There can’t be many TV characters that have managed to endure for 15 years, on and off. There must be even fewer still who were villains and played by different actors. Even fewer of them must have appeared in children’s TV shows and been set up for their own spin-off series. And even fewer have had children imitating them in playgrounds.
But to do all of that and to appear in no fewer than three unrelated TV shows? That surely must be unique.
So spare a thought for Estabse, an immortal member of ‘the Brotherhood’, servant of Beelzebub and prodigious user of ‘hand magic’, for his journey is indeed both unique and fascinating.
It begins in Ace of Wands, in itself a fascinating and unique show warranting an entry in Nostalgia Corner, before moving over into The Wednesday Play and two different anthology series: Shadows and Dramarama. Are you prepared to meet Mr Stabs?
Ace of Wands
Back in the early 70s, ITV was looking for new ways to entertain the kids, particularly given how well that Doctor Who was doing over on the Beeb. As a result, fantasy and science-fiction became increasingly of interest to the network. But as it was ITV and therefore far more cool and working class than the Beeb, just as it chose to emulate Blue Peter with Magpie, so ITV tried to be a bit more down with the kids with its other shows.
Ace of Wands was about as hip as it was possible for an early 70s TV show to be. Created by Trevor Preston and produced by Pamela Lonsdale, it starred Michael MacKenzie as ‘Tarot’, a coolly dressed stage magician with an equally cool car. He lived on a canal boat with his pet owl Ozymandias.
Even cooler, though, is the fact that secretly – just like Bill Bixby in the US’s The Magician – Tarot uses his stage magic to solve strange and unusual crimes. But he’s not alone – helping him are reformed criminal Sam (Tony Selby) and Lillian “Lulli” Palmer (Judy Loe), with whom he does have a genuine magical link, able to communicate with her telepathically over long distances.
And as if that weren’t cool enough, he had the coolest title sequence and theme tune in TV history.
For two series, Tarot, Sam and Lulli investigated crimes together, before Sam and Lulli went their separate ways, to be replaced by brother and sister Chas (Roy Holder) and Mikki (Petra Markham), with whom Tarot also mysteriously had a telepathic link. How coincidental. How handy.
Initially, however, other than those very 1970s telepathic links, Ace of Wands sat very firmly in “the only kind of magic is stage magic” camp. It even had noted magician Ali Bongo – the Paul Daniels of the 1970s – around to perform tricks and teach MacKenzie magicianship. All the scripts involved the fantastical and unusual, but none involved the truly supernatural.
However, by the second series, genuinely supernatural events started to occur and there were hints that Tarot himself had ‘the art’, even if he didn’t know it. By the third series, indeed, anything went.
Notably at this point we get two very important things. The first is the arrival of a certain PJ Hammond on the writing team. Hammond, of course, is best known and justifiably lauded for creating and writing virtually all of Sapphire and Steel. His Ace of Wands stories are practically dry-runs for Sapphire and Steel, giving us genuinely frightening stories, such as Peacock Pie, which sees Brian Wilde (Last of the Summer Wine) playing a lonely man with the power of suggestion, as well as The Beautiful People, in which everyday household objects come to life at the instigation of higher powers. While they’re not quite up there with Sapphire and Steel, you can see Hammond honing his craft, learning what does and doesn’t work, ready for his grand performance.
Overall of the series, Hammond remarks: “Ace Of Wands was very good for me. 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.”
The second very important thing is series two’s opening story, Seven Serpents, Sulphur and Salt, reputedly the best story and which is the first and indeed only appearance by Mr Stabs on the series. Written by Peacock, the story sees Mr Stabs hunting for the “seventh serpent” that will complete his quest for Nicolas Flammel’s Philosopher’s Stone. Mr Stabs – or Estabes – is a pale man out of time, dressed in an old suit, talking in an old-fashioned way. Understandably so, since he is hundreds of years old – no ‘merely mortal’ person as one of his catchphrases would have it.
Stabs, played by Russell Hunter who’s best known as Callan‘s ‘Lonely, is assisted in his quest by two ‘people’ – an obsequious dwarf called Luko (Ian Trigger) and a ‘spirit’ of some kind called Polandi (Harriet Harper) who masquerades as a journalist when she’s not helping Stabs. He also has the power of ‘hand magic’. Wearing silk gloves, he can get his hand to do many works of genuine magic, from trapping people in invisible cages to swapping their bodies with his, provided he invoke it with a rhyme that begins ‘Hand of Stabs’ (eg ‘Hand of Stabs, Turn this fool, Into a fish, Without a pool’). This was, of course, something that pretty much every child who watched the programme ended up doing in the playground the next day – presumably with limited results.
Ultimately, Tarot defeats Stabs by getting Stabs to defeat himself, using his stage magic and ventriloquism to convince Stabs that he’s another, more powerful member of ‘the Brotherhood’, Stabs and Luko then disappearing themselves with some ‘hand magic’, leaving just Stabs’ silk gloves behind.
Stabs was never to revisit Ace of Wands, the show getting cancelled after its third series to make way for The Tomorrow People. And although the BBC gets plenty of flack for having wiped much of its precious archives, ITV wasn’t immune to purges, either, and the first two series of Ace of Wands were wiped, leaving behind just low quality audio recordings made by fans and the scripts – almost like Stabs himself. That means I can’t show you any of Stabs’ appearance on Ace of Wands.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this third series story, The Power of Atep, and exhort you to buy the DVD of the third series, which also has all the scripts for the episodes that have been deleted from the archives, including Seven Serpents, Sulphur and Salt.
After Ace of Wands, Lonsdale and Peacock went their separate ways. Lonsdale remained a producer at ITV where she went on to both create and/or produce some of the best remembered children’s shows of the 70s and 80s, including Stig of the Dump, Chocky and Educating Marmalade. Indeed, her first job after Ace of Wands was to create and produce Rainbow!
After that, however, she was to return to the supernatural with an anthology show called Shadows. This ran for three series between 1975 and 1978 and was to feature stories from writers including JB Priestley and Fay Weldon. But she also invited both Hammond and Peacock to contribute.
For his contribution, Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes, Peacock was to resurrect Mr Stabs. Still accompanied by Luko (now played by Kenneth Caswell), Russell Hunter’s Mr Stabs is losing power and his ‘hand magic’ is faltering. Fortunately, there’s a solution – the Glove of Mendoza. If only he can find it, of course.
However, the glove proves far easier to find than the seventh serpent, being on display at a stately home. After turning the Lord of the Manor into a toad with his ‘hand magic’, Stabs is able to seize the glove and return to his full power.
Unfortunately, on display next to the glove are the shoes of (real-life) deceased Chicago mobster Dutch Schlitz. Stabs takes a liking to them, puts them on… and is possessed by the ghost of Schlitz. The rest of the episode is then a battle between Stabs and the ghost, observed by frightened ‘merely mortals’. Surprisingly, Stabs wins and leaves with his prize.
But you don’t have to take my word for it, as the episode still exists and is available on both YouTube and DVD. It’s the first of this week’s Wednesday Plays.
The Stabs of Shadows is recognisably still the same character as that of Ace of Wands. Having Russell Hunter reprise his role helps, as does having a helper called Luko and the ‘hand magic’. He’s also confused by the normal actions of ‘merely mortals’ – just as Tarot’s ventriloquism tricked him, so here he’s confused by the Lord of the Manor’s halloween costume into thinking his real Lord, Beelzebub, has appeared before him.
But there are differences. He wins, of course. He’s not as tidily dressed, thanks to his reduced situation. There’s no Polandi, either. And his brotherhood gets a name – “the Brotherhood of Ahken-an” (sp?).
However, there were yet more differences to come for his third and final appearance. By 1984, there was another kids anthology series in town, Dramarama, which was dedicated to one-off plays designed to showcase talent from around the 12 ITV regions. Writers and actors getting their debuts included Anthony Horowitz, Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor, Janice Hally, Tony Kearney, David Tennant and Ann Marie Di Mambro, and even noted 1960s ITC/Avengers writer Dennis Spooner made a contribution.
At this point, Lonsdale and Peacock had reunited and were considering the idea of a Mr Stabs TV series, in which every week Mr Stabs would be defeated by a different hero. They decided to pilot the idea and use Dramarama to air the result.
Mr Stabs would turn out to be one of the strongest and best remembered of the Dramarama plays, and perhaps one of the best ever one-off dramas for kids. It acts as both a prequel and a reboot of the character of Mr Stabs for an audience who had never seen the original Ace of Wands story.
Here Stabs, now played by no lesser actor than David Jason, is no longer a compatriot of Flamel but a denizen of the underworld (Hades or Hell – take your pick) with a serpented glove that’s the source of his hand magic. A servant of Beelzebub and a member of the Brotherhood of Ahken-an, he wishes to achieve power in the Brotherhood and ascend to the realm of merely mortals to do evil upon them – perhaps with the assistance of Luko (David Rappaport from Time Bandits et al). It’s something that certain higher powers want, too, and they’ve sent their messenger (Patrick Malahide) to let Stabs know what he has to do.
As well as going on a quest, he has to first defeat another member of the Brotherhood in ‘hand magic’ – Polandi, here played by Lorna Heilbron – as well as an aging member of the Brotherhood with a more powerful, dual-serpented glove (John Woodnutt). This Stabs of course achieves.
As well as its unique tone compared to other episodes of the series, Mr Stabs also effectively does to Mr Stabs what Sapphire and Steel did for Ace of Wands – it takes the main elements, refines them, makes them more adult and makes them considerably scarier. As well as a surprising level of gore for a teatime kids show, even including at one point flesh melting off someone’s skull, Mr Stabs plays with the fourth wall, the magical Stabs and Luko breaking through the Dramarama title sequence and TV screen to regard the audience, and tell them a story to inspire fear, before issuing a warning to camera at the end.
Unfortunately, despite a first rate cast and script, a series was never commissioned and that was the last that we saw of Mr Stabs. Fortunately, you can watch Mr Stabs on both YouTube and DVD. And it’s the second of your Wednesday Plays.
Will we see more of Mr Stabs? Probably not. But I doubt we’ll see as robust a villain for quite some time to come.