Sapphire and Steel (1979-82)

My rating: *****
See my other post reflecting at more length on Sapphire and Steel

Sapphire and Steel is my favourite science fiction series and I have watched quite a few. Starring the blond duo Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, it was broadcast in Britain from 1979 to 1982 and then, like the characters at the end of the series, assigned to oblivion. Precious, but poor quality tapes circulated amongst the fan community for some years after that: the snowy lack of picture definition and the muffled sound only adding to the mystery. I purchased the VHS tapes which were released in 1992 in the late 1990s, and then the later two DVD releases in the first decade of the new millenium.

The premise is that Sapphire and Steel are two non human agents who arrive from somewhere that is never specified. Their job it is to maintain the integrity of the flow of time which is all too often under assault by malevolent forces. The destruction of the integrity of time can have disastrous and final consequences for life on earth.

My interest in the series is not fueled by nostalgia which is often the case amongst the viewership of older cult TV series. I didn’t see the series when it first came out. I first came across it in the late 1990s and watched it then in an endless loop. Ten years later, I find myself once again absolutely rivetted by its minimalism, by the chemistry between the two attractive leads and the sheer unexplained mystery of some of the events and actions of the characters.

If the series moves at a slow pace by current standards, this merely builds the very considerable atmosphere of menace and danger and allows one to study the character interactions at leisure. The effects were achieved with creative effort and ingenuity rather than with the blithe facility of some current CGI effects. As the director Shaun O’Riordan points out – this gives the series a weight that comes from that investment of creative invention.

I have been watching the 2008 re-release of the series which is quite an improvement in quality over the earlier DVD release. It also includes a documentary which puts together a series of interviews with the director producer Shaun O’Riordan, the writer PJ Hammond – who writes with a truth that comes from the heart and utter conviction – and McCallum and Lumley. All involved in the series – crew, actors, director, writer – were passionate about it and did their very best work and all came up with creative ideas which enhanced the series. The lighting, camera work, special effects, sound and music are all noteworthy in creating the very unique atmosphere of this series.

It is evident from the documentary that those involved remain intensely and genuinely proud of their work and would willingly do more if the opportunity ever arose – which, alas, looks unlikely. All the stories are strong with the possible exception of Assignment 5, which was not written by Hammond but by two writers who penned many Dr. Who scripts. Assignment 5 introduces ill-advised humour (read downright silliness) and lacks the menacing intensity, truth and sheer alien strangeness that P.J. Hammond invested in the rest of the series with the aid of all involved. But even this assignment has its attractions, notably the interplay between the two main characters and a brief but fascinating scene with Steel teleporting – a small masterpiece of lighting and camera work.

My main regret in viewing this series is that there are not more episodes. There is an ongoing audio series with cult stalwart David Warner playing Steel and Susanna Harker as Saphhire, but I am hesitant to risk tampering with the sheer perfection of the original series by listening to it. In addition, much of the attraction of the series for me is the odd disjunction between what you are seeing and the words that are being spoken. This is something that only works in a visual medium and would be impossible to render on audio.

The most notable way in which this disjunction works is in the relationship between Sapphire and Steel. The content of what they are saying and the visual indications of their emotional connection are often not related in obvious ways. John Kenneth Muir puts it very nicely in his blog:

Although the actors’ deliver their lines deadpan and non-emotionally, a whole universe of subtle emotion flourishes between the lines; in their eye-contact; in their physicality; in their tone, in Sapphire’s occasional smile, even in their proximity to one another. These are amazing performances which strongly “hint” alien, but are also filled with a kind of nuanced complexity and humanity.

4 thoughts on “Sapphire and Steel (1979-82)

  1. Hi Clare.
    Thanks for the great article about Sapphire and sSteel. This show scared the hell out of me when I was a kid and I thought I would be disappointed when viewing some of the stories as an adult but I was not. Assignment 4 was actually MORE terrifying than I remember (my niece ran from the room and refused to watch any more).
    Unfortunately I only purchased the Assigment 3 and 4 DVD (released in australia by the shock music group) a few years ago but was too strapped for cash at the time to buy the rest of the series – which I now regret.
    No one seems to sell these versions and I do not have an all region DVD player. Do you happen to know if the 2008 network release will work on a region 4 player or is it region 2 only. Any info will be appreciated.
    Cheers. Chris

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  2. Hi Chris, This is such a great series and still maintains its amazing atmosphere at this late remove. The Network DVDs work on R4 as well as R2 like a lot of UK DVDs. You can buy it in Australia from here

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  3. It would be good to make a new series of saphire and steel. Moving on 30 odd years. the origanal acters could be still in a one off sreries , they wrere left locked in a room in space on the final episode, so they would have aged in that time. if they were called back for one time , as there is no one else to call upon to rid some evil spirite from space, they will need to know how the world has moved on. they are given identy and mobile phones , informed about computers etc .
    to live in the new world . even have a car, and and a house, if they succeed
    they would live the rest of there lives on earth in britain with there new idenity
    as old age pensioners. just an idear for Mr P. J. Hammond to think About.
    Robert Toogood . From the Isle of Wight.

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  4. I think PJ Hammond had a solution for Sapphire and Steel’s escape, but he hasn’t told anybody what it is! It is really frustrating that the series ended on such a terrible cliffhanger. I like the idea of an older Sapphire and Steel – but I don’t see them as old age pensioners. The actors are certainly not in that kind of category!

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