Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Periodic Fable

Synthesised chemical elements like Rutherfordium can only be brought into being under very particular circumstances, and then only last for a fleeting period of time.  

In 1979 ITV achieved this alchemy with what was supposed to be a science fiction show to rival the BBC’s ubiquitous Doctor Who, made by their production arm ATV, and aimed at children.  But that certainly wasn’t what they got.  Author PJ Hammond was inspired to write a supernatural science fiction series after spending a night in a haunted castle and instead came up with one of the darkest, creepiest and most enigmatic shows ever to appear on television.

The still inexplicable twin casting triumph of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, who apparently signed on immediately, was touched on last time, and by the time ITV realised what they had been given by Hammond, the programme was already something of a hit.
The first ‘assignment’ dealing with two youngsters whose parents have been taken by a nursery rhyme comes closest to betraying Sapphire and Steel’s origins as a children’s programme, but the second story pulls no punches.  Set on an abandoned railway platform it is relentlessly oppressive in atmosphere and the resolution of the crisis is only achieved at a terrible cost.
In stark contrast, once again the appearance of a Sapphire and Steel annual in 1979 indicated the original intention of the programme as a kids TV vehicle, as did a continuing comic strip in ITV’s youth magazine 'Look in'.

Nobody could claim to fully understand the programme, as was the intention, but they tuned in in their millions in Britain.  The famous ITV ten-week strike of 1979 actually worked in the programme’s favour, as the second serial was repeated in full when the channel returned to air, greatly reinforcing the programme’s viewership. The return of our favourite ‘elements who actually weren’t’ was guaranteed.  Also as discussed before, the availability of it’s stars made exactly when a little uncertain and in fact it was a full 18 months before Sapphire and Steel returned.

Silver Fox - Elements don't scrimp on hair care products
The third adventure isn’t fondly remembered but does at least introduce ‘specialist’ Silver; played in dandified fashion by David Collings who shakes up the existing dynamic between our leads.  His flirtatious rapport with Sapphire appears to provoke jealousy in her usual partner.  Steel hardly needs to be made any more grumpy, and perhaps the notable scene where he appears to snap lift cables with his bare hands and tie them in knots is his way of ‘working off steam’.  It’s the following story, dealing with a ‘faceless man’ who can inhabit any photograph ever taken which seems to be the most remembered and chilling.

This is the story I re-watched recently with friends, and despite its obvious staginess and budgetary limitations, we agreed that it’s really only the incidental music which dates this unnerving tale.  Xylophone solos and a crew member’s cough on the soundtrack are more than made up for by expert use of lighting (the sepia children would doubtless be an expensive CGI effect these days, but perfectly realised here), the charisma of our leads and the sheer freaky uneasiness provoked by the tale.  PJ Hammond seems to know exactly how to write for the show’s minuscule budget: everything shown on screen feels like the tip of the story’s iceberg, the unseen but greater mass of what is implied, but unseen, is what really scares us.

From what I’ve heard Hammond's skill was sorely missed when Sapphire and Steel returned the following year for its fifth assignment.  I say heard because I somehow missed this sub-Agatha Christie drawing room mystery written by Doctor Who scribes Don Houghton and Anthony Read - or perhaps the programme’s erratic scheduling finally defeated TVNZ and it was never shown here.
Hammond was exhausted and needed a break, but was apparently appalled when he saw what had been done to his creation in other writer’s hands.

Director Shaun O'Riorden (left) and PJ Hammond
He rallied and gave us what was to become one of the greatest conclusions of any programme - except, Assignment 6 was never intended to be a finale.  I certainly saw this one, as with most memorable TV fantasy in my childhood with my Mum, and I remember us both gasping with genuine surprise when the true nature of our heroes’ adversaries was revealed.
In the real world Sapphire and Steel had also come up against an implacable enemy, and when Central television took over ATV a slew of programmes were cancelled - this undervalued gem among them.

Hammond apparently wanted to shop his creation around to other channels in the hope of continuing. But when hoping to enlist his stars Lumley and McCallum they begged off, feeling they’d done all they could with the roles and convincing him that the show couldn’t have ended on a better, if downbeat, high.
Sapphire and Steel were unassigned but remained a cult classic through nostalgic recollections, a partial repeat on British satellite channel Bravo, and VHS and DVD releases.

Twenty years later, Big Finish Productions released three ‘seasons’ of Sapphire and Steel audio dramas, starring the mighty David Warner as Steel (McCallum was living full-time in Hollywood at this time) and Susannah Harker (Lumley didn’t want to reprise her role).

I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing these but they were apparently very popular and well-received.  Big Finish no longer have the license and don’t sell them anymore, but I live in hope of tracking down some second hand-recordings one day.

Different elements: David Warner and Susannah Harker voice Sapphire and Steel
in original audio adventures from Big Finish.
Earlier this year it Wellington-based Luther creator Neil Cross announced that he was in talks with a British Production company to revive Sapphire and Steel.  Exciting news, but to me part of the series charm was that the original series was ephemeral, only able to exist in our reality for a short time.  A brief but bright flare of brilliance in the early 1980s when Time broke through and we had to depend on two sharply dressed strangers who refused to explain themselves, and left us knowing as little about them as we did when they first appeared. 
I doubt something so determinedly cryptic could be made now, when mainstream audiences appear to need everything spelt out before moving quickly on to action and effects scenes. 

But I’m very happy to be proven wrong.

(I'm heavily indebted to the excellent Horror Etc podcast for unearthing a great deal of this information)


  1. I love this series, and place it even above Doctor Who. So much that I even picked up the CDs...

  2. Hi Jamas!
    I was hugely impressed when I watched it again - sometimes the memory doesn't cheat! I'd strongly recommend the Horror Etc podcast about this programme (or I'll get it to you somehow - and hopefully we might even be able to talk about some kind of CD loan - exchange?)