Sapphire & Steel
The Complete Series

Starring: Joanna Lumley and David McCallum
RRP: £59.99
Certificate: PG
Available 05 November 2007

Set in a world in which the future and past collide and Time can overturn reality,
Sapphire & Steel will capture your consciousness and transport you to altered states. Eerie, frightening forces are at work, and only Sapphire and Steel can stop the strange events and restore natural order to the universe. These two superhuman agents have been assigned to safeguard the structure of Time. With their uncanny powers, they protect the present from malign forces from the past and future...

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned - again. This collection contains all 34 episodes of the ATV series, produced between 1979 and 1982. Although all six stories have been previously released on DVD through various labels, including A&E Home Video in Region 1 and Carlton in Region 2, some of the new special features on this Network release might persuade you to part with your cash, including audio commentaries on two episodes...

The parents of two children suddenly disappear from a lonely house by the sea. They have not walked out - they have simply ceased to exist in the present. Equally mysteriously, two strangers arrive on the scene. Their names are Sapphire and Steel, but who are they? Can they bring back the parents who have been trapped by unknown powers...?

Assignment One gets the series off to a good start. The mysterious characters of Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are established through their interaction with the young Helen (Tamasin Bridge) and her initially distrustful older brother Rob (Steven O’Shea). Thus we learn that the agents are far from human, but rather are elemental forces assigned to investigate and deal with Time anomalies. We never discover the exact nature of these characters or the limits of their abilities, but this is all part and parcel of the appeal of this curious and unique show.

An audio commentary by writer P.J. Hammond and director/producer Shaun O’Riordan on episode one and a documentary, Counting Out Time, on disc six, reveal that Assignment One was initially intended for a children’s TV timeslot. This explains the major involvement of child actors and a more upbeat ending than subsequent assignments. By contrast, Assignments Two and Three come to bittersweet conclusions, with some particularly callous actions being taken by Steel.

Steven O’Shea is impressive as Rob, though the younger Tamasin Bridge doesn’t enunciate all that clearly at times. Talking of enunciation, Hammond and O’Riordan often speak too quietly to be heard clearly during their commentaries.

McCallum’s Steel is a particularly forbidding presence during this opening serial, partly because we are seeing him through the eyes of frightened children. Following his starring roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Invisible Man, the actor evidently relishes the opportunity to play a very different character as the cold and logical Steel. Both McCallum and Lumley remain consistently excellent throughout the series.

Sapphire and Steel appear at an old, derelict railway station. Many years have passed since any trains ran through it. Now it echoes with mysterious figures and voices from the past. A ghost hunter makes contact with what appears to be the spirit of a soldier from the Great War, and Sapphire senses an overwhelming feeling of hatred...

At eight episodes’ duration, the lengthiest serial in this collection, Assignment Two is a bit on the long side, to say the least. This is possibly the result of ATV changing the number of episodes they required from the creative team even as the show was in production, as the documentary Counting Out Time reveals. The story could easily have been told in six episodes or fewer - but then, Sapphire & Steel was never known for being a fast-paced adventure series.

Its essential attribute has always been its atmosphere, and plenty of that is generated on the dimly lit set of the disused train station. The programme has a knack of tapping into primal fears and childhood nightmares, from the creepy parental impostors of Assignment One to a character with pitch-black eyes in this adventure.

This is a low-budget production, but the programme avoids the pitfalls that often beset its rival Doctor Who by never attempting to over-reach its limitations (aside from a rather poor-looking fake swan in Assignment Three). The principal “monsters” in each of the first three stories are basically lighting effects - white light in Assignment One, darkness in Assignment Two and swirling coloured light in Assignment Three - though the darkness also involves some clever use of electronic effects. Each of the stories confines itself to a single basic, typically spooky, location - a coastal house in Assignment One, a tower block in Assignment Three and the railway station here.

Lumley gives one of her greatest performances here as the empathetic Sapphire. During this story, she convincingly portrays several different personalities as Sapphire acts as a medium.

How can Sapphire and Steel help people they know nothing about - people who are inside a building they cannot see? All they know is that these people have come from the future and that they are in danger. Inside the building, a woman is troubled by disturbing visions. Can the house be coming to life to terrorise her, her husband and their baby...?

Assignment Three uncannily predicts aspects of reality TV shows such as Big Brother and The 1940s (or whatever) House. Eldred and Rothwyn, time-travellers from millennia hence, re-enact a 1980s lifestyle while inhabiting a replica of a contemporary high-rise flat, each room of which contains a camera to record their activities and opinions. There is even a room that resembles Big Brother’s Diary Room! You can almost hear the Marcus Bentley voice-over: “Day 27 in the 1980s house. All the housemates are awake, except Eldred, who’s still in bed!”

Such coincidental factors aside, Assignment Three is my personal favourite Sapphire & Steel adventure, because, more than any of the others, it scared the living daylights out me as a child and because it’s the most unusual of the bunch. Instead of the usual ghosts and images from the past, the agents have to deal with a threat from the future. And, in contrast to the previous two assignments, the budget stretches to a little location work, which, though confined to the roof of a tower block, nevertheless lends a significantly different look to the show.

This story also sees the first of two guest appearances by David Collings as the charming but vain technician Silver, an appealing and distinctly Doctor Who-like character. Indeed, Collings, who has notched up several appearances on Who over the years, including that of an impostor for the Doctor in Mawdryn Undead, would have made a great Time Lord on TV, and has since played the character on audio for Big Finish’s Doctor Who Unbound series. The success of his performance as Silver, which makes a great contrast to the straight-faced Steel, led to his eventual return in Assignment Six, not to mention Big Finish’s Sapphire & Steel audio dramas.

The other guest stars, playing the time-travelling family, are also notable, particularly because of their very weirdness. The querulously voiced Eldred (David Gant) constantly defers to his wife Rothwyn (Catherine Hall), who is shorter in stature but infinitely stronger in character. Meanwhile, Russell Wootton gives an unnerving performance as the Changeling, their infant son, who is aged to adulthood by a vengeful Time Force.

Is Time trying to break through into the present via old photographs? Temporal investigators Sapphire and Steel probe the secrets of an old shop that never opens, a shop in which nothing is new. They see children from the past - children who are neither real nor images but something in between - and an evil shape-shifting entity...

In contrast to the lighting-effect “villains” of Assignments One to Three, the Shape (played by both Philip Bird and Bob Hornery) makes a big impression here as the detectives’ first tangible adversary. Frequently appearing as a man without a face, he is truly the stuff of childhood nightmares.

Following on from two six-parters and an eight-parter, Assignment Four, which comprises just four episodes, is noticeably swifter in pace. Episodes two to four really race along.

This assignment also addresses the question of why Sapphire and Steel always seem to arrive after a Time-break has occurred, never before, when they might have been able to prevent the damage instead of merely repairing it. Perhaps some fans wrote to writer/creator P.J. Hammond posing that very question to him!

“Ghosting” in vision, due to low light levels in the studio, is particularly apparent during this serial. However, this is a quality inherited from the master videotape recordings, rather than a fault in the transition to DVD. Looking back at my old VHS tapes of the entire series , I see that this is how the original programmes looked.

A wealthy industrialist holds a themed house party to celebrate his company’s golden anniversary. Every detail has been turned back to the style and atmosphere of 1930, the year in which the company was founded. But things go disastrously wrong when Time starts to roll back the years for real. Sapphire and Steel have a new assignment...

The presence of guest writers, former Who scribes Don Houghton and Anthony Read, in place of the usual Hammond, is noticeable during Assignment Five. A pastiche of Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries in general, and Ten Little Indians in particular, this whimsical tale involves the detectives to a lesser extent than it does the large cast of eccentric guest characters.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, since this adventure is packed with intriguing plot developments. The lack of story padding is evidenced by the relatively short duration of the recaps at the beginning of each episode - in other serials, these can last for anything up to three minutes.

A particularly memorable character in this story is the bluff Felix (Jeffry Wickham), who is briefly “recruited” by Sapphire and Steel, and adopts the nickname of Brass.

Silver joins Sapphire and Steel for their most perplexing case yet, the investigation of a present-day Time-break that somehow points to 1948. A motorway service station appears to be frozen in Time. Who are the young couple they find inside the service station café, and how are they involved in the bewildering shift in Time...?

Even by Sapphire & Steel standards, Assignment Six is seriously weird stuff! The first three episodes don’t make a whole lot of sense, but then they aren’t supposed to, and they still make compulsively unnerving viewing. In the audio commentary on the final episode, writer Hammond confirms my suspicion that he was making it up as he went along!

David Collings, who made such an impact in Assignment Three as the charming rogue Silver, puts in a very welcome return appearance here. Meanwhile, future Auf Wiedersehen, Pet star Christopher Fairbank is truly chilling as Johnny Jack (“with his children on his back”), a sinister travelling performer who has rag dolls attached to his coat.

Back when I was a lad of 12, when this story was originally transmitted, I didn’t even realise that episode four was the final one of the serial, never mind the conclusion to the entire series! So try and imagine my surprise as you reach the end of this fateful instalment.

In the commentary and the documentary Counting Out Time (presented on the same disc as this serial), Hammond and O’Riordan discuss some fascinating ideas for what might have happened had there been a seventh assignment. However, no mention is made of the continuation that has already taken place - the Big Finish series.

This release lacks the TV Times text articles, ITC press material and cast biographies that appeared on the Carlton Assignments I-III and IV-VI DVDs. However, there are stills galleries on each disc, as well as (according to the press release) PDFs of original scripts, designer’s floor plans and PR paperwork. I have been unable to locate these PDFs, but hopefully the packaging (which was not available for review) explains how to access them.

In any event, if you don’t already own these episodes on DVD, then this entertaining collection will truly allow you to “take Time back”.

Richard McGinlay

Buy this item online
We compare prices online so you get the cheapest deal!
Click on the logo of the desired store below to purchase this item.

£43.98 (Amazon.co.uk)
£47.99 (Play.com)
£43.99 (HMV.co.uk)
£51.97 (Asda.co.uk)
£51.93 (Thehut.com)

All prices correct at time of going to press.