Nostalgia corner: Sapphire and Steel (1979-82)

Go on - scare yourself silly

Sapphire and Steel

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.

Ironically, it was only a matter of time until I got round to Sapphire and Steel. Now I have the time, so let’s delve into one of the coolest, scariest TV shows there’s ever been on UK TV.

I say ironically, because Sapphire and Steel is a show about time – specifically, Time going wrong, usually as the result of things that live in the ‘corridor of Time’ but sometimes of its own volition. In the world of Sapphire and Steel – which is also our modern world or at least the modern world of the 1970s and 80s – Time is everywhere and it is the enemy. It wants to break in. It wants to trap you. It wants to steal your parents. It wants to eat your soul. And then it wants to do the same to everything and everyone you know.

And to stop the world as we know it being destroyed when this happens, mysterious entities, apparently named after the elements*, perhaps even the incarnations of the elements themselves, intercede using all kinds of weird, unexplainable powers.

However, if you think they’re here to help us, you’re sorely mistaken, because Sapphire and Steel, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, are not like you and me. Even when they pretend to be on our side, to empathise with the predicaments of the mortal and human, they’re not. And they’re ever-so-willing to sacrifice every single one of us if necessary if they have to stop time. They have their own morality, their own rules and they don’t care about us. But they’re the only thing stopping history making us history, so do what they say.

Allow Sapphire to explain to the nature of Time to these annoying children and then follow me after the ever so scary title sequence to explain a little more about this most engrossing of shows:

Alternatively, there’s this rather lovely documentary about the show.

The stories, all of which are radically different from one another while simultaneously having the same tone, revolve around time breaks, usually triggered by an anachronism, such as a doctored photograph or time travellers from the future, that mixes time periods, thus allowing time to have an entry point – a weakening of its fabric.

Sapphire and Steel then arrive, sometimes with the assistance of one of the many other elemental agents implied to exist – ‘specialists’ such as Lead and Silver (David Collings) – although no one knows how. They then have to use their skills and abilities as ‘Time Detectives’ to stop this breach by finding out how it’s occurring then out-smarting Time and its agents. Invariably, Time is smarter than both Sapphire and Steel, but they still manage to win through at the end.


How they do this varies: Steel, as his name suggests, is colossally strong, but he’s also capable of reducing his temperature to absolute zero. Sapphire can ‘take time back’, rewinding time to watch an event again, but she can also obtain information about people. Both can communicate telepathically with one another and can teleport themselves from place to place. Silver, in turn can transform objects, and can reprogram electronics and create gadgets.

Sapphire, who acts a bit like a head girl at a posh girls school, also has a skill that Steel doesn’t have: the ability to be likeable. How much is natural empathy and how much is manipulation isn’t clear, but Steel does say that one of her tasks as an agent is to get children (and others) to do what needs to be done.

Because Sapphire and Steel do have emotions – they’re just not the same as ours.

Sapphire and Steel was originally intended to be a children’s show, as anyone watching the first of the six stories – ignore fans who give these stories names because they’re really just Assignments 1-6 – will readily appreciate. But once stars Joanna Lumley and David McCallum were hired to play the eponymous Sapphire and Steel, budgets increased and the target audience was changed accordingly.

Created by Peter J Hammond, who worked on an equally dark but more conventional children’s show earlier in the 70s, Ace of Wands, he conceived of it after staying in an allegedly haunted castle. Because Sapphire and Steel is essentially a collection of ghost stories, in which logic as we know it doesn’t function, and that are intended to scare us senseless.

There are many reasons for the show’s excellence. There’s the acting talents of Lumley and McCallum, for starters, and PJ Hammond’s scripts are superb, even if they leave you with as many questions and answers, having a logic all of their own. Indeed, perhaps the only disappointing story of the six is Assignment 5, which was written by former Doctor Who writers Don Houghton and Anthony Read, who turned in something a tad more Agatha Christie than ghost story.

But we can’t overlapoverlook the fact that the show was incredibly visual and relied on the superb direction of Shaun O’Riordan for a lot of its atmosphere, as well as the music talents of Cyril Ornadel:

The show itself touched on various issues of concern to Hammond. After the initial haunted house of Assignment 1, which plays to children’s fear of abandonment and the potentially terrifying prospect of parents being replaced by evil doubles, Assignment 2 takes us to the far more adult concept of ghosts angered by their deaths in wars – and typically accidental death, such as those killed after the armistice of the First World War because news hadn’t reached the front lines yet.

Assignment 3 moves on to animal rights and vivisection, with some particularly haunting imagery from abbatoirs courtesy of O’Riordan. The much imitated Assignment 4 returns to the childhood nursery rhymes of Assignment 1 with ‘the man who wasn’t there’ – he has no face, appearing in every photo where someone is in the background looking away – killing people by inserting them into photographs.

Assignment 6, however, is the pièce de resistance, a much-debated episode that may (or may not) see Sapphire and Steel face the ‘transuranics’ named during the title sequence. Coming across a service station seemingly trapped in time, with people from different time periods seemingly trapped as well, it soon becomes clear that Sapphire and Steel are in a trap, facing beings with similar abilities to their own.

With the help of Silver, they seem to escape, except unfortunately for them, they misunderstood the nature of the trap…

And that was the end of that. With budgets rising and franchises changing over on ITV, although Hammond did have an escape plan for Sapphire and Steel, that was the end for Sapphire and Steel.

Since then, there’s been an audio series starring Susannah Harker and David Warner as Sapphire and Steel, but it almost never captured the essence of the show.

You can still get the show on DVD. It’s also been uploaded to YouTube.

But don’t sell yourself short. Sapphire and Steel deserves to be watched in a darkened room on a big TV so you can scare the crap out of yourself.

* Yes, I know sapphire and steel aren’t elements. Don’t look at me.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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