A few nights ago, for the usual reason that I was suffering from one of my bouts of insomnia, I went browsing on Youtube, looking for something interesting.
In particular, I was looking for episodes of a very old British TV series called The Tyrant King, that I saw as a kid and which is part of those many shows that influenced my growth (or lack thereof), it being a mystery/espionage story featuring a T. Rex.
I was able to find very little on Youtube, but through a succession of links and cross-references and spurious serendipity, I discovered Ace of Wands, which is something I am sure some old friend mentioned twenty-odd years ago, but here I am now, and the series had been keeping me company these last few night.
Ace of Wands was a British TV series that aired for three seasons between 1970 and 1972. The first and second season were deleted and are lost to us forever, but the third and final season is readily available as a remastered 4 DVD set or, in 1970s TV quality, through Youtube.
The series follows the mysterious Tarot, a stage magician that has a side-line as a detective. Sort of what Bill Bixby would do a few years later in the US series The Magician – and with lots of similar elements – but with a decidedly stronger occult angle. While Bixby’s Magician was a straightforward adventurer/detective fighting mundane bad guys and investigating non-supernatural mysteries, Tarot, portrayed by stage actor Michael Mackenzie, normally faced supernatural threats in his adventures and Tarot is, by all means, an occult detective.
Just like Bill Bixby later in the US, the Mackenzie character has a cool car and an unusual place to live (what today we’d call a loft, on top of an abandoned warehouse).
Through the series, the main protagonist is helped in his investigations by a girl telepathically connected with him and a more down-to-earth guy capable of handling heavy lifting and ass-kicking should the need arise. An antiquarian working as a broker for Tarot’s extracurricular services, and an owl complete the recurring cast.
A real stage magician was employed as a coach for Michael Mackenzie, and as a designer for a number of props and tricks used in the various episodes.
Following a popular format at the time, each adventure is split in three or four 30-minutes installments. This allows the writers (some of which had previously worked on Doctor Who) to give a certain “breath” to the stories, and considering this is a series aimed at kids, the overall quality of the scripts is refreshingly high.
Granted, with its psychedelic-lite title song (penned by a member of Status Quo, of all things) and its ghastly fashion sense and haircuts, Ace of Wands is very much a product of its times – but those were after all times fascinated with magic and the supernatural, with Egypt and ancient mysteries, with tarot reading and seances.
Quite a blast from the past, but also a demonstration (if needed) of the fact that good ideas, a solid script and a modicum of respect for the viewers intelligence can go a long way even on a small budget.
For today’s standards, the series is cheap and slow-moving, and yet it has its merits.
It’s one of those concepts that would work great in a reboot, but I fear there’s little hope for that. Pity.
And to give you an idea, here’s the first chapter of an Egyptian-themed episode, The Power of Atep, including the title song.