Sapphire And Steel: Special Edition Review
Being rather short of time, most of this review comes from the two existing Sapphire And Steel reviews on this site, which were written by Roy Gill following the release of the Carlton boxsets in August and October 2002. They have, though, been updated with an image and audio comparison between the two sets and with a review of the bonus material taken from this new six-disc release from Network DVD.
Sapphire and Steel are a mysterious, otherworldly duo, played by stars Joanna Lumley and David McCallum in this fondly remembered TV serial from the late seventies-early eighties. Sent by an unknown power, arriving by unknown means, Sapphire and Steel's assignment is to detect and repair breaks in the structure of time, by whatever means necessary. Each displays character traits and special powers that echo their names: Sapphire uses charm to find her way to the heart of a situation, emotion draining from her face when it no longer suits her purpose. Sapphire also has the ability to roll back the passage of time, accompanied by a suitable chromakey'd blue glow in her eyes. Steel meanwhile can call upon physical strength and, if necessary, lower his body temperature to well below zero. A brusque, assertive, and occasionally morally ambiguous character, Steel counterpoints his partner's gentler approach perfectly.
Those of you who recall your high school chemistry will already have spotted that - despite the implication of the title sequence narration (quoted above) - neither Sapphire nor Steel actually features on the periodic table. This contradiction, presumably intentional, serves as a motif for the series, representing perhaps a deliberate dislocation from the world of hard science and objective reality. Indeed, Sapphire And Steel is by no means a traditional science fiction series, but rather owes more in tone and visual style to the ghost story. There's an emphasis on old buildings, shadows and spectres, and an attempt to make the common place and ordinary - clocks and paintings, railway stations and nursery rhymes - sinister and unsettling. In the world of Sapphire And Steel, time itself becomes a strange, organic thing, an unseen corridor that surrounds us, through which things may break through into our reality, and snatch objects or people away...
Assignment 1 (6 episodes, 150mins): In an isolated house, a boy reluctantly does his homework whilst upstairs his parents and little sister happily read nursery rhymes together. One by one, the clocks in the house come to a stop - by the time the last pendulum freezes, the children's parents are gone. Sapphire and Steel soon arrive on the scene, and must attempt to gain the children's co-operation as they try to retrieve the missing parents and stop the force that is threatening to break through and overwhelm the house.
This opening adventure sets the tone for much of the rest of the series, with numerous apparitions, eerie doubles, and creeping patches of sinister light all combining to provide a memorable whole. The use of nursery rhymes as a catalyst for time to break through is particularly effective, the audience being offered a disquieting reminder of the historical origins of innocent pre-school entertainment: reciting 'Ring a Ring a Roses' causes images of the black death to manifest, 'Goosey Goosey Gander' brings forth soldiers to ransack the house, and so on. Child stars Tamasin Bridge and Steven O'Shea put in respectable performances, with O'Shea in particular impressing when called upon to demonstrate a conflict in allegiance between assisting Sapphire and Steel, and helping 'something' that has taken on the appearance of one of his parents. Also making an appearance is Lead, another elemental agent. Played with undoubted gusto by Val Pringle, Lead's repeated outbursts of uncalled for hearty laugher did unfortunately rather remind this reviewer of The Simpsons's Dr Hibberd...
Assignment Two (8 episodes, 200 mins): On a deserted railway station, gentle ghost hunter Tully (Gerald James) attempts to contact the spirit of a young soldier who died in world war one. Outside on the platform, it seems to be a different season, and spectral flowers mysteriously bloom...
Due to the vagaries of late seventies television strikes, Assignment Two is probably the Sapphire And Steel series which the non-fan viewer will be most familiar with, and is arguably also the best in the run. Clocking in at eight instalments, it's easily the most epic adventure of the series, and can afford to devote much screen time to the careful, atmosphere building depiction of events: an episode long séance in which Lumley is called upon to act as if possessed by different spirits being particularly effective. Shaun O'Riordan and David Foster's direction is inventive throughout, whether constructing montages of battle sounds and images to convey the horror of war, or inventively creating the thin atmosphere of a doomed submarine through little more than lighting, camera angles, and the utter conviction of his lead performers. Moments such as the submarine sequence, in which television proudly displays its theatrical roots, are amongst the series' most effective. They perhaps also provide a key as to whether the contemporary viewer will find much to enjoy here: if your tastes run mainly to expensive, empty visuals then you are likely to find Sapphire And Steel fairly dated. On the other hand, if you relish drama carried by dialogue and performance, you'll discover much to enjoy.
Mention too should be made at this point of Cyril Ornadel's incidental music. Ornadel creates an effective score throughout the series, here developing a jangling, discordant theme that heralds the approach of a creeping, malevolent darkness. If the output of the BBC Radiophonic workshop is often heralded as influential on today's dance music and electronica (notably by bands such as Orbital), then Ornadel's work must surely pre-figure some of the work of acts like Portishead and Goldfrapp.
Assignment Three (6 episodes, 150 mins): Day 27, 9.34 AM. Unseen observers watch as Rothywn (Catherine Hall) tackles the hazards of simple food preparation in the kitchen. No, not another day in The Big Brother house, but rather a glimpse into a time capsule sent from the far future to observe and record the procedures of times past. Unfortunately for the craft's occupants, they are far from safe in their hermetically sealed environment - something inside threatens their lives, and the structure of time itself.
After two adventures in which Sapphire and Steel confront problems that utilise the rich imagery of times past, the third serial's venture into the present feels initially somewhat ill at ease with the series format. This is perhaps due more to a shift in location than any real drop in script quality - the brightly lit studio set with its (then contemporary) nasty eighties modernist furnishings is hard pushed to compete with the atmosphere developed in the moodily lit sets of Assignments One and Two. Nevertheless, there's fun to be had here, with David Collings as the raffish, likeable Silver amusingly causing rifts in Sapphire and Steel's partnership. There's also a thoughtful commentary on the ethics of man's use of animals, with the ideas behind the script perhaps shining in a way that the more futuristic imagery of this series is hard pressed to match in execution.
Assignment Four (4 episodes, 96 mins): In a dingy flat above a junk shop, Liz (Alyson Spiro) applies her make up before going out to work for the night. Her flatmate and friend went missing some ago, as did her previous landlord, who used to like to dabble in photography. In the backyard, half-seen children play curiously old-fashioned games - it's a setting ripe for Sapphire and Steel to investigate.
This four part serial offers some notably surreal visuals, with an emphasis on imagery drawn from twentieth century art: there's an interest in the possibilities of photography, and the series villain appears to have stepped from one of the works of Magritte. It's all very moodily evocative, with Sapphire and Steel gliding from the gloomy kitchen sink existence of Liz's bedsit, to surreal encounters with animated umbrellas and phantom children. Nonetheless, the central ideas of elements of pictures coming to life, and people becoming trapped inside images was previously explored by the series in Assignment One, and this Assignment - however enjoyable - perhaps works mainly as an exercise in style and atmosphere over substance.
Assignment Five (6 episodes, 144 mins): Lord Mullrine (Davy Kaye) is preparing to celebrate fifty years in business with a themed anniversary party at his country house. As his guests arrive, clad in dapper nineteen thirties attire, amongst them are a certain Sapphire and Steel who will soon be called upon to put their detective skills to full use: the door back to the nineteen eighties is fading, and the guests' memories of who they are and how they arrived are becoming uncertain. As if such problems weren't enough, there also appears to be a murderer on the loose...
Assignment Five is the only entry in the series not written by Sapphire And Steel creator PJ Hammond. Instead, stepping up to the typewriter, we have Don Houghton and Anthony Read. Their take on the format offers perhaps a more rational approach to storytelling: on this occasion, the malevolent power manipulating time has a distinct objective and a clear means by which to achieve its goals. Whilst such an approach arguably moves Sapphire And Steel away from its usual ghost story milieu into the less abstract realm of science fiction - significantly both writers had previously contributed to Doctor Who - Houghton and Read's differing style is by no means jarring, and indeed offers an interesting alternative perspective on the possibilities of the series. Sapphire and Steel are allowed for once to literally play detective, and there are some amusing subversions of the detective story genre on offer. Sapphire's telepathic abilities undercut the traditional means by which viewers (and detective) must work out the suspects' allegiances and motives through their actions, by instead directly revealing some insights in voice over. Furthermore, the usual detective task of uncovering whodunit may not even prove to be applicable... Coupled with a larger than usual cast dispensing acid remarks as the party's veneer of respectability slowly dissolves - Patience Collier in particular excels as the wonderfully bitchy Emily Mullrine - Assignment Five is easily the most entertaining and accessible of the six serials under review here.
Assignment Six (4 episodes, 96mins): At a roadside petrol station and cafe, time has frozen at 8.54 PM. The same cars pass by trapped in a loop, the radio plays the same snatches of music over and over. Silver (a return appearance by the very watchable David Collings) has been on the scene for some hours, observing a curiously cold and disinterested couple (Edward De Souza & Johanna Kirby) from the nineteen forties who claim to have arrived at the station by accident. The final Sapphire And Steel adventure piles on the intrigue thick and fast, with plot revelations building to a notably downbeat cliffhanger ending.
Production notes included in the DVD extras indicate that P J Hammond's original intention was to rest the series temporarily, and return to Sapphire And Steel after a couple of years break. Whilst in many ways it is sad that fate conspired to deny McCallum and Lumley further outings in two roles they were so clearly suited for, it could also be argued that the ending we are offered is somewhat of a blessing in disguise. As can be seen from the serials under review here, for further adventures to avoid repetition and remain fresh, there would surely have been a need for new types of setting, more plot driven scripts, perhaps even investigation into Sapphire And Steel's origins and motivations. Whilst episodes investigating these possibilities may sound desirable, if they had come to pass then surely they would have also served to dilute much of Sapphire And Steel's memorable strangeness and lack of definition (also a pleasure of cult texts like The Prisoner, and much of early Doctor Who). What we do have - thirty four enigmatic and evocative episodes culminating in a very memorable cliffhanger - are arguably much more unique and valuable.
All the episodes on this six-disc set are presented in 4:3 as they were originally broadcast on ITV with there being no suggestion in watching the episodes that they were cut for DVD release. All of the episodes look fine but this has clearly had much less spent on it by Network than the recent re-release of The Prisoner. On that set, there was a clear difference between the Carlton and Network releases, much as there was before that with Space: 1999, but isn't as straightforward a case with Sapphire And Steel. At first glance, you will notice that the Network versions of the episodes, shown here on the right, have had the colour reduced. This also gives them the appearance of offering much more detail but in comparing one to another on a television screen, there really isn't anything gained in the Network restoration. My comparisons are shown below with the Carlton version on the left and the Network restored version on the right:
Yes, those are the original screen shots from Roy Gill's review but they were captured on exactly the same PC with exactly the same software as I used in 2007. Any donations to a new PC will be gratefully received.
The bigger problem comes with the condition the prints are in. The internal shots, recorded onto video, look in much better condition but are very soft. What few external shots there are come from prints that have not been shown a great deal of care over the years. There are numerous scuff marks on the print, colour can vary considerably and scratches are evident throughout. The ATV logo that begins each episode doesn't set a particularly good example for what follows but, in general, the actual episodes are better. However, the presentation of the video is as you might expect, soft, lacking in detail and with a burning in and trailing of bright spots around lights, candles, etc. Otherwise, Sapphire And Steel is as you would expect. There's nothing here to suggest Doctor Who's Restoration Team have any competition from the producers of this set but also Network can do much better and have done much so in the past. Their Space: 1999 was a revelation, The Prisoner was often very good and The Champions was a marvellous set. They could have done better with Sapphire And Steel.
All episodes are presented in DD2.0, with the original mono audio track split across the two channels. Like the picture quality, there's some obvious problems, not least an amount of background noise that is always present, although not always annoying.Again, the soundtracks aren't in great condition and have only been cleaned up to a fair standard. Treble tends towards sounding overly bright while bass is a bit of a mush at times. However, the dialogue is clear. There are, however, a couple of episodes when a sharp burst of white noise is heard on the soundtrack, often with a shorter echo a second or so later. Replaying these moments does confirm that its on the audio track but given that I only received check discs, it may be the case that they're not present on the finished retail version.
The last point is an odd one, just to say that if you choose to begin watching Assignment Two before any of the others, its first episode is actually tucked away on Disc 1. All other Assignments are presented, like the old Carlton release, on a separate disc but, probably due to the length of the story, the first episode of Assignment Two is on the first disc with the final seven episodes on the second. Finally, as is Network's way, there are no subtitles.
Commentaries: Writer/creator PJ Hammond and director Shaun O'Riordan have contributed two commentaries to this release of Sapphire And Steel and while both are fine, even to being a pleasure to listen to, I don't think the viewer really learns very much from either of them. Hammond and O'Riordan are clearly old friends and the commentaries don't find them talking directly to the viewers, or listeners, but having a fine old chat with one another about whatever Sapphire And Steel-related that takes their fancy. In Assignment One, Episode 1, Hammond and Shaun O'Riordan talk a little about the making of the series while Assignment Six, Episode 4 has them dealing with the end of the run of episodes. There's precious little detail in either of these but they clearly have a rum old time and, frankly, who would deny them that? Although, as one who always wondered about the transuranic heavy elements, I was quite taken with their idea of a follow-up series that would reveal exactly what they were and how it might follow a pan-dimensional war between Sapphire, Steel, Silver and the rest and what transuranic heavy elements who have managed to cross over into irregularities where life is present. So they sound bad, then.
Counting Out Time Documentary (28m01s): Oh but they've aged well, not just Joanna Lumley but also David MacCullum. They appear here sitting across from one another...or perhaps facing one another across time and space. Wherever, or whenever, they are, Lumley and MacCullum look back fondly on their time together making Sapphire And Steel with PJ Hammond and Shaun O'Riordan on hand to describe the pre-production process at ATV. There doesn't appear to be very many stories that are told from the time of the production, more that everything went well and there were few arguments, budgetary ones aside, on the set. Joanna Lumley does, though, let it slip that she tended to stay out of way when disagreements did arise, saying, "There is plenty [of] men and they do not need a yapping woman!"
Image and PR Galleries: There are seven of these in total, one for each Assignment that lasts between two and three minutes and a very short one (42s) that covers the publicity shots for the show. Spread across the six discs are a set of synopses for each assignment as well as original PR material and floor plans for the sets built for Assignments One, Three and Six. There are also two scripts, one for Episode 3 (Assignment One) and another for Episode 19 (Assignment 3). All of this material has been made available in PDF format.
Contrary to how highly Roy Gill originally scored Sapphire And Steel, I'm not sure that I'm in complete agreement with him. This series doesn't just move slowly but could well be outpaced by the movement of some particularly sticky treacle down a shallow incline. Clearly, television moved slower in the old days but a good deal of Sapphire And Steel is creaky old scene-setting when the pace of the show often has the opposite effect, that of the audience, or at least this one, desperately hoping for each Assignment to pick up its pace a bit. Certainly, this contributes to a very otherworldly feel to the show, which is helped considerably by that superb opening narration, but I've always found Sapphire And Steel something of a struggle. It's a curious show with a unique atmosphere but lacks that zip of the best of Doctor Who from those same years, sacrificing pace in favour of a sense of unease that is most palpable.