1 9 7 9 – 1 9 8 2 (UK)
34 x 30 minute episodes
“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”
These words, spoken from an unknown dimension, introduced each episode of possibly the strangest of British fantasy series’, Sapphire and Steel.
The show was low in action (and budget) but high in menace, and premised that the ever-present fourth dimension could rip through the fabric of time and erupt into our world at any moment with terrifying consequences.
Series creator P J Hammond intended Sapphire and Steel to be unlike any other sci-fi series. Certainly, the dangers that called enigmatic agents Sapphire and Steel into action were very different from the usual parade of dinosaurs and foil-covered androids.
The concept originally started out as more of a children’s series and was going to be called The Time Menders. The idea was bounced around between Thames Television and Southern before ATV picked it up and decided it could be more adult.
The eponymous inter-dimensional trouble-shooters, who would appear magically at the first sign of a rupture in time, were played by David McCallum (Man From UNCLE, Colditz, Invisible Man) and Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers, Absolutely Fabulous).
McCallum’s Steel was like his element; tough, unemotional, dressed all in grey and the possessor of enormous strength and a highly analytical mind. He could also move objects and immobilise people through thought control and take his body temperature down to zero.
Sapphire, in contrast, was cool and gentle with super-sensory powers and the ability to detect irregularities in time and – to a limited extent – to manipulate time itself. She dressed in blue and provided the feminine element to complement Steel’s masculine one.
The pair communicated telepathically (the characters would consult each other in sotto voce conversations), sometimes summoning the strength of the hulking Lead or the technical skills of the engaging agent Silver to help them.
The hypnotic, atmospheric series, with its elusive terrors, related six stories about its agents’ explorations of the dark side of time and its attendant perils.
Among them were ‘Adventure One’ where nursery rhymes triggered the eruption of time into an isolated farmhouse stealing the parents of two young children; ‘Adventure Two’, in which a long-disused railway station was haunted by the ghosts of past wars trapped eternally in their moments of death; and ‘Adventure Four’ in which photographs taken long ago unleashed a malevolent Shape into our world.
Each story played out across multiple half-hour episodes, with the causes of the time disturbances often veiled for weeks.
Star Joanna Lumley sometimes found the scripts as confusing as the viewers did, once getting annoyed mid-scene and exclaiming, “For fuck’s sake, I can’t do this. I don’t understand it. I really don’t fucking understand it.”
A second series was never made, not because of a lack of audience appreciation, but largely because production company ATV lost its franchise to Central.
P J Hammond, who had previously scripted episodes of Ace of Wands and Z Cars, also wrote the scripts for the series, with the exception of ‘Adventure Five’ – a variation on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – which was written by Doctor Who writers Anthony Read and Don Houghton.
David McCallum died on 25 September 2023, shortly after his 90th birthday.