AUDIO DRAMA
Sapphire & Steel
Cruel Immortality

Starring: David Warner and Susannah Harker
Big Finish Productions
RRP: 14.99
ISBN-13: 978 1 84435 220 3
ISBN-10: 1 84435 220 X
Available 19 February 2007


"Me only cruel immortality / Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms, / Here at the quiet limit of the world..." 1949: the Tithonus Retirement Home, situated deep in an English Forest. Sweet rationing has come to an end, the lights have come back on in London, and Matron is in a good mood for a change. Celebrations are underway when a new resident arrives. Steel is alone - and tired. Soon he realises that linear time has stopped, but not just for the people in the home...

Sapphire & Steel stories often deal with children. This one takes us to the opposite end of the age range, to the second childhood of a bunch of residents in a very strange (what other kind would you expect?) care home. Kudos to director Lisa Bowerman (who also plays one of the carers) for suggesting the idea to writer Nigel Fairs in the first place. It's such a suitable location for one of the agents' assignments that it's hard to believe they've never visited such a setting before.

This four-part, two-disc tale is a last-minute replacement to an abandoned Gary Russell script (because he went off to BBC Wales to work on Doctor Who) - not that you'd know it from the quality of the story. This possibly indicates that the secret of writing for this series is not to think about it too hard, but just to let the weirdness flow out of you (I'm sure creator P J Hammond was making it up as he went along most of the time)! The opening episode-and-a-half are up there with the likes of Assignment VI in terms of "what the heck is going on"-ness. Mystery abounds as to how and why the residents have apparently lived for centuries, all the while remaining trapped in 1949, and what could be the nature of the "beast" that is taunted by the so-called carers. Answers are then gradually provided at just the right pace - meaning whenever I was on the verge of cottoning on and drawing such conclusions for myself.

When this audio series was first announced, it was rumoured that it would be set before the cliffhanging final television tale, Assignment VI. However, it soon became evident, by implication at least, that these plays take place some years after the TV series, because the agents keep referring to the 21st century as the present, just as the 1980s were the present for their TV counterparts. Here at last they explicitly refer back to the events of Assignment VI, though there is still no explanation as to exactly how they managed to escape from the trap the Transient Beings laid for them. (However, given the age gap that exists between Susannah Harker and David Warner, I am inclined to theorise that their liberation required them to travel in opposite directions through time, somehow exposing themselves to the ravages of that time, so that Sapphire ended up appearing younger than before while Steel seemed to age.)

This serial also follows up on the events of the previous audio release, Water Like a Stone, which was also written by Fairs. And that's just about all I can say without giving away the plot big time.

With splendid acting from the entire cast, especially Daphne Oxenford (Listen with Mother) and Lucy Gaskell (Cutting It), Cruel Immortality deserves to live on forever as classic Sapphire & Steel.

Richard McGinlay

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