DVD
Sapphire & Steel
Assignments One to Three

Starring: David McCallum and Joanna Lumley
Carlton
RRP 39.99
3711503903
Certificate: PG
Available now


Enigmatic time agents Sapphire and Steel have been assigned to investigate the disappearance of two children's parents from a remote house by the sea...

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 fully discover the exact nature of these characters or their abilities, but this is all part and parcel of the appeal of this curious and unique show.

Child actor Steven O'Shea is impressive as Rob, although the younger Tamasin Bridge doesn't enunciate all that clearly at times.

This is a low-budget production, but the programme avoids the pitfalls that often beset Doctor Who by never attempting to over-reach its own limitations (apart from a rather poor-looking fake swan that appears in Assignment Three). The principal "monsters" in each of the three stories in this pack are all basically lighting effects - white light in Assignment One; darkness in Assignment Two; and swirling coloured light in Assignment Three - although the darkness also involves some clever use of video effects. Each of the stories confines itself to a single basic, usually spooky, location: a coastal house in Assignment One; a railway station in Assignment Two; and a tower block in Assignment Three.

In retrospect, this story had to come first, because of its more upbeat ending. By contrast, Assignments Two and Three both come to bittersweet conclusions, with some particularly callous actions being taken by Steel. The production team were wise to establish their protagonists as here before going on to highlight their alien morality.

 

A ghost hunter makes contact with what seems to be the spirit of a World War I soldier. In so doing, he arouses the wrath of an evil force that feeds off the resentment of the dead...

At eight episodes in duration (the other two stories are six apiece), Assignment Two is a bit on the long side, to say the least. The story could easily have been told in six episodes or less. But then, Sapphire & Steel was never known for being a fast-paced adventure.

Its essential attribute has always been its atmosphere, and plenty of that is generated on the dimly lit set of the disused train station in this serial. 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. The low light levels lead, appropriately enough, to some "ghosting" in vision, but this is a quality inherited from the original videotape recordings, rather than a fault in the conversion to DVD.

Throughout the entire series, the performances of McCallum and Lumley couldn't have been better. Following his starring roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Invisible Man, McCallum plays an entirely different kind of character as the cold and logical Steel. The lovely Lumley gives one of her greatest performances as the more empathetic - though never weak-willed - Sapphire. During this story, she convincingly portrays several different personalities when Sapphire acts as a medium.

 

Day 27 in the 1980s house. All the time-travelling housemates are awake, except Eldred, who's still in bed. His wife Rothwyn is troubled by visions - can the house be coming to life to terrorise them...?

Assignment Three uncannily predicts certain aspects of the reality TV shows 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!

Such coincidental factors aside, Assignment Three is my personal favourite Sapphire & Steel adventure, and is certainly 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, although it is confined to the roof of a tower block, nevertheless gives 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 notched up a fair few appearances on Who over the years, would have made a great Doctor. 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.

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.

 

Even without special features, this collection would still have been excellent value for money. As it is, the DVDs also include text articles and background information originally published in TV Times, plus cast biographies and a stills gallery. This entertaining package will truly allow you to "take time back"!

Richard McGinlay

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