Éire Ghaelach – Éire Shaor
‘All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Trans-uranic 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.’
Thus begins the portentous opening titles of one of the most ‘cultist’ of cult television shows of the last forty years: ‘Sapphire and Steele’. The creation of British scriptwriter Peter J. Hammond, it first aired on British television in July 1979, was usually shown twice a week, and finally ran to 34 episodes until August of 1982. As enigmatic now as it was then it has defied easy categorisation or explanation, being the subject of numerous competing theories by viewers and critics alike down through the years. Where new episodes were lacking fans simply created their own through a whole library of ‘fan-fiction’ tales ranging from the speculative to the erotic.
In simplistic terms it has been presented as a sort of precursor ‘X-Files’, though one aimed at a young adult audience (incredibly given the unsettling nature of the show), with two agents from an unknown dimension sent to repair dangerous tears in Time. The lead characters of the title were played by Joanna Lumley (‘Sapphire’) and David McCallum (‘Steele’). Lumley had just come off the back of the highly successful and equally cultish ‘New Avengers’ (1976-1977), playing the high-kicking blonde-with-attitude Purdy, while McCallum was still relatively well-known to television audiences from his starring roles in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ (1964-1968) and the ‘Invisible Man’ (1975-1976). Both obviously revelled in their roles creating a rare on-screen chemistry that led to much (if never proven) speculation about off-screen chemistry too. Lumley’s Sapphire was played as insightful yet kind, a counter to McCallum’s harder, more analytical Steele, both complimenting the other and creating one of the great ‘double-acts’ of television drama, mainstream or otherwise. The duo’s retrospective title of the British ‘Dana Scully and Fox Mulder’ (the female and male leads of ‘X-Files’ fame) is well-earned.
However the inspired pairing of the two stars was only half the story for what made the show an enduring hit was the quality and depth of the writing. Elements of mystery, horror, Science-Fiction, humour, tragedy and romance were teased out in slow-moving, episodic dramas of rare pacing and effect. Adding to the air of menace that hangs over many of the stories the different episodes often focused on ensemble pieces with a small group of actors situated in deliberately claustrophobic studio-bound sets, into which the characters of Sapphire and Steele would suddenly intrude. Where other television shows would falter under their budgetary restraints ‘Sapphire and Steele’ prospered, making a virtue out of necessity by using imagination and directorial skills to substitute for expensive effects or camera tricks. One of the best stories is a sort of Agatha Christie pastiche with a 1930s feel, elegant in its simplicity and a favourite of most fans.
The series’ end was as suitably baffling as all the rest of the show with Sapphire and Steele lured into a trap by some unknown enemy in a dingy motorway café where they were sealed off from the rest of the universe, apparently for all time. Though fans demanded more the show was never reprieved due to a number of unfavourable factors and has rarely been seen on terrestrial television in Britain or anywhere else since the 1980s.
‘Sapphire and Steel’ remains one of my favourite television shows of the cult genre and it is surpassed by few others. Seeing it as a young child had a profound effect on my tastes, in both television and literature, and influenced my own fiction writing to this day. Intelligent, unsettling, witty, menacing, by turns all these things and more it takes you on an unexpected ride of gothic delights. Written for young adults and older children these days I doubt it would be deemed suitable for that demographic, being far too disturbing and Joanna Lumley perhaps far too attractive. DVD collections of the series are plentiful, both in standalone series editions and box-sets, and I highly recommend them.
Just don’t show the kids!