Sapphire & Steel

Sapphire & Steel
Sapphire & Steel
SnS assigned.jpg
"Sapphire and Steel have been assigned."
The final frame of the title sequence.
Format Science fiction, drama
Created by Peter J. Hammond
Starring Joanna Lumley
David McCallum
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 34 (List of episodes)
Running time 25 minutes
Original channel ITV
Original run 10 July 1979 (1979-07-10) – 31 August 1982 (1982-08-31)

Sapphire & Steel is a British television science-fiction fantasy series starring David McCallum as Steel and Joanna Lumley as Sapphire. Produced by ATV, it ran from 1979 to 1982 on the ITV network. The series was created by Peter J. Hammond who conceived the programme under the working title The Time Menders,[1] after a stay in a haunted castle. Hammond also wrote all the stories except for the fifth, which was co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read.

In 2004, Sapphire and Steel returned in a series of audio dramas starring David Warner and Susannah Harker.



Joanna Lumley and David McCallum as Sapphire and Steel (from Adventure 3).

The programme centres on a pair of interdimensional operatives, the eponymous Sapphire and Steel. 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, or 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.

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 programme had been allocated a minuscule production budget, which led to the use of simple (but very effective) staging and minimal special effects, ultimately contributing to the uneasy atmosphere of the show. The ambiguous nature of the programme 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.

Series format and transmission

Sapphire & Steel novelisation of the first adventure

Each 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.

Although 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.

By this time, production costs were increasing. The high profile and limited availability of the principal actors, Lumley and McCallum, meant that shooting was somewhat sporadic, and the programme'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 programmes for repeats of old ones, and broadcast the final, four-part story in late August 1982 to very little fanfare. 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.

The operatives

It is heavily implied that Sapphire and Steel are not human, given their abilities and manner. Steel, for example, often has gaps in his knowledge of human culture and even Sapphire's grace is tempered with a cool detachment from the humans they interact with. In Adventure 5, Steel confirms that they were alien, "in the extraterrestrial sense," but what this qualification means is not clear. The two also refer to being involved in the mystery of the Mary Celeste, and in one case state they will be waiting for a ship to surface in seventy-five years. This could mean they are either exceptionally long-lived or some kind of time travel is involved. P. J. Hammond confirmed the former hypothesis in a 1993 interview.[2]

Sapphire and Steel, who are Operators, are occasionally assisted by other beings, including Lead and Silver. Silver is stated in Adventure 6 as being a Specialist rather than an Operator. There are 127 operatives in total, including 12 transuranic elements, which cannot be assigned where life exists. Although they are described as elements, many of the code names are non-elements, such as Sapphire, Steel and Jet, although these could be pseudonyms for aesthetics or discretion. Sapphire also has a flirtatious relationship with Silver, contributing to an air of underlying sexual tension on the occasions that Silver is called upon to assist the duo. The relationship between Steel and Sapphire similarly exhibited occasional tension, as evidenced in Adventure 2 when Steel admits feeling love for Sapphire and, at one point, even kissing her on the cheek. In Adventure 1, Lead mentioned that Jet sent Steel her love and that Silver was having relationship troubles with Copper "again".

Among Sapphire's abilities is the power to manipulate time in small ways as well as divine the age or historical details of an object by touching it (psychometry). This latter ability is referred in Adventure 2 as "spot analysis". Her most prominent ability is to "take back time," literally rewinding it in a localised area to see or replay the past. She states in Adventure 1 that she cannot take time back twenty-four hours; in the last episode of the same adventure, at Steel's request she takes time back "half a day". In Adventure 2, she is able to "hold time for a day", when another (in this case, the creature seen as the darkness) takes time back over multiple days. Whether this is an improvement in abilities or a different skill entirely is not made clear. She also exhibits an ability to obtain information about people — their ages and backgrounds as well as psychological insights into their personality — just by being close to them. Sometimes it appears that she does not discover this information herself but is receiving the information telepathically from some external source. In Adventure 2, it is stated that the age at which a living person will die is not estimated but recorded, that it is a historical fact. Nothing else is revealed in the television series as to the extent or nature of any such records, or to what extent Sapphire uses them in relation to information obtained directly. She can also manipulate people's emotions, and project illusions. When she uses her powers, her irises will usually glow blue or, under some circumstances, turquoise.

Steel, on the other hand, can freeze himself to absolute zero which gives him the ability to destroy 'ghosts', which are in actuality remnants of Time. He apparently possesses immense strength (in Adventure 3 he ties knots in elevator cables to prevent the elevator from being used) and a degree of invulnerability. He also exhibits telekinetic abilities, being able to paralyse people with a look, weld metal with his bare hands or undo deadbolts with a gesture.

The operatives can also communicate telepathically with each other, and in Adventure 5, Sapphire grants this ability to a human being, whom she dubs "Brass" for the duration. Sapphire removes this ability at the end of the story. It is also suggested in Adventure 5 that other powers can be granted. It is hinted, in the debate that ensues between Sapphire and Steel after Sapphire gives Brass his abilities, that different powers are classed at different levels, with telepathy being considered one of the most basic.

It is not made clear in the series as to what boundaries exist on the skills of operatives. In Adventure 2, Steel cannot perform "spot analysis", as it is not his field, but in Adventure 4, Sapphire and Steel together are specifically able to replicate Silver's ability to transmutate by remembering what he did.

Other operatives that appear also have special powers. Silver (played by David Collings), a Specialist who is designated as a Technician, is good with electronics and gadgets, is able to transform one small object into another, and is even able to replicate small objects out of nothing. He can also create long-lasting visual images of objects too large to replicate, although the exact parameters for such images are never revealed. Lead (played by Val Pringle), on the other hand, possesses superhuman strength and can act as needed insulation for Steel when he freezes himself to extreme temperatures.

Television stories

None of the stories had on-screen titles, or any official titles assigned by the writers. The DVD release gives them the titles "Escape Through a Crack in Time", "The Railway Station", "The Creature's Revenge", "The Man Without a Face", "Dr. McDee Must Die" and "The Trap".

Serial # Episode # Original air dates (UK) Writer
1 1-01 to 1-06 10 July to 26 July 1979 P.J. Hammond

A happy family lives in an 18th century house filled with clocks and antiques. One night, a nursery rhyme ("Ring a Ring o' Roses") read aloud to Helen, the little girl, triggers a time fracture that takes away her parents. As Rob, Helen's older brother, tries to understand what has happened, two mysterious strangers appear, promising to fix things. Sapphire and Steel eventually gains Rob's trust and work out a solution to the problem. Lead also arrives to provide assistance.

(Note: P.J. Hammond novelised this story for Star Books in 1979.)

Val Pringle as Lead, Steven O'Shea as Rob Jardine, Tamasin Bridge as Helen Jardine, Felicity Harrison as Mother, John Golightly as Father, Ronald Goodale as Countryman, Charles Pemberton as Policeman
2 1-07 to 1-14 31 July to 8 November 1979 P.J. Hammond
In an abandoned railway station, ghost hunter George Tully conducts an investigation. His solitary task is interrupted by the two interdimensional operators, who have an investigation of their own — a sinister, growing darkness that feeds on the resentment of the dead, using Private Sam Pearce, the apparition of a World War I soldier shot and killed eleven minutes after the armistice had been signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 as a focus. The darkness 'recruits' from other resentful shades from the past who also died 'unfairly' as a result of a coming or completed conflict – such as the crew of an experimental submarine whose air-pumps failed, and a World War II fighter pilot killed in a crash just one flight away from being demobbed. It is up to Sapphire and Steel to decide if the life of one living human is worth the price of the danger presented to Reality.

(Note: This story's transmission was interrupted by a strike on ITV.)

Gerald James as George Tully, Tom Kelly as Private Sam Pearce (The Soldier), David Cann as Pilot, David Woodcock as Submariner
3 2-01 to 2-06 6 January to 22 January 1981 P.J. Hammond
Rothwyn and Eldred, a couple living in a modern apartment, are not what they seem. In fact, they are from the 35th Century, the apartment is their time capsule, which is situated on the roof of a modern day tower block, and the experiment is to live as 20th Century humans. But trouble starts when the couple discover that they can neither contact their controllers in the future nor two other similar time capsules in the present day. The biomechanical system that runs the capsule has experiments of its own that it plans to perform on the occupants – resenting the fact that in the 35th century, Mankind is the only animal not extinct; all other creatures, flora, fauna and even germs having been ruthlessly eradicated in order to preserve the purity of the human race. This time, Sapphire and Steel have help in the form of Silver, an interdimensional technician.
David Collings as Silver, David Gant as Eldred, Catherine Hall as Rothwyn, Russell Wooton as Changeling
4 2-07 to 2-10 27 January to 5 February 1981 P.J. Hammond
Phantom children with sepia-toned skin play in an almost deserted apartment building. Both the landlord and a tenant have mysteriously disappeared. A man without a face appears on the stairs. Something has emerged from a photograph; something which has appeared in every photograph ever taken anywhere in the world and is powerful enough to turn Sapphire and Steel into literal two-dimensional versions of themselves.
Alyson Spiro as Liz, Philip Bird and Bob Hornery as the Shape, Shelagh Stephenson as Ruth, Natalie Hedges as Parasol girl
5 3-01 to 3-06 11 August to 26 August 1981 Don Houghton and Anthony Read
Dressing up and pretending that it was once again the 1930s seemed to be a novel idea for a dinner party hosted by Lord Mullrine, a wealthy industrialist, at his country mansion to celebrate fifty years since his company was founded with the late Dr. George McDee. Then strange things start to happen: McDee himself turns up at the party along with other anachronisms, and then, one by one, the guests begin to be murdered – their bodies vanishing shortly afterwards. Secrets and lies involving McDee from fifty years before are resurfacing, Time is trying to rewrite history, and the only ones who can stop it are two uninvited guests – Sapphire and Steel.
Patience Collier as Emma Mullrine, Davy Kaye as Lord Mullrine, Nan Munro as Felicity McDee, Jeffrey Wickham as Felix Harborough, Jeremy Child as Howard McDee, Jennie Stoller as Annabelle Harborough, Peter Laird as Greville, Stephen MacDonald as George McDee, Christopher Bramwell as Tony Purnell, Patricia Shakesby as Anne Shaw, Debbie Farrington as Veronica Blamey, Valentine Dyall as Radio Broadcast Voice
6 4-01 to 4-04 19 August to 31 August 1982 P.J. Hammond
The scene for Sapphire and Steel's latest investigation is an abandoned roadside café where time has stopped. However, they find that Silver has arrived before them – which is against normal procedure. The interdimensional operatives remain uncertain as to exactly what they are supposed to be investigating. The key may lie in two humans in the café who claim to be from 1948.

(Note: Many regional editions of TVTimes wrongly billed this story as a repeat. This was possibly due to confusion caused by the changeover from ATV to Central on 1 January 1982, when an ITV contracts change in 1980 resulted in the Midlands ITV region's franchise ended up going from the first company to the second.)

David Collings as Silver, Edward de Souza as the Man, Johanna Kirby as the Woman, John Boswall as Old man, Christopher Fairbank as Johnny Jack

Each episode begins with the following prologue:

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.

For episode three of Adventure 4 and for all of Adventure 6, Lead's place in the prologue is replaced by Mercury (who was mentioned but never seen). If the series had continued, Mercury could have made an appearance.[2]

The final television story ends on a cliffhanger. Apparently resentful of Sapphire and Steel's independence, a higher authority sends entities known as Transient Beings (similar to the operatives but from the past), to set a trap for them in a motorway café. The serial concludes with Silver dispatched to an unknown fate – and Sapphire and Steel being trapped in the café, floating through space, apparently for eternity. The cliffhanger has never been resolved, although Hammond has said that a seventh adventure had been planned, presumably meaning that Sapphire and Steel eventually escaped. This was also stated by Joanna Lumley in her autobiography,[3] who remembered that they were told that this was merely an end-of-season cliffhanger, and that Sapphire and Steel would be freed at the start of the next series. However, in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine (#329, cover date: 30 April 2003), David Collings recalled that although another series was planned, Joanna Lumley and David McCallum both decided that they'd had enough and didn't wish to do any more.

Look-In magazine picture strips

A two-page coloured Sapphire & Steel picture strip, written by Angus Allan and drawn by Arthur Ranson, appeared in the Look-In magazine. It ran for a total of 76 issues from 1979-1981 – with a break of 13 issues between runs – and formed 14 untitled stories. It would appear that Ranson used photographs of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum from the first television adventure for reference, as Sapphire and Steel are almost always depicted wearing the outfits from this story. In the third story, Lead makes a cameo appearance and displays a further power: turning British soldiers from the Napoleonic War into miniature (and presumably lead) toy soldiers. However, the picture strip version of Lead – though depicted as a powerfully built black man – was not based upon Val Pringle who played the part on television; it can only be assumed that Ranson had very little in the way of photographic reference material in this case.

In addition, a one-off Sapphire & Steel text story titled The Albatross was published in the 1981 Look-In Annual. This was illustrated in black and white by Arthur Ranson.

Sapphire & Steel Annual 1981

The first and only Sapphire & Steel Annual was published in late 1980 by World International Publishing Ltd. at £1.95, and featured a number of text stories and features. The front cover used the same photograph as that on P.J. Hammond's 1979 Star Books novelisation of Adventure One.

P.J. Hammond did not write the stories for Sapphire & Steel Annual 1981, but he was sent proofs to read in advance of publication. His only reservations with the stories were that Sapphire and Steel were able to move back in time, which he felt tended to contradict the premise set in the television series that Time was only allowed to break into the present day. However, this did not worry Hammond too much as, like Look-In, the Annual was aimed at younger readers.[2]

At the time of writing, Sapphire & Steel Annual 1981 has yet to be made available in PDF format as a Special Feature on DVD.

Note: Where the content of a feature is not obvious from its title, a brief description has been provided.

  • Stories: Bid Time Return, Rogue Robot, Chamber of Horrors, Star Gazing, Finger of Blood.
  • Features: Telepathy – The Hidden Link?, The Bermuda Triangle, Mystery of the Skies (UFOs), They Vanished Without Trace (the mystery of the Mary Celeste, and ships that mysteriously disappeared), The Lost Colony (the mysterious and unresolved disappearance of the first English settlement on the island of Roanoke in the 16th century), Magical Mystery Quiz, The Final Frontier (black holes), The Remarkable Bloxham Tapes (people regressed to previous existences under hypnosis), The Man Who Makes Pictures (Ted Serios and his amazing ability to imprint pictures onto photographic film, simply by staring into cameras).

Audio plays

In late May 2004, Big Finish Productions announced that they had secured the rights to produce a new series of Sapphire & Steel audio adventures for release on CD. However, neither McCallum nor Lumley reprised their roles: McCallum was working in the United States and Lumley declined to play Sapphire again. The characters were recast, with Susannah Harker and David Warner taking over the roles. The range is produced by Nigel Fairs and Jason Haigh-Ellery.

The character of Gold (played by Mark Gatiss) appears in the first adventure The Passenger and returns in Perfect Day and Zero. The character of Ruby (played by Lisa Bowerman) appears in the second series story Water Like a Stone, reappearing in Cruel Immortality and Second Sight. David Collings reprises his role as Silver in the third and fifth stories of the first series of audio plays and then again in the third story of the third series. During the production of each season, Nigel Fairs has had to step in at late notice to write a replacement script (writing Dead Man Walking from John Ainsworth's outline in series one, replacing Gary Russell's Big Fun with Cruel Immortality in series two and replacing Joseph Lidster's Reborn with Second Sight in series three).

It was originally rumoured that the new stories would be set before the climactic final story of the television series, but the released plays are set after Adventure 6, with no explanation given as to how they escaped. However, at the start of The Passenger, the characters comment that it has been a long time since they last worked together and, in Cruel Immortality, imply that they were freed in some unspecified way by Silver.

At the end of The Mystery of the Missing Hour, Sapphire and Steel once again find themselves trapped. The following story, Second Sight sees the characters 'reborn' once more - this time in the guise of two young Australians, played by Blair McDonough and Anna Skellern. At the end of Second Sight, however, Ruby was able to release the previous incarnations of Sapphire and Steel from their trap - with David Warner and Susannah Harker reprising their roles for the rest of the series.

The audio dramas featured some notable guest stars - including Hugo Myatt, Muriel Pavlow, Daphne Oxenford, Lucy Gaskell, Colin Baker, Sarah Douglas, Sam Kelly, David Horovitch and Louise Jameson.

CD # Release date Story Title Writer Synopsis
1 May 2005 The Passenger Steve Lyons A steam train enthusiast boards an antiquated 1930s train for a journey with eleven other passengers, and an old book provides the trigger for Time to start playing out a familiar tale that will end in murder. Can Sapphire, Steel and Gold overcome one man's guilt and prevent the inevitable? (4 parts)

2 June 2005 Daisy Chain Joseph Lidster An ordinary house with a seemingly happy family hides a secret that might destroy them, as well as Sapphire and Steel. The operatives must find the right link in a chain of cause and effect — but to break it, someone may have to be sacrificed. (4 parts)

3 July 2005 All Fall Down David Bishop In an historical area of London, old artefacts are uncovered, and a journal provides a dangerous link to the past. Even with Silver's help, Steel finds the Black Plague reaching out from the mists of Time, while Sapphire risks becoming trapped as part of history itself. (4 parts)

4 August 2005 The Lighthouse Nigel Fairs A newlywed couple move into a lighthouse intending to renovate it, but ghosts from the past, secrets from the present and phantoms from the future hurtle around one another in a time storm, threatening to engulf them all in an inescapable cycle of madness and death. (2 parts)

5 September 2005 Dead Man Walking Nigel Fairs (based on a story by John Ainsworth) An unexplained death at a prison is only the first of a series of inconsistencies with Time that Sapphire and Steel are called in to investigate. (2 parts)

2.1 July 2006 The School Simon Guerrier The school has stood for a century, and proud of its history. However, old ghosts are stirring and lessons will be learned… but will Sapphire and Steel become the teachers, or the students? (4 parts)

2.2 September 2006 The Surest Poison Richard Dinnick An auction of timepieces, a 156-year-old man, the theft of the greatest watch ever built and its creator, the greatest watchmaker of all: all linked across history. Time has a plan, one with cataclysmic consequences for humanity unless Sapphire and Steel can stop it. (4 parts)

2.3 November 2006 Water Like a Stone Nigel Fairs In an abandoned theatre on Christmas Eve, plans to celebrate a dead playwright's work threaten to lure Sapphire and Steel into a maze from which there may be no escape…

2.4 January 2007 Cruel Immortality Nigel Fairs Steel is alone, trapped in a Retirement Home in the middle of nowhere.

2.5 March 2007 Perfect Day Steve Lyons Steel, Sapphire and Gold find themselves attending a wedding.

2.6 May 2007 The Mystery of the Missing Hour Joseph Lidster Sapphire and Steel arrive in Cairo, 1926 to solve an impossible murder.

3.1 March 2008 Second Sight Nigel Fairs Sapphire and Steel have gone. Sapphire and Steel are here.

3.2 April 2008 Remember Me John Dorney A faded sitcom star wanders through the darkness of a deserted pier, haunted by the ghosts of his dead colleagues.

3.3 May 2008 Zero Steve Lyons The Space Shuttle Aspirant is in a decaying orbit, its engines dead. Time is running out.

3.4 August 2008 Wall of Darkness Nigel Fairs An abandoned shopping centre in the middle of the night. Is the journey at an end?

DVD releases

Network DVD released the complete series on DVD on November 5, 2007. The 6-disc set features a new documentary and commentaries.[4] On May 26, 2008, the complete series boxset was re-released with new packaging.[5]

A&E Home Video released the entire series on DVD in Region 1 on December 28, 2004.


External links

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