March 06, 2006


Once upon a time, an age or more ago, at a party in Brighton I was asked to liken Sapphire and Steel to an artist. I pondered and then said ‘Magritte’.

Although I am in no way insinuating artistic parallels as we are looking at two very different forms of medium; I can see the surrealistic ingredient that makes the show so wonderful and it’s obvious appeal to me..

As with the surrealistic art movement, Sapphire and Steel paradoxically resisted the appeal to a mass audience. On a human level, we tend to ignore what we do not understand rather than acknowledging a space to be filled in our heads, so it is with no wonder that the show didn’t become ITV’s ‘Doctor Who’.

The popularity it did receive was mainly because of the two impressive leads. Whatever stories surfaced from the rumour mill about whether Lumley and Mcallum ‘got on’ or whether it was all ' purely professional’ beckons validity; but I defy anyone that could come up with two actors more fitting for the demanding roles.

This was initially what the show was sold on and although we are told what they do (of sorts!), a miniscule amount of other facts but one of the greatest mysteries that is never answered outright - who Sapphire and Steel really are. We have two perfectly juxtaposed individuals who live up to their namesakes. Steel is hard and unyielding but has the odd instances of emotional weakness that when surfaces hinders rather than helps the situation on hand. Sapphire on the other hand comes across more warmer, almost human you might say! She plays the role of adjudicator, advocate and sage to Steels more ‘hands on’ methodology.

Her unworldly psychic power is more on display and apparent than her counterparts. She has the ability to ‘take time back’ witnessing incidents before they happen. She can, make time by stalling it; ideal for someone who’s always late for work and invaluable for saving the cosmos. As Wonder Woman’s twirl caused an exciting fizz , as you could depend on this something groovy was about to happen, the same feeling, but to a more deeper degree, was realized when Sapphire used this aspect of her abilities.

The trademark was when time went backwards the eyes went an iridescent blue and this wonderfully haunting sound permeated the soundtrack. She can also tell the compound and age of objects as well as (worryingly!) sense the date of someone’s death. An ability we all fear of having.

Steel relies on Sapphires ethereal and super psychic ability and only demonstrates similar traits when he communicates telepathically and not forgetting Steels party piece of reducing the temperature to absolute zero.

They both epitomise the quintessential detective lineament of hot and cold. Neither opposes each others methodology although Steel does incessantly and forcefully bully Sapphire into going that little way further when she appears at her maximum mystic level. Unfortunately due to her ‘sensitivity’ she also bares the brunt of many a pissed off manifestation. Poor lass gets whisked to other dimensions, gets possessed by forces beyond explanation and feels strong emotions that Steel can only ever dream of having.

Indications that the two are not always briefed at the same time can be witnessed in instances where they seem to arrive at the same location but there initial ‘hook-up’ is delayed.

So from surrealism and a scratch upon the surface of who these beings are; we can venture into the enigmatic territory. From the powerful opening sequences we are told basic information but it is very rudimentary and leaves one bewildered equally as understanding. The thirst for further enlightenment has therefore already captivated the intelligent viewer. Even the lack of episode titles and identity adds to the mystery and timelessness, even before we analyse the stories.

Another success is that the show has avoided aging miserably like other shows screened around this time. So the hair dos, clothes and interiors may seem very seventies but the whole ‘contemporary’ aspect has not been stifled by these. If anything the late 70’s/early 80’s feel seems to be there because that just happens to be the time period our heroes are based. So it can be argued why they shouldn’t appear in dress and appearance specific to the date where they are routed. This base is just a temporal home rather than a permanent dwelling time.

The series fits within the loose confines of fantasy but has about a quarter of that firmly rooted in science-fiction. Having this harsher compliment enables the subject of time to be dealt with more credibly. Time is no longer manipulated by humans as yardsticks for routine, Time is an entity, it is living, it too can control and the more the series develops the more we realise time is a force so powerful that it will never let up. Therefore Sapphire and Steels briefings aren’t based on the destruction of it but the containment of it within the constraints of this ‘fabric’ boundary.

Having established that the detectives are based in our current period we have time also represented as paranormal. Old bygone objects become sacrosanct and can ultimately be very, very dangerous. Age is attributed to such objects that all act as triggers for when time becomes very bad. These are always measured and dated from the present time should we go along with the big bang theory.

The names of our titular detectives are done for euphonic purpose as neither is a single element in there selves, Sapphire is aluminium oxide and Steel manufactured from iron and Carbon. Therefore this could explain why the time detectives are so important to each other, one covers what their other team member lacks? Some of the other ‘medium atomic weights’ from the opening credits mentioned are pure elements namely Gold, Lead, Copper, Radium and Silver. Diamond is another form of carbon and Jet, a polished ignite (a rock formed by partially decomposed vegetation, and therefore another form of carbon with traces of hydrogen, oxygen and magnesium). It is noticeable to the very observant that ‘Lead’ is replaced by ‘Mercury’ in the titles narrative for story 6 and the third episode of story four.

One of the other praises are for the noteworthy supporting cast, their integrity to the plot can at times be as pinnacle and essential as the leads. In story one and lesser degree story four the child actors and actresses are most convincing. Some of the stage school droids churned out then, and now, can be toe curlingly bad and can let a whole episode down due to the way they have been mishandled by the director. The examples of this show are leagues above the norm, playing their cameos with artistic skill making yet again the whole scenario highly believable.

Gerald James’ performance as George Tully, doomed ghost-hunter is absolutely spot on, praise for the ‘ghosts’ that haunt him to. They come across as genuinely scary but just as sad, the sadness however is touching but not used as a weakness for it is this emotional drive that is causing the instability and the desire to exist until justice is satisfactorily carried out. No wonder this tale is the most fondly remembered.

Visually and technologically this story works well too, the haunting possession of Sapphire as she is taken over by ‘The Darkness’ rendering her face to nothing more than organic decay is one of many superbly executed pieces that nightmares are only made of. Shaun O’Riordan skilfully crafts sadness and claustrophobia in this story and milks it for all it is worth for maximum impact.

Eldred and Rothwyn featuring in story 3 are relatively weak in comparison to predecessors and successors but this let down is superseded by Paul Collings portrayal of the puckish Silver. ‘Leads’ a bit of a let down as he comes across as a guffawing stereotype that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Uncle Toms Cabin’ .Setting this minor affectation aside Lead is also a welcomed addition as we see more of the mystery mentioned at the very beginning a la credit roll.

Alyson Spiros’ character Liz in the fourth story sees the return of the strong character in the form of ‘a tart with a heart’. There for identifiability and fondness for the audience we can see that this is merely face value. As the plot unfolds Liz’s’ integrity to the story is essential as ultimately she is the one that saves Sapphire and Steel from entrapment by the haunting magritte-esque ‘faceless man’.

The fifth story is the worst I feel, the characters plod their way through a confused, sentimental plot. There is a small display of ‘Ham’ from the male entourage and some of it seems like a badly filmed episode of a game show murder-mystery, I am afraid it is more ‘Cluedo’ than ‘Christie’.

This doesn’t spoil ones enjoyment as this still could be used as an example of a slice of decent television still blowing most of our contemporary British and Yank import dross out of the water. There is the odd gruesome incident to stop the spectator from dozing but it all ends rather hurriedly and swimmingly ….. WHACKO!!!

Another contender for the ‘Best of…’ crown has respectively been saved for last. Story six combines all the elements that made the other stories work so well and they're delivered gift wrapped! Force fields, ghosts, rhymes of a bygone age and people from different time zones are all staple ingredients to this cracking yarn from P.J Hammond.

There are, thankfully, no flash gadgets and no o.t.t graphics but there is plenty of atmosphere and scares by the bucket load which compensate for the simple sfx on display. It is because of this simplicity that the stories are so credible I feel anything CGI or similar would dumb down the impetus as the viewers would be distracted from what quality show is really offering the viewer.

Story six also sees the focus switch from people in jeopardy to solely on the main leads. Silver makes a welcome return but a big question marked exit – did he manage to escape? If he did maybe he freed Sapphire and Steel in an adventure we could only ever imagine but will never see.

The programme uses the detective story idiom owing more to Agatha Christie for all its would be Chanderlesque overtones, and yet its science as magic approach is retrospective of H.G Wells’ spacious and part sincere rambling at the beginning of ‘The Time Machine’ about the nature of time.

Sapphire and Steel are time detectives unyet the ‘crimes’ they sleuth are more like misguided accidents. Each story follows the same principality; something goes wrong with time people reappear from it and vice-versa, enigmatic malignant forces try to distort and machinate time to the point it wants to destroy humanity as well as the unpredictable behaviour of time itself.

Our duos job is to restore the balance and general status quo to make things ‘o.k.’ again. The pair profess that they have emotional deficiency but most definitely comprehend it and can be seen to be displaying it in others. They may be alien with dispassion but their sense of values are very humanistic. It seems they have lost their aptitude to express it rather than never having it in the first place.

There is also an undertone of sexual frisson between the characters. Only once do I recall Steel mentioning the word ‘love’ and that was highly cant in manner. He is also jealous of Sapphires attention to Silvers flirtatious manner and praise. Steel can also on the other hand be extremely waspish towards Sapphire, these instances last the majority of screen time fortunately, a cuddly Steel – perish the thought!

If we hypothesise that Sapphire has ‘feelings’ for Steel, she could have a soft spot for his inner child who on the surface seems acrimonious and aloof when it comes to displaying any affection.

Minimalist without sacrificing realism is the order of the day for the feel of the show. All the houses and buildings are cobwebbed derelicts, settings and costumes are naturalistic and sparse, colours are recherché. Palettes of sepia, grey and blue are permanent washes to the supernal settings, I hope you can see these from the screenshots supplied. The number of sets used for each set are very few and fairly basic, but it works so, so well thanks to O’Riordans superlative camerawork.

Another thing that brings this to life and an important ingredient as flour is to bread are the quality performances by the supporting cast , their talents are truly first rate making the unbelievable even more believable.

It is with a crestfallen heart that I realise we will never see a show of this calibre and style again. The demand for vulgarity has overtaken the quality aspect that used to be for the viewing public first and foremost. In our times this has been sailed down the river in favour of monotony where the stakes of getting a lucrative cash cow has taken over the risks of bringing in brand new talent and concepts.

Where are our Comedy Playhouses? Where are the Play for Today’s? Where are our anthology series, that proved the best possible breeding ground for up and coming talent fused with household names.

That helps new writers get their works realised, that are performed by new talent in front of new directors? Such possibilities can come from such a wealth of plays on different themes, different ideas and different perception; this individualism seems no longer applicable as television is becoming like the high street globalised and faceless. One will be able to stand in most town centres and won’t be able to differentiate between them

With this lack of innovativity the televisual media will be as safe as it always has been but a much bigger and powerful little money making machine that will feed us quality television in drips and drabs but pump the rest out in all it’s diamante and glittery spangle.

Setting the above aside you can pick up the Region 1 DVD stateside that has lots more extras and neat packaging and watch digitally enhanced adventures of the most unusual detectives of latter 1970s televisions golden age.

If you have some more spare time and like to relax whilst being spooked check out the new ‘Big Finish’ c.d adventures, these are surprisingly nifty little adventures with not to much change to disappoint the fan. Fortunately they also managed to use the original theme that gives it that little ‘seal of approval’. Thanks for keeping this show alive all involved.

Hope you enjoyed the break from the norm, now back to our more adult orientated fayre………………………………………………..


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