I suspect that this episode is the more famous of the series (possibly even more so than the final
episode). Whenever I recall any of the series, it is this one that comes to mind most readily. First broadcast in July 1979, this is one of the more chilling episodes in the entire run.
As with all of the episodes, the storyline is fairly sparse and pretty simple to explain: Sapphire and Steel arrive at a disused railway station. An entity, known as The Darkness, is using the negative emotions felt by a dead WWI soldier, a dead WWII pilot and dead submariners. A ghost hunter arrives at the station and becomes caught up in the plot. Our heroes suffer at the “hands” of the entity and are caught up in it’s scenarios. In the end, the entity is beaten (to an extent) by a chilling method.
In essence, you could quite easily remove some of the pronouns and you could write your own episode by filling in the blanks. And yet, these aren’t simple cookie-cutter episodes. This Assignment has only 4 main characters: Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum), Tully the ghost hunter (Gerald James) and Pearce (Tom Kelly), the WWI soldier and primary ghost. The sets are equally limited – the short railway station platforms, the lobby, the footbridge between platforms, one hotel bedroom and the hotel bar. The number of sets reflects the limited budgets, of course, and it also reflects the fact that early TV programs showed their stage roots and the live audience roots. Yet it also adds to the claustrophobic character of the shows; the feeling of being trapped in the situation.
The acting in this episode is first rate. Our ghost hunter is an absolute amateur pitted against the cool professionalism of our two protagonists. Pearce alternates between a malicious glee, a cold predator and a melancholy man who just wants his life back. The other ghosts all show their fear in the situations they are put in. There are several extremely chilling set pieces: Steel possessed by the ghost of the dead fighter pilot, Tully, Sapphire and Steel trapped in a recreation of the submariners’ deaths, Sapphire possessed by the Darkness.
It may be that this is chilling because of the age in which it is set. In my schools (during the 1970s and 1980s) we were taught regularly about the Second World War. Films shown were set then. We all either had grandparents who fought or parents born during the war and the whole country still bore scars from the conflict. Having a malicious and powerful ghost from not long before that conflict made it seem chillingly real.
Take a look at this clip: Steel Gets Trapped (YouTube) and tell me that the clip doesn’t send shivers up your spine.
Sapphire and Steel was made and shown in a time when meta humour hadn’t become the norm. None of the shows broke the flow by sending itself up or by referring to a previous run in a mocking way. As far as the series was concerned, there were no other shows anywhere and they existed in their own reality, in their own “now”. This made them more immediate and helped to draw you in. This episode was written for adults rather than children (nowadays it would come with all sorts of warnings about the perceived terror) and yet, because of it’s early evening showing, there was no bad language, no sex and no real violence. The entire sense of danger came about by well designed sets, great writing, an extremely eerie music score and finally by the fact that the actors played the whole thing entirely straight and used their skills to their best effect.
In the final scenes, we are shown the cold practicality of Sapphire and Steel: they trade the last years of the ghost hunter’s life to the Darkness in exchange for it departing. Worse still, from our perspective, it is Sapphire that leads him to his end – the compassionate Sapphire leads a human being to his death for the greater good. That is the sort of writing that needs to return to television drama.
Posted on 4 December, 2008, in Films, Sapphire & Steel, Television and tagged audiobook, big finish, cult, cult TV, cult tv series, david mccallum, drama, ITV, joanna lumley, paranormal, sapphire, sapphire and steel, science fiction, steel, supernatural, television, tv, UK. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.