Diary of an old cheeser

Hi there! Like other blogs, this is my chance to wax lyrical (some might say talk utter cr*p) about a) what's happening in my life b) all of my pet obsessions in particular music, tv, movies, books and other generally connected things, quite often of the retro, old and "cheesy" variety. Hence the title of my blog. Feel free to leave a comment if the mood takes you. There's nothing like a good chinwag about one's favourite topics and besides I love to meet new people! Cheers, Simon

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Cheeser's Choice: Sapphire and Steel

Okay, time for a new regular post. Wooohooo!! (Yes I'm always doing this, aren't I...coming up with a so-called "long-running"/serialised type post which then shuts down after a few weeks as I run out of inspiration. But whatever! Here goes nothing).

Yes, ladies and gents, I present to you: "THE CHEESER'S CHOICE"!! Every so often I'm going to be posting up random musings on THE THINGS THAT I LIKE, whether that be favourite pop groups/artistes, films, television programmes, novels, actors/actresses, places to visit, food, etc etc. Basically anything that pops into my brain. However you may be pleased to hear that Dr Who does not figure in this list as it's already a given and to write about it all over again is perhaps a bit pointless. Don't I do that enough already eh?!


Today the Cheeser's Choice is none other than...


A young boy sits alone at a kitchen table, doing his school homework, the atmosphere around him calm and quiet. The only discernable sound is the ticking of several antique clocks, placed throughout the room. Rather than intrusive, the gently insistent tick tocking of the clocks is a reminder that all is regular and normal – an ordinary evening in an ordinary home.

Meanwhile, in an upstairs bedroom, the boy’s younger sister is being read nursery rhymes by her parents. It’s past the little girl’s bedtime but she insists on hearing one more rhyme before lights out. “Alright then! Ring a ring a roses, a pocket full of poses,” sing her mother and father…

Downstairs, the boy continues to do his work.

Inexplicably one of the clocks stops ticking.

Followed by another.

Then another.

Until the room is plunged into complete silence.

Something is clearly wrong.

The boy stops doing his homework and rushes upstairs. As he nears his sister’s bedroom, he hears an eerie pulsating noise coming from the door. He calls out to his sister and for his mum and dad…

And then…we’re in a field of stars, with a wavy neon line appearing across the screen followed by what look like spider webs:

Then a kind of square-shaped spider web appears with a burning fuse slowly disintegrating it:

And we hear a booming voice:

“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”. (What ARE they going on about?) The voice continues: “Gold…jet…diamond…radium… (as the voice speaks we see globes flying across the screen, looking like the “atomic weights” that they describe) sapphire, silver and steel.

Then two of the "elements" appear on their own, glowing and shimmering on the screen:

"Sapphire and Steel have been assigned!”

A less than ordinary opening to a television programme! But so began what was for me one of the most memorable sci-fi / fantasy series of all time. It was 1979 when “Sapphire and Steel” first arrived on our TV screens and I was a mere 10 years old. The advent of “Sapphire and Steel” captured my already ripe imagination and the programme was soon the talk of my primary school class. My best friend Martin and I were particularly into it.

And one of the reasons why I’m writing about it now is because “Network” has just released a box set of all six Sapphire and Steel stories. Hoorah!

So then. What was “Sapphire and Steel” all about? I guess one way of describing it is as a kind of latter day version of “The X Files”. Like the aforementioned show, “Sapphire and Steel” related the adventures of an investigative male/female duo assigned to solve mysterious and often supernatural occurrences on Earth, who were played by veteran actors Joanna Lumley and David McCallum (well, they were considerably younger then, so perhaps “veteran” applies more to now than 25 years ago, but still….!) However unlike Mulder and Scully, although Sapphire and Steel resembled homo sapiens, they definitely WEREN’T human, but “elements”, assigned by some unseen higher power. Their ultimate task – and here comes the heavy bit – was to prevent the very fabric of time itself from being compromised. As Sapphire describes it, "Time" is like a corridor, populated by creatures and "beings", constantly looking for ways to break into the present day and cause trouble. Aspects from the past - e.g. old photographs, a ghost from World War 1 haunting a railway station, even something as simple as a child's nursery rhyme - act as triggers which allow the creatures to break through. And that's where S & S come in! Slightly unwieldy though it sounds, this was nevertheless an interesting concept which allowed for endless dramatic possibilities and certainly got the viewer thinking.

And WHO exactly were Sapphire and Steel? Well, they certainly lived up to their names.

Steel, a male, usually dressed in a grey or dark suit and possessed a fairly cold, “hard” persona.

Sapphire was the warmer of the pair, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed female with attire that matched her eye colour (well, almost...certainly when her eyes were glowing!)

The duo also had superpowers, which came in very handy. Steel for instance possessed immense physical strength and could freeze objects to absolute zero. Sapphire had the power to turn back time and whenever she did so her eyes would glow bright blue, and we’d hear a kind of “boom-boom” heartbeat sound. Cool.

The stories, or “assignments” as they are also known, often had an intriguing premise. The first and second assignments, set in a farmhouse and a deserted railway station respectively, are two of my favourites and got the series off to a promising start.

Assignment One uses the neat device of telling the story from the point of view of two young children, whose parents have inexplicably vanished into thin air - thus drawing in the programme's desired audience - scary for kids though the show undoubtedly is! Never again will I be able to hear "Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses" without imagining something nasty coming out of my bedroom wall...When Rob’s sister runs up to her room and jumps on her bed to start singing “Ring…” so she can see the “pictures” again, all you can do is shout: “No!!”

Assignment Two is, if possible, even scarier, taking place on a deserted railway station where a lone psychic investigator called Tully is trying to make contract with spirits from “the other side”. With the help of Sapphire and Steel, Tully succeeds but – yikes!! - the spirits turn out to be the souls of dead soldiers from World War One, who died unexpectedly, and resentful about their deaths, are seeking revenge. This is a highly atmospheric story, proving that a limited production budget can be used in an extremely effective way – so many images and bits from these episodes still stick in my mind. Sapphire on the station platform transformed into a “war-wife” with flowers bathed in the light of the sun, whilst a whistled version of the war song “Pack up your troubles” can be heard. Steel ensnared in a barbed-wire fence. Sinister “darkness” blotting out all the windows and doors and leaving our heroes totally cut off and stranded. And the one that probably freaked me out the most – Sapphire taken over by the darkness, her eyes totally blacked out. Horrid! It’s a great story though, which unfolds at a decent pace.

By contrast, Assignment Three is a bit of a clunker and a confused mess - all about scientists from the future carrying out some kind of "experiment", crossed with a bizarre plotline about animals and vivisection amongst other things. It doesn't really work and the bits with flying pillows and Steel being menaced by a stuffed swan now just look daft. Not to mention the very silly-looking monster at the end (and you thought Dr Who was bad sometimes...)

Regardless of this aberration, the remainder of the "run" is pretty good, including...

...a story in which a sinister looking "Shape" with no face resurrects a load of children from old photographs and traps people from the present in existing pictures...

...and a 1930s Agatha Christie style assignment in which guests at a party get bumped off one by one and Sapphire and Steel pose as "Miles and Virginia Cavendish". Okay that one is rather hammily acted by some of the cast, but good fun all the same and I like the period.

By today's standards, some may say that Sapphire and Steel is slow moving, and lacking in action, but I hasten to disagree. True, the programme can be quite "talky" but there is definitely enough to hold one's attention. As with other science fiction stuff of the time – e.g. Dr Who, Blake’s 7 - the show has obviously been made on a low budget (and it was shot almost entirely in the studio) but this works in a positive way. The quality of the show derives from the writing and the direction, not to mention the imaginative use of sets and lighting (the railway station set in Assignment Two is a highlight). There's a definite sense of unease and tension (leading one to wonder why S & S was billed as a kid's show - some parts really are unnerving to watch), also aided by some creepy incidental music (check out the jarring "piano" bits in Assignment Two!)

And last but definitely not least, the reason for the show's success can surely be attributed to the excellent performances of its lead actors. David McCallum and Joanna Lumley were never less than convincing in their roles as the otherworldly investigators, playing it totally straight, yet not without their moments of humour. David McCallum as Steel was appropriately cold, terse and emotionless, preferring to focus on the logistics of a situation and sometimes coming across as a ruthless b*stard in the process (particularly his “solution” at the end of Assignment Two, which left my friend Martin saying: “I hate Steel!”)

Joanna Lumley as Sapphire is nothing less than wonderful and every schoolboy’s (wet?!) dream. This is Ms Lumley post-Purdey (New Avengers) and pre-Pats (Absolutely Fabulous) and it's great to watch her in this part. Her cut-glass diction and posh demeanour don't detract from the strength of the character - ultimately more intuitive and caring than Steel, she is also something of a protective, "mother" figure e.g. looking after the children in Assignment One. And the males will be pleased to hear she wears some nice outfits during her tenure even if some of them do look a little bit dated now e.g. the "hippy" dress in Assignment One and the hilarious pudding bowl/disco robot wig she sports in Assignment Three are definite fashion casualties - I really like her 1930s flapper look in Assignment Five though. A classy lady indeed.

The two characters also enjoy a great onscreen rapport and there is even a hint of romance between them sometimes (thankfully not overplayed).

One more thing - the ending of the final story, Assignment Six is NOT what you'd expect and I am still living with the aftershock today. Such a shame they pulled the plug on the programme too, as apparently a further story was on the cards. However this was a case of bad timing, as Central Television had just taken over the franchise from ATV and had no desire to continue making “Sapphire and Steel”. Their loss!

So as I said I’m chuffed that the series has finally been given a decent release on DVD. In actual fact, the entire series had been released on DVD before, through Carlton, but I'm pleased to say this new version is far superior, certainly in terms of picture quality. I don't know if it's been digitally remastered (there's nothing in the packaging mentioning this and the sound still sounds like mono to me) but the picture on this Network release is significantly better than the Carlton one. There's some nice extras too including a documentary (admittedly rather short) and a wealth of photos from each "assignment". I also like the way that they've kept the "End of Part One" / "Part Two" bits for some of the assignments (gives you time to go and make a cuppa) and the "ATV" logo/intro as well (I kept expecting it to break into the "Crossroads" theme tune though). Nostalgia ahoy!


  • At 6:03 pm , Blogger The Nasty Stewardess said...

    Come in my back galley, Mr Steel.

  • At 7:50 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    I'm sure the icy Steel would love that.

    Incidentally if you are who I think you are, please can you email me as I have something to ask you...

  • At 7:25 am , Blogger Steve said...

    God - Sapphire & Steel! I loved that show as a kid though it frequently scared the pants of me. I have to admit I was madly in love with Joanna Lumley... it was a bit of a jar initially seeing her as Patsy in Ab Fab! May have to invest in this boxed set in the near future...

  • At 8:32 am , Blogger The Sagittarian said...

    gawd, for a young 'un you sure have similar taste in Tully-vussion as me!! It has always been the bane of my life that my eyes never glowed blue. Other parts of me may have for various reasons but that, as the actress said to the bishop, is another story!!

  • At 1:38 pm , Blogger matty said...

    Wow! Patsy is sooooo pretty and young! ...the show looks rather creepy! I'd love to see it!

    Maybe someday! ...I'd only ever heard of it shortly after AbFab started!

    Right now, I'm just excited about series 4 of Kath & Kim which is on it's way in the form of an Australian DVD set! Yes!

  • At 2:17 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Steve - being of a similar age to me (I think), yes you would remember it too! And yes, it was scary for kids, as I have attested. I doubt the unshockable youth of today would find it to be of the bed-wetting variety though...

    Yes go for the boxset, it's a bargain!

    Amanda - I didn't realise this kind of programme was your thing? Or so it sounds? So glad you think I'm a "young 'un", not quite...

    Now, I'm dying to know which parts of you glow blue. You can't just make a hit-and-run comment like that and get away with it, missus!

    Matty - Yes Ms Lumley was rather less...wrinkled...then. And this was relatively early on in her career, when she was seen as a sex symbol. I mean, she might still be viewed that way in some circles, but old Joanna (not the piano) has been kind of supplanted by younger models...

    You can catch lots of clips, in fact all of the stories have been uploaded on You Tube, so that would be a very cheap way to see it!

    I didn't know they'd done a Series Four of Kath and Kim? I kind of stopped watching it during Season 2 actually. It's kind of low key but still has its appeal.

  • At 9:04 am , Blogger Steve said...

    LivingTV broadcast series 4 of K&K just before Christmas - Karen and I really enjoyed it. Still well up to standard we thought though it got some poor reviews in Oz apparently...

  • At 1:23 pm , Blogger Old Cheeser said...

    Thanks Steve - didn't realise there'd been a 4th series. Perhaps I can get K & K on You Tube?

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