defined it as one of the most original and inventive in the history of children’s television.

Memory of children’s television is a precarious business, informed by both personal recollection (unfortunately, I remember very little pre-1970), and collective folk memory. Both of these can be deceptive. A cultishness has grown up around 1970s/80s children’s television, but far less so that of the ’60s with the exception of specific shows like The Monkees, making that decade recalled less comprehensively than the ones which followed it. An attempt at an accurate reassessment isn’t helped by the fact that far less pre-1970 material remains in the archives and what does is rarely seen (if a Vision On, Blue Peter or Crackerjack is broadcast, it’s invariably a ’70s colour one rather than its grainy ’60s counterpart).

Piecing together a picture of children’s television pre-1970 suggests one largely dominated by a paternalistic, establishment culture, still informed by the cosy ’50s values of Children’s Hour and Watch With Mother. The genre was very much dominated by the BBC. ITV managed no more than an hour in the weekday teatime slot, and in most regions, this straddled Crossroads, which was stripped across the schedules at 4.30 pm. The BBC’s home grown children’s drama, especially, was still steeped in concepts of literary worthiness – adaptations of novels which would appeal to middle-class parents and the guardians of the moral establishment. ITV had, over the last few years, emulated the BBC in this field with lauded adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (ABC, 1967) and (more significantly because it was a contemporary rather than “classic” novel and because of the uncompromisingly adult quality of the production) The Owl Service (Granada, 1969). The genre of wholly original drama specifically for children had perhaps been pioneered by the largely action-based Freewheelers (Southern, 1967 – 73) and The Flaxton Boys (Yorkshire, 1969 – 72) but, it wasn’t until the early ’70s – or more specifically 1970 itself – that the genre really lifted off.

1970 marked a sea change in children’s television. It was as if the mood of the freedom loving ’60s which had already made itself felt in adult drama, had at last filtered through to children’s drama and slowly the Reithian ice was beginning to thaw. A mini revolution was born that year – Here Come the Double Deckers, Catweazle and Timeslip all debuted in 1970, and so did Ace of Wands. Collectively, these series acted as a launching pad for a rich and sustained supply of children’s drama produced by the commercial network over the next dozen or so years.

The sea change made itself felt far more strongly on ITV than the BBC. The unified nature of the Children’s Department at the Corporation has often been cited as a reason for its widely regarded prestigious success. ITV’s output lacked this united approach. But belief in the superiority of BBC’s children’s television has increasingly been challenged and even undermined in recent years, perhaps as the views of a generation of grown-up, media savvy children make themselves felt over and above the voices of the the middle class élite which prevailed in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’70s, ITV was Magpie, Tiswas and Rainbow, where the BBC was Blue Peter, Swap Shop and Play School – the street credible versus the establishment. Ironically, perhaps it was the regionalized nature of ITV and its lack of a central body governing children’s output which enabled it to develop more challenging, innovative fare than much of the BBC’s during the ’70s. Ace of Wands kick-started the revolution. Even the theme and opening titles announced a series which was fundamentally different from anything which children’s television had seen before – that exotic guitar introduction, Andrew Bown’s ethereal Colin Blunstone-like vocals, the song’s enigmatic, impressionistic lyrics and the titles like some animated cover of a late ’60s Carlos Castaneda paperback.

But the theme and opening titles, for all their strange “otherness” were, seen on another level, a superbly catchy progressive pop-song set to groovy visuals. This contrast between strangeness (suggestive of the paranormal) and the very here-and-nowness of Britain at the turn of the decade, was one which the series used creatively throughout its three seasons, embodying both a modish flamboyance and an unsettling sense of otherness.

In “The Meddlers”, Tarot formulates this tension in the form of a choice: “between the real, the imaginary … or both”. The three central characters – Tarot and his two full-time assistants – embody this real/imaginary dichotomy. Mikki embodies the “imaginary”, seeing herself as a self-confessed romantic with an overactive imagination and a tendency to believe in the supernatural over the rational explanation. Chas embodies the “real” with his technical know-how, his easygoing charm, his teasing of Mikki’s flights of fancy and his liking for chips over avocado vinaigrette. Tarot characteristically champions both tendencies – real and imaginary – in the form of “psychic reality”. Even although he is clearly allied far more closely with Mikki than Chas, he represents the art of self-mastery which Mikki has yet to realise. His powers are grounded whereas her’s are untrained, and his solutions usually embody the cannily practical (with a little help from Chas) as well as the purely “magical”.

In spite of his inner gifts and air of mystery, Tarot is no world renouncing mystic. He drives an E-type Jag (usually whilst wearing trendy shades), enjoys the latest fashions, appreciates good food and wine and lives an enviable lifestyle in his luxurious warehouse pad. This marks the most vivid portrayal of “lifestyle” in children’s television to date. These external manifestations of Tarot denote him as eminently successful and they also provide a point of audience identification, appealing to the sophisticated, aspirational 14 year-old. They undoubtedly add to Tarot’s attractiveness which might have eluded him had he been essentially the same man with the same powers, but one who happened to live an ascetic existence in a tepee. These aspects of Tarot signify his “realism”. But they are not a mere flaunting of Sunday supplement living; above all, they express Tarot as a man of discrimination and discernment – another facet of his overall self-mastery.

Chas (archetypal cheeky Cockney chappie but with perhaps a pinch of Mick Jagger and more than a dash of Robin Askwith), clearly denotes “realism”, but not merely a generic realism. His passion for photography places him in a specific relation to Tarot – both deal in illusions, Chas in the practical sense, and Tarot in the magical sense. As photographer, he is very much a man of the times. He represents society’s ongoing love affair with the artform (post David Bailey, post Blow Up) and with the photographer as working-class icon and pinup. Compare Chas’ fashionable, very Swinging London Cockney with the dowdy, almost music-hall folkiness seen in “The Meddlers”.

Whilst Tarot, Mikki and Chas can all be seen as thoroughly contemporary figures, part-time companion Mr Sweet relates to the world of the past. As something of a father figure to the young trio, as entomologist and antiquarian (“bugs and old books”) he belongs to an older, literary, scholastic tradition with his Dickensian waistcoats and booklined study. His academic knowledge provides a kind of intellectual validation of the narrative, and there is an air of reassurance in his avuncular presence. All this suggests that, although Ace of Wands broke new ground in television through portraying youthful, urban, independent lifestyles, it did not relinquish ties with the “old” world altogether, and Mr Sweet preserves this link. Perhaps he also serves to provide the series with an air of old-fashioned, bookish respectability in the eyes of more conservative parents. If a series like Ace of Wands were to emerge today, I strongly suspect that the Mr Sweet character would be absent – the young trio would be their own justification. Interestingly, Mikki’s modernity is tempered by her romanticism, her fondness for the old – in “The Meddlers” she remarks, “I believe in tradition, things staying put, protection against change” – and this places her in a sympathetic relation to Mr Sweet (although she lacks his depth of academic knowledge). More significantly, it also, perhaps, suggests a difference between she and Tarot – Tarot’s self-knowledge provides him with the courage to grasp the world as it is and to be an effective force within it as a kind of forward-looking “Aquarian Man”, whereas Mikki’s imaginative romanticism gives her a backward-lookingness. This uninformed fondness for the past and tradition is seen, in terms of the series’ ethos, as something to be overcome if Mikki is to achieve the same degree of mental awareness and power as Tarot. Stories such as “The Meddlers” and “The Power of Atep” also warn against a naïve, nostalgic, view of the past.

The “real/imaginary” division also runs through the narrative of particular stories. “The Meddlers” can be interpreted as “real” (unscrupulous landowner seeks to recover buried treasure and make a fortune), or “imaginary” – (the sinister forces at work in a run-down market where events seem shaped by a restless Victorian ghost) or “both” (fear used as a powerful psychic weapon by a ruthless landowner in order to gain money). Likewise, “The Power of Atep” concerned itself with the rivalry between Tarot and former partner in magic, John Pentacle (real), the living evil force of an ancient Egyptian cult (imaginary) and Pentacle’s mental imbalance, seizing upon the “evil energy” of Atep as a focus for his revenge on Tarot (both). Ace of Wands employed no facile Scooby Doo like unmasking of villains who were only using lights and mirrors all along; but neither is it a full-blown excursion into fantasy. It makes provision for belief in the psychic but never in an entirely “romantic” way. It is usually in the overlapping of the real and the imaginary that the integrity of each story lies.

If Gerry Anderson’s ’60s series demonstrated a belief in scientific progress and the triumph of technology as a means of controlling the world, Ace of Wands represented something entirely different. During the mid-late ’60s, the counterculture quest for alternative values led to a wider interest in areas such as mysticism, Eastern religion, mythology and the paranormal. This trend had emerged overground by 1970 – the publication of the weekly collectable magazine encyclopaedia Man, Myth and Magic which appeared that year, is an example of this. Ace of Wands drew upon these concerns to present a more “feminine” exploration of inner space, a world manipulated not through technology but one sensed empathetically – mutable, ambiguous, mysterious, suspect, surreal, sometimes dangerous. Ace of Wands could be scary like Doctor Who, but the threat was generally a manifestation of interior powers used for ill purposes rather than rampaging monsters or alien menaces. Nevertheless, in its personification of these threats, the series drew upon distinctively ’60s portrayals of villains such as those seen in Batman and The Avengers (although in the case of the latter, they themselves drew upon wider discourses of “English eccentricity”). A role-call of some of Tarot’s foes – Madame Midnight, Senor Zandor and Fat Boy, Mr Stabs, Mama Doc – suggests a rich vein of larger-than-life theatricism which provided Ace of Wands with a great deal of its inventive flair and sophisticated sense of fun. Given this tendency towards flamboyance, credit must go to the restrained (but always compelling) performance of Michael Mackenzie as Tarot and the direction (of John Russell, in particular) in ensuring that the series never tipped the balance away from the enjoyably strange and into overtly camp send-up.

The colourful array of villains were complemented by a kind of carnivalesque strain running throughout the series (especially in seasons two and three), often revealing itself as the evil intent lurking behind vaudeville, show or pleasure – street musicians, a village fête, children’s entertainers, stage magicians, a doll’s hospital all feature and all are variously shown to be sinister masquerades. In turn, this relates to a more surreal approach to life which the late ’60s had engendered (Marty Feldman, Monty Python, The Goodies, Kenny Everett all came to the notice of a wider public around 1969/70). Ace of Wands employed this surrealism with tremendous gusto: a rich, vain young woman is instantly turned into a hideous crone in “Peacock Pie”; Mr Sweet is apparently transformed into a chalk statuette which then shatters in “The Eye of Ra”; vacuum cleaners and food mixers turn on their owners in “The Beautiful People” (episode two of which ended with a pensioner drowning in the foam emanating from her washing machine); Chas fails to get to grips with his motorbike cum deckchair cum pram, again in “Peacock Pie”; and then there are little touches like Mr Dove’s fetishistically uniformed assistant nonchalantly vacuuming after Tarot in order to preserve Dove’s apartment from dirt and dust in “The Meddlers”. The show delighted in taking the everyday and giving it a surprising and sometimes deadly twist (again, that juxtaposition of real/imaginary). In “Peacock Pie”, even a cup of tea proves to be a mind-blowing experience for Chas.

Seen 30 years on, Ace of Wands is still hugely entertaining and eminently watchable. That it sometimes appears slow compared to today’s offerings hardly needs to be said; that the dialogue of the “Mikki, about that man you passed in the street yesterday …” variety, can seem pedestrian in places comes as little surprise; that the switches from location to studio and back are glaringly obvious is only to be expected, in common with much adult drama of the period; and as for the clothes, you may have noticed I have hardly mentioned them because it would have been so easy to slag-off this wonderful series on the basis of a few oversized collars and flares, like some inane Steve Wright commentary on TOTP2, as if the “bad” fashions were all there ever was. Fond memories and sheer entertainment value aside, I love the series now because of its flamboyant surrealism, its evocation of a world of multifaceted appearances, its very ’60s sense of possibilities, its seriousness of intent but also its sideways humour and sense of style. How can you not love a programme which has lines like these: Mikki: “You mean, I could be murdered in the bathroom with an electric toothbrush?”/Tarot: (gravely) “I mean just that”.

Somehow, these kind of articles have to conclude with an attempt to answer the question: could it be made now? Ace of Wands was replaced in 1973 by The Tomorrow People, in my view an infinitely inferior series. Perhaps, even by 1973 standards, Ace of Wands was judged as looking a trifle elitist. The Tomorrow People was far more accessible in terms of its non-middle class juvenile leads, its rebellious stance, its appropriation of gadgetry and SF trappings, its formalising of psychic phenomena into an overarching concept of emerging homo superior. It was the “glam” and “teenybopper” to Ace of Wands‘ “progressive”. I don’t hold any of this against it, it’s just that it was never as good as Ace of Wands. Ironically, although the more outlandish of the two series, perhaps The Tomorrow People showed the way ahead with its greater reliance on technology. Why be interested in psychic phenomena when we can communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world instantly via mobiles and the internet? The ultimate legacy of Ace of Wands did not fully emerge until the end of the decade with P.J.Hammond’s Sapphire and Steel, which took some of the most powerful elements of Ace of Wands, stripped them down and then stretched them to even greater limits. Today, with children’s drama having become almost non-existent on ITV and with CBBC having largely forsaken the imaginative in favour of the banal, there could hardly be a more dire need for something of Ace of Wands‘ calibre.

For me, Ace of Wands was the only series that could bridge that unbearable midweek gap between Saturday’s fix of Doctor Who; it was 25 minutes of excitement, spine-tingling fear and delicious anticipation in equal measures; it inspired me to ask for a magic set for Christmas, want to have an owl as a pet, and make a fool of myself by imitating that title sequence arms-folded pose in the school playground whilst fixing the younger children with an inscrutable stare. And yes, I did the “Hand of Stabs” along with everyone else. Great fun, fantastic memories. Isn’t that enough?