Sapphire & Steel

From Academic Kids

Sapphire & Steel was a British television science-fiction series starring David McCallum as Steel and Joanna Lumley as Sapphire. Produced by ATV, it ran from 1979 to 1982 and was primarily ITV's answer to the BBC's Doctor Who. The series was created by by P. J. Hammond, who conceived the programme after a stay in a haunted castle. Hammond also wrote all the stories except for the fifth one, which was co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read.



Missing image
Joanna Lumley and David McCallum as Sapphire and Steel (from Adventure 3).

The programme centred on a pair of interdimensional operatives, the titular Sapphire and Steel. Very little was revealed about their purposes or backgrounds in the course of the series but they appeared to be engaged in guarding the order, if not the integrity of Time. In the series, it was explained that Time is like a corridor that surrounds everything, but there are weak spots where Time - implied to be a potentially malignant force - could break into the present and take things. There were also creatures from the beginnings and ends of time that roamed the corridor looking for the same weak spots to break through.

These breaks were most often triggered by the presence of an anachronism, for example a nursery rhyme, a doctored photograph that mixed period and contemporary elements, or a house decorated to replicate a 1930s setting. Investigators would assess the situation and then, if intervention was warranted, Operators were assigned to deal with the problem by a mysterious unseen authority, to be assisted by Specialists if necessary.

The stories were generally quite cryptic, raising more questions than answers, and had an eerie air to them. The programme's use of simple but effective staging and minimal special effects actually contributed to the uneasy atmosphere. The ambiguous nature of the programme extended to its main characters. While Sapphire was portrayed as more effable and "human" than the no-nonsense, grim Steel, it was clear that their prime concern was to deal with the break in Time, sometimes over the safety of the humans caught in the incidents they investigated.

It was heavily implied that Sapphire and Steel were not human, given their abilities and manner. Steel, for example, often had gaps in his knowledge of human culture and even Sapphire's grace was tempered with a cool detachment from the humans they interacted with. In Adventure 5, Steel confirmed that they were alien, "in the extraterrestrial sense," but what this qualification means is not clear. The two also referred to being involved in the mystery of the Mary Celeste, and in one case stated they would be waiting for a ship to surface in seventy-five years. This could mean they were either exceptionately long-lived or some kind of time travel was involved.

Sapphire and Steel, who were Operators, were occasionally assisted by other operatives, including Lead and Silver. There were 127 operatives in total, including 12 transuranic elements, which could not be assigned where life existed. Although they were described as elements, the code names included non-elements like Jet, with whom Steel had been involved in the past. Sapphire, in turn seemed to be in a relationship with Silver when he helped Steel and her on a case.

Among Sapphire's abilities was the power to manipulate time in small ways as well as divine the age or historical details of an object by touching it. Her most prominent ability was to "take back time," literally rewinding it in a localised area to see or replay the past. She also exhibited an ability to obtain information about people just by being close to them - their ages and backgrounds as well as psychological insights into their personality. Sometimes it appeared that she did not discover this information herself but was receiving the information telepathically from some external source. She could also manipulate people's emotions, and project illusions. When she used her powers, her eyes would usually glow blue.

Steel, on the other hand, could freeze himself to absolute zero which gave him the ability to destroy "ghosts", which were in actuality remnants of Time. He also possessed immense strength (in Adventure 3 he tied knots in elevator cables to prevent the elevator from being used) and a degree of invulnerability. He exhibited telekinetic abilities, being able to paralyse people with a look, weld metal with his bare hands or undo deadbolts with a gesture.

The other operatives that appeared also had special powers. Silver (played by David Collings), a Specialist who was specified as a Technician, was good with electronics and gadgets, even being able to create small objects out of nothing. Lead (played by Val Pringle), on the other hand, possessed superhuman strength and could act as needed insulation for Steel when he froze himself to extreme temperatures. The operatives could also communicate telepathically with each other, and in one instance Sapphire granted this ability to a human being.

Each adventure would start with Sapphire and Steel simply showing up, seemingly out of nowhere, although often they were already present when the story started. Usually, they would investigate and mingle with various humans, although it was nearly always the location the humans were in which was of the most interest - an old house which dated back to the 18th Century, an abandoned railway station, a 1940s-era motorway café, and so on.

Although the series lasted over a period of four years, only 6 serials consisting of a total of 34 episodes were made, each episode lasting approximately 25 minutes. Eventually, the series ended in 1982, due to the increasing production costs, the sporadic availability of high-profile actors Lumley and McCallum for shooting and finally the reorganization of ATV into the new Central Independent Television.

The last story ended on a cliffhanger. Apparently resentful of the operatives' independence, a higher authority sent entities similar to the operatives but from the past, known as Transient Beings, who set a trap for them in the aforementioned café. The serial concluded with Sapphire and Steel being trapped in the café, floating through space, seemingly for all eternity. The cliffhanger has never been resolved, although Hammond has said that a seventh adventure had been planned, so presumably Sapphire and Steel could have escaped.


Each episode began with the following prologue:

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.

For episode three of Adventure 4 and for all of Adventure 6, Lead's place in the prologue was replaced by Mercury (who was mentioned but never seen). If the series had continued, Mercury would have made an appearance.

Adventure # Episode # Original Air Dates (UK) Story Title Writer Synopsis
1 1-01 to 1-06 July 10 to July 26 1979 Escape Though a Crack in Time P.J. Hammond A happy family lives in an 18th-Century house filled with clocks and antiques. One night, a nursery rhyme read out loud to the little girl triggers a time fracture that takes away her parents. As Rob, the girl's older brother, tries to understand what has happened, two mysterious strangers appear, promising to fix things. But can Rob trust Sapphire and Steel, or are they the real menace?
2 1-07 to 1-14 July 31 to November 8 1979 The Railway Station P.J. Hammond In an abandoned railway station, ghost hunter George Tully conducts an investigation. His solitary task is interrupted by the two Operators, who have an investigation of their own - a sinister, growing darkness that feeds on the resentment of the dead, using the ghost of a World War I soldier to give it focus, and the memories of war to eliminate its foes.
3 2-01 to 2-06 January 6 to January 22 1981 The Creature's Revenge P.J. Hammond A couple living in a modern apartment are not what they seem. In fact, they are from the 35th Century, the apartment is their time capsule, and the experiment is to live as 20th Century humans. However, the biomechanical system of the capsule has experiments of its own that it plans to perform on its occupants. This time, Sapphire and Steel have help, in the form of the charming Silver.
4 2-07 to 2-10 January 27 to February 5 1981 The Creature's Revenge P.J. Hammond Phantom children with sepia-toned skin play in an almost deserted apartment building. A man without a face appears on the stairs. Something has emerged from a photograph, something evil, something powerful enough to turn even Sapphire and Steel into literal two-dimensional versions of themselves.
5 3-01 to 3-06 August 11 to August 26 1981 Dr McDee Must Die Anthony Read Dressing up and pretending that it was once again the 1930s seemed to be a novel idea for a dinner party. Then the old-time radio broadcast tapes become live transmissions, the participants are forgetting it is the present and the church that was destroyed during the Blitz can be seen again through the windows. Secrets and lies from fifty years before are resurfacing, Time is trying to rewrite history, and the only ones who can stop it are two uninvited guests named Sapphire and Steel.
6 4-01 to 4-04 August 19 to August 31 1982 Dr McDee Must Die P.J. Hammond An abandoned roadside café where Time has stopped is the scene for Sapphire, Steel and Silver's latest investigation, but even they are not certain exactly what they are supposed to be investigating. The key may lie in two humans in the café who claim to be from 1948, but are they the victims, or merely bait for a trap?

(Note: the titles used are unofficial. The British VHS release of the series names them as "Adventure 1" through "6", while the DVD releases replace the word "Adventure" with "Assignment".)

Audio plays

In late May 2004, Big Finish Productions announced that they had secured the rights to produce a new series of Sapphire & Steel audio adventures for release on CD. However, neither McCallum nor Lumley are reprising their roles: McCallum is working in the United States and Lumley declined to play Sapphire again. The characters will now be played by by Susannah Harker and David Warner. It is unclear if the stories will be set before the climactic final story of the television series, or if the characters will have mysteriously escaped without explanation.

The character of Gold (voiced by Mark Gatiss) will also appear in the first adventure, The Passenger by Steve Lyons. David Collings will reprise his role as Silver in the third and fifth stories of the first series of audio plays.

CD # Release date Story Title Writer Synopsis
1 May 2005 The Passenger Steve Lyons A steam train enthusiast boards an antiquated 1930s train for a journey with eleven other passengers, and an old book provides the trigger for Time to start playing out a familiar tale that will end in murder.
2 June 2005 Daisy Chain Joseph Lidster An ordinary house hides a family with a secret that might destroy both them, and Sapphire and Steel.
3 July 2005 All Fall Down David Bishop In a historical area of the city, old artifacts are uncovered that link to the past in dangerous ways.
4 August 2005 The Lighthouse Nigel Fairs A newlywed couple move into a lighthouse intending to renovate it, not knowing the building's past.
5 September 2005 Dead Man Walking Nigel Fairs (based on a story by John Ainsworth) An unexplained death at a prison is only the first of a series of inconsistencies with Time that Sapphire and Steel are called in to investigate.

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