If there was ever a weirder, more deliberately enigmatic prime-time TV drama than Sapphire and Steel, I’d like to see it.
The Choob remembers watching it when it was first broadcast, aged around 10, and I was hooked the moment I first heard the bonkers opening monologue – delivered over an intriguingly abstract animation and backed by a portentous, doom-laden theme tune – that supposedly set up the premise of the show. In truth, at the time, I didn’t understand a word of it – and I’m not sure I do even now!
“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.”
Adding to my younger self’s confusion was the fact that the stories (there were only six before the show was cancelled) played out in twice-weekly, half-hour installments, some as short as four episodes, some as long as 12, and I never got to see them all. But I loved every minute of those that I did see.
It wasn’t until I saw them in full years later, when they were released on video in the early 90s, that the stories – and the characters – finally started to make sense. Somewhat.
From what I can work out, Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are part of a team of elemental, superpowered agents (we also get to see others occasionally: Silver, Jet and Lead) from another dimension who are assigned by some mysterious, unrevealed higher power to take human form and sort out breaches in the flow of time. These breaches, either accidental or deliberately caused by malevolent extra-dimensional beings, threaten human life.
Sapphire and Steel was created and mostly written by P J Hammond – who also, more recently, wrote two of the better episodes of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood in Small Worlds and From Out of the Rain. It aired between 1979 and 1983 and was seen by many at the time as ITV’s answer to Doctor Who. In retrospect, it now seems more like a prototypical version of The X-Files, with a supernatural pair of heroes rather than the all-too human Mulder and Scully.
Although there was a large sci-fi element to Sapphire and Steel, the sparse, mundane, everyday sets – forced upon the show by a very limited budget – and the often disturbing plots (people trapped in photographs, a nursery rhyme that can spirit people away, evil forces fuelled by the resentment of the dead) helped to create a brilliantly spooky atmosphere that made it as much urban – or rather suburban – horror as science fiction.
Watching Sapphire and Steel is more like watching a carefully-crafted stage play than a TV show, with great characterisation, pithy dialogue and clever ideas more than making up for the lack of action and flashy special effects.
And, at the heart of it all, there was the great, flirtatious chemistry between Lumley and McCallum.
Here, then, are those wonderful, memorable opening titles, preceded by the pre-credits sequence from one of the season four episodes:
And here are the closing credits (plus the last minute or so of the show’s final episode), which contain a longer version of the theme tune:
Incidentally, although the TV show was cancelled after just six stories (34 episodes) in 1982, Big Finish Productions, best known for producing original Doctor Who audio dramas, have since 2005 been continuing the Sapphire and Steel story in a series of audio plays – 15 so far – released on CD. These star Susannah Harker and David Warner as Sapphire and Steel.