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Cult Classic yes; but what was it about?
A retrospective look at ATV's "Sapphire and Steel"
by Kenny Davidson.


Imagine Time as a lake, partly frozen over by ice. The part of the lake that still flows freely is the future, with all its possibilities. The sheet of ice steadily spreads forwards across a lake, imprisoning the flowing water; and this surface ice represents the past. The line where the advancing ice and free water meet is the present. However, free water still flows underneath the ice, looking for fragile areas in the roof, and it constantly looks for fractures along the edge of the swelling ice. That is what Time is doing; looking for holes in the past, or weaknesses in the present, so that it can break the inflexibility of its linear existence.

Just as humans go skating on the surface of frozen lakes, so we as a species move forward across the linear structure of Time, evolving and developing as we go. However, if Time is having its freedom curtailed, why should it not resent humans, who are the creatures who benefit from its increasingly trapped state?

If you’re finding this idea a bit heavy, I should warn you that this premise was just where Sapphire and Steel started. Perhaps the reason that Peter Hammond’s creation succeeded was that the series never really tried to explain the concept behind its plots. Sapphire and Steel arrived from no-where and Time simply did what it did. The only clue the viewer got was from Sapphire in Adventure One, when she used the metaphor of Time being a corridor, walled by thinning fabric. This at least warned us that this series was not going to rely on the ideas of H. G. Wells for its concept of time. Instead, Hammond perceived of Time being an entity with the ability to think and feel just like any other conscious being.

And yet, the "lake" explanation leaves one crucial question unanswered. Who or what trapped Time in the first place? Our only clue was in the rules dictated in the opening credits: "all irregularities shall be handled by the forces controlling each dimension". Those assigned to prevent the dimension of Time from breaking the ice were the medium atomic weights known as Sapphire and Steel. So as our heroes were assigned by someone higher than themselves, can we assume that Time was trapped by the authorities to whom Sapphire and Steel are answerable?


On the surface Sapphire and Steel looked like humans. And yet, while they were not human, neither were they alien, except in an "extra terrestrial sense" (Steel, A5). So what were they? They clearly had their own characters. Steel was the cold, impassive commander; his mind always focused on the job. Sapphire was the sensually hypnotic time-warper, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of humans and their history. But that does not answer what they were.

One theory is that the medium atomic weights were nothing to do with chemistry, but were elements. While Earth has its natural elements of Air, Earth, Fire and Water, Sapphire and Steel were elements of the supernatural. In the series a distinction was drawn between the two heroes and the other medium atomic weights. When agents such as Lead or Silver were called upon, we learned that they were specialists, while Sapphire and Steel were the official Operators. Somehow this seemed terribly important, but it actually left more questions than answers. Like Dr Who before The War Games, Sapphire and Steel challenged us to interpret the slightest clues to their unknown identities. This was a central mystery within a series of mysteries. The reason that the enigma of Sapphire and Steel remains as potent and baffling today as when it was first shown is that we were given the jigsaw pieces but never shown the completed picture. As with The Prisoner, we are left the challenge of piecing it all together for ourselves.


On transmission the stories were not titled and the episodes not numbered. Even the TV-Times could not tell you when a story was in its final episode. When the videos were released (and we found that the memory did not cheat on this series) the tapes used chronological numbers for the adventures. However, the name Adventure One is a bit of a misnomer. Sapphire and Steel had had a number of un-transmitted adventures before this which they referred to in this story. These references were given to establish that Time was evolving mentally to meet the challenge that it faced against Sapphire and Steel. Time was learning how they worked and evolving its tactics to defeat the duo.

I must have been nine when I first saw that story. After the first episode I was not allowed to watch the series in the living room because my parents did not like the supernatural overtones of the series. So I was sent upstairs to watch it alone on the black and white telly in my parents room. I loved the atmosphere of the episodes, built from the shadowy sets and eerie music. When watching I never put the light on, because I knew that with it off the atmosphere would be that bit more electrifying.

Nowadays, I can see why my parents found it too frightening for themselves but would let me watch it. Sapphire and Steel would often describe what was seen, rather than what was happening. This protected the young nave viewer but implicitly telegraphed what was going on to the older viewer who would intellectually struggle to make sense of it. This telegraphing is what appeals to me about the programme nowadays. The programmes ideas have genuinely horrific qualities - it can take an object we think we know, and challenge this understanding by making the object seem malevolent. This idea then grows over the episodes, brooding on our imagination.

Perhaps it is just as well that my parents never saw Adventure Two. While its predecessor had child characters and nursery rhymes, its sequel had little that a worried parent would give the benefit of doubt to. A disused railway station had become a recruiting ground for the dead, and the companion-like character was a sad old ghost-hunter. While Time in story one was physically represented by lights, here it was a plague-like darkness spreading out from shadows; consuming everything. Worse still, the resolution to the story had Steel clinically sacrificing the old ghost-hunter’s life. While there were never any cosy denunciations or big bang solutions to Sapphire and Steel stories, this one was the most chilling.

Adventure three had people from a future time coming back to the present to investigate what life was like in the 1980’s. Their invisible time capsule was furbished with products from that by-gone time. However, the by-products of dead animals were attacking these people with a mix of hallucinatory and physical attacks. It transpired that Time had let the mental energy of these animals exact revenge on a generation who had exploited their various species to extinction.

Adventure four took the aboriginal fear that if a photograph was taken of you it would capture part of your soul and allow others to harm you via the photo. The story featured a man with no face who inhabited that which exists between the photo and the image captured on it, something that was trapped when the first photo was taken. If you have never seen Sapphire and Steel, you may be beginning to realise how abstract and complex their stories were. This story had the most chilling cliff-hanger of them all, when a character was trapped in a photo, and then the faceless being set light to it. The screams of the photos dying occupant blended with the strident end signature tune.

And again, a nursery rhyme was used to great effect: "As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today; oh, how I wish he’d go away."

By the fifth story, Time had progressed its manipulative abilities far beyond those it exerted in Adventure One. It could now change computer file evidence that Sapphire and Steel would refer to, and interfere with the minds and memories of humans. The setting for Adventure Five was a 1980’s dinner party, being held in the style of the 1930’s. Time uses this to take the present back literally to 1930 in an effort to change a critical event that took place in that year. However, Sapphire and Steel anticipate its growing power, and arrive at the party in the guise of two invited dinner guests, complete with false identities. That way, Time has to deal with them as both elemental agents, and as socially accepted house guests. But then the murders begin, and the programme being what it is, it’s no ordinary murder mystery.

Then came the shock final story, with no indication as to the nature of the ending, or this being the final story. The setting was a trap from which our two heroes could not escape. Their destiny was to look from a window into the space dimension, watching as "days shall become weeks and months, and years shall become thousands of years." The trap was apparently designed by beings like the medium atomic weights, but answerable to a "higher authority". In the opening credits we were always told that "heavy atomic weights cannot be used where there is life". Could it be that Time was evolving to an extent that medium atomic weights were no longer trusted to hold it back any longer? That heavy atomic weights would be used from then on?


Peter Hammond said that he had planned a seventh adventure that would see both the heroes escape from what he had intended as a cliff-hanger. However Central TV had other ideas and wanted to ditch all previous ATV programmes. When asked in interviews, both Joanna Lumley and David MacCallum have indicated their willingness to return to the series should any company wish to start producing it again. And with the current upsurge in interest of all things paranormal, now would be the perfect time to resurrect the series. After all, TV bosses often wax lyrical about wanting to create "innovative" programmes; and that is something Sapphire and Steel certainly was.

And yet, perhaps the subject matters of such a series are too controversial for today’s television producers. Children are the enemy in A4, eating meat will most certainly kill you in A3 (without the aid of BSE), while Steel, the hero, coolly let a harmless old ghost hunter be murdered simply to resolve a problem in A2. Innovative yes, but not safe, never stereo-typical, and always pitched higher than the average programmes intelligence threshold. What programmes made today, "innovative" or otherwise, can claim to be all those?

But returning to that final cliff-hanger, the last word in this article goes to Joanna Lumley: "It was an absorbing and often terrifying show which I was sad to finish. To our dismay, the last episode had Sapphire and Steel banished in a time-lock … we were assured we would be released in the next series. There never was another series, and our characters are still up there, waiting to break free and continue the fight. It’s like a film of someone diving, inched forward frame by frame but never hitting the water. It interferes with your breathing." (Joanna Lumley, Stare Back and Smile, Penguin Books, 1989).


Sapphire and Steel feature in our episodic Random Fiction story Hourglass
and also in the Single Fiction At the Edge of Night.

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