Tales of Mystery and Imagination

David Sheldrick on Sapphire and Steel

First published October 1999

Sapphire and Steel was the kind of television drama I so much wanted back in 1979. Doctor Who had passed through its most golden years and tended towards Baker-driven pastiche and comic send-up; The Tomorrow People had descended into evermore tacky silliness. Series which had sustained my interest in telefantasy throughout the ’70s – Timeslip, Ace of Wands, Shadows, the HTV series – were no more and the genre seemed to have lost its cutting edge, as if unsure of how to react to film blockbusters like Star Wars with their extravagantly flaunted special effects, operatic scale and transatlantic slickness. I began to wonder whether it was times that were changing or was it that I was outgrowing the kind of television I had once so much enjoyed. Late newcomers to the field, like the BBC’s Omega Factor, seemed insipid and dull and only compounded my growing sense of unease.

Then, in July 1979, a new twice-weekly series quietly opened on ITV with the beguiling title, Sapphire and Steel. The casting of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum in the title roles intrigued me and hinted at a certain integrity and quality. I gained an impression of a series which might possess elements of magic, mystery and suspense, but with a kind of conceptual underpinning (the idea of the corridor of time, the elements and the the transuranics) akin to – but substantially different from – the mythology of the Time Lords and time/space travel in Doctor Who.

I have never especially liked Sapphire and Steel‘s title sequence and music – bombastic, somehow macho in tone and suggestive of a kind of ’50s SF parody, they seem at odds with the series itself, like one of those revamped title sequences which ITC would sometimes tack onto a series intended for overseas sales or a video release (Thriller was butchered in this way when recreened in the ’80s). It’s as if another, original set of titles/music to Sapphire and Steel must have once existed – one more mysterious, more seductive, simply more interesting than the one we actually have. Fortunately, though, the opening titles gave little hint of the finely woven quality of what is about to unfold. The first story is like an “easing in” to the series; Steel is uncharacteristically conciliatory and occasionally almost fatherly towards the children; Sapphire flippantly changes clothes to impress Rob (or please herself?), there are more explanations of “time” (“it’s very very big and it’s very dangerous”) and the whole is seen through the eyes of the children. Subsequent stories would strip away this comforting veneer and move the viewer into darker, stranger realms.

Sapphire and Steel presents a universe of dangerous uncertainty where nothing is quite what it seems. In “Four”, Steel remarks “every photograph is a photograph of infinity” and this applies equally well to time – what is the reality behind the surface? Our lives are like the writing on the page, the paint on the canvas, the newly painted room, but time always wants to strip away the “reality” behind this surface, to examine what is written between the lines, to see what picture was painted behind the present one, to restore the faded wallpaper pattern bleeding through that freshly painted wall. The series reminds me of Rachel Whiteread’s House (a cast of an entire East London house) where empty space is rendered solid matter – Sapphire and Steel move in this realm of empty space, making it tangible, known. The series gives substance to shadows, presenting a world not of scientific causality but of poetic inferences, where objects have relationships, their own identities and “lives” every bit as much as humans do. We learn of “likenesses”, “manifestations”, “ghosts”, “external projections” “visual refractions” and the distinction between what is “alive” and what is “real” (“Four”). In a universe bursting with possibilities, many of them malevolent, we become alive to the power of words (the nursery rhymes in “One”), paintings (“One”), photographs (“Four”), memories (the poignant evocation of an English pastoral idyll in “Two”), emotions (the resentment of the dead also in “Two” and the hybrid creature in “Three” ), actions (McDee’s accident in “Five”), and ultimately of games with time itself (“Six”).

“Two”, especially, evokes a kind of heightened psychic reality, but does so with the utmost subtlety. The viewer is never bludgeoned into obvious emotional reactions, but rather enticed into the enigma of each scene – and each scene is allowed to breath beautifully; this spaciousness allows for our responses to unfold in their fullness. With something of the tension of a good radio play, parts of “Two” lend an impact to the spoken word rare in popular television; in his sometimes tearful soliloquy, the soldier conjures the simple pleasures of an Edwardian country childhood, made all the more poignant by his untimely demise so soon afterwards – his phrase, “I’ll pick that flower next year” evokes this to painful effect. And Eleanor, his beloved schoolteacher, through her bitter, chilling repetition of “home by five they said” and telling “Sam Pearce, you’ll be late for your own funeral”, paints a picture of a cruel world where youthful hopes and dreams are crushed – giving rise to the resentment on which the darkness feeds. “Six” uses the spoken word with the same awareness of its impact, but does so to convey a latent sense of menace rather than poignancy. Edward de Sousa’s lines, in particular, create a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty emphasised by the Pinteresque pauses which punctuate his conversations both with the woman and with Sapphire and Steel. Ultimately, although atmospheric and unnerving, the devices used to sustain atmosphere in “Six” are little more than that – stylistic devices; the strangely stilted double-edged conversations juxtaposing the apparently banal with the potentially menacing, are unsettling and strange but one cannot help wondering why the beings take so long to play out their deadly game – why don’t they act against Sapphire and Steel from the start?

Darkness, bleakness, emptiness – these are constants underlying Sapphire and Steel, especially in its strongest stories. The studio-settings of all six make for a claustrophobic feel and somehow imply that the drama is like a self-contained vignette, played out against a backdrop of darkness. It is difficult to believe that if we could walk away from the children’s house (“One”), the deserted railway station (“Two”), the lost and found shop (“Four”) – that we would simply find ourselves back in our familiar, known world, but rather these places seem shrouded in a darkness that is both literal and, sometimes, existential. Sapphire and Steel are like our lights in this darkness only in the sense that they have been assigned to solve a series of potentially catastrophic breaks in time, but their presence is often far from reassuring. Steel can be manipulative (freezing Liz in “Four”), insulting (in “Two”, his attitude to Tully, although he is happy to make use of Tully when it suits him, for example, the séance), callous (his sacrifice of Tully), and his general demeanour is frequently arrogant; Sapphire has a kind of distant warmth and at times vulnerability, but she too can be manipulative (putting Rob into a perpetual time-loop in “One”) and dismissive (her habit of walking away in the middle of conversations). Even the series’ humour can be black – the cruelly surreal yet deliciously eerie ending to Six when the pocket chess set is opened to show, not a means of escape, but (appropriately) a game, and the service station’s twee gingham curtains are pulled back to reveal an eternity of drifting through emptiness.

What I like most about Sapphire and Steel is that it eschews almost all the usual trappings of television SF. I like the way that it can make the simplest gesture – the pinning of a flower in a buttonhole (“Two”) – full of suspense and terror and sadness. I like the way it presents us with a universe manipulated not by bare fists and guns, but understood intuitively and sensed empathically. It almost seems to be encouraging an understanding and justification of childhood fears – the fear that our parents may abandon us (“One”), the ghosts which inhabit deserted places (“Two”), the man on the stairs (“Four”), the sinister intent of strangers (“Six”).

I have mixed feelings about the series untimely demise – a victim of the absurd 1981 ITV franchise debacle which saw Crossroads survive the changeover from ATV to Central, and Sapphire and Steel fall at the hurdle. The series brevity meant it never had an opportunity to fall into decline – a camped up, pantomimic Sapphire and Steel a là late period Doctor Who would have been too ghastly to bear – but neither did it fulfil its potential and thus a sense of frustration remains. Looking at it again now, 20 years later, it seems very much of its time and yet also possesses a timelessness denied many of its peers. Its virtues were atmospheric direction, convincing acting, a quietly compelling quality and, at its best, a rare depth and refusal to patronise its audience. These qualities make it as watchable today as in 1979. Yet, sadly, in a television landscape increasingly dominated by globalization, instant gratification and the quick buck, these same qualities are precisely what locate Sapphire and Steel firmly in an age now long gone. Somehow they only serve to enhance that elegiac sense of loss which is one of the series’ greatest charms.