Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 6
Sapphire and Steel was a Science fiction British television series produced by ATV, which was broadcast from 1979 to 1982 on the ITV network. Screen writer Peter J. Hammond wrote the series without any of the aesthetic trappings of the genre. The main antagonists, Sapphire and Steel, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, act as time detectives sent by a mystery agency to repair breaks in time. In this final story line, the characters find themselves in what seems to be a 1940’s roadside cafe, where they are joined by a man and a woman sat at a table dressed in attire from the period. At one moment, the woman stands up and saying;‘this is the trap. This is nowhere, and it’s forever’. The mysterious couple then Disappear into thin air. Sapphire and Steel panic trying to escape the empty cafe. Steel pulls back a window only to see a starry black void.
P J. Hammond explained ‘I’ve always been interested in Time, particularly the ideas of J. B. Priestley and H. G. Wells, but I wanted to take a different approach to the subject. So instead of having them go backwards and forwards in time, it was about time breaking in, and having set the precedent I realised the potential that it offered with two people whose job it was to stop the break-ins’(Steve O’Brien, ‘The Story Behind Sapphire & Steel’, The Fan Can, http://www.thefancan.com/fancandy/features/tvfeatures/steel.html)
I discovered this series after reading a reference to it at the beginning of an essay by Mark Fisher titled ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’, author of Capitalist Realism: Is there No Alternative?(Zero Books) and blogger at (k-punk.abstractdynamics.org). After reading the brief plot structure Fisher described in his writing, I immediately took to YouTube to find the referenced episode. I was not surprised to find the entire series uploaded onto this social networking website, our culture is built upon the conditions of digital recall as almost everything from our cultural past is available to us in seconds to analyse in the present “thanks to VHS,DVD and YouTube, it seemed… Loss is itself lost”(Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life: writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Zero Books pg 2)
The final episode is available to watch here:http://youtu.be/CkfzxypYEx4
The time since the final episode has aired on British television is not the only factor which has made this series stranger and more unfamiliar to the contemporary viewer. The new context of this final episode, and it’s new format has inevitably changed the reading we take from it. When it originally aired in 1982, Assignment 6 was broadcast from the 19 until 31 of August and was broken up into 25 minutes serial segments. This in effect lengthened one plot line over a number of weeks, As 1980’s viewers could tune in each week to take a look back into the mysterious virtual cafe and then leave again back to reality. To the contemporary viewer of YouTube, these serials are condensed together into 1:30 min feature. This joining up of smaller serials has created in one way a film that has a conventional linear narrative that is so spaced out and lengthened that it begins to disrupt itself.
Sapphire and Steel was noticeably low budget, it’s special effects were unconvincing even in 1982 and the minimal stage sets and small cast gave the impression of a theatre production. The oppressiveness of this small scale production is the main reason I am captivated by Sapphire and Steelas Fisher puts it; the series “absolutely refuses to ‘meet the audience halfway’ in the way that we’ve come to expect. This is partly a conceptual matter: Sapphire and Steel was cryptic, it’s stories and it’s world never fully disclosed”(Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life: writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Zero Books pg 4)
The two antagonists lack in warmth and humour which is usually taken for granted within entertainment media. This emotional austerity that takes place across the series, assumes a more explicitly pessimistic quality in this final assignment. Cyril Ornadel produced the music for Sapphire and Steel, Nick Edwards explains here in a 2009 blog post, this was ‘arranged for a small ensemble of musicians (predominantly woodwind) with liberal use of electronic treatments (ring modulation, echo/delay) to intensify the drama and suggestion of horror, Ornadel’s cues are far more powerfully chilling and evocative than anything you’re likely hear in the mainstream media today.’(‘Sapphire and Steel’, gutterbreakz.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/sapphire-steel.html)
The set design, which is very simple often comprising of one, main- square interior room, associates itself with contemporary uninhabited and abandoned spaces. These ‘non-spaces’ are generic zones of movement (shopping centres, airports and lobbies) which dominate our capitalist environment. The cafe Sapphire and Steel find themselves in is no man’s land:
‘No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes,which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.’- Harold Pinter, No Man’s Land
This final episode was never written to be a final episode. Hammond intended to return to the series at some point in the future, but there would be no visual return of the series on British Television; ‘Eternally suspended, never to be freed, their plight- and indeed their provenance- never to be fully explained, Sapphire and Steel’s internment in this cafe from nowhere is prophetic for a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.(Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life: writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Zero Books pg 6)