Friday, 30 October 2015

In their elements

“One wore a grey suit, the other wore a blue dress, and that’s as much as we knew about them.” David McCallum

It’s also said that David McCallum and Joanna Lumley had the same hair in Sapphire and Steel, just at (slightly) different lengths. That’s a very cheap shot, it’s too easy to poke fun at the fashions of a programme which premiered over 35 years ago.

It’s also a programme which has never seen a repeat on terrestrial television and steadfastly refused to explain itself even when it was on air. It remains as enigmatic as its lead characters, and although every episode is available on DVD there is very little in the way of background (or foreground) analysis beyond other people’s recollections.

I’m not going to parrot them, I’m going to bore you with my own.

The programme was made sporadically between 1979 and 1982 (apparently because of the limited availability of its high profile lead actors) and my recollection is that it’s NZ screening followed my friends and I through our college years. We loved it, of course-it was right up our street, mysterious, scary, thought-provoking. Although for some people it just seemed to be provoking. I distinctly remember my Dad giving up part way through an episode with a frustrated “What’s it about!?” I read recently that even Joanna Lumley had a spectacular sweary fit over the industrial-grade crypticness of the lines she was given to say.

I think its sheer opacity appealed to us. We quickly cottoned-on that there weren’t going to be any easy answers (or answers at all) and certainly no expensive effects (even in 1979 that magnificent title sequence was considered ‘ropey’). With Sapphire and Steel you had to set off into the night with your mind wide open; go dark or go home. The grade was rated ‘uneasy’.

But we weren’t alone, we had an Invisible Man and a new Avenger with us. They weren’t the warmest of guides, in fact Steel was generally abrasive and rude to everyone, but we all fancied the timeless Joanna Lumley and Sapphire was undoubtedly better with people. Although you always got the impression that our heroes considered having to deal with the humans cluttering the places they were sent to was the most difficult and irksome part of their ‘assignments’.

So that brings us to the nature of our two leads. Everything we’re ever told about them is in that title sequence, which is voiced with such stern authority and accompanied by such an imposing horn section that we miss the fact that it’s only compelling gibberish. Who is ‘assigning them’? Where do they come from? How do they arrive where they need to be? What’s with that blurry ‘head wear’ in the background of the opening titles? Why are half the ‘medium atomic weights’ listed not actually elements? How did this programme even get made?*

I think I must have a very literal (or unimaginative) mind because just as I never questioned that Pi really did spend all that time in a raft with a tiger, I never doubted that cold, hard McCallum was Steel and beautiful, cool Lumley was Sapphire. That is to say they weren’t code-names or designations, our stars were literally playing the physical embodiment of those substances, anthropomorphised and brought to life. It might be childishly simplistic, but makes as much sense as any other explanation (and the characters do state that they’re not human).

So, that’s our protagonists. We’re told that their enemy is Time. Rather than treating it as a medium to travel through as every other programme on TV did, here time was a force, and apparently a malevolent one which needed to be contained. Time could break through into the present if there was an anachronism present, a trigger as steel called it. Ancient Nursery Rhymes, old photographs… my parents bright orange ’70’s formica kitchen bench would have had Sapphire and steel working overtime. The creatures which roamed the corridor of time looking for ways to break through were embodied in different (and usually inexpensive) ways: a faceless man, ghostly roundhead soldiers, Joanna Lumley opening her eyes to reveal a living darkness, pitch-black contact lenses providing one of the programme’s nastiest shocks…

Dealing with these threats was equally ephemeral – no car chases, explosions or fist fights here — the effective stagey-ness of the programme was complimented by the cerebral ways Sapphire and Steel would eventually resolve the crisis and restore the status quo. I’ve always responded well to that in the figures I make my heroes, although here their victories always seemed only partial or temporary — fitting I suppose when your enemy is Time.

When the end came it was an inside job, the titular duo deceived and trapped by powerful, but notoriously unstable, transient elements. I joked that being trapped forever with Joanna Lumley couldn’t be too bad but the reality was that the very final scene, Sapphire and Steel gazing hopelessly from the window of a service station cafe as they receded into a starry eternity, was a gut punch ending which no-one who saw it ever forgot.

Well, it's a good thing we've got that chess set to pass the time...
Allegedly there were plans to release them the following season, but in an equally inexplicable move the very popular programme was dropped amid television corporate takeovers. It seems fitting that a series which began so mysteriously left us in exactly the same way.

For me the biggest enigma remains our stars. Even in 1979 I could recognise that Lumley and McCallum had cache and usually appeared in very expensive transatlantic productions. (McCallum could even still be considered a movie star). I could also see that Sapphire and Steel’s budget wouldn’t cover the coffee bill on their usual gigs. The programme was scheduled around their availability and surely spent all its money on them. But to me it seems akin to Brando doing a soap opera in his prime (or Robert de Niro doing Rocky and Bullwinkle. Oh, hang on…) How on earth did the programme makers pull off such an incredible casting coup with almost non-existent resources?

But what ever it took, it was well worth it - Lumley and McCallum completely and utterly carried Sapphire and Steel - convincing, compelling and colossally cool.

Friends and I weren’t cool at all, but loved the programme so much we gave each other our own element designations. I was a redhead, and a bit bendy, so quite naturally became ‘Copper’. Another chose ‘Carborundum’ due to a perceived abrasiveness and a third friend with legendary powers of flatulence was christened ‘Sulphur’. Difficult to imagine what kind of mission such a lacklustre team might be despatched to, although I believe we might just about have held our own against the notorious belligerent flying swansdown pillows in Assignment 3.

*I can’t help myself. I’ve recently re-watched some of the programme and done some research, so I’ll be following up soon with a more factual, behind-the-scenes post which might answer some of these questions. Possibly.

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