Haunted Corridors: The Temporal Enigmas of Sapphire and Steel

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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.

Voiceover at the beginning of each episode

Having revisited a fair amount of old television in the past few years I thought I was past being surprised, but this came as a revelation. Sapphire and Steel appeared at exactly the wrong moment for me to fully appreciate it the first time round. The six storylines ran on the ITV network from 1979 to 1982, a period when my home and personal life was so chaotic that I saw little television at all. At any other time a series featuring a pair of cosmic investigators immersed in mysteries involving haunted railway stations and people escaping from photographs would have been essential viewing. Sapphire and Steel was never repeated after those original screenings so watching the entire run recently has been like seeing it for the first time. In recent years the series has been included in discussion of the weirder British television of past decades; China Miéville in his interview in The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale describes Sapphire and Steel as the strangest thing ever screened on British TV. After reading that, and a couple of other appraisals, I felt obliged to refresh my vague memories.

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Assignment One: Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum).

Superficially, Sapphire and Steel belongs to the occult-detective subgenre, a minor category of weird fiction that in its early days included characters such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr Martin Hesselius, Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki and others. But several factors set Sapphire and Steel apart from their more staid predecessors: occult detectives are generally solitary figures whereas Sapphire and Steel operate as a pair; Sapphire is a woman in a field more commonly occupied by middle-aged men; and most striking of all, both Sapphire and Steel are supernatural beings themselves, dispatched to Earth by agencies we never see and learn nothing about, in order to mend ruptures in the flow of Time. Supernatural detectives had appeared in comic books before this but there’s no evidence that series creator PJ Hammond was considering such antecedents when he wrote The Time-Menders (as Sapphire and Steel was originally known). A few years earlier Hammond had been writing for Ace of Wands (1970–72), a mildly hippyish children’s TV series whose hero, Tarot, was a youthful stage magician with genuine occult powers. Between stage shows, Tarot and friends investigated supernatural events. Sapphire and Steel had originally been planned as a series for children but before the first script was finished it was moved to an early evening slot, thus allowing for darker and more adult-oriented material.

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Assignment Two: the haunted railway station. The clothing worn by the pair changes with each assignment; on this occasion they’re in evening dress.

One of the attractions of Sapphire and Steel in a genre replete with origins and canonical histories is how little is explained about the two main characters, the source of their assignments, or even the true nature of the malevolent forces they have to face. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) embody the materials after which they’re named, the pair being part of a team of elemental operatives some of whose names are listed in the voiceover that introduces each episode. We only encounter two others: Lead (Val Pringle), a huge African-American man with superior strength; and Silver (David Collings), an effete and dandyish Englishman with abilities to mould metals, fix machines and replicate objects. Sapphire’s abilities are mainly psychometric—she reads the history and condition of people and places—but she can also rewind time for short periods; Steel is as cold and unyielding as his name; he’s fiercely analytical, often bad-tempered and also strong enough to tie a knot in a lift cable.

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Weekend links 175

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Heartbeat of the Death – Queen Elizabeth the First (2013) by Haruko Maeda.

• “The casual mixing of people from across the world at The Garden broke down many barriers. Its rich, beautiful, smart, and successful people were confident enough to exercise the kind of sexual freedom that would land you in jail elsewhere in the country.” Kate Webb on Alla Nazimova’s Hollywood estate, The Garden of Alla.

• “…from 1956 to 1970 Borges taught English literature at the University of Buenos Aires, and now, over half a century later, one of his courses is finally available in English in a slim, delightful volume.” Will Glovinsky on Professor Borges. Related: Jacob Mikanowski says “To Tlön: Let’s Invade Reality”.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 084 by Koen Holtkamp—Alice Coltrane, Alan Watts, John Cage, Popol Vuh, Faust and others—and Sequenze E Frequenze, “the rarefied outer limits of ‘stare at the sun, outsider peaked’ Italian music”.

Consider the fate of the concept of ‘futuristic’ music. The ‘futuristic’ in music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font. Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come up with something like the music of Kraftwerk, even though this is now as antique as Glenn Miller’s big band jazz was when the German group began experimenting with synthesizers in the early 1970s.

Where is the 21st-century equivalent of Kraftwerk? If Kraftwerk’s music came out of a casual intolerance of the already-established, then the present moment is marked by its extraordinary accommodation towards the past. More than that, the very distinction between past and present is breaking down. In 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today. Since then, cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.

Mark Fisher on the present cultural moment, and the weirdness of Sapphire and Steel.

• At Front Free Endpaper: A Gay Library Thing and French Line Gay Pulp Cover Designs. Callum is also giving away books by Frederick Rolfe/Baron Corvo to anyone who asks. The proviso is you write a short review for his blog.

• Film director Ben Wheatley on Don’t Look Now: “I felt a great panic come over me”. Elsewhere it was announced this week that Wheatley is planning a film of JG Ballard’s High Rise.

• Brits may remember the wonderful Laurie Pike from the Manhattan Cable TV show in the early 1990s. These days she’s writing an online guide to the city of Paris.

Ben Frost has made three previously unreleased recordings available at Bandcamp.

The Media History Digital Library: 800,000 pages of film and radio periodicals.

• The results of three derives in London by Christina Scholz here, here and here.

• The late Seamus Heaney reads his own translation of Beowulf here and here.

High Rise (1979) by Hawkwind | Pop Sicle (1994) by High Rise | High Rise (2005) by Ladytron