Audio and radio play reviews

Review: Sapphire and Steel – The Surest Poison

The Surest PoisonThere 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.

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News

BBC4’s Ghost Stories season

BBC4’s odd, isn’t it? It’s basically 1980’s BBC2, pumping out the weird and wonderful – whatever the controller happens to find personally interesting, rather than what “common plebs” (in BBC parlance) might like.

This can be good. ITV is what you get if you become too distracted by the lowest common denominator: a channel of dizzyingly low ratings, given its former heights, populated by programmes whose quality threshold is nothing greater than “Will brain donors be able to cope with this as part of their post-op recuperation?”.

On the other hand, heading too far away from “what the majority wants” can also lead to “Etruscan Ballet” nights and seasons dedicated to the movies of the fisher people of the Indus Valley. You know, the sort of programmes a certain kind of Islington-based dinner party goer is proud the BBC produces, even though he never actually watches them.

BBC4 walks a thin tightrope between this zero-rating extreme of chattering class pointlessness and high quality programming. One moment, it’ll be producing fantastic stuff such as its live version of The Quatermass Experiment, the hysterical The Thick of It and biopics of authors such as George Orwell and John Wyndham; the next, it’ll be churning out worthy but unwatchable crud like African School (“Having a love life in Uganda is not easy. Teenagers face being expelled from school, and teachers struggle to afford to get married. Can love flourish despite the challenges?”).

This Christmas, however, imagine my joy that while BBC1 and ITV are gearing themselves up for Doctor Who on Ice and X-Factor Christmas Carols (will Louis Walsh come back? Wow, how dumb are you to even have to ask that question? Of course he will. Do you need to wonder, even for an attosecond, if all the ‘fights’ are orchestrated to gear up interest?), BBC 4 is gearing up for a season of ghost stories.

Oh yes. This is what we want. This is what our licence fees should have been going on all these years.

Now this isn’t just a season of “Things with the word ghost in the title”, although there is just a hint of that with Look Around You‘s ‘Ghosts’ episode – funny, rather than spine-tingling; surely, with its Sapphire and Steel-esque “Helvetica effect”, the pilot episode, ‘Calcium’, is far more terrifying?

No. We’re talking repeats of all the classic MR James ghost story adaptations from the 1970s, as well as a new adaptation of The View from a Hill. Then there’s the amazing The Signalman, adapted from Andrew Davies from Charles Dickens’ original short story.

This is worth sitting down for. This is worth missing Ant and Dec’s Celebrity ‘Risk’ Tournament for. The video recorder, unused since August, will be running three hours a day, every day. I’ll have to (shudder) buy some new blank tapes. I might even invest in a DVD recorder, even one of those cheapo ones from Asda, just to capture this last hurrah for quality programming in a format that has more than 90 days of future left in it.

I might, to sum it up, be watching British TV again. Now that’s odd.

So don’t delay. Don’t tarry. Don’t dawdle. Make a note in your diary, in pen, that it’s on. Let’s help BBC4 hit four-digit viewing figures. Let’s watch this Ghost Stories Season together. At the very least, it’ll be less frightening that way.