Anthony ReadJoanna LumleyDavid McCallumDavy Kaye
Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 5
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1981
Director: David Foster, Shaun O'Riordan
Writer: Don Houghton, Anthony Read
Keywords: Sapphire and Steel, SF
Country: UK
Actor: Joanna Lumley, David McCallum, Jeremy Child, Debbie Farrington, Davy Kaye, Peter Laird, Patricia Shakesby, Jennie Stoller, Jeffrey Wickham
Format: Six 25-minute episodes
Website category: SF
Review date: 10 April 2010
I liked that a lot. I don't think its final episode works, which is a shame, but it's using the show's format better than the preceding two stories. The story's all about the supporting cast, while Sapphire and Steel basically stand there and watch. Good. A little of those two goes a long way, although Houghton and Read are approaching the limits of how far into the background you can push them.
The first episode is wonderful. We're still learning about everything and it feels delicate, intriguing and spooky. In case you've forgotten, this is the one in which Lord Mullrine, a super-wealthy dwarf, is throwing a party in which everyone's to pretend it's 1930 instead of 1980. I loved the little ways in which the earlier time starts bleeding in, such as the cricket commentary on the radio. You've got everyone swanning around being so upper-crust and bitchy. Then you've got the fact that it all looks so good, especially Sapphire and Steel's period outfits. I love Lumley as a flapper, while McCallum's little moustache is brilliant. Jennie Stoller's gorgeous in that red dress, too.
What's interesting is how everything comes full circle. You've got people cheating on each other and saying "he takes after his father", thus reflecting the themes of the main story. After finishing the final episode, I immediately wanted to go back and watch the first one again. There's an underlying skein of infidelity, greed and criminal behaviour that's echoed in pretty much everything anyone says or does, but more specifically you'd see all that casually bitchy dialogue in a new light after you'd learned the truth about what happened in 1930. This is the first Sapphire and Steel where the characters actually are the story instead of merely being witnesses to Time's shenanigans, which is theoretically admirable and I'd like to be able to like it more than I do. The problem is that final episode. Personally I blame for this a second brilliant idea that doesn't quite work, the inversion of Agatha Christie convention. I love the idea of 1930s detectives who want to kill the murder victim and are even stepping into the traditional Agatha Christie unreliable flashbacks in order to get him, but that's not how it plays out. In practice you know what's going to happen, although not the details of how, and it doesn't feel dramatic. Sapphire and Steel hardly do anything. They're just watching, really.
Episode six certainly isn't a dead loss, mind you. There's an effective little scene just before the death and I like the way the story comes full circle. It's good. It made me think. However it's merely interesting, whereas the story's first episode blew me away.
I like the way that the temporal threat makes intuitive sense for once. You're not left scratching your head and reflecting that perhaps the machinations of time aren't supposed to make sense except to extra-dimensional entities. Admittedly it's nice to have incomprehensible Sapphire and Steel stories too, but this makes for a nice change after certain stories in which the plot was resolved by P.J. Hammond getting bored. At six episodes this is probably a bit too long, but for this series that's traditional too.
I like the way Houghton and Read handle the show's mythology. They don't go near it much, but everything they do give us feels right, if you know what I mean. It's either logical or adds to the mystery, instead of feeling reductively SF-ish. I like the way Steel is ignorant of fundamental things about humans. "How else do humans destroy each other?" I like the extensive use that's made of the leads' telepathy, which towards the beginning is even funny with Sapphire's brutal character summaries of the guests they're being introduced to at the party. This allows some unique moments. "Quick, what's my name?" "He doesn't feel the same way; he has someone else."
Mind you, we're supposed to believe that Sapphire is a bridge player, but she doesn't put her trumps on the right.
The cast has lots of old people in it, which makes me happy. Appropriately for these privileged roles the actors aren't without titles and honours, including Davy Kaye MBE (as Lord Mullrine) and one Sir Coles John "Jeremy" Child, 3rd Baronet. Kaye's the short one. Apparently he was so small at birth that he wasn't expected to live, but he went on to get that MBE for services to charity in 1995 and he's a couple of Carry Ons. There are also a couple of actors from Doctor Who, but only Webster from The Reign of Terror and Chang from The Wheel in Space.
I'm fond of this story. It could afford to lose an episode or two and it's not the creepiest, but I like its ideas and its Agatha Christie aesthetic. I also think guest writers was just what the series needed. It's not a typical Sapphire and Steel story, if only for the sheer size of its cast, but I like that too.