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. Continue Reading