There was always something about Sapphire and Steel's on-screen adventures: a je ne sais quoi in the same vein as MR James's ghost stories. It was a feeling that something very scary and dark was out there. You wouldn't have the vaguest idea what it wanted, why it wanted it, what it could do, or how it could do it. But you knew that if it got what it wanted, there'd be nothing but disaster.
Only the equally inexplicable “time agents”, Sapphire and Steel, would be there to do anything about it. And they'd be just as likely to sacrifice you to stop the dark thingie as help you. It was a world where science had no meaning, where anything “old” could kill you and even the most human of these supernatural characters would have unfathomable, alien emotions.
Sapphire and Steel ended after just six stories, a victim of the regional franchise shake-ups at ITV in the early 80s. But Big Finish, purveyors of fine audio plays for almost a decade, have been putting out new, original S&S stories for over a year now.
Starring David Warner and Susannah Harker rather than the original Steel and Sapphire – David McCallum and Joanna Lumley – the new stories have somehow always lacked that necessary je ne sais quoi: S&S have been too human, too vulnerable, the enemy has been too explicable and the morals of the stories have been too obvious and predictable. Where S&S would simply have snuffed out the existence of anyone who was bringing “time” into our world, they've agonised about whether the decision is right and resorted to other measures instead.
But here's The Surest Poison, the most Sapphire and Steel-esque of all the stories so far. It's far from perfect, but it's a whole lot better than its predecessors.
Plot (produced using directed writing via the spirit of William Shakespeare)
An auction of fine timepieces. A man who has lived for over 100 years. The greatest watchmaker in history. The mysterious theft of the greatest watch ever built.
These people and events are inexorably linked by Time and the results could be cataclysmic for humanity.
From London, 2006 to Jerusalem in 1983 and beyond - to 18th Century Paris - the strands are drawn together. A seemingly perfect web is forming.
Only two elements can intervene on our behalf. But when Sapphire is struck down by disease and Steel is trapped for over 20 years, who will intervene on their behalf?
“The future will be time-centric and Time will be everything.”
Is it any good?
It's reasonable. While it makes a broad stab at the inexplicability of Sapphire and Steel, the fact the plot can be neatly summarised above shows it doesn't quite make it. There are clichés, such as the “immortal” man who yearns for death, that have been done countless times before. The constant jumping around between time zones, using watches that contain fragments of “residual time”, makes the plot muddled rather than inexplicable. And the two temporal agents' complete powerlessness against the enemy makes you wonder why they've ever had more than one assignment.
All the same, there are some good qualities to the story, notably that you occasionally feel that this is a genuine Sapphire and Steel tale. True, Warner's gruff Steel lacks the subtlety of McCallum's, delivering the final line of the story as cheesy bravado rather than something more mysterious, for example. And Harker doesn't quite have the presence of Lumley, who you feel would have dismissed the enemy with a “don't be silly”. But they still manage, this time, to conjure up something of the Sapphire and Steel of old.
While I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who didn't watch the original - far better to buy one of the DVDs - and I'd be hard pressed to recommend it to Sapphire and Steel fans, if you've already tried the series and are being selective with your purchases, this is one worth getting.
PS To remind you just what a scary but utterly incomprehensible show Sapphire and Steel could be, here's the start to one of the episodes in story four.
Listen to the trailer
Steel (David Warner)
Sapphire (Susannah Harker)
Webb (Richard Franklin)
Breget (Tom Bevan)
Gerard (Eric MacLennan)
Cecile (Helen Goldwyn)
Writer: Richard Dinnick
Director: Nigel Fairs