Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned

 Further proof that I don't really dislike the 1960s and 1970s: I really love the science fiction telly of the era. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it was the golden age of British science fiction television; as well as Doctor Who, it was the age of The Prisoner, The Avengers (the real Avengers, not those superhero types), Blake's 7 and, just sneaking in in 1979, Sapphire and Steel. I mentioned in my last post that I'd been watching loads of classic Who, but I switched to Sapphire and Steel because I fancied a change.


When it comes to Sapphire and Steel, you'll be in one of three camps: never heard of it; never seen it; or seen it and deeply unnerved, if not actually scared by it. It bridges the ground between SF and horror. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are 'Operators', interdimensional agents of a sort, though exactly what, and working for whom, never really gets explained. It's a little like The Prisoner in that respect, and the lack of explanation means things feel mysterious and unsettling all the way through. Time itself seems to be malignant, and will break through to the present and take people and things, and creatures from either end of time will also break into the present. Large numbers of old things, or old things mixed anachronistically with new ones, make it easier for this to happen. (Vintage lovers, beware!) Sapphire and Steel work to put things right, occasionally aided by other Operatives like Lead and Silver.

Only 34 episodes were made, divided into six stories. I find the two stories broadcast in 1979 the most genuinely frightening. In the first, a little girl reciting a nursery rhyme in an antique-filled old house creates a time fracture that snatches away her parents. There's one scene where Sapphire is drawn into a picture and taken back in time to a point where she's about to relive the murderous events that took place there, and it's really tense. In the second story the duo cross paths with a ghost hunter at an abandoned railway station; the creature they're investigating feeds on the resentment of dead servicemen, hence the lonely Tommy walking up and down the derelict platform whistling 'Pack up your troubles'. That particular story is the one everyone remembers, usually either the creepy whistling or the devastating ending, which has to be one of the most shocking I've seen.

If you're looking for a programme that epitomises the style of the late 1970s/early 1980s, this isn't it. Joanna Lumley wears some amazing bright blue, often shiny, outfits, which do look very much of the era and stand out amid the beiges, browns and greys of so many of the sets – McCallum generally wears a grey suit. However, because so much of the programme is about time using old objects to break through into the present, a lot of the things you see pre-date the 1970s.

Generally I'm not in favour of old series being revived – I've tried to like modern Doctor Who, really I have, but it's just not as good as it was in the 1970s – but I'd make an exception for this.* That said, it would need to be done well. Part of the problem for me with modern Who is the way they try to cram a whole story into a week's hour-long episode, whereas in the 1970s a story could take four or six half-hour episodes, and if they did the same with Sapphire and Steel a lot of the tension, that slow scary buildup, would be lost. I do find it frustrating that in an age where audiences clearly love long stories (Breaking Bad, Mad Men and so on), British programme makers seem determined to squash everything into a handful of hour-long episodes with little room for tension or subtlety. If the programme makers were going to try to make it faster, or compress the storylines, it'd be better left alone. We've always got the existing 34 episodes.



*And The X-Files. I am VERY excited about the return of The X-Files.

17 comments :

  1. I fall into camp three, it scared me, but I never knew if it was because it WAS scary or if I was just a scaredy cat! Andy hasn't seen it either but is intrigued ... but that might be because Joanna Lumley's in it ;)

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    1. Bits of it are honestly quite horrifying.

      I reckon Joanna Lumley is at her loveliest in this, more than in the New Avengers.

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  2. Add another camp; seen it, not bothered! I remember it as being the butt of many jokes, actually (or perhaps that was just my cynical set of friends...) But then I think the modern reinvention of Doctor Who is a million times better than all the old series (Christopher Eccleston vs Jon Pertwee, no contest!) so I don't think our tastes are the same, Mim! I do agree about allowing stories to be told over several episodes though. xxx

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    1. As much as I like the Ecclestone - and he had some of the best episodes of the new ones - Pertwee is my Doctor. Still, diversity of taste is a good thing*, or we'd all be following each other around like sheep.


      *Unless it's someone who doesn't like cats. They're just WRONG.

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  3. Sapphire and Steel, oh wow. This still holds a special place in my heart, although it’s been many (many)years since I’ve actually seen any of it. The faceless man on the stairs scared the bejesus out of me as a child, and the finale in the café was wonderfully surreal. I doubt you could remake it now, It’d be the off kilter spookiness that would be hard to replicate.

    I sort of agree with you re Nu Who, but I sort of disagree as well. I love both the new version and the classic versions for different reasons. Yes a lot of time the current format doesn’t allow for a steady building of a creepy atmosphere, but the flipside is that many classic stories were padded beyond belief (with myriad variations on ‘captured, escape, recaptured, re-escaped’) I’d like to take a few nu Who episodes and stretch them to make them breathe, but conversely there are plenty of classic Who serials I’d like to stick in a trash compactor to squeeze all the faff out of!

    And the new series has done some wonderfully creepy stories (Blink, Midnight, Listen). It looks like series 9 will feature a lot of two-parters (which in terms of runtime does equate to an old 4 parter…roughly)

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    1. The faceless man didn't unnerve me as much as the soldier, though the bit where the sepia children ask him, 'Can we hurt them?' is pretty freaky.

      Modern Who does have one thing in its favour: Peter Capaldi. Oh yes!

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    2. He's good, but he's no Matt Smith ;)

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  4. We used to watch it religiously as kids, not so much for the plot, but because my Mum adored Joanna Lumley's style. She even had the hairdresser give me the Purdey cut in 1977.
    I loved Doctor Who when Christopher Eccleston played The Doctor because I adore him but soon lost interest when he left the series.
    When it comes to vintage TV nothing can beat Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I don't care for Sci-Fi. xxx

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    1. I had a Purdey - in the 1980s. No wonder the other kids made my life a misery, it really didn't suit me and accentuated the unfortunate wonkiness of my eyes. A Brooksie bob would've been so much nicer. Lumley is gorgeous as Sapphire - I don't think she's ever looked better.

      Tinker, Tailor is one of my telly landmarks too. Sheer brilliance. I've got it on DVD; every once in a while we just settle down for a weekend of it.

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  5. My ex made me watch it (I think we borrowed it from Rhian?). I watched the first story ok, but the second was two creepy and I didn't make it through it and refused to watch anymore!

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    1. I think the second one is the worst. When we went driving the steam train, Pete walked up and down the platform whistling 'Pack up your troubles' as he found it entertaining.

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  6. I'll look for this one-sounds like my sort of thing. I loved The Prisoner (and own all the episodes on VHS) and recently watched the television series Day of the Triffids (Better than I expected, but the film was so incredibly good it would be hard to equal). I can't get absorbed in the new Who-I tried though.

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    1. Most of the episodes are on YouTube. My favourite vintage SF are the original Quatermass TV series - most of the first one is missing, but the second and third still exist, and they're way better than the later film remakes.

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  7. I'm too scared to really read this article properly! But, digression: whenever I see David McCallum in NCIS I'm amazed at how young he looks.

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    1. Have you seen the trailers for the new Man From Uncle film? They've managed to make the chap playing Ilya Kuryakin look very McCallum, which pleased me greatly.

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  8. Joanna Lumley.
    Wonderful lady (and loves cats!)
    I guess I've figured this one out: late 1970s and a long part of 1980s were Diana's age - and her signature color was blue. Many loved her, and imitating her style was natural, right?!

    Not just because British mentality is closer to my own - but I prefer UK shows... (remember "Fools and horses" and "Alo Alo" - humor is amazing.. and "Doctor Who" has the best gags ever). Briths do it with something subtle... unless we're talking about "MontyPyton" crowd - than we're in a whole new "in your face" galaxy! :)

    Marija

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    1. Actually, Diana came in the scene around 1980, so the programme predated her. But yeah, she was a huge influence over here. I always found her a bit annoying, to be honest, but it was awful the way the paparazzi basically hounded her to death. I don't read tabloid newspapers because of that.

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