13 May 2009


One of those old TV series I've been meaning to re-experience ever since K-Punk's blog posts back in 2004. Finally, I came across a bunch of VHS tapes in a charity shop recently and I've been gradually working my way through them, late at night, when the rest of the family have gone to bed.

Yes, VHS tapes, faithfully replicating that low-budget, badly-lit world of yore - to hell with your digitally remastered DVD special editions! It's still as weird as my childhood memories suggested, and the plot-lines are only slightly more comprehensible to me now, as an adult. Here was a series so creepy, even the Look-In picture strip adaptation had an unnerving quality about it. How anything as impenetrably arcane as this could ever have been considered mainstream family viewing remains one of the great cherished mysteries of what we might call the 'Ghost Box era'. Though of course that's not actually correct - the series falls just outside the 1958-78 timeframe for true hauntology buffs...but that's the beauty of it: it's the last word, the final rallying cry for the uncanny in popular culture, ultimately crushed by the onslaught of Thatchersim, the 'Me' decade etc; the last of the dreamers, and the nightmares.

It's the pace of the thing that I find so fascinating. Due to budget restrictions, every storyline unfolds very slowly, typically stretched over six 25-minute episodes. Events occur at a magnetically slow pace, in a scenario where, funnily enough, Time itself is supposedly the 'villian'. Special effects, supporting characters and scene-changes are kept to a bare minimum - everything is held together by the rivetting on-screen presence of lead actors Joanna Lumley and David McCullum. The complete absence of spectacle imbues everything with an eerie stillness, which makes the occasional action sequences even more startling. Special mention must also go to Cyril Ornadel's incidental music. Arranged for a small ensemble of musicians (predominatly 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.


  1. wonderful post- i picked these up a few years ago- i was nervous as i had such powerful emotional memories from seeing them when they were broadcast and didn't want to find that they had aged and it was just memory that retained their uncanniness but my god, still amazing, still very very eerie and strange.
    So, not dated and simply out-of-time and i have to agree, how this ever made it to TV just seems baffling now.

  2. I used to watch this with my Dad when I was six or seven. I remember being absolutely horrified by (what wiki tells me was) the last episode, where it finishes with them stuck in a cafe, and the final shot of them silhouetted in the doorway as the cafe floats in space. I remember my Dad apologising to my Mum when he returned me after that visit saying that I had been having nightmares since watching it. What a fantastic show - I'm going to have to go and find it now...

  3. Anonymous8:42 PM

    To clarify, the 1970s was the nominal "Me" decade, in supposed contrast to the previous "We" decade.

    Interestingly, Ms. Lumley now haunts unsuspecting Labour mandarins/expense fiddlers.

    Prince Asbo

  4. Would it be possible to post some of the audio?

  5. post some audio? what, you mean some of the incidental music? ummm, well that should be possible, I suppose....

  6. Anonymous9:46 PM

    As a teenager from this era, Sapphire and Steel didn't feel remotely odd or different whatsoever - it was normal for things to not "work" conventionally - especially if you were used to power cuts and British Leyland cars etc.

    The early ZX Spectrum games are another corollary. The likes of "Android 2" and "Ant Attack" just had you going round in circles in weird 3D landscapes with no identifiable purpose whatsoever