Haunted Corridors: The Temporal Enigmas of Sapphire and Steel

sands01.jpg

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.

sands02.jpg

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.

sands03.jpg

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.

Continue reading “Haunted Corridors: The Temporal Enigmas of Sapphire and Steel”

Weekend links 187

delia.jpg

Delia Derbyshire (2007) by Iker Spozio.

Whatever you think of Doctor Who, Delia Derbyshire’s recording of Ron Grainer’s theme tune is a landmark piece of electronic music. Those glassy electronic tones still sound unique today, not least for their having been created using rudimentary oscillators and much laborious tape editing. In Radiophonic Workshop: the shadowy pioneers of electronic sound, Joe Muggs looks at the history of the BBC’s electronic composers. If you’re a Radiophonic-head then the Alchemists of Sound TV documentary from 2003 is essential viewing.

There’s more (there’s always more): Delia Derbyshire – Sculptress of Sound: part one of a seven-part radio documentary about the great electronic music composer, and Blue Veils and Golden Sands, Martyn Wade’s radio play about Delia. Related: Delia-Derbyshire.org, Delia Derbyshire: An audiological chronology and A History of the Doctor Who theme. And don’t miss: Silence Is Requested In The Ultimate Abyss (1969) by Welfare State and White Noise, an incredible slice of electro-psychedelia from the John Peel Presents Top Gear album.

• “Why don’t books for grown-ups have illustrations any more?” asks Christopher Howse. Some of them do, this past week I’ve been finishing a new series of illustrations for a story anthology.

• From 2006: Ian Penman on cigarettes, espionage, and the masterful (and superior) television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It was Malcolm [McLaren] who suggested that the main characters be a boy who looks like a girl who looks like a boy and vice versa. What was strange was that, actually, in 1985 this was nobody’s vision of the fashion industry. Since then, fashion and fascism have crept closer: you’ve got John Galliano doing his promotional bits for the Third Reich, you’ve got Alexander McQueen killing himself, you’ve got Versace and that horrible, violent stalker coming for him. Since it was written, almost all of it has come true apart from the nuclear winter, but I think we’re working on that. The actual society that the story happens in is much more like the society we have now than culture was in 1985.

Alan Moore on Fashion Beast, Situationism, and why he hates superheroes.

• KW Jeter talks about his latest novel, Fiendish Schemes, and the “cultural juggernaut” that is steampunk.

• Grit and Social Dynamics in Smoke Ghost: Elwin Cotman on the weird fiction of Fritz Leiber.

The Secret Lives of the Vatican’s Gay Cardinals, Monks, and Other Clergy Members.

Don Cherry & Organic Music Theatre, live in the RAI TV studios, 1976.

• Otherworldly Art and Photography: Mlle Ghoul finds the best things.

• From 1998: Rahma Khazam on composer Bernard Parmegiani.

• Mix of the week: Marshland: The Mix by Hackneymarshman.

• “Let’s colonize the clouds of Venus,” says Ian Steadman.

J. Hoberman on David Cronenberg’s Visual Shock.

The Delian Mode (1968) by Delia Derbyshire | Tom Baker (1981) by The Human League | Doctor Who? (1984) by Doctor Pablo & The Dub Syndicate

Ray Harryhausen, 1920–2013

harryhausen.jpg

Concept art for Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

He could also draw, something the obituaries won’t necessarily mention. I wasn’t aware of Ray Harryhausen’s many detailed preliminary drawings until I had the good fortune to see him give a talk at the Preston SF Group in the early 1990s. I recall mention being made of Gustave Doré as an influence, something that wasn’t so surprising given that Harryhausen’s animation career began with Willis O’Brien, animator of the original Kong. The Skull Island sets for King Kong owed much to Doré’s illustrations, and the film also made use of equally detailed preliminary drawings by O’Brien, Byron Crabbe and Mario Larrinaga.

I was going to link to Jason and company’s celebrated fight with the skeletons but the only clips on YouTube at the moment lack Bernard Herrmann’s superb score. The Harryhausen/Schneer films always had low budgets but the producers understood the importance of music, and employed Herrmann on four of their films: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Miklós Rózsa provided the score for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) so here’s a favourite moment from that film with John Philip Law and Martin Shaw tackling Tom Baker’s sword-wielding Kali statue.

Ray Harryhausen’s production drawings can be seen in The Art of Ray Harryhausen (2005).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Swords against death

John Phillip Law, 1937–2008

pygar.jpg

Pygar the angel, Barbarella (1968).

John Phillip Law, who died on Tuesday, was featured here last year in a look at Mario Bava’s crazy live action fumetti, Danger Diabolik (below). Law made that film the same year as he played a blind angel in an equally crazy slab of Sixties’ decadence, Barbarella. In a more serious role, he played opposite the very formidable Rod Steiger in The Sergeant which was released the same year; together with Victim, this was one of the first films I remember watching that dealt with same-sex attraction (albeit in the usual angst-ridden mode), with Law’s character being the understandable object of Steiger’s doomed affection.

After those heights, things tended to be more down than up but I do have an affection for Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). Law’s Sinbad was pretty good even if he spends much of the time fighting monsters while Tom Baker was great as the villainous Koura. And I always appreciated that screenwriter Brian Clemens made Lemuria the destination of the voyage, a lost continent mentioned by Madame Blavatsky and many of the Weird Tales writers, including HP Lovecraft in The Haunter of the Dark.

diabolik.jpg

Danger Diabolik (1968).

Previously on { feuilleton }
CQ
Danger Diabolik