Following the box office success of Star Wars, we saw a plethora of mainstream sci-fi concepts being hurried into production, from ABC’s Battlestar Galactica to the BBC’s Blake’s 7. ITV’s offering was a quirky, low-budget affair more akin to The Twilight Zone and The X-Files, with distinct horror overtones. It became a timeless classic.
Sapphire and Steel (34 episodes, 1979-82).
The series was conceived by the venerable P J Hammond (who has written for series as varied as Z Cars, Eastenders, Midsomer Murders and Torchwoood). It revolves around two inter-dimensional operatives – Sapphire and Steel – played by Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous, The New Avengers) and David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Colditz, NCIS). The pair are assigned to investigate strange events which threaten the integrity of Time. Across six multi-episode adventures, they look into a series of eerie mysteries based as much in ghost stories and straight horror as they are in science fiction. The programme was characterised by simple, theatre-like staging with minimal special effects – a necessity brought about by tight budgets – which lent the show a distinctive and spooky atmosphere.
The 50-second intro remains as haunting today as it did during its original run, despite graphic effects which look like something created by a teenager using a BBC Micro. Cyril Ornadel‘s discordant brass theme – which sounds and feels like the downbeat cousin of the optimistic classic Star Trek music – plays underneath the following weighty voiceover:
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.
The intro begins with a moving star field, with a computerised meandering path being overlaid on top of it. This is then replaced by an erratic sinusoidal curve over a dissolving rectangular grid. A series of balls representing the narrated medium weight elements then flies out of the screen, before finally being replaced by the pair representing Sapphire and Steel. Unusually, the show’s title is not displayed.
Mere words do not do justice to the visceral impact the intro has on the viewer, which evokes sensations of both mystery and fear in much the same way as the original Doctor Who theme did. Even now, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and I am taken back to a time when, as an eight or nine-year old, the series’ more chilling moments would regularly have me watching from behind a cushion. Look past the hokey graphics, and you will find a timeless classic of an intro.
Twice during the series’ run, Lead’s place in the voiceover is replaced by Mercury. The character of Mercury is mentioned but never seen.
The implication in the intro is that all investigators are medium weight chemical elements. However, of the ten named characters (including Mercury), only six are actual elements – Jet, Diamond, Sapphire and Steel are not.
Other than Sapphire and Steel, the only other ‘elements’ ever seen in the series are Silver and Lead.