“Sapphire & Steel” – A Lost TV Classic

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Back on July 10th, 1979, a new British TV show aired on ITV (the commercial television rival of the BBC) that would hold its own against the popular Doctor Who time travel show . . . a new dark and sinister show in which Time was actually the enemy . . . that show was Sapphire & Steel!


The program centers on a pair of interdimensional operatives, the titular Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum). Very little is revealed about their purposes or backgrounds in the course of the series but they appear to be engaged in guarding the order, if not the integrity, of Time. They are two of several elements that assume human form and are sent to investigate strange events; others include Lead (Val Pringle), who takes the aspect of a jovial, friendly giant, and Silver (David Collings), a technician who can melt metals in his hands.

In the series, it is explained that Time is like a corridor that surrounds everything, but there are weak spots where Time – implied to be a potentially malignant force – can break into the present and take things. There are also creatures from the beginnings and ends of time that roam the corridor looking for the same weak spots to break through.

These breaks are most often triggered by the presence of an anachronism, for example a nursery rhyme, a doctored photograph that mixes period and contemporary elements, or a house decorated to replicate a 1930s setting. Investigators will assess the situation and then, if intervention is warranted, Operators are assigned to deal with the problem by a mysterious unseen authority, to be assisted by Specialists if necessary.

sapphire_steel facelessEach adventure usually starts with Sapphire and Steel simply showing up, seemingly out of nowhere, although sometimes they are already present when the story begins. They will then investigate and mingle with various humans, although it is nearly always the location the humans are in which is of the most interest: an old house which dates back to the 18th century, an abandoned railway station, a modern-day motorway petrol station, and so on. The stories are generally quite cryptic, raising more questions than answers, and have an eerie air to them, being as much ghost stories as they are science fiction. The ambiguous nature of the program extends to its main characters. While Sapphire is portrayed as more affable and “human” than the no-nonsense, grim Steel, it is clear that their prime concern is to deal with the break in Time, sometimes over the safety of the humans caught in the incidents they investigate.

sapphire black eyesAlthough the series lasted over a period of four years, only six serials consisting of a total of 34 episodes were made, each episode lasting approximately 25 minutes and generally including a reprised précis of the preceding episode. The first and second stories were shown in the summer of 1979, the second story’s transmission interrupted by industrial action at the ITV network which led to a repeat of the story in 1979. The third and fourth stories were transmitted in January 1981, and the fifth in August 1981 with a sixth story “in the can” for future transmission. The audience figures were unusually high for a science fiction series with the first episode, gaining 11.8 million viewers and finishing as the fourth most watched program of the week across all channels. This continued with a further seven episodes of the first year appearing in the top 20. Three more episodes in 1981 and one in 1982 also entered the top 20 ratings.

By this time, production costs were increasing. The program had been allocated a minuscule production budget, which led to the use of simple staging and minimal special effects, ultimately contributing to the uneasy atmosphere of the show. The high profile and limited availability of the principal actors, Lumley and McCallum, meant that shooting was somewhat sporadic, and the program’s producers ATV were in the process of being reorganized into the new Central Independent Television; all factors which led to the series’ demise. Central felt that viewers might mistake the new programs for repeats of old ones, and broadcast the final, four-part story in late August 1982 to very little fanfare. Despite this, the first episode gained a high rating and finished in the top 20 most-watched programs of the week. The show has never been repeated on UK terrestrial television, but some episodes were shown on the satellite and cable station Bravo in the mid-1990s.



One Response to ““Sapphire & Steel” – A Lost TV Classic

  • These are also on DVD. I have them. Such a phenomenal series. Very dark in its context. Although ‘Assignments’ feature children, it’s not Doctor Who. It was meant for an adult audience.

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