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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Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black

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The British television tradition of screening a ghost story at Christmas was filled in 1989 with Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black. This isn’t one of the best contributions to the annual ghost drama but at 100 minutes it’s one of the longest, and it has its supporters, some of whom value it above the recent Hammer film production. Seeing as I’d re-watched Nigel Kneale’s major film and TV works earlier this year I thought I’d give The Woman in Black another look. It was better than I remembered although it still left me feeling unsatisfied.

I’ve not read Susan Hill’s book so can’t say how it compares to the television version in any detail. (Wikipedia has a spoiler-heavy list of the differences.) I did see Stephen Mallatratt’s play in 1988, however, the first adaptation of the book which has since become one of London’s most popular theatre productions. The play conjures an effective sense of dread but relies a little too much on loud noises to shock the audience at crucial moments. This is a cheap trick in bad horror films (Wes Craven does it a lot), and it’s just as cheap a trick on a stage. Nigel Kneale may have altered Hill’s story to a degree which apparently displeased her but he didn’t resort to any Craven tricks.

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The BBC’s Christmas ghost stories have tended to be MR James stories, and The Woman in Black is very much a James pastiche which no doubt helped make it attractive to ITV. All the James hallmarks are there: a man of letters (solicitor rather than a scholar) visiting an isolated part of the English countryside; a lonely house; fearful locals; mysterious deaths; documentary evidence that requires examination; a haunting.

Adrian Rawlins is the young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, given the task of putting the estate of a dead woman in order. Rawlins would have been fine in a smaller role but he wasn’t a good choice for a central character, not when Kidd is on screen every minute of the running time. Far better is the always excellent Bernard Hepton as a genial landowner, a very different role to his sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast. There’s a lot of solid period detail—Kneale’s dialogue fixes the date at around 1925—and the writing and direction manages to avoid insulting the intelligence. In place of the usual voiceover reading of letters we have Kidd listening to a succession of recording cylinders, an unlikely thing for an elderly woman to be using but it does give the film a connection back to Van Helsing’s device in Dracula. There’s even a surreptitious reference to Kneale’s “stone tape” theory when Kidd says that the ghostly sounds he keeps hearing are like a recording of a terrible event. Director Herbert Wise does some clever hide-and-seek business with the spectral woman, only fumbling things near the end when he makes the mistake of trying to imitate Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. So why does this version still remain unsatisfying?

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Schalcken the Painter revisited

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Illustration by Brinsley Sheridan Le Fanu from The Watcher and Other Weird Stories (1894) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

The stranger stopped at the door of the room, and displayed his form and face completely. He wore a dark-coloured cloth cloak, which was short and full, not falling quite to the knees; his legs were cased in dark purple silk stockings, and his shoes were adorned with roses of the same colour. The opening of the cloak in front showed the under-suit to consist of some very dark, perhaps sable material, and his hands were enclosed in a pair of heavy leather gloves which ran up considerably above the wrist, in the manner of a gauntlet. In one hand he carried his walking-stick and his hat, which he had removed, and the other hung heavily by his side. A quantity of grizzled hair descended in long tresses from his head, and its folds rested upon the plaits of a stiff ruff, which effectually concealed his neck.

So far all was well; but the face!

Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter (1839) by J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

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Compare this shot to the inferior YouTube version.

I enthused at some length about Leslie Megahey’s 1979 television film Schalcken the Painter last year so there’s no need to repeat myself. This post serves notice that the film is available at last in another marvellous dual-format release from the BFI, replete with extras, and the usual authoritative booklet notes. The Blu-ray transfer is a revelation after years spent watching an old VHS copy (the versions of YouTube are even worse). I noted before the astonishing lighting by cameraman John Hooper which successfully replicates not only the Dutch interiors so familiar from Vermeer, but also the candlelit chiaroscuro of Godfried Schalcken’s own paintings. (Le Fanu, incidentally, spelled the painter’s name “Schalken”.) Blu-ray quality might seem like overkill for a low-budget TV drama, however well-made, but this film in particular demands it, especially when the interiors begin to darken along with the story.

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Cheryl Kennedy and Jeremy Clyde.

Among the extras there’s a 39-minute interview with Leslie Megahey and John Hooper about the making of the film. The combination of scenes based on period paintings plus candlelit interiors always makes me think of Barry Lyndon so it’s a surprise to discover that Megahey didn’t have this in mind at all. The film owes more, he says, to Blanche (1972) by Walerian Borowczyk, a period feature film which utilises a similarly flat shooting style with scenes based on medieval art. I’ve only seen Borowczyk’s earlier animated films, some of which have featured in previous posts, so this is one to look for in future.

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In addition to the making-of piece there are two short films: The Pit (1962, 27 mins), directed by Edward Abraham, based on Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum, and The Pledge (1981, 21 mins) directed by Digby Rumsey, based on a short story by Lord Dunsany. I’ve not watched either of these yet, it seemed unfair to follow Megahey’s film with lesser fare.

After such unbridled enthusiasm it goes without saying that this is an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys the BBC’s ghost films of the 1970s. I’m biased towards Megahey’s productions but I find this a superior work to many of the MR James films. Megahey filmed another drama about a painter in 1987, Cariani and the Courtesans. It’s a non-supernatural piece but also has Charles Gray narrating and John Hooper behind the camera. I’ve not seen it for years so I’ll continue to hope it may also see a reissue soon.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Schalcken the Painter
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard
The Watcher and Other Weird Stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Chiaroscuro

Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

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Back in the days when the BBC’s television output challenged its audience rather than pandered to it, Leslie Megahey was a name I always looked out for. During the 1970s and 80s, Megahey was one of the corporation’s outstanding producers and directors, and since his tastes often ran very close to mine seeing his name in a magazine listing was an alert for some essential viewing. Favourite Megahey documentaries would include his Omnibus film about (and interview with) György Ligeti in 1976, and the two-part Arena special about Orson Welles in 1982 that persuaded the director to talk at length for the first time about his career. Megahey’s arts films included drama documentaries about the French painters David and Gericault, and two dramas with painting themes, Cariani and the Courtesans (1987), and Schalcken the Painter (1979), the latter being an exceptional adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu ghost story. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was one of the last of his BBC films, an adaptation of the Bartók opera that had this Bartók obsessive hopping with delight when it was screened in 1988.

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Bluebeard and Judith.

Bartók’s only opera was written in 1911, and is easier to adapt than most, being a single act of an hour or so in length with only two performers, Bluebeard (bass) and Judith (soprano). Given this it’s surprising there haven’t been more filmed versions. I wrote something a while back about the seldom-seen Michael Powell version; then there’s a version from 1981 by Miklos Szinetár scored by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Georg Solti conducting. Megahey’s film also features the London Philharmonic with Adam Fischer conducting. Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Laurence are the performers.

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The libretto by Béla Balázs turns the old fairy tale into a psychodrama that’s also one of the first post-Freud operas, with the audience being asked in the prologue “Where is the stage? Is it outside, or inside?” Judith is ushered into the castle by Bluebeard to find seven locked doors: her curiosity and her demands to discover what lies behind the doors (or inside the mind of her husband-to-be) seals her fate. In some of the fairy tale versions the brothers of the bride arrive at the last moment to rescue their sister; not so here.

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“Who is this who is coming?”

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Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).

He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure—how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

One of the alleged highlights of this year’s Christmas television from the BBC was a new adaptation of an MR James ghost story, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. The film starred John Hurt and came with the same truncated title, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, as was used for Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version, also a BBC production. The story title comes originally from a poem by Robert Burns. The new work was adapted by Neil Cross and directed by Andy de Emmony, and I describe it as an alleged highlight since I wasn’t impressed at all by the drama, the most recent attempt by the BBC to continue a generally creditable tradition of screening ghost stories at Christmas. Before I deal with my disgruntlement I’ll take the opportunity to point the way to some earlier derivations. (And if you don’t want the story spoiled, away and read it first.)

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