Blast from the Past – Sapphire and Steel

“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 phrase “ITVs answer to Doctor Who” was a familiar one at one point in journalistic circles. It has become much less used these days (the last time I think was for Primeval). Once upon a time though, commercial television competed in the worlds of bizarre realities, rather than relying on the rather mundane reality fare it focuses on currently.

One such experiment gave us something rather good, and fondly remembered by many. Sapphire and Steel. It’s difficult to explain and recommend to people, but I will attempt to do so.

Time is a realm – a corridor that we travel down. Things dwell in it and may seek to exploit weaknesses and break into our world. They may wish to take things, such as people, for their own purposes, or rewrite time for their own benefit. Points of weakness may be developed by anachronisms – accumulations of objects out of time, and triggered by something as mundane as a nursery rhyme. This makes museums, old book shops and general collecting of any object very dangerous indeed. When an incursion takes place, someone needs to sort it out. Reporting to and allocated by some unknown temporal peacekeepers, Sapphire and Steel are two such agents.

Broadcast between 1979 and 1982, it remains one of the most bewildering, odd and disturbing series I have had the privilege of viewing. The stories haunted my young self even more than the horrors I experienced in Doctor Who. Thirty four episodes structured in six stories. In part, science fiction, but largely, one of the last great horror serials of television. With all but one penned by one man – the remarkable Peter J Hammond.

It had a budget that even the synchronous period of Who would have laughed at, but it had great concepts, scripts and two leads that demanded attention. Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) was the audiences natural entry point. The one who bonded with, and most naturally interacted with, the various humans they encountered. The one who explained things. Her partner Steel (David McCallum) was isolated. Cold. Unfeeling. Pragmatic.

Both possessed powers. Hers an empathy to divine the history of an object by touch. Even to turn back time to a limited extent, replaying events for closer examination. Steel seemed to have magnetic abilities (unlocking deadbolts) and the ability to lower his temperature to near absolute zero in emergency to paralyse the entities they encountered. They were telepathic, and seemed to consider this ability rather mundane.

Given nothing so crass as titles to refer to, I will speed through the stories. The first one lulls its young viewers into a false sense of security. The parents of children are kidnapped by a time incursion and Sapphire and Steel (with associate Lead) reunite them. A happy ending, but you may never hear a nursery rhyme in the same way again.

The second sees a ghost hunter investigating apparitions in a railway station. An entity that feeds on the resentment of the ill timed dead is abroad. How far will Steel go to recover Sapphire from its grasp? Pretty far, as we see him sacrifice a human to feed the creature and give a little air kick at a job well done. I cannot relate to you how disturbing this was at the time.

The third sees the team investigate a floor of a building that isn’t there. A time experiment from the future by humans who seek to live like 20th century humans (imagine one of those “Can you live like a middle aged peasant” shows on C4). Their intelligent house is powered by an angry distillation of every animal species made extinct.

The fourth is the reason many of our generation refused to have our pictures taken. An entity trapped by the first photograph ever taken unleashed. Able to transition between reality and any picture, and integrate people into the reality of pictures. A man without a face, but who can appear as anyone.

The fifth sees a party to celebrate a business success as the scene of an attempt to rewrite time and develop a world ending plague. The sixth sees an unexpected bewildering end for our heroes, as the mundane reality of a service station becomes a trap planted by the people they report to. Accelerated into an impossible future alone, and trapped because of a rare act of kindness and empathy from Steel as he attemped to rescue a pitiful human who isn’t what she seems.

An unusual act because he was cold, Steel, casting anyone aside to “win” his latest case. An actual heroic bastard. We have Sapphire mocking him for his attitude. We have glimpses of tensions in whatever group they represent at their “freedom”. We have some pretty deep psychological horror that would take today’s torture porn and butt-kick it down the street. Delivered at tea time on a weekday evening!

This is a series that made me appreciate true horror. True horror is not lashings of fake blood and visceral interactions between metal and flesh. It’s the ideas that are planted in your mind and left to ferment. To haunt you over many years, that change your experience of reality and that grow in your imagination.

Forget the budget, treat it as filmed plays. Just consider the time slot this was allocated back in the day. Its flaws are massively overshadowed by its brilliance. It’s remarkable TV.

It’s also true Brit TV. TV I wish we made more of. Do yourself a favour. Pick a dark winters night. Light your candles. Settle down and watch Sapphire and Steel. Start to wonder about your own pitiful realisation of our bound dimensional experience. Experience true horror…..

…..and then take every picture that exists of you and destroy it.

Just in case.


Bits and pieces

  • The adventure continues. Big Finish who produce the audio Doctor Who continued the series with Susannah Harker and David Warner as Sapphire and Steel. Highly recommended.

  • The unrelenting tone of the series is established in the title sequence. Enjoy.

  • PJ Hammond contributed a couple of Torchwood scripts. From out of the Rain sees a return to filmed realties becoming real, with a turn by Julian Bleach (Davros in Doctor Who Season 4) as the leader of a filmed freak show escaping his captured existence.

Try before you buy

Adventure 4, ”the one with the photographs” is available on YouTube.


Many thanks to @miapatrick for an entertaining exchange on our TV thread about this. I hope it continues to haunt her dreams, as it does mine.


  1. It really does. One thing that struck me finally re-watching it, was how much I remembered. Which resulted on an odd mixture of familiarity and disturbance- I was so familiar to being disturbed by this.

    ‘treat it as filmed plays’- absolutely. ‘Abigail’s party’ is one of my favourite films, even one of my favourite films by Mike Leigh. I haven’t had the chance to see ‘The History Boys’ in the theatre, but I like the filmed version. I do wonder if that is because when I was a child television often did provide ‘filmed plays’, and Sapphire and Steel was one of them. The special effects they did use are effective because of the grounding in characterisation through dialogue they used.

    S&S was terrifying, making quite mundane things- nursery rhymes,  popular songs, train stations and photographs scary.

  2. @miapatrick

    I really have to thank you. After our conversation I dug out our DVDs of the series and watched them with Ms PhaseShift again. It really is a fantastic legacy. A full bodied experience for any enquiring mind. I hope we can convert others because Sapphire and Steel deserves to be seen by more people. I really think that the level that the series is aimed at would requre some serious reconsideration these days. I can’t believe I saw some of this as a 10 year old!

  3. @PhaseShift– agreed. I also think it is possibly the best work the two actors have ever done.

    Regarding age- I think I was just a little younger when I first saw it, but not far off ten. I sometimes think people (at least my parents) tend to interpret ‘adult’ material in terms of sexual content, and not consider what other things can be disturbing to young minds. Because of certain sci-fi books (I read at an adult level from about seven years old) I went through a phrase of trying to scramble my thoughts so people wouldn’t overhear them. And I think from Sapphire and Steel I have a tendency to find just about every situation sinister. No regrets, though.

    And that ending…

  4. @PhaseShift

    S&S as ITV’s answer to DW. I remember seeing David McCallum as the wonderfully named Illya Kuryakin in The Man from UNCLE, which was supposed to be an answer to James Bond. Does this make him the most reactionary actor of the 60’s & 70’s?
    I always thought he was a decent but underused actor and would have liked to have seen him in other stuff. He appeared in The Great Escape and also took the lead in a 70’s version of The Invisible Man which I remember quite vaguely but fondly. He must be knocking on a bit now but it would be great to see him in something again.

  5. @WhoHar

    It was a well worn phrase. Even “Robin of Sherwood” got labelled as ITV’s answer to DW by journalists.

    Honestly – the last thing I can remember seeing him in was the first series of Babyon 5 as an archiologist who’d unearthed an alien weapon. Not a great episode, but he was his usual good value in it. He really was excellent in this (as was Joanna Lumley – I’d agree with @miapatrick that this is some of their best work).

  6. Just finished rewatching the whole series. The umbrella scene is my favourite. It’s all rather excellent though, isn’t it?

    BTW, Dr Who is the BBC’s answer to Dr Who. Perhaps PJ Hammond should be writing some, though…?

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