Exploring British TV: The TORCHWOOD Connection – Part One

Sapphire & Steel

Before I start, I should say that Daemon’s TV contributor David has already written about his favourite British shows. I probably won’t be overlapping with shows he’s covered, so check out his posts on Only Fools and Horses, The Royle Family, Man vs Wild, The Mighty Boosh, Sharpe, Life on Mars and Coronation Street. Also, I won’t be talking about Extras as I’m sure you’re all familiar with it already. Likewise, although I will be posting about Doctor Who and Torchwood those posts won’t be part of this “Exploring British TV” strand.

And a couple of final recommendations, before I move on: TV Blog Coalition member Jace regularly blogs about UK TV that’s made it to the US, under the heading From Across the Pond; and fellow coalition blog Pop Vultures is run by an American living in the UK and regularly has features on British TV.

As you digest Saturday’s episode of Torchwood, “Adrift” (and if you didn’t see it, you missed a cracker), I’m also asking you to cast your mind back to the previous week’s episode, “From Out of the Rain” (which was given a repeat showing immediately before “Adrift”).

On first watch, I considered to be probably the weakest episode of the series (and it’s certainly the least typical) but I still can’t shake it from my mind – as it has a strangely haunting quality. This is hardly surprising, as the episode was written by Peter J. Hammond, who also contributed the series one episode “Small Worlds” – but who is most famous, in the UK, as the creator and principle writer of the show I want to talk to you about: Sapphire & 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.”

These were the first words of explanation (if that’s not too strong a word) that viewers heard, watching the very first episode of Sapphire & Steel on the 10th of July, 1979. They were spoken in a deep, portentous voice over stirring music and an animated title sequence that didn’t really make things any clearer.

The viewers had already been treated to a brief title sequence that simply introduced the two leads, the name of the show and the writer, before fading into a prologue that formed the rough equivalent of a pre-credits sequence (a very rare thing indeed in late-70s British TV).

They saw a boy sitting at a kitchen table, doing his homework, in a room full of ticking clocks, the wind howling outside. After he got up, to close the curtains, the camera followed him to the foot of the stairs (where there were yet more ticking clocks) and that 1979 audience heard the sound of an adult woman laughing and going through a times table, obviously from a bedroom upstairs. The boy then returned to his homework, and the viewers were treated to a series of slow pans and fades through the house, revealing yet more clocks and mixing the sounds of their ticking with the voices of his mother and father, putting his younger sister, Helen, to bed; and reciting nursery rhymes with her. A full two minutes in, the camera finally panned into the top bedroom of the house and focused in on Helen, shot through the open door of her bedroom and asking her (unseen) mother and father for “just one more nursery rhyme”. The parents agreed and all three sang, “Ring a ring a roses, a pocket pull of poesies, a-tissue, a-tissue, we all fall down.”

This was the closest that the viewers got to anything like normal dramatic dialogue in this four minute prologue. However the parents remained unseen and the scene was cut off dramatically by a jump cut (which stood out, because everything else had been pans and fades). Suddenly, they were back to the boy in the kitchen and to silence, except for the clocks ticking. Then, one by one, the clocks stopped ticking, and the boy made his way upstairs past more silent, stopped clocks. As he neared the bedroom, an eerie synthesizer noise started up and glowing light was seen through the doorway. And the last thing the viewers heard before the credits and their enigmatic “explanation” was the boy saying “Dad, what’s that noise? All the clocks have…”

Back from the credits and the viewers were probably still wondering what transuranic meant and what medium atomic weights had to do with anything. The more scientific among them were probably wondering why there was all this talk of elements when jet, diamond, sapphire and steel are not elements (although you could probably argue that point in the case of diamond – but if you take that tack, then jet is mainly carbon and so, in terms of the elements it is made of, very similar to diamond).

But they didn’t much have time to wonder, because it soon became apparent that the parents had disappeared, that the house was isolated (on an island) and that the boy has had to “run all the way to Scar’s Edge” to phone a policeman, who would be arriving by boat. Almost as soon as he has done this, there was a knock on the door – far too soon to be the policeman. After being persuaded by the authoritative voice (of a man who knows his name, and that he asked for help), the boy opened the door. And this was the point (almost nine minutes in) that the audience were first introduced to the eponymous main characters of the series: Sapphire and Steel.

Sapphire & Steel was dubbed “ITV’s answer to Doctor Who” (a dubious honour most recently awarded to the series Primeval, which is due on BBC America in August of this year) and ran for four series from 1979 to 1982. As you may have gathered from my description of the opening of episode one, it was a pretty mysterious programme. In fact, probably the most familiar (and comforting) aspect of the stories was the stars of the show: Sapphire was played by Joanna Lumley (most famous, at the time, for playing Purdey in The New Avengers and, latterly, for playing Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous) and Steel was played by David McCallum (most famous, at the time, for playing Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E and, latterly and especially in the US, for playing Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard in NCIS).

The programme was conceived essentially as a series of serialised ghost stories, and was undoubtedly influenced by the television tradition of adapting M. R. James ghost stories (especially, by the BBC, at Christmas). However, Sapphire & Steel, has the feeling of being a science fiction show, more than a supernatural one, a trait it shares with the Nigel Kneale BBC Christmas ghost story The Stone Tape – inspired in equal parts by M. R. James and Kneale’s own mixture of science and superstition in the ground-breaking and influential Quatermass and the Pit.

The set up was pretty much the same for each story: something strange (and confusing) would happen; Sapphire and Steel would show up out of nowhere, with no explanation; and would do something strange (and confusing) to put things back to something like normal. Whatever they did would usually involve a struggle with some unknown force, and the story would evolve extremely slowly (each story was serialised over between four and eight 25 minute episodes) and creepily – with a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, to build the suspense.

Nothing much is revealed about who (or what) Sapphire and Steel are, where they come from, or what they are dealing with. However, we do (eventually) find out that they are “Operators” tasked by a mysterious authority to prevent “time” (here characterised as a sort of corridor outside of reality) from breaking through into reality as we know it – hence “Sapphire and Steel have been assigned”, from the credits. The “time corridor” explanation is given, by Sapphire, to the boy, early in episode one:

(Direct YouTube Link)

Later in the same episode, Steel expands on this explanation with probably the most chilling speech of the whole episode:

“There are things, creatures if you like, from the very beginnings of time and the very end of time. And these creatures have access to the corridor, they’re forever moving along it. Searching, looking, trying to find a way in… They’re always searching… Always looking…”

And it is this mysterious danger that is lurking behind every story in Sapphire & Steel. What makes it even creepier is that in many of the stories it is something mundane that threatens to release the danger, like a nursery rhyme or a photograph. The closest equivalent I can think of in US television is the “Bloody Mary” episode of Supernatural.

There were a total of 34 episodes made, all 25 minutes long; and these episodes, between them, told six stories. The first two stories (in six parts and eight parts, respectively) made up the first series, which started in July 1979. The third and fourth stories (in six parts and four parts, respectively) made up series two, which started in January 1981. Series three followed in August 1981, but consisted only of the fifth story, in six parts. The sixth, and final, story made up the fourth, and final, series of Sapphire & Steel, and was broadcast in August 1982, in four parts.

Production became more and more expensive and trying to schedule the production around Lumley and McCallum’s availability became harder – which is why the number of episodes produced declined over the course of the show’s life. In end, Lumley and McCallum decided to move on, and the show was over.

None of the stories had titles and so they are usually referred to as either Adventure 1, Adventure 2 and so on; or Assignment 1, Assignment 2 and so on. I prefer Assignment to Adventure as it echoes “Sapphire and Steel have been assigned” from the title sequence.

All the stories were written by Peter J Hammond, except of Assignment 5, which was written by two former Doctor Who writers, Don Houghton and Anthony Read. Here is a clip from it:

(Direct YouTube Link)

Each story had a single location, which was represented by studio sets. As was the practice at the time, they were shot on video cameras, using a multi-camera system with vision mixing “as live” instead of post-production editing (which was very difficult to do with video tape at the time). To today’s viewer, this looks very stagy (being, in effect, a stage production filmed in a studio, rather than a series of takes edited together) and the combination of sets and video looks artificial. Also, by today’s fashions, the shots are very long and lingering – not switching frenetically as the result of digital non-linear editing technology. This gives the whole production a very different feel, which I find refreshing – but which may be a barrier to some. I think the special effects hold up reasonably well, considering they are almost 30 years old, mainly because they are trying to establish an atmosphere rather than create an action sequence.

Atmosphere is what Sapphire & Steel is all about, which is just as well because it takes a long time for anything to happen (the eight 25 minute parts of Assignment 2 make a total running time of 3 hours 20 minutes). I thoroughly recommend investigating Sapphire & Steel, but I can imagine that some will find its slow pace off-putting. Do remember, though, that the episodes were originally watched a week apart, so taking a break between episodes could well help.

On the whole, I think the difficulties that Sapphire & Steel may present to the modern viewer are worth overcoming. It is a creepy, intelligent and strange piece of science fiction, with excellent performances from the two leads. It may not be scary in the way that horror films tend to be, but it is certainly haunting. I was 10 years old when it first came out, and it absolutely terrified me.

To return to Torchwood, Peter J Hammond’s two episodes for it are very much in the mould of Sapphire & Steel. “Small Worlds“, in particular, focuses on Gwen and Jack, pushing them into the Sapphire and Steel roles. It also has the kind of malevolent, mysterious force that is the stock in trade of Sapphire & Steel – and the downbeat, amoral ending is very reminiscent of the earlier show. As well as sharing the general Sapphire & Steel trait of haunting, atmospheric imagery, From “Out of the Rain” is actually a reworking of the idea that formed the basis of Assignment 4. In Assignment 4, however, instead of creatures that live on cine film, there is a creature that lives in still photographs. It is an idea that, with four episodes to develop in, becomes utterly terrifying. Here is a clip from the beginning of the final episode, which includes the title sequences and the recap of the cliff-hanger from the previous episode:

(Direct YouTube Link)

Although Peter J Hammond hasn’t yet written for Doctor Who, he has certainly had an influence on it. One of the scariest things about Assignment 4 is a faceless man, an image that was copied in the Doctor Who episode “The Idiot’s Lantern“. Also, the punishments in “The Family of Blood” would fit right into an episode of Sapphire & Steel (especially the punishment with the mirror).

Sapphire & Steel was released in the US in 2004, as a 6-disc Region 1 DVD box set from A&E Home Video, called “Sapphire and Steel – The Complete Series”.

It was re-released in the UK in 2007, as a 6-disc Region 2 DVD box set from Network, called “Sapphire & Steel – The Complete Series, Special Edition”.

In 2005, audio production company Big Finish, continued the story with a series of new audio dramas. David Warner took on the role of Steel and Susannah Harker the role of Sapphire. More about Susannah next time, when I consider a short-lived series that could be considered as a proto-Torchwood, Ultraviolet.