ghostJoanna LumleyDavid McCallum
Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 1
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1979
Director: Shaun O'Riordan
Writer: Peter J. Hammond
Keywords: Sapphire and Steel, ghost, SF, favourite
Country: UK
Actor: Joanna Lumley, David McCallum, Tamasin Bridge, John Golightly, Ronald Goodale, Felicity Harrison, Steven O'Shea, Charles Pemberton, Val Pringle
Format: Six 25-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 3 February 2010
That was astonishing. It's a ghost story, but with a sufficiently radical twist that the world's oldest fictional genre is suddenly fresh again. What Peter J. Hammond's done is to dress up his ghosts in enough technobabble to make it feel like SF rather than outright fantasy, but he's then made it impenetrably weird, alien and enigmatic to restore the mystery in a completely different way. I know of no other fictional universe that even slightly resembles this one. People don't travel in time, but instead time travels in people. What does that even mean? I'm in awe of the imagination that could not only dream up those words, but then turn them into a TV show. This is a universe in which incomprehensible shit is liable to happen if you so much as call out your mother's name, while one of the most suicidally dangerous things you can do is sing a nursery rhyme.
Furthermore the enemy is real. This isn't any old ghost story. It's a ghost story with a nasty, freaky antagonist whose actions can't be predicted because it has supernatural powers and no real physical form, but which is trying really hard to eat everyone and everything.
On top of that, you've also got extraordinary protagonists. It's hard to come up with good heroes for an ongoing horror series, because the fact that they keep surviving is soon going to undermine the desired effect as the audience comes to realise they've got script immunity. I can't think of better answers to this storytelling conundrum than Sapphire and Steel, although John Constantine's not a million miles behind. What they've all got in common is that they're dynamic, powerful and a bit dangerous. Do they seem trustworthy? No. Do you have any choice? No. Admittedly this isn't the story where Steel deliberately feeds an innocent man to the evil presence to make it go away, but you can easily believe he'd do it.
Ergo this is a series of ghost stories, but it's also got scary anti-heroes whom you want to keep watching, up against an unpredictably horrible all-powerful evil. It's a brilliant formula. Truly and seriously brilliant, not to mention being entirely unlike anything else ever.
That's just general stuff about the series, though. What about this particular instalment of it?
The acting isn't so great in this one. David McCallum hits the ground running as Steel, but Joanna Lumley's struggling as Sapphire and is still working on the problem of being emotionless but not crap. The story only gets away with it due to context. She's some kind of strange inhuman secret agent who can turn back time and probably regards humans as some kind of pet, so it's not so strange that she's dead-eyed. Besides, she'd get better once she had a few episodes under her belt. However as well as Lumley, we also have child actors. There are two of them, a teenage boy (Steven O'Shea) and a much younger girl (Tamasin Bridge), who's probably about six. They're both very good, considering, but in both cases I'm allowing for their ages when I say that. O'Shea's really giving it some welly and in the end rather impressed me, while Bridge is better than you'd expect but not astonishingly so. She can walk, look serious and deliver simple dialogue. Both of them are used intelligently and serve their function in the story without letting the side down, but equally neither really counts as a reason to watch it.
Incidentally, while Bridge never acted in anything else again, O'Shea had previously done a couple of other TV jobs and despite disappearing for nearly twenty years after this, popped up again in the nineties to take a few more minor TV roles. No, hang on, I nearly forgot Lead. He's a huge black guy who laughs a lot and although he too is entirely sufficient to the role being asked of him, there's no particular reason to bring him back another time. The actor doesn't seem to have had a big screen career, anyway.
The story's great, which is doubly impressive if you consider that what happens in it isn't even meant to be comprehensible by humans. I was able to kid myself that I was following along for most of it, but that ending. What exactly was that? Steel's explanation consists of words that seemed to make sense at the time and I'm pretty sure Peter J. Hammond had some kind of rationale in his mind for what happens, but I'm equally sure that he wasn't particularly keen on communicating it to the audience. It feels right, though. Scary climax-like stuff happens. However it has to be admitted that six episodes is a lot of story and they could comfortably have lost an episode or two. Part five's the one where they're most clearly treading water. They're got some spooky atmosphere going, but unfortunately they're aware of this and so they're playing safe and sticking with that when the penultimate episode needed a little more. The ghosts have taken O'Shea. We're approaching the climax and what should have been a fantastic final cliffhanger as our heroes go to rescue him. Lead smashes down a locked door and says, "It's not locked now." Unfortunately the on-screen sequence seems more interested in Lead reassuring Tamasin Bridge and being cuddly, after which the credits rolling feels as if they must have run out of tape or something.
The atmosphere they conjure up really is outstanding, though. It's a simple setting, but lonely and spooky in all the right ways. Frankly I wouldn't expect even a feature film to be able to improve on what's being conjured up here. Apparently this was a low-budget series, which makes its achievements all the more impressive.
Peter J. Hammond novelised this story for Star Books in 1979. Those searching for further non-TV Sapphire and Steel adventures could try the Big Finish audio plays, or alternatively you could hunt down the mighty Arthur Ranson's comic strips from Look-In magazine. Curious fact I recently learned: apparently the first Sapphire and Steel story was supposed to be a children's show! It has children as key characters and builds the plot around them, even if the tone of the show feels like no children's series I've ever seen. However that intention got rapidly ditched as we went into Assignment 2.
Will I regret reviewing these individually? The series has such a strong and distinctive voice that for all I know the differences between the individual stories will end up being cosmetic. They don't even have separate names. I've certainly spent more time talking about the series as a whole here than I have about this particular serial within it. However it's also such a weird and memorable show that I don't begrudge it the amount of discussion I've committed myself to giving it. Its monster can get into pictures! It feeds on nursery rhymes! I love the surrealism in what you have to do to survive and what unpredictable things might turn out to be dangerous. It's not fairy-tale logic, but it's not dissimilar either.
I'm afraid I can't stop myself from making the all-time least original observation about this series, though. Despite the impression we're given by the opening credits, neither steel nor sapphire is an element. The former is an alloy and the latter is aluminium oxide. Sorry, really, I couldn't help it...