Thursday, August 31, 2006


Sapphire & Steel Go Back to School

It’s the end of August, and deep inside me a boyish instinct says it’s time to go back to school. One of the most terrifying things I ever saw as a boy was an episode of the weird Joanna Lumley and David McCallum supernatural / science fiction / horror investigation series Sapphire & Steel, a series that came to a premature and pitiless end 24 years ago today. Now it’s being made again as a series of audio dramas and, appropriately, the latest one out is The School. It won’t make you keen to rush back to the classroom.

This is the point in a review where I’d usually explain what the series is about, but there’s a problem with this one. Sapphire & Steel is almost wilfully incomprehensible; if anyone ever came up with a complete explanation, all it could do is spoil it. Sapphire and Steel are two agents from some strange dimension; their opponent is time, not just a process but an almost malevolent force that can break through into our reality using old and often beloved items or ideas. They stop those breakthroughs, ruthlessly, and Joanna Lumley and David McCallum – both hot properties as blond, beautiful secret agent stars – carried out six assignments on ITV between 1979 and 1982. Starting life as a show for children, it became a scary series that messed with your head and turned nursery rhymes into tea-time terror for tots, along with such elements as a railway station haunted by ghostly soldiers, a man without a face coming out of a photograph and a surreal re-enactment of 1930s murder mysteries.

The most popular – and in many ways the most horrific – stories seem to be the second and fourth assignments, featuring the railway station and the man without a face. It’s the last two that do the most for me; the final one raises the stakes, concluding the series in an almost uniquely downbeat way (think of Blake’s 7, A Very Peculiar Practice and very few others). It’s the most terrifying for me because, after five stories where the investigators can outmatch anything, their opponents are suddenly on an altogether different level. What petrified me as a boy, though, was an episode of the fifth story, climaxing as a man in a 1930s dinner suit topples over, his face a mass of hideous diseases (five years after Doctor Who on TV really terrified me). Just to add to the effect, we were at my grandparents’ and in a different ITV region which showed the serial on a different schedule, so I didn’t get to see the rest of it the following week and instead remembered the cliffhanger for years to come…

It was a decade later that it finally came out on video, and I bought it a little nervously. I’d only ever seen that one episode, and would the series match up to years of fancied horrors? I watched my first full story while at university, with my housemates scornful. Then they watched it with me, in the early hours of the morning; to my lasting satisfaction, it scared the pants off them. For some reason, the VHS was hardly released when it was deleted, and the DVDs they brought out a few years ago have gone the same way – and it’s one of the few ITC series that isn’t getting an outing on a digital channel. Fortunately, it’s still making something of a comeback. It’s another series that Big Finish has licensed for audio drama, and though its talented creator hasn’t written any of those scripts, he’s writing for this Autumn’s scary new Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Hurrah.

Big Finish started their Sapphire & Steel series last year, with a certain degree of success. The biggest problem was that, unlike their Doctor Who dramas, they don’t have the original cast. David McCallum said “too busy,” and Joanna Lumley simply said “no”. Their replacements are actors of similar standing, though – huge movie actor David Warner, and star of House of Cards and Ultraviolet Susannah Harker. They’re good, but very different in style; even from his voice you can tell David Warner is much older than she is, and the authority he brings to the role tends to unbalance a previously more equal partnership. Another problem I had with last year’s stories was that I found them a little familiar; for a series where you’re meant to wonder ‘what’s going on?’ with several of them I kept being able to spot the twists coming. Fortunately, the first of their ‘new season’ this summer kept me guessing.

The School is a great place to start listening to Sapphire & Steel, but I should first let you know that I know the author, Simon Guerrier. Not only is he a very nice chap, but he reads this blog (and there’s a suspicious child’s name which, like Richard and one in the League of Gentlemen, I’ve thought it best not to ask about). However, if I didn’t like his story I wouldn’t urge you to listen to it – though I probably wouldn’t write him a bad review, either (I’d be more likely just not to mention it, and find a slippery form of words to dodge the question if he asked me what I thought, as usual with some authors). No, this one’s actually rather good, and the reason I particularly like it is that I started off thinking it wasn’t. Bear with me; initially, I thought the cast was too small, the teachers were stereotypes and they accepted the investigators far too easily, but I love having the rug pulled from under me, and this deftly tripped me up on each of my early assumptions.

Like the school-set Doctor Who story this Spring, The School has surprisingly few distinct children, though, given that, a surprising number of children’s lines are spoken. Instead, it focuses on a small group of teachers, the friendly – perhaps far too friendly – headteacher marvellously voiced by Keith Drinkel, a young teacher who doesn’t quite have the grip you’d expect on his subject and another who’s perhaps taking her moralistic attitude to discipline a little far. What are they planning for the school’s hundredth anniversary? Just how much do school pupils think about cruelty, violence and sex? And why can’t anyone remember seeing the headteacher’s wife? As new questions kept cropping up throughout I experienced the enormous pleasure of getting my answer to almost all of them wrong as I went along. There are plenty of shocks along the way, with moments of our heroes behaving just as you’d expect – Steel’s ruthlessness memorably emerging as the head blusters,
“Now, Mr Steel, I don’t think it’s really your job to surrender my teachers to whatever this – thing is…”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
– and others when they very much don’t, giving way to possession by the feelings of pupils past. That sometimes gives an uneven feel, partly as Steel slapping Sapphire to bring her out of being ‘a little girl’ makes their relationship seem less balanced than ever, and partly because gravel-voiced David Warner’s little boy acting is suddenly not a patch on Susannah Harker’s girlishness. There are points, too, where I feel it falls out of creepy and becomes gratuitously gruesome, though they’re probably the bits I’d have loved most if this had been the ten-year-old me’s introduction to the series.

Simon suggests in the notes on the cover inlay that he was inspired by a teacher humiliating him at the age of ten for being right when she was wrong, and the play makes much of the sense of injustice felt by children against bad teachers. Simon’s experience comes to life here in a particularly educational way; you too can be taught the difference between tapinosis and meiosis, which little Steel isn’t completely comfortable picking up. When the disciplinarian with the problem keeping discipline takes over another teacher’s class, I was vividly reminded of the way supply teachers would be torn to pieces when I was at school. And there’s the best, definitively teacherly, put-down of the operatives’ habit of talking to each other telepathically. Add to that a throwaway line from The Deadly Assassin, more than a dash of The Stone Tape and a moral about the importance of asking questions, and I found it satisfying right through to the appropriately unhappy end.

Should you listen to it, however, you may wish to use your fast forward buttons to adjust the CDs at a couple of points. I love a good trailer, and you’ll find one for the next story at the end, but I find Big Finish’s recent habit of sticking one at the start too (and for a different series) distinctly irritating; this isn’t the cinema, and we don’t even get the Pearl & Dean music. More offputting is the end of the first disc; at the half-way point of the story, suddenly there are a bundle of extra features for one of last year’s stories, Daisy Chain. I hasten to add that it was probably the strongest and certainly the least ‘traditional’ Sapphire & Steel story they’ve done so far, but it really breaks the mood; stop your disc, listen to the second one, then go back, but only if you’ve listened to Daisy Chain; if not, it rather spoils the end. There’s an informative interview with author Joe Lidster that tackles head-on why that story was controversial; with his strong grip on character and relationships, I found myself agreeing on almost every particular, and especially on his treatment of Sapphire. Hearing him saying how it had to end without the title music to show how serious the subject matter was, though… No, sorry, Joe, but most of these stories have unhappy endings, and different types of death aren’t graded by point scores; it just came across to me at the time as “my story’s more serious than yours!” and pretty much saying that outright in your interview merely sounds pseudy. Probably best not to follow the interview with some ‘hilarious’ out-takes, then?

Speaking of which, if you’re familiar with the doomy monologue spoken over the opening credits, Richard and I once came up with our own version on holiday. Not to be read by those sensitive about their scares, or stomachs…

All ingestionalities will be ladled by the flavours controlling each confection.

Transmarzipanic heavy fondants may not be used where there is life.

Medium calorific weights are available:
Jammy Dodger
Custard, Cookies and Cream.

CUSTARD AND CREAM have been assigned

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