From The Edge Of Mystery

Back when I first started using the Internet, one of the first websites I discovered was, Simon Coward's now sadly defunct site devoted to ITV's early seventies children's drama series Ace Of Wands. If you've never seen Ace Of Wands, it is probably best described as a deeply stylised post-psychedelic pre-Glam action series about a stage magician who solves unusual - and frequently apparently supernatural - crimes in his spare time. Massive in its day, and then completely forgotten about, it had started to be rediscovered more or less by word of mouth but there'll be more about that later. Actually I found the website so long ago that at that point it was still hosted on Simon's Freeserve pages, which in itself amusingly now seems more archaic than any television show where the lead character goes about in a snakeskin jacket and Jim Morrison hair.

I'd been obsessed with Ace Of Wands - 'obsessed' is a bit of an understatement to be honest - ever since catching an episode by chance at an archive TV event. Even more than the actual show itself, it was the animated psychedelic opening titles with their self-drawing pentagrams and mystic hand-based imagery, and the accompanying progtastic yet naggingly catchy theme song with bafflingly indecipherable lyrics, that really caught my attention. Over the next couple of years, I would put more time and energy than is probably considered healthy into finding out whatever I could about Ace Of Wands, which in those days wasn't as easy as you might think. Searching for features and interviews in old issues of TV Times and Look-In was challenging and time-consuming enough, but it was tracking down that elusive theme single - more properly known as Tarot by Andrew Bown, with incidental music track Lulli Rides Again on the b-side - that really took dedication. I spent so long flicking through boxes in charity shops in the hope of spotting a casually discarded copy that the catalogue number is indelibly burned into my memory; Parlophone R5856. So much so in fact that I nearly referenced it in a wedding speech once, but that's another story.

As it transpired, there were quite a few other Ace Of Wands enthusiasts out there. The series was starting to get a good deal of coverage in the more esoteric archive TV fanzines, notably Andrew Pixley's early venture Time Screen, and increasingly in glossy genre magazines, which invariably referred to it as having 'returned for a stylish new season' featuring 'Tarot's sometimes sinister foes'. It was courtesy of said increasing coverage that I learned the sad fact that the first two series of the show - which, I was reliably informed, was when it was best - had long since been wiped; all that was left was Series Three, not all of it even in broadcast quality, and a handful of almost unintelligibly poor quality audio recordings of a couple of second series episodes made by holding a tape recorder up to a television speaker. Amusingly, I'd made my own equally poor audio recording of a third series episode in more or less exactly the same way during another archive TV event, back when the possibility of actually owning any of Ace Of Wands on video seemed so remote as to be laughable.

Needless to say, there was tremendous excitement when clips turned up on Telly Addicts and TV Weekly, and later on the sell-through video compilation The Best Children's TV Of The Decade - The Seventies. There were a handful of millionth generation VHS bootleg copies floating around, if you knew where to look for them, but otherwise that really did seem like the best that we were likely to get. So that's why Simon's website, packed with what were entirely 'new' facts, cuttings, trivia and images, seemed so thrilling and felt like everything I'd hoped for from this new fangled World Wide Web that they had now. One of the most intriguing of these 'new' facts was the suggestion of several correspondents that the first two series had used an entirely different set of opening title graphics, now entirely lost to history and with only literally sketchy artistic impressions to go on.

Or at least that's what we all thought until the DVD came out. While sadly nothing had been found from either of the missing series, the producers did manage to turn up a fair few of the actual scripts as extras, and a couple of them were marked with an image showing Tarot's face in stark photographic profile and the series title in an unfamiliar font. This matched the hazy descriptions of the lost opening titles almost exactly, and was the cause of much low-key excitement on various archive TV forums. Eventually it was confirmed as the genuine article by someone with a long memory, and one bright spark went one better and cobbled together this pretty good approximation of what viewers had presumably seen before Tarot, Sam and Lulli took on deranged chessmasters, delinquency-promoting ventriloquist dummies, and whatever in the name of sanity Senor Zandar and Fat Boy actually were. So, we're as close as we're currently likely to get to actually seeing the lost opening titles?

Well, this is where it gets interesting. In 2008, Castle Music released Real Life Permanent Dreams, a four-disc box set collecting what the subtitle described as 'A Cornucopia Of British Psychedelia 1965-70'. For the benefit of those who are familiar with all of the above words but not necessarily in that order, this basically means ninety nine tracks' worth of overlooked and ignored pop records from the days of paisley shirts and trying to be far-out on black and white TV; the lightweights, the part-timers, the stars-in-waiting, the fading beat boom-era stars who covered The Move in desperation and what have you. If you still need a couple of reference points to make any sense of that, essentially you get the likes of The Kinks and Marmalade messing around with sitars and mellotrons alongside more well-psychedelically-versed cult favourites like The Smoke and Winston's Fumbs, Screaming Lord Sutch and The Tornados making ill-advised yet accidentally fantastic attempts to jump on the bandwagon, Marc Bolan and Status Quo trying to figure out exactly what their hit sound should be, and The Sun Dragon actually appearing somewhere they can be heard and listened to rather than fired directly into the nearest bin. It's every bit as interesting and listenable a collection as that might sound (well, apart from The Sun Dragon), and many of the more familiar tracks are presented as alternate takes or BBC session recordings, meaning that there's something 'new' in there for everyone.

Tarot is represented by what the sleevenotes describe as a previously unreleased alternate take, which given that it features more prominent overdriven bass guitar, different sound effects and harmonies, a slightly different lead vocal and an altogether more fluid feel to the performance, is probably a fair description. Whether it had never been heard in public before, though, is another question. They are way too muffled and crumbly to say for certain, but it really does sound as though this is the version being used, presumably in conjunction with the original title graphics, on the surviving off-air audios of Series Two. It was of course fairly standard practice around then for television theme tunes to be recorded in two different versions - a more dynamic and punchier one for on-screen, and a more conventionally structured 'pop' take for single release. It would also be entirely feasible that the new production team taking over for Series Three and putting together new titles either preferred the single version, or simply didn't realise that it was any different. This is all just conjecture though... unless anyone reading knows any different? [Update! Simon himself has been in touch to say that, after consulting better quality copies, he can confirm that the Series Two audios almost certainly use the single version of Tarot]

And it doesn't end there either. Some sources, including esteemed seventies-rememberer Jon Peake, have indicated that the first series of Ace Of Wands may have had completely different opening titles again, possibly featuring stills of Tarot performing his stage act. To be honest, it's difficult even to speculate one way or the other about this. It's entirely possible, but it's also equally plausible that it may have just been a special one-off set of opening titles to introduce the first episode - not unknown for Thames Television productions, including Ace Of Wands' direct successor The Tomorrow People - or even just an illustrative sequence in an individual episode. It's been mentioned too many times for the answer to be 'none of the above', though.

Whether any of the lost episodes of Ace Of Wands are sitting gathering dust on some archive shelf somewhere is anyone's guess, frankly. In terms of knowing what might have happened in them, we're now a lot further forward than we were even when Simon's website was at its most active, but those lost opening titles - indeed, possibly even opening titles plural - remain as difficult to pin down as ever. We're really just putting one and one and one together and making four here, and if you actually got that joke, then you'll have some idea of how difficult it's proving to come up with a halfway decent ending for this article. So if you can shed any more light on what might or might not have been seen or heard at the start of those lost episodes, please do get in touch. Actually, I should have called this Now You See It, Now You Don't, shouldn't I?

You can find more detective work about long-wiped television in Not On Your Telly, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.