Looking Back At SAPPHIRE AND STEEL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At SAPPHIRE AND STEEL

Tony Fyler has been assigned.
"All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel.

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned."
Say what-now?

The late Seventies was a time of trouble and insecurity in Britain. There had been a miner’s strike, a three-day week and a Winter of Discontent, with power shortages, political instability, and the rise to ever more power of Margaret Thatcher, a leader who at that time most famous for denying milk to children.

And then there was Sapphire and Steel.

Scary, stark, incredibly odd but never less than captivating Sapphire and Steel.

Half of the challenge with each of the six Sapphire and Steel stories that make up its whole TV output was working out what in the ever-loving flip was going on. Ever.

That quote we started with was how the credits on each episode ran, spoken with a brusque, clipped authority by actor Steve Hudson like the voice of some scientific god, with a threatening horn tune underneath.

And bizarre and vague as it is, it’s about as much as we ever got of an explanation for what Sapphire and Steel was all about. Series creator and writer of all but one of the show’s stories, Peter J Hammond (credited as PJ), described the original premise of the show as being about a set of ‘time menders,’ creatures which were more or less incarnations of chemical elements or gemstone, each of which had specific and special powers over reality.
Each of the stories – none of which were given names on broadcast – dealt with something going wrong with time. Or, as it frequently felt like a malignant villain in its own right, Time.

What could possibly go wrong with Time, you say?

How about nursery rhymes causing a time fracture in an 18th century house that steals the parents from two frightened children in a Hitchcockian horrorshow of stopped clocks, images, and sounds, culminating in ghostly Roundhead soldiers determined to commit a murder based on the words of a favourite children’s rhyme?

That was how Sapphire and Steel started!

How about the anger and fear of the dead seeming to animate the ‘ghost’ of a World War I solider on a spooky railway platform?

How about future humans living incognito on 20th century Earth, in a house that raises a terrifying rebellion against them on behalf of all the dead animals of their time. Yes, really. Cushions back turning into angry geese and the like, in a striking metaphor of human complacency fractured by the wildness of nature.

How about a sepia-skinned children and a man with a blank face, with people disappearing in a photographic nightmare?

How about a 1930s re-enactment dinner party that turns twisted when a conflict from the real 1930s breaks through the simulation, leading to a seemingly inevitable murder, and a loop of causality that seems destined to take more and more victims?

And how about an abandoned service station and cafĂ© where, once you’ve come in, you can’t ever leave, the universe beyond a small stretch of road having ceased to exist for everyone inside?
Yyyyeah. Creepy, unnerving stuff filled each and every episode of Sapphire and Steel. The show itself was only 25 minutes per episode – following the tradition of some of the greatest science fiction and mystery TV in British history. But into each of those 25-minute segments was poured dark pseudo-scientific magic.

Hammond’s scripts (and the script for story 5 – the 1930s murder mystery co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read) were absolutely crammed to seething point with a vagueness that brought in mystery and shudders. They needed explaining within their own context by the end of each story, especially as the mysteries needed solving against a background of ever-escalating urgency and often dramatic horror.

Central to the success of Sapphire and Steel were… well, predictably enough, Sapphire and Steel. The casting of these roles was a moment of sheer, undiluted genius – and it’s quite possibly the element which turned a baffling and Pinter-esque science fiction concept into hypnotic television that even now can send shivers down the spine.
David McCallum had risen to be a household face as Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the 1960s. He had a voice like permanently annoyed cork and a presence that could flit from light to commanding in half a heartbeat. Steel was a role which could easily have been underplayed, but McCallum played the role with convincingly inhuman detachment, matched with a mission-based urgency and ruthlessness when it seemed necessary.

Joanna Lumley came from a much more recent geek TV success. As Purdey in The New Avengers, she had proved that the original Avengers concept of the sixties could work in a 1970s setting, and embodied the spirit of the ‘modern female spy’ with a warmth and aplomb that made her a fan favourite for decades. While it would be a mistake to say she was especially ‘the empathetic one’ of the two, Lumley’s Sapphire was frequently called on to calm human nerves, to soothe children, to come up with cover stories that Steel didn’t understand and could not be bothered with.

Both characters had their own specialities – Steel was cold, analytical, and immensely strong, with both telepathic and telekinetic abilities. And, if it was absolutely necessary, he could drop his temperature down to absolute zero. Sapphire was telepathic too, but her special skills were more connected with time – she could tell the age of artefacts with a touch, and if necessary, she could even hold time at bay, or spool it back, though like Steel’s absolute zero trick, that came with its own dangers – especially during an incursion of Time.

McCallum and Lumley together were on-screen science-fiction dynamite – there was an uncanny, alien chemistry between them, bolstered by the delivery of baffling lines with an utter conviction. They also frequently moved as one, reinforcing their inhumanity as they battled against incursions of Time, seemingly incarnated in various ways and inherently inimical to human existence. True to Hammond’s original idea, they were there to ‘mend’ time, whatever the consequences.

The point about Sapphire and Steel is that there was never an overt explanation of what they were, who had sent them, or what the reality was beyond the situation in which they found themselves. That opening monologue about ‘irregularities’ being handled by the forces controlling each dimension was about as much as we got. But in themselves, both that opening monologue and the lack of explanation were genius too.
While Sapphire and Steel were assigned each week, the opening monologue made it clear there were a bunch of others like them, but with their own specialities, meaning it fed our imagination with possible other investigations that these forces could deal with. We even met a couple of the others, David Collings giving us his Doctor Who as ‘mission specialist,’ Silver, and Val Pringle animating Lead as a kind of jovial black giant, who was necessary to safeguard Steel when he went full ice man and dropped his temperature to below freezing. Other ‘elements’ and their relationships also got the occasional mention – Jet ‘sent her love’ to Steel via Lead, and Silver was said to be having trouble with Copper ‘again.’ It was deliciously cryptic, but added colour to the world of the ‘elements’ who solved time crimes and stopped incursions.

But really, it was McCallum and Lumley, committing furiously to the no-explanation, in-its-own-world writing of Hammond, that made Sapphire and Steel the endlessly rewatchable nightmare-maker it was and is. Kids who watched it live on transmission will still, when the conversation turns nostalgic, mention Sapphire and Steel with a shudder. The faceless man, the repeating nursery rhyme winding up to panic, the creepy terror of the trans-temporal murder mystery, and the final sequence of the show, with Sapphire and Steel seeming trapped forever, they all provoke those memories that combine a vague intellectual understanding with a visceral sense of fear and increasing, intensifying panic.

The fact that Sapphire and Steel has never been remade for TV in over 40 years tells you something. It was pure bottled lightning, of a kind that could well suffer from any TV re-imagination.

It did get an audio remake in 2004 from Big Finish Productions, with Susannah Harker and David Warner taking the lead roles, and pushing the storyline beyond the final episode of the McCallum/Lumley version. A new TV version was mooted in 2006 but was apparently sunk by a poor US reaction to a remake of The Prisoner.

That means the original stands as the only TV Sapphire and Steel, and there’s something glorious about that. McCallum and Lumley were individually iconic from their previous shows. When they came together for Sapphire and Steel, they gave a generation of children terrifying nightmares, but they also stood against the darkness as some of the most unlikely heroes we ever had.

Give Sapphire and Steel a re-watch today – if you remember it from previous viewing, it will send shivers down your spine just as much now as it did then. If you’ve never seen Sapphire and Steel before, prepare for something really special. Prepare by accepting that you may never understand what’s going on from moment to moment – but that the ride will ultimately give you all the dark thrills you could want.

Watch Sapphire and Steel today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.


Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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