Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode One

ss01

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.

Sapphire & Steel was originally created as a children’s series, something which is most evident in the opening story, as two children, Rob (Steven O’Shea) and Helen (Tamasin Bridge), are the people in need of help from the mysterious “time detectives”.

Production limitations (an incredibly low budget) helped to shape the tone of all S&S‘s serials.  Small casts (with usually only a handful of main speaking roles), a handful of sets (only one of the six serials featured any location filming) and very limited special effects tended to be the order of the day.

The unsettling feel of this opening story is quickly established.  The location is a large, comfortable and old-fashioned house.  Whilst Rob is downstairs doing his homework, his mother and father are upstairs, reading nursery rhymes to their young daughter Helen.

The snatches of nursery rhymes used as incidental music is an indicator that the rhymes are designed to have a sinister, rather than comforting, air.  The feeling of unease can also be seen on Rob’s face downstairs – he doesn’t know why he feels his way, he just does.

The fact that we don’t see the faces of Rob and Helen’s parents is a deliberate move, it helps to make their brief appearance another discordant element.  When they vanish – after reading a nursery rhyme – Robert attempts to take charge (phoning for the police) although his constant reassurances to Helen that everything will be all right seems to be as much for his benefit as hers.

Shaun O’Riordan’s direction has a few notable moments, especially a long tracking shot – which moves from Helen, alone and frightened in the kitchen, down the corridor and to the front door.

The events so far have primed us for the arrival of Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) and their first appearance is a memorable one.  They adopt patterns of behaviour which will become familiar – Steel is brusque and business-like, whilst Sapphire is friendly and amusing.

The mystery of their arrival, as well as the fact that Steel knows Rob’s full name, is never answered – rightly so, since part of the tone of S&S depends on the fact that the title characters are inscrutable and unknowable.  But although Steel regards the presence of Rob and Helen as little more than an irritation, Sapphire attempts to explain what’s happened and why they’re here.

There is a corridor and the corridor is time. It surrounds all things and it passes through all things. Oh you can’t see it. Only sometimes, and it’s dangerous. You cannot enter into time, but sometimes … time can try to enter into the present. Break in. Burst through and take things. Take people. The corridor is very strong; it has to be. But sometimes, in some places, it becomes weakened. Like fabric, worn fabric. And when there is pressure put upon the fabric….

Sapphire is rather more playful and frivolous in this episode than she’d later become. She changes dresses and hairstyles in the wink of an eye several times, something which impresses Rob no end (who’s already a little in love with her).  But Steel’s on hand to bring the conversation down, telling Rob about the dangers in the house. “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 …”

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Two

ss02

A certain nursery rhyme – ring a ring of roses – was the trigger that allowed time to break through and steal Rob and Helen’s parents.  After Steel ripped the page out of the book he seemed to have assumed the danger was over, but hadn’t reckoned on Helen reciting the rhyme from memory.

This is a good indicator that Steel lacks any understanding of basic human behaviour.  As he later says to Sapphire, that’s why she’s here – he doesn’t see himself as a diplomat or as someone who needs to have any more interaction with people than is strictly necessary, it’s Sapphire’s job to reassure people like Rob.

She’s not doing very well though, as Rob now doesn’t entirely trust either of them.  He decides to tell the whole story to the police, who in the form of the local constable (played by Charles Pemberton) is due to arrive shortly.  As Rob unlocks the door to wait for his arrival, Sapphire and Steel appear at the top of the stairs.

They cast a sinister air, immobile and silent.  They make no direct attempt to stop him, but it’s plain that they hold the upper hand.  This feeling is strengthened when Sapphire innocently asks him if he speaks for both himself and Helen.  He says he does, but Sapphire is easily able to induce the girl to join her, which fractures their unity.  And when Sapphire puts the policeman into a time loop, Rob has to admit defeat.

Sapphire asks him to “please stop fighting us, and try to believe in us for once. We’re all you’ve got on your side! First a wall, then a room. What then? The house? A road… a village… a town. What next?” This seems to do the trick and even Steel – a flicker of a smile crosses his face when he enters the room – seems to be impressed by her powers of oratory.

We’ve already learnt that time can be destructive and capricious, but now we learn that it can also be intelligent and cunning.  It speaks to Rob, using the voice of his mother, pleading with him to open the barricaded door at the top of the house.  He’s persuaded by his “mother” to recite another nursery rhyme – goosey goosey gander.  This rhyme has long been linked to the English Civil War and the sight of Cromwellian-era soldiers, who suddenly appear on the stairs from nowhere, confirms that S&S is using this familiar interpretation.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Three

03-01

Steven O’Shea, as Rob, has a rather unenviable job.  Up until now Sapphire and Steel have been cool and unemotional, leaving Rob as the character who has to express a wide range of emotions from bewilderment to fear.  It would be a tough task for any actor, not made easier by O’Shea’s relative inexperience (he only had a handful of screen credits prior to this).  But after a rather histrionic turn during the opening few minutes of this episode he settles down nicely and interacts well with the much more experienced McCallum and Lumley.

Something has escaped from the locked room.  Its manifestation is very basic – a pool of light – but why bother to create anything more visually impressive when such a simple effect works just as well?   As the light moves secretly around the house, Sapphire and Steel ponder their next move.  Steel’s never heard of Olivier Cromwell, a fact which shocks Rob.  When the boy asks Steel if he knows his history, Steel replies that yes, he does.  It’s easy to draw the implication from this that Steel is an alien, although this isn’t explicitly stated (he could just be implying that he’s not British).

As the Cromwellian soldiers make another appearance, Rob buries his face in Sapphire’s shoulder.  It’s a non-verbal moment which shows her caring side – watch how she silently smoothes his hair afterwards – and possibly it was something worked in rehearsal.  The next line of the script has Steel asking Rob if this latest manifestation was the same as the previous one – a rather redundant question since Rob wasn’t looking that way at the time.

If Sapphire and Steel have seemed rather cocky up until now, then the plot-twist mid way through the episode wipes the smiles from both their faces.  Sapphire has been transported by the mysterious pool of light into a picture of a cottage hanging on the wall.  This poses numerous questions, most notably about how time could do such a thing.

We’re told that Sapphire is still in the house – time is simply creating the illusion that she’s somewhere else.  This illusion is a powerful one though, meaning that Steel and the others have to attempt to keep her grounded in reality – once she really believes that she’s in the cottage then she’ll be lost to them.

This is another effective part of the serial.  The camera focusing on a close-up of McCallum with Lumley heard only as a voice-over and then switching to the vaguely dream-like cottage bedroom, with an increasingly frantic Sapphire just about hanging on.

The cottage was the scene of a terrible atrocity during the English Civil War (which raises another question – how could time discern this from a painting?) and Sapphire looks set to re-enact this event.  Steel manages to bring Sapphire back, but the danger isn’t over ….

03-02

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Four

04

The previous episode concluded with Sapphire returning to the house pursued by the soldiers and ended on a close-up of Helen screaming.  A more effective, although possibly disturbing, cliff-hanger could have been created by allowing the action to run on just a little longer – this would have showed us a tense shot of Sapphire about to be beheaded.

Luckily Steel’s on hand to save her – by freezing the soldiers – although having to reduce his body temperature so dramatically means that his energy is temporarily spent.  That the soldiers were now full physical manifestations, whereas previously they had been insubstantial “ghosts”, poses more questions and seems to run counter to the events seen at the start of the serial, where time was depicted a subtle, non-corporeal manipulator.

A little more background is established after Rob asks Sapphire if there are any more like her and Steel.  She replies that there are 127, although Steel counters that there are only 115 (“you must never rely on the transuranics”).  This ties into the opening credits voice-over but it’s something that’s never developed – it serves as simply another tantalising hint about the nature and origins of the mysterious Sapphire and Steel.

It’s slightly coincidental that immediately after it’s revealed that Sapphire and Steel have colleagues, one turns up.  Lead (Val Pringle) is an imposing figure (at first sight Rob calls him a giant) but he’s a lot less frightening than he first appears.  He likes a laugh, that’s for sure, and his first question on seeing Sapphire is to wonder what food is in the house.  Like Silver, Lead is a good deal more frivolous than Steel, and the clash of their personalities is entertaining.  Lead provides insulation and chides Steel that he shouldn’t have attempted to lower his body temperature without him around.

Lead also brings news from home.  Jet sends her love to Steel, which amuses Sapphire no end whilst he tells them that Copper’s having problems with Silver again.  These throwaway lines hint at possibilities for future team-ups, but ultimately Silver is the only one we meet.

The ending of this episode is rather busy – Steel, Lead and Rob are upstairs attempting to prevent time from breaking through again, whilst Sapphire and Helen are in the kitchen.  They intend to burn all the nursery rhyme books in the house, although this plan goes a little awry when pages start to fly about.  Although it’s rather obvious they’re attached to wires, this isn’t too much of a problem since so much else is going on to ensure that a suitably apocalyptic atmosphere is created.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Five

sapphire-05

The danger is over – for now – but this news doesn’t please Steel.  He’s brusque and abrupt with everyone, especially Sapphire and Helen.  It takes a few patient words from Sapphire before he realises that he needs to unbend a little, and as he exits the kitchen he has a smile on his face.

Given how tightly wound Steel normally is, it’s very rare to see him smile.  It hints that there is a more (for want of a better word) human presence lurking underneath his cold, business-like exterior.  It would appear that he rarely feels comfortable in showing his emotions, possibly because he feels they are a weakness.  Sapphire is the complete opposite and therefore finds it easy to connect with Rob and Helen.  It’s an old storytelling cliché, but they are the two sides of the same coin.

With a six-part serial like this, there’s always the danger that the middle episodes will sag a little.  This probably would have been a particular concern here, because of the single location and limited cast.  So the introduction of Lead in episode four helped to refresh the narrative and another character appears in episode five to serve a similar function.

Rob’s father, Mr Jardine (John Golightly), suddenly appears out of nowhere.  The observant viewer will quickly deduce that this is simply time playing more tricks (like the voice that appeared to be Rob’s mother earlier in the serial, but wasn’t).  This once again poses questions – we’ve seen that time was able to manifest itself after both Helen and Rob were forced to recite nursery rhymes against their will, but what was the trigger here?  Was it simply due to Rob having a subconscious desire to see his father again, which time was somehow able to use?

The ersatz Mr Jardine is able to convince Rob that Sapphire and Steel are his enemies and that he and his mother have been hiding from them in the house all this time.  After all he’s seen, it’s a little hard to accept that Rob would so quickly change sides, but it makes for a dramatic twist.  Golightly, an experienced film and television actor, is smooth and convincing as Mr Jardine.

Once Rob agrees to go with his father, he disappears from the view of Sapphire, Steel, Lead and Helen.  But Rob and Mr Jardine are still in the house, although they’re unable to see the others.  Like many parts of the serial, this isn’t immediately explained, leaving the viewer to make up their own minds about what has and what might happen.

Sapphire & Steel. Assignment One – Episode Six

sapphire 06.jpg

The slightly confusing nature of Rob’s fate remains unresolved at the start of the final episode.  He can hear Sapphire calling out to him, but it appears that he still remains hidden from view.  The entity pretending to be his father lures him down to the cellar, promising that he’ll be reunited with his mother.

Mrs Jardine (Felicity Harrison) appears to be there, but she’s facing the wall.  Her immobility and the time it takes her to turn around are both strong signifiers that something is very wrong.  And so it turns out to be – and the sight of her face (glowing eyes and waxy teeth) probably would have been responsible for causing nightmares amongst some of the younger viewers.

Rob is now stranded in the past – back in the 1700’s when the house was first being constructed.  He’s linked to the others in the present, and Lead attempts to keep his spirits up (as well as ensuring that he doesn’t fall foul of the dangers of time) with a rousing version of What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor?  There’s a lovely juxtaposition between the full-blooded singing of Lead and the cool, calm deliberations of Sapphire and Steel as they ponder their next move.

Back in the 1700’s, Rob observes two soldiers carrying an open coffin – inside it is Helen.  Since she’s alive and well with the others in the present day this is a slightly inexplicable moment, albeit a chilling one.

Steel has come up with a solution, but they need to lure time down to the cellar.  A nursery rhyme read by a child will do the trick, and since Rob isn’t here there’s only one choice.  Sapphire puts up rather half-hearted resistance, but Steel easily gets his way.  Using Helen will clearly put her into danger, but it’s the only way – and this is a moment which serves as an early indicator that Steel will use anyone or anything in order to achieve his aims.

Helen’s mother – viewed as a shadow on the wall – attempt to call her back upstairs (another simple, but nicely produced, effect).  Helen pays no attention to it and slowly time is led into Steel’s trap.  Although it’s a pity that the final act – Lead crushing a stone which is obviously polystyrene – isn’t terribly convincing, but that’s only a minor niggle.

This first story ends in complete success as Rob and Helen’s parents are returned safe and well.  But not all of Sapphire and Steel’s adventures end so happily …..