A Halloween viewing of the notorious Ghostwatch set me thinking about the undercurrents of historical phobia that seemed to bubble up particularly strongly through British culture in the 1970s and 1980s. This in turn reminded me of the exceedingly cult show, Sapphire and Steel, which is still fondly remembered by many British people of a certain age and a particular bent (and also apparently in unexpected places like Peru) for moderately but permanently traumatising them when it was first shown in the early 80s. I recently watched this show again as well, including episodes that I’d never seen before either when they were first shown or when they were repeated in seemingly endless loops during the late 1990s and I evidently had little better to do than watch satellite television all night.
For those who don’t know or are young, the eponymous characters were played by two pretty big British stars of the time. I read somewhere that one of the reasons the show was relatively short-lived was that its stars had so many other jobs to do, although this also sounds like the kind of bullshit that agents put about as a kind of bargaining chip for their clients. Joanna Lumley and David McCallum play a pair with definite but asexual chemistry. They could loosely be described as psychic detectives who appear, sometimes literally out of nowhere, to deal with what are obliquely half-explained as incursions from time or dimensions beyond the ordinary. These may take the form of anachronisms, time slips or hauntings but the situations in which Sapphire and Steel find themselves invariably start out weird and then rapidly spiral into the incomprehensible. In a good way.
In keeping with all British television of that time, they were probably given about £10 to spend on making it and it looks like they blew £5 of that budget down the pub before they even started filming. It’s incredibly stagey and untelevisual in its execution, and often they don’t make the best use even of the limited sets they’ve been able to bodge up. But anyone (or rather, any team of people) who can create even a handful of chilling, iconic and never to be forgotten scenes or images within such restrictions… well, I think they deserve a lot of credit.
All of the “Assignments” (in total six stories consisting of varying numbers of weekly episodes) except one were written by P.J. Hammond. He clearly had issues with history and the persistence of the past, turning domestic staircases, bedsits, train stations and even a petrol station into ominous facilitators of incidents that often amount to temporal rapes; modern people transformed or disappeared or imprisoned in loops of time or battered by echoes of past atrocities. These aggressions are, moreover, apparently instigated by the malignancy of Time itself. It slowly becomes as clear as anything ever does in the series (i.e. not very clear at all) that Sapphire and Steel are interlopers too, perhaps merely humanoid or passengers riding in human forms rather than truly human. Despite being firmly of the (then) present and emphatically not time travellers, Steel in particular has odd gaps in his knowledge such as being unsure of the difference between World Wars I and II. Sapphire sometimes speaks disparagingly of “humans.”
Of course in support of this historophobia theme I could also go to Hammer and to Doctor Who’s Tom Baker gothic horror/Victoriana period, but if you think I’m walking into that minefield you’ve got another think coming, my friend. There’ll be absolutely no discussion of Doctor Who here. It’s more than my job’s worth, mate. You know, health and safety.
I’ve spoken to you all sternly about spoilers before, but again I’ll say that if you’re the kind of big baby who whines about spoilers for things that were on television thirty years ago then you’d better go and do something else.
OK, now those losers have gone let’s have a totally superficial and crotch-centric drool over Lumley and McCallum as they were circa 1980.
Joanna Lumley looks (I apologise in advance) absolutely fabulous as Sapphire, a strapping horsey boss woman who’ll totally go over the line in flirting with a teenage boy, or use girly talk about clothes to mess with a secretary’s head, only to then switch her femininity straight off again like a robot. So English. Her bizarre, blonde China Girl get up in Assignment Three is particularly arousing. David McCallum proves that Sally Draper has excellent taste in men by <Danny the Dealer voice> looking very beautiful, man… even though he sometimes appears to be wearing Lumley’s Purdey hair from The New Avengers as a hand-me-down. As Steel he’s hilariously mardy and intolerant, although possibly he’s not acting much when he loses his shit with some of the really atrocious, stilted guest actors that seemed to plague British television in the 1970s and 1980s. Steel has superhuman strength (enough to tie knots in steel cables) but there’s always an undertone of distinctly non-macho emotionalism. Hang on, I think I’m having another Sally Draper moment.
OK, I’m back. We don’t have much chance to appreciate McCallum in his velvet jacket and bow tie, or Lumley’s never-ending parade of variations on the theme of the calf-high leather boot, because weird shit like this happens:
Just to recap… this went out as a family show in the early evening during a time when there were only three television channels in Britain and it’s about a man with no face (and also every face) who is actually the blurry unidentifiable figure in photographs, every single one of them in fact. I don’t think he’s named in the programme itself, but he’s listed in the credits as “The Shape”. He yanks ghostly, sinister children out of old photographs to “play with him” (probably best not to think about what that really entails) and he traps living, present day people in photographs to get rid of them. He travels through photographs and hides in mirrors. The whole story is set in a dingy tenement above a shop that sells lost property, “the belongings of the poor, the hopeless and the dead” as jolly old Steel puts it. The shop’s owner has accidentally unleashed the Shape and brought about his own demise by messing around with old photographs to combine them with new images: an early and prescient warning of the 21st century’s Photoshop Disasters?
Sapphire and Steel gloomily note that there’s almost nothing new in the building and there’s a whole shop full of antiques on the premises too, and that any one of these innocent-looking historical objects could be a gateway to cosmic disaster. Obviously I’m not the only person who thought the decrepit Victoriana and sentient toys of Bagpuss were highly sinister instead of charming. This theme is repeated again and again, within each story and throughout the series. At the end of the “Shape” assignment (and seen in the clip above) Steel warns somebody to destroy every picture of herself and never have another taken, lest she fall victim to the Shape’s malevolent hold over visual relics.
The enthusiastic destruction of old books, old knowledge and old pictures, and the danger posed by people with long memories are all recurring features of the show. In Assignment Two an evil force known only as “Darkness” recruits- or perhaps more accurately and disturbingly, it farms– the resentful dead of various wars. At a train station where they were formerly waved off by patriotic civilians it forces these restless spirits (and living human meddlers) to endlessly relive horrendous dying moments in a kind of perverse conceptual reversal of laying poppy wreaths on Remembrance Day.
The Assignment that takes place in a contemporary tower block with futuristic Ballardian inhabitants still manages to have old objects and even pieces of meat stored in the freezer or feather pillows become offensive and potentially lethal instruments of long-delayed, psychometrically encoded revenge.
Talking of long-delayed perversity and an almost hysterical fear of history’s persistence… Ghostwatch. This mockumentary (ugh, I know) was written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning as a drama for Halloween in BBC1’s Screen One strand in 1992, with no attempt made to promote it as a “real” event. A note to pedants: yes I’m calling October 1992 the Eighties because I was there and trust me, in most of Britain it was still the Eighties for a long time after they’d officially ended. It’s now available in the UK on an excellent BFI DVD with the script and commentaries by Volk and Manning, but it was broadcast officially in the UK only once because its apparently all too convincing documentary format caused national hysteria and a tabloid-driven moral panic.
The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, was the suicide of a young man with learning difficulties who had rapidly become obsessed with the show. His parents blamed Ghostwatch for his death. There were also supposedly cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a number of children who’d seen it.
It was deemed particularly irresponsible not just for descending abruptly into a sadistic cavalcade of suburban child abuse and injury in its final act, but even more so for starting with a perfect simulation of a BBC factual OB’s usual jovial and bourgeois tone. This tactic was greatly helped by the inspired casting of well known, avuncular TV faces to essentially play themselves: national treasure Michael Parkinson, national lovely, well-spoken kids telly presenter Sarah Greene and national bloke who somehow had a career in television Craig Charles.
Actually I’m being a bit unfair on Charles here, because he’s excellent during his brief appearances in Ghostwatch. Like Greene, her real life husband Mike Smith and Parkinson, Charles obviously grasps the point of the screenplay and gives an exponentially better performance than most of the “proper” actors. As an adult and at nearly twenty years distance Ghostwatch is probably not PTSD-inducing unless you’re already a nervous wreck or unfortunately in the grip of a mental illness or disability, but Ghostwatch undoubtedly is another memorable national TV touchstone for many British people who were young at the time.
Um, you might want to avoid opening the cupboard under the stairs, Sarah:
But why was it deemed traumatising rather than merely a passing scare? There’s the reliable horror tropes, for sure: the dreadful shape glimpsed fleetingly, things there one moment and gone the next (or vice versa), disturbing noises and voices coming from places and people where they normally have no business being, creepy names like Mr Pipes, yowling cat screams, jumps and horrible realisations.
As with P.J. Hammond’s scripts for Sapphire and Steel, though, I think the real horror at work is a horror of the past’s power and persistence. The programme relentlessly piles layer upon layer of unpleasant historical events onto what is now a modern council house occupied by a single mother and her daughters. A psychic apocalypse begat by the media’s abuse and exploitation of these girls begat by sexual deviance and suicide under the stairs begat by child murder in a previous building begat by who knows what.
In Ghostwatch, in Sapphire and Steel and in all historophobic fiction, the terrifying events that unfold draw their very power from the dredging up and merging together of particularly revolting stains on the historical fabric. Remembering invites horror over the threshold. Like the photographer’s lab in Assignment Four or the bumbling paranormal investigator’s tape recorder in Assignment Two, in Ghostwatch television’s crass, relentless technological eye notices and makes permanent things that it shouldn’t. Dwelling on the past does not lead to wisdom, in this world view. It leads instead only to the reinforcement of evils that would be better off forgotten. Even an ostensibly innocent aide-memoire like a book of nursery rhymes or a TV studio autocue (or the bizarre collision of both in Ghostwatch) becomes a gateway to evil because they turn living events into abstract, inorganic incantations.
Even worse, these inhuman things that want to do us harm- Time, Darkness, The Shape, Mr Pipes who was once Raymond Tunstall and came to a bad end but can never die- they notice that we’ve noticed them and they relish the opportunity to touch us when we’re halfway up the stairs of our own homes. I’ve said quite a lot but there’s definitely more to be said on this subject anon. For now, though, I’ll leave you in the capable (albeit possessed, malignant and molesty) hands of our Parkie:
Round and round the garden, like teddy bear…