Absolutely Delirious

by Arthur B

With the AbFab movie in cinemas, let's look at the real gem in Joanna Lumley's televisual CV.
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Before the 1980s came along and creeping deregulation and the emergence of alternate means of receiving TV led to the vast array of trash we can receive today, in Britain television was a two-horse race. On one hand, you have the monolithic behemoth of the BBC, supported by the licence fee, and on the other hand you had ITV, a patchwork network of local commercial stations supported by adverts who had carved out regional turfs in order to avoid competing with each other as well as the Beeb and each of whom commissioned their own shows as well as importing them in from various sources.

The fragmentary nature of the ITV network was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it allowed for a slightly more diverse range of views and methods of working to take effect than would have been the case at the BBC. It is questionable, for instance, whether the magnificent prank that is the final episode of The Prisoner could have been made under the BBC’s auspices; equally ITV showed a knack for producing populist fare like The Avengers that the BBC at the time would have turned its nose up at.

On the other hand, the inherently less stable status of the individual network affiliates meant that fewer ITV shows were able to become tenured national institutions in the same way as some BBC shows have. If you sold a show to the BBC, then you could more or less count on being able to make your show until the BBC either got sick of the show or sick of you; the regional stations didn’t quite have the same bedrock of continuity that the BBC offered, and as stations merged or had their franchises taken over by new companies shows approved under the old regime were often swept aside.

This might be part of the reason why ITV was never able to produce a really convincing counterpart to Doctor Who, though they occasionally had a stab at it. For instance, perhaps their most credible attempt at televised science fantasy (before they mostly gave up and just imported American shows), Sapphire and Steel, was commissioned by ATV, who lost their franchise to Central TV with the result that the final story was almost never shown, and the show effectively came to an end there because its producers were unable to convince another broadcaster to take it on.

To be fair, Sapphire and Steel can’t have been an easy sell in the first place. Whilst the time travel themes, the mid-to-low-budget special effects and the format of each story being told over the course of a series of episodes (with mid-story episodes ending on cliffhangers) all call Who to mind, it’s difficult to work out at first glance who the target audience is supposed to be. Take the opening of the first episode of the first serial (referred to as “Assignment One”); a young boy is sat doing his homework at the kitchen table, timing himself with an alarm clock. Large clocks of various styles decorate the walls of each room in the house and the sound of ticking is omnipresent. (One of the clever things about the direction of this bit is how omnipresent the clocks and the sound of ticking is, but at the same time the actual number of clocks isn’t actually that outrageous.) Upstairs, the kid’s parents are putting his sister to bed and reading her a nursery rhyme, when abruptly all the clocks stop functioning one by one, a strange electronic buzzing is heard, and the parents vanish. That, plus the iconic intro sequence which feels like something straight out of comic books (to the extent that you half expect to see the Silver Surfer showing up at some point), might make you think that the show would be an offering for children, or at least family viewing.

What you actually got when you dug into the show, however, was perhaps the strangest thing broadcast on national TV in the UK since Number Six left the Village. Sapphire and Steel are enigmas as strange as any of the phenomena they investigate, their origins and nature kept strictly ambiguous aside from carefully rationed-out hints. Assignment One offers the closest we ever get to an introduction to them, and even then writer and series creator PJ Hammond plays his cards close to his chest.

Notably, Sapphire and Steel are established as being strange, inhuman entities as much through their behaviour as anything they say. For instance, their investigative modus operandi, and in particular the things which they consider significant - the age of the house, whether prior buildings existed on the same foundations, how many antiques are in the house and what vibrations are to be found in them, the number of clocks, the antiquity of the nursery rhymes being read when the incident happened - suggests that they consider the more immediate “disappearing parents” problem to be a mere side-effect of something entirely different, and that they are aware of dangers in activities and traditions that most of us would consider completely innocuous. This, plus the way they spontaneously appear at the front door with no sign of them having driven up to the house, (which we’re led to believe is quite remote) tells us that the pair a) probably aren’t human and b) are experts at investigating this sort of unusual problem before they tell us as much. Once they actually open up and talk about who they are, they don’t tell us very much more than that, so the series really rewards attentive viewing and drawing your own connections between things.

Essentially, we are told that Sapphire and Steel (and their colleagues, all of whom are similarly named after elements, alloys or gemstones) are operatives for some sort of supernatural or extradimensional agency, fighting an eternal cold war against “Time”. “Time” is a rather nebulous concept in the series, but it’s hinted to be far more proactive and malevolent than the thing we measure with our clocks and record with our histories. Indeed, the concept of Time as a linear forward progression of events with a logical chain of cause and effect seems to be what Sapphire and Steel and their allies are trying to protect, with the various phenomena they encounter in the various Assignments in the series all constituting some sort of anachronistic violation of the timeline.

Each Assignment, then, has the pair showing up to deal with a different incursion from Time, with no recurring cast between Assignments except for the occasional fellow agent - usually specialists whose powers lend themselves more to coming in to lend support in particular situations rather than the sort of general investigation Sapphire and Steel are more accustomed to. (Over the course of the series we get to meet Lead (Val Pringle), who specialises in shielding others from harmful influences, and Silver (David Collings), who can perform delicate manipulations of complex devices.)

With only two characters as constant members of the cast, and with those two characters being clearly non-human, a major challenge for PJ Hammond as writer seems to have been to keep things relatable to the audience whilst at the same time not compromising on the surreality that gave the series its particular atmosphere. Borrowing the Doctor Who format helped somewhat, in the sense that each Assignment lasted for enough episodes for the supporting cast to become fleshed out as characters in their own right. Another thing that helps greatly is the excellent casting; David McCallum is great as the colder, harder, more aloof Steel and Joanna Lumley does a great job of playing Sapphire in such a way that she superficially seems to be more approachable and sociable than Steel, but between her psychic powers and her general air of wrongness she often comes across as being even more alien than Steel is. Between them, the leads do a fantastic job of embodying the archetypal qualities their characters seem to be associated with, distinguishing the two characters sufficiently that they’re each clearly their own individual whilst at the same time keeping just enough in common to make it clear that not only are they not human, but they are not human in such a way that they’re clearly part of the same order of being as each other.

In particular, there’s something about the time agents’ behaviour which suggests an artificiality to them. You can’t really imagine them arising as the result of biological evolution or even an approximation of the same process - there’s no serious prospect that there’s a planet or dimension somewhere where element/alloy/gemstone-themed protozoa yielded element/alloy/gemstone-themed animals which eventually gave rise to element/alloy/gemstone-themed time cops, and it’s hard to see what biological processes could provide a basis for some of their powers. If you think about it, biological evolution requires time to function in the first place, and if there’s one thing we are constantly told and shown about the agents is that they sit apart from time to a certain extent.

PJ Hammond’s strengths as as a writer are on show from the beginning, with him being able to convey an awful lot of complicated information and strange premises in the space of the very first episode of the series whilst at the same time making sure that the episode isn’t dominated by exposition. Indeed, at its best it feels like a lot happens in each episode, even though they tend to enjoy the slower pace of the more pensive Doctor Who serials - and Hammond is a master at getting the viewer to buy into even the strangest premises of the series and take them seriously.

For instance, the centrepiece of the first episode is a reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the Time incursion and the disappearance of the kids’ parents - a recitation of a nursery rhyme which prompts a series of hauntings and visions which finds the show accomplishing an intensely horrific crescendo with basic, low-budget special effects that make late-1980s Doctor Who look like Avatar. If we hadn’t been sold by that point on the idea that there was genuine metaphysical peril at work in the house, the sequence would be more risible than riveting, but as it stands it’s deeply spooky, and it also perfectly sets things up so that we’re properly scared by the cliffhanger of the episode, which simply involves the little girl singing her favourite nursery rhyme in her bedroom.

The six episodes of Assignment One are probably, in fact, slightly more than is required to get to the bottom of the story - the resolution of which seems to owe more than a little to The Stone Tape, a classic bit of BBC Christmas ghost story nastiness - but the extra padding allows Hammond to indulge in some memorable bits of sidetracking that further explore and embellish the sort of thing that can happen when Time runs wild - for instance, much of the third episode ends up dedicated to a metaphysical trap for Sapphire that borders on the Lynchian in its commitment to dreamlike strangeness, and which forces Steel to do something inhuman and strangely awful to himself in order to get her out. By the end of the story we’ve also had some hints that what Sapphire and Steel (and their superiors) want is somewhat orthogonal to what human beings value; in particular, there’s a troubling section where they try to hamper Time in its depredations by burning or otherwise destroying all the old books and paintings in the house, as if the very things we record for posterity and to record our collective identity and cultural roots are in themselves dangerous both to our health and the health of the cosmos itself, and the human traits of memory and narrative and history and storytelling - the things we do in order to make sense of time - are in fact what make us victims of time even as they are integral to life and existence as we understand them.

At the same time, we don’t need to see much of their activities to develop a sharp distaste for the forces of Time. One of the benefits of the slightly padded-out running time of the first assignment is that it creates space for John Golightly’s role as a Time-spawned simulacrum of the family father. This is a real treat, Golightly perfectly hitting the boundary line between charmingly threatening and threateningly charming; even though the episode the fake dad first shows up in is something of a filler episode when it comes to progress towards resolving the mystery, it ends up being one of the most memorable in the series thanks to Golightly’s performance.

Though Assignment One is a sharp introduction to the series and already establishes it as capable of genuine shocks and scares on its shoestring budget, Assignment Two is often cited by fans as one of the darkest, scariest, and most emotionally powerful stories in the entire canon, and for my money it’s the best. It begins on your proverbial dark and stormy night, in a long-abandoned train station archaic and isolated enough that it has a small hotel attached, also disused. (Some may recognise this as being remarkably like the setting of Dark Fall, which seemed to draw a little inspiration from this serial). Within the station, amateur ghost hunter Tully is wandering around setting up his investigation. Hearing something on the covered bridge that allows passage from the ticket office on platform 1 to platform 2, he makes his way up there - only to encounter Steel, who’s here along with Sapphire on an investigation of their own.

Steel urges Tully to leave - after all, the time agents are much more aware of the true risks of ghosts than Tully is, and after seeing the first story so are we - and warns Tully that whatever’s manifesting here is more than just a ghost at that. As a mysterious animate darkness moves about the station and a whistling soldier manifests on the platform, we’re about to find out just how right Steel is. The time agents need to act quickly, forcing them into an uncomfortable collaboration with Tully, whose observations of the station so far may be key to helping them unravel the mystery.

Following Assignment One up with something like this was another brilliant move by Hammond: having established Sapphire and Steel as effectively a duo of alien ghost hunters, whose bizarre nature and unusual methodology are suited to a very non-traditional conception of what ghosts are, Hammond makes sparks fly by having them confronted with a decidedly human ghost-hunter cut from a much more traditional cloth. Tully may use a few modern toys here and there in his investigations, but his tape recorder and thermometers are essentially embellishments to a tradition of talking to spooks which dates back to the Spiritualism boom of the Victorian period, a tradition which inevitably adds a mild religious dimension to its investigations.

This isn’t even unusual in ghost-hunting circles; Derek Acorah’s performances on Most Haunted and his promotion of a sort of limp spirituality with all the serial numbers filed off sits next to the pseudoscientific investigations by other members of his team. Likewise, Tully sees no contradiction between his use of his tape recorders and thermometers and so forth and his invocation of God’s name in trying to talk to the “ghost” and his insistence on conceiving of it as a lost soul in need of aid to get to the next world. Tully uses his scientific equipment to back up and reinforce his spiritual worldview and he wouldn’t be entirely out of place popping up in one of the Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories; conversely, Sapphire and Steel seem to ascribe no deep spiritual meaning to Time and its ravages, seeing it more like something between an enemy to be fought and a disaster to be survived.

“At least I’m sympathetic!” insists Tully, but in the nihilistic cosmology of the series this very sympathy is dangerous and can only play into the hands of reality’s enemies. In this respect Hammond can be said to have fused Lovecraftian cosmic horror in its purest sense with the curious manifestations and apparitions of the classic M.R. James ghost story tradition. It’s hard not to be sympathetic for Tully, either - he cuts a lonely figure, particularly when Steel asks him if he has any family or dependents (a question which later proves not to be mere small talk - though Steel doesn’t really do small talk in the first place), or when Tully reveals that whenever he’s done seances previously he’s had to hold hands with himself because he doesn’t know any other believers. Furthermore, Tully has an ultimately optimistic view of people and never stops wanting to try and befriend the ghosts of the station to try and alleviate the suffering - a quality which, whilst admirable in its own way, makes it all too easy for the Darkness that has trapped the spirits here to manipulate him.

Hammond deftly ups the stakes by having this sympathetic but slightly clueless medium show up in a story featuring unusually sympathetic ghosts - realising that it’s worth making a small exception to the series’ metaphysical principles if the story that can be told by doing so is worth it. It transpires that the train station was the last port of call for uncounted local men who set off from here to fight in wars from the Great War onwards. Once this is established, the raw hatred and resentment that Tom Kelly as the lead soldier is so brilliant at wordlessly projecting is suddenly easy to understand: Time is levering its way into the world using the bitterness and resentment of generations of young men sacrificed on the altars of the Great War and subsequent conflicts. Tom Kelly does a fantastic job here; either manifesting alone or at the head of a group of surly comrades, the sheer level of wounded bitterness he is able to convey is perfect for the character. When he shows up on the platform with his crew towards the end of the second episode it’s a particularly creepy moment, their resentment not merely targeted at the establishment but at life itself - because as far as they’re concerned, if your heart’s beating you’ve stolen something that rightly theirs.

Moreover, when Sapphire and Steel realise that the ghost of the soldier seems to have actual feelings and a desire for sympathy this sets up a number of interesting twists in the story; not only does their shocked reaction establish that in this cosmology ghosts who have real feelings are unusual, but on top of that Steel’s first thought is to play on those emotions to manipulate the ghost into coming out, which Sapphire objects to (because she’s the one who actually does emotions). Later, in the fifth episode, there’s a part where during a seance the soldier reverts to being a simple country boy full of plans and dreams. This section may be a bit overlong but it’s quite profound in its own way - it doesn’t advance the plot an awful lot, but it humanises him and by extension all the other aggrieved spirits, which underscores the awfulness of what the Darkness has done by collecting them and manipulating them for its own purposes.

The hauntings throughout the story - and, in particular, the grim determination of the Darkness and its pawns to draw Sapphire and Steel into the wartime tragedies it feeds on - lead to some of the most memorable incidents of the whole series. Episode 6 concludes with a cliffhanger shot of Steel dressed in a ragged World War I uniform, hanging from barbed wire and bleeding out, which represents perhaps one of the most grim and unflinching images to be offered in TV science fiction to that point. Perhaps the darkest and most shocking aspect of the serial, though, comes in the last episode, as Steel finally puts into action the grim plan that some of the earlier incidents in the serial has hinted at.

It’s a decidedly bleaker solution to the matter than you’d have ever seen the heroes opting for in Doctor Who (and I’m not going to go into it here and would ask people to spoiler-tag discussion of it in the comments, because the ending is so good that I want people to have the chance to come to it fresh), but it’s also perfect for the tone of the series and sets it apart from any other sci-fi/fantasy show that had come on UK television to date. In particular, it engages nicely with the rather Cold War tone of the agents’ struggles against Time - Steel being willing to do something rather sordid in order to strike a blow against Time itself. There’s a particularly le Carré touch to the agents’ realpolitik decision to use a small evil to defuse a greater one - and the horrifying nature of how the Darkness is using the soldier and the other spirits, each of them arriving one by one at the station and going through their little cycle of actions for eternity until Steel finds a way to break the loop, underscores just what the stakes are. The time loop aspect makes it particularly ironic that this has become perhaps the best-loved of all the Assignments, ensuring that Sapphire, Steel and Tully’s visit to the railway station will be replayed over and over by appreciative fans and on repeat transmissions of the show forevermore.

The first two Assignments were broadcast in 1979 - transmission of the second story and production of additional tales being disrupted by industrial action. A new clutch of stories would be commissioned for broadcast in 1981 (although Assignment Six wouldn’t see transmission until 1982 due to the closure of ATV). This later batch alternated between medium-length six-episode pieces (of the same length as Assignment One) and shorter four-episode tales, so Assignment Two’s eight episodes would stand as the longest story the show would ever tell. This was perhaps for the best; whilst the two shorter stories of 1981 would be up to the high standards the series had established so far, the two six-episode pieces would find cracks beginning to form in the premise.

I’ll address the two six-episode pieces from 1981 first, because to my mind the problems with them are, whilst not identical, in some respects connected, representing different extremes of the same issue. First off, let’s look at Assignment Three, which kicks off introducing us to an apparently ordinary young family living in an ordinary (if utterly tastelessly decorated) apartment. After Rothwyn (Catherine Hall) wakes up to check on her crying baby, it becomes apparent that we are dealing with no ordinary family when she stops in the corridor in order to record the day’s log for their ongoing experiment.

As her references to the present date being expressed in the “old calendar” indicate, the inhabitants of the apartment are actually time travellers sent back to the present as part of an experiment - the apartment itself is actually an invisible, isolated box located on the top of an ordinary apartment block, in order to avoid detection by and contamination of the past. All their food supplies are transferred back to them from their controllers in the future (“we don’t mind making a study of 20th century food, but we shouldn’t like to eat the stuff” says Rothwyn), but something’s up - for the past two days nothing’s come through. Sapphire and Steel naturally show an interest - not necessarily to evict the time travellers, but to protect them from some sort of Time predator intent on attacking them. This malevolence first manifests itself as a haunting vision of dead and dying animals as Rothwyn handles with some bemusement a leg of lamb, and then finds herself right on the verge of smothering Eldred (David Grant), her partner in the experiment, with a pillow in his sleep. And then the honest to goodness poltergeist activity starts.

After the first two Assignments leaned heavily on the “ghost story” side of the whole “sci-fi ghost story” concept, Assignment Three pushes the “sci-fi” side of the equation hard. In some respects it’s quite prescient; Rothwyn’s narration of the daily log and submission of requests to the monitoring system feels a lot like the Big Brother diary room to me. (I also quite like the way the monitoring system’s user interface is represented by a chaotic collection of overlapping triangles projected onto a wall - yes, it’s a bit low-budget, but it also looks like the sort of non-intrusive disappears-when-you-don’t-want-it technology that the far future would actually use for this sort of thing.) On top of that, the way the apartment is controlled by AI computer systems embedded in the walls is a bit reminiscent of the age of smart thermostats and other such devices that we’re starting to see come onto the marketplace now.

There’s also little signs here and there that the time traveller’s knowledge of the 20th Century is shoddy in exactly the way our knowledge of history can be patchy unless we’re really sharp on our research - for instance, they adopt classic, stereotypical gender normative roles because they take the stereotypes of the 20th Century as being universally true, and as is pointed out to them later on in the serial the names they’ve picked out are several centuries out of date. (On top of that, there’s some signs that Rothwyn has mild psychic powers - though nothing to rival Sapphire’s - which may suggest that these time travellers are from the very far future indeed.)

That said, the shift of theme at points hampers Hammond’s ability to establish and maintain the unique and distinctive atmosphere the series is known for. The first cliffhanger in the serial, for instance, has a pillow turning into an angry swan, which prompts less scares and more sniggering, and there’s a bit in episode 2 where Rothwyn strangles an extremely fake-looking swan to death. Indeed, at some points Hammond just doesn’t even seem to be trying - one episode ends on a total non-cliffhanger, in which Sapphire and Steel are cut off in mid-conversation whilst nothing dangerous is happening. It feels so much like a sloppy edit I had to check that my DVD hadn’t skipped a chapter or something, but as it stands it seems more like Hammond’s sense of narrative timing was off when penning this one.

That said, the Assignment isn’t completely a dud; the part where the apartment’s internal systems recite various definitions of time to themselves whilst the baby endures accelerated growth into adulthood, whilst still not being scary, is at least entertainingly surreal. The first really proper slice of dread we get in the Assignment comes late in episode 2, when Eldred attempts to contact the other study groups (Eldred and Rothwyn’s apartment being one of three), only to find that their staff are nowhere to be seen. The best scare in the Assignment, though, has to be the baby-turned-adult (ably played by Russel Wooton) padding around the apartment in a suit jacket with no shoes, socks or shirt, looking for all the world like a sinister version of Syd Barrett as he appeared on the cover art for The Madcap Laughs, with all the destructive power of Time literally in his hands and working at the direction of the AI in the apartment walls - indeed, once this problem has been dealt with, the rest of the Assignment feels rather devoid of threat by comparison.

Aside from the shift in theme and tone, there’s some other changes which set this Assignment apart from the rest of the series. For instance, there’s actual outdoor location shooting this time; all the other Assignments were shot entirely on studio sets in rather confined locations, which on the one hand sometimes made them feel more like stage plays than TV shows (particularly in the less special effects-heavy sections) but on the plus side gave them this nicely claustrophobic feeling. That said, since here more or less all the action takes place in the apartment or the apartment building it is located on top of, I wonder why they bothered - the shift in picture quality attendant with mixing location shots with studio filming from TV of this era always makes it look more dated, and they don’t really do enough with the location shots to really make it feel like it was worth the effort.

Even so, the biggest problem with this Assignment remains the writing, with Hammond seeming to have gotten himself in a muddle which could have done with a few more drafts to straighten out. A major weakness of the Assignment is the lack of a present-day character, the cast consisting entirely of a combination of unrelatable time agents and unrelatable future people. Even worse is the lack of any interaction between the time agents and the future people for most of the serial - Sapphire and Steel only meet Eldred and Rothwyn towards the end of episode five, when the story is right about to end, so for most of the serial each faction goes about their own business undisturbed by the others. The two parallel strands of the story really needed to mesh substantially earlier for this story to work.

On top of that, the ending of the Assignment is entirely botched. There’s the kernel of a good idea in the climactic revelation that in the future humans are the only forms of life remaining on Earth, sustaining themselves through entirely artificial forms of nutrition, with only a few pieces of animal flesh kept alive as laboratory samples; though the public turn a blind eye to how the lab animals are treated, they are apparently the basis of the AI running the apartment, which apparently includes organic brain parts in order to function. This comes across as slightly heavy-handed commentary on our ability to ignore where our food and other animal products come from, but it would be a decent future shock were it not for the ridiculous conclusion - in which the “monster” the AI has turned itself into breaks out of walls and crawls around like a cat-sized silver slug, eventually being placated by being fed a delicious leg of lamb to distract it long enough to sort everything out. There’s a thin line between the surreal and the farcical, and Assignment Three crosses it once too often.

Writing issues also seem to be behind some of the issues with Assignment Five, but in a different way - Assignment Three is Hammond trying to do something different with the series that ends up paling in comparison to what comes before or after, whereas Assignment Five is the only story in the show’s run to be written by someone who wasn’t PJ Hammond, being scripted instead by Don Houghton and Anthony Read.

It starts in that classic Agatha Christie hunting ground, the country manor house. Lord Mullrine (Davy Kaye) is a mega-rich entrepreneur, to the point where he has a modern office facility built into the backstairs servants’ areas. He’s throwing a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of his company in 1930 by him and his late business partner Dr George McDee, and to add a bit of fun he’s decided to go with a 1930 theme for the party: aside from the office itself, he’s restored the house to the style it was decorated in at the time, and everyone’s been encouraged to dress and act the part.

Mullrine has not left a single detail unattended to - he’s even set up a replica radio with a tape recording of the BBC broadcast of the time. But even as some guests sneer at Mullrine’s stab at authenticity, others find their memories beginning to play tricks on them - particularly when it comes to remembering what the present year is. Sapphire and Steel gatecrash the party under pseudonyms to make sure the evening wraps up as his should. The necessity of their intervention was becomes more and more apparent as the first episode progresses - a guest spots a church tower out of a window which was bombed into oblivion in World War II, the fake radio becomes a real one, and just over halfway through episode 2 the late George McDee (Stephen MacDonald) himself shows up to the party alive and well. A good old-fashioned country house murder might be just what’s needed to put the timeline back on track - but how exactly did George McDee die, who is the killer, and what will happen if he survives?

There’s several respects in which this Assignment feels awkward and out of place in the series, and the rushed script by the two writers (who apparently parachuted into the role when PJ Hammond’s other commitments prevented him from writing a fifth story himself) may be part of that. Some fans dislike the fact that the script drops heavy-handed hints about a romantic interaction between Sapphire and Steel, but frankly it would be a fallacy to pretend that such hints are entirely absent from the series - it’s just that Hammond’s scripts treat the subject with a lighter touch, remembering that Sapphire and Steel - whatever they get up to in whatever state they exist in between missions - are on the job when we see them in the show, and usually have enough on their minds that flirtatious banter is a low priority most of the time.

Likewise, some criticise the more comedic nature of the story, though again it would be simply incorrect to pretend that the earlier stories entirely lacked a comedic element to them. (For instance, in Assignment 2, Tully talking about holding his own hands to do solo seances simultaneously provokes pity and chuckles.) On top of that, I’d say that varying the tone of the Assignments was a sensible thing for the writers to try. Whilst the scarier Assignments are invariably the better ones, I would say that this is a problem in execution rather than a problem in theory: the idea of Sapphire and Steel having adventures with a lighter tone, or which emphasise the sci-fi elements of the series more, as is the case with both Assignments Three and Five, is a decent one, and introducing a bit of variation would have been essential to continuing the series beyond Assignment Six if Hammond and company had been able to persuade someone to give them the opportunity to do so, but Assignments Three and Five show that the team hadn’t quite worked out how to execute such things yet.

In fact, the writing of Assignment Five does show up an even more fundamental problem - the fact that PJ Hammond doesn’t seem to have found a way to enable other writers to write Sapphire and Steel episodes, resulting in this Assignment feeling out of place with the rest of the series and including all sorts of details which don’t really seem to fit with the usual MO of the time agents or their foes. For instance, this is the only serial in which Sapphire and Steel adopt pseudonyms or show any real concern about being identified as inhuman interlopers. Likewise, the threat from Time - an attempt to tinker with causality so as to cause the accidental release of a bioengineered bacterium to wipe out all life on Earth in 1930 - seems somehow more materialistic and conventional than the more metaphysical threats posed earlier in the series.

On top of making Sapphire and Steel and their opponents feel very slightly out-of-character, there’s also basic structural problems with the story that Houghton and Read fail to resolve. For one thing, it has the opposite problem to Assignment Three - whereas that had a lack of relatable characters and a lack of interaction between those actors who were present, this serial has more ordinary human characters showing up to Lord Mullrane’s party than were present in all the other serials put together. As a result, the crucial sense of isolation that every other Assignment (even the flaky Assignment Three) is able to capture, which was such a hallmark of the series, is entirely absent.

The excessively large cast also means that we don’t really get to know many of them very well at all, and also contribute to the other major problem - the fact that the timing of the serial is all off. As a result of having to introduce all the characters and find things for them to do, Houghton and Read struggle to handle the development of the plot. It seems to me that ideally the central conceit of the story - namely, Dr McDee walking about alive when he should be dead, which is by far the most striking symptom of the time-slip here - should really have been introduced at the end of episode 1 at the latest. However, the cast here is large enough that it’d be impossible to introduce them all and cram all that in within half an hour without adopting a super-rapid pacing, akin to the hyperkinetic pace that modern-day Doctor Who adopts. This would be so anathema to the style of Sapphire and Steel that I think the only way to salvage Assignment Five’s script would be to radically pare back the cast list.

As I mentioned, the two four-episode serials in this second phase of the series are far superior. In particular, Assignment Four often competes with Assignment Two when people are discussing their favourite stories, and whilst I’m in the school that puts Assignment Two ahead of the pack, at the same time it’s a close thing between the two. Assignment Four unfolds in a typical British high street shop building, with a modern antique shop occupying the ground floor and flats occupying the floors above the shop. Liz (Alyson Spiro) lives in the top floor apartment and is getting ready to go out for her job (which it’s implied, but not directly stated, is something to do with sex work) when Sapphire and Steel pop by. Liz is bemused by their intrusion, and by their questions - after all, Liz hasn’t noticed anything unusual about the new landlord who moved into the flat below her after the old landlord moved out, or the children who play in the courtyard behind the shop from time to time.

Liz, however, could do with being a bit more observant. Isn’t it a little odd that she can’t remember what happened to Ruth (Shelagh Stephenson), her flatmate who disappeared around the time the old landlord did? Isn’t it more than a little weird that Liz can’t quite call to mind what the new landlord looks like? Isn’t it a bit odd that in the landlord’s apartment there’s no sign that he eats food or reads his mail, or that he has a photographic darkroom but only develops antique pictures? Isn’t it just a teensy bit bizarre that the children playing in the back courtyard are Victorian kids who’ve escaped from photographs, who pull other kids from old-timey photos to come play with them? And wouldn’t Liz be a bit more worried if she realised that in his true form, the new landlord has no face?

The involvement of happy playing Victorian children in the investigation is something of a throwback to Assignment One’s use of nursery rhymes and other such traditional things as conveyances of terror, and the theme of people being extracted from or trapped inside photographs feels like an expanded riff on the bit in Assignment One where Sapphire gets trapped inside a picture. That said, whilst Assignment Four at points feels like the series retreating to its ghostly comfort zone, at the same time it saves itself with the combination of its audacious premise and its spot-on execution. The basic idea of an entity (the Shape, played by Philip Bird and Bob Hornery in its various forms) which lurks somewhere within the frame of every photo ever taken, and which can travel into them and take things in and out of them, neatly combines the shows’ running obsession with time with the nature of photographs as chemically capturing a moment in time; the Assignment plays with the concept excellently, with little touches like the terrible fate of a woman trapped in a photograph, the mild sepia tones added to the kids’ clothes and makeup to match the antiquity of the photographs they came from, and the kaleidoscopic fate of the Shape.at the end of the serial all rank amongst some of the most memorable images and incidents of the entire series.

On top of that, it’s quite nice how the end of the Assignment has Liz saving the day, one of the few times in the show decisive action is taken by a supporting character rather than Sapphire and Steel themselves (who have been trapped in a photograph and rendered immobile as a result). As with the first two Assignments, the episode is really good at making a situation which would otherwise seem ridiculous instead exude menace - in this case, an old man slowly waving a lit cigarette lighter before a glass-framed photo comes across as the ultimate in cosmic sadism.

The other four-part serial, and the final story in the series, is Assignment Six. Sapphire and Steel arrive onscene at an abandoned service station of a modern variety, only to discover that Silver has also shown up without them finding a need for him, a rather odd breach in the way we’ve previously seen the specialists work. There’s an obvious anachronism in the form of a rather tight-lipped and defensive couple in 1940s dress, having shown up in a 1940s-vintage car - but what’s the actual problem Sapphire and Steel are here to solve? Silver’s theory is that it’s a location where Time, far from invading, has actually been deliberately excluded - but what’s supposed to fill that time vacuum? It’s not long before Sapphire suspects - correctly - that there is something terribly wrong with the Assignment - in fact, it’s a horrible trap designed to ensnare them, but who has set it and why?

Hammond quite neatly sets up the story in such a way as to break the longstanding conventions of the series in a carefully deliberate manner, designed to make us think that there’s something off about the whole scenario from the start. For instance, this is the only story where we don’t get any establishing scenes before Sapphire and Steel’s initial arrival - Sapphire is the first character we see, as we discover her midway through investigating the service station’s workshop. Likewise, whilst this is another serial which, like Assignment Three, has no “normal” people, it actually works this time because the refugees from the past are pretending to be normal people and not quite managing it.

The overall plot with “transient entities” formerly imprisoned by Sapphire and Steel’s superiors and the mentions of a “Higher Authority” that Sapphire and Steel were both approached to work for once but refused, really help tease out the Cold War aspects of the series. It’s a rather le Carré-like scenario, in fact: the implication is that a shift in the power structure of Sapphire and Steel’s agency (whether this involves it being taken over by a hostile power or simply a different faction taking control) has prompted this trap in order to roll them up, just as the “transient entities” were shut away in the past. (There’s a particularly nice touch where, once the masks come off, the entities start displaying Sapphire-like eyeflashes and transform their costumes into suits styled after those Steel tends to wear, to emphasise that these things aren’t so unlike our familiar heroes.)

Inadvertently, this was the end of the series (supposedly there was a way that the final cliffhanger would have been resolved had it been renewed, but it involves throwing in a factor which was explicitly shown as not being present at the end of the last episode), but it provides a rich enough tapestry of allusions to offer plenty of fun speculation. My personal headcanon take on this is that Assignment Six was only one front in a wider neutralisation of the time corps as a whole. Notably, in the voiceover at the start of the episodes of this serial, the customary reference to Lead is swapped out by a reference to Mercury. This is really weird when you consider that Lead hadn’t appeared in the show since the first Assignment, and Mercury doesn’t apparently appear in this serial at all, so there would seem to be absolutely no point in changing the voiceover whatsoever… unless this is supposed to be a clue.

My theory is that the “Mercury” reference is a hint at an internal coup within the organisation - the coup having eliminated Lead at some point between the end of Assignment Five and the beginning of Assignment Six before then setting up the trap. Mercury, who of course could also be known as “Quicksilver”, has also nobbled Silver and is masquerading as him for the duration of this story in order to ensure that the trap slams shut on Sapphire and Steel. (“Quick” Silver would explain him showing up to the scene hours too early, and leaving just in time before the trap is sprung.) The part of the serial where Silver goes to the edge of the zone and encounters the barrier isn’t an attempt to leave - he’s checking that the barrier is in place, and him touching the barrier is the signal to the others to spring the trap.

It’s Silver who talks about “the transient beings”, trapped in the past and locked out of time so they can’t move into the future, in a trap just like the one he has engineered for Sapphire and Steel; likewise, Silver “realises” that one of the purported humans is a replicant precisely at the point when the point of the facade is rendered irrelevant, and the “Higher Powers” controlling the transient beings intervene when they try to harm Silver (they perhaps don’t know that he is really Mercury). Likewise, Silver is quite guarded about what he tells the others about the box which purports to offer a solution to the trap, and then uses the box to a) demoralise Sapphire and convince her that she’s got no future, b) dispatch one of the transient beings when it starts dropping talk that might blow his cover by hinting that there may be a future in the new regime for Silver, and then c) lets Steel use the box to dispatch the other transients, putting his superweapons back into their box at the start of time where they belong. He is also conspicuously absent when the two boxes are used to mutually annihilate, and is conspicuously absent from the secondary trap.

My other bit of headcanon arising from this serial is that the entities who were masquerading as the human couple go on to become the new Sapphire and Steel in the reshuffled organisation.

As far as additional Sapphire and Steel material goes, it’s a bit thin on the ground. Big Finish did a series of audio dramas to continue the series, but I refuse to listen to them on point of principle. They utterly pointlessly set them up so that in the last serial all the audio Assignments turn out to be irrelevant and canonically uncanonical, and frankly a series that’s more bothered with trying to justify its existence by declaring its nonexistence than it is with providing an interesting arc in its own right is not something I feel like I can be bothered with. Furthermore, I think we already have slightly more Sapphire and Steel than the premise can really sustain; Assignments One, Two, Four and Six were all we really needed, whilst Assignments Three and Five seemed to stretch the premise too far, so adding more stuff to the pile doesn’t feel useful. Still, the better Assignments are truly brilliant pieces of SF television that are well worth revisiting.

If you are in the market for a DVD version, I suggest seeking out the one from Network (as pictured at the start of the article) or one based off it. Some home video releases of the series trimmed the end and beginning of some episodes so that the serials would run continuously, which slightly mangled some significant scenes.
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Comments (go to latest)
Craverguy at 20:45 on 2016-07-03
I've had this on my "to watch" list for a long time, ever since someone recommended it to me because of how much I like The Prisoner. Good to get a positive second opinion.

Now I just need an affordable Region 1 copy. Last time I checked, they were quite expensive secondhand.
Alice at 17:56 on 2016-07-09
This is the first I've ever heard of this, but it sounds amazing, and I've just ordered a copy.
Arthur B at 01:11 on 2016-07-10
I'll be interested to hear what you think of it, Alice.
Adrienne at 07:52 on 2016-08-19
Yeah, i've wanted to watch this for ages too, although i am very put off by the idea of a show ending that is BOTH downbeat AND a cliffhanger. I may just watch through Assignment Four, i suppose!
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