RIP David Collings, 1940-2020

I’m very sad to read that the wonderful character actor David Collings has passed away. An icon of cult TV, he starred in an Asimov adaptation on Out of the Unknown and was in Doctor Who three times. When the BBC dubbed the 1978 Japanese TV series Journey to the West as Monkey, Collings provided the voice of Monkey. (Or Son Goku or Alakazam or Jesse Dart or whatever that character is called in whatever iteration you’re watching.) But he’ll be best remembered as Silver, the devious and friendly technician who showed up in two Sapphire & Steel adventures and downright stole the show from the leads. Our condolences to his family and friends.

Sapphire & Steel 6.3 and 6.4

Agatha Christie famously wrote the final Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain, in the mid-forties, but didn’t have it published until shortly before her death. She kept writing Poirot adventures, of course, but she had the manuscript where her popular character dies locked away in a bank vault for three decades.

I mention this because back in 1972, P.J. Hammond wrote the final Ace of Wands story and it ends with a very clumsy and ultimately disappointing climax which, they say, was meant to be resolved in the following season. Since Thames never ordered any more episodes, the last story has to stand as a series finale while not actually finishing. It’s not like many modern TV examples where programs end on never-resolved cliffhangers. “The Beautiful People” does actually end, but there was so much more we didn’t learn about that last weird situation that the audience can’t help but feel cheated because something was missing.

So with Sapphire & Steel, Hammond had to write a finale that would stand as a finale in case the new network, Central, didn’t pick it up. If they did, then he had a story in mind to continue the situation. But if Central didn’t, he needed the series to have an unforgettable, amazing end.

In a perfect world, though… in a perfect world, Sapphire & Steel should have been renewed for two or three more series of fourteen episodes each, but this story should have stayed on the shelf just like Curtain did, until the very end. By all means, let’s go back in time and alter reality and create some parallel universes. Let’s make sure the BBC never wipes any of their old tapes, and let’s make sure they actually finish “Shada” in 1979. Let’s have a third series of The New Avengers with Linda Thorson as Mother, and a second season of Bret Maverick with Jack Kelly as Bart. Let’s make sure that a series of fatal combine harvester accidents in 1980 befall every politician and media magnate who are making our lives miserable today. And by God, let’s have another 28 or 42 episodes of Sapphire & Steel, but show them first, and leave this finale alone and untouched.

Our poor kid. Tonight, for the very first time, he expressed actual happiness and excitement about watching the show. He was really looking forward to it. Then it storms its way through the cliffhanger ending to part three, which is one of television’s all-time greatest cliffhangers, into part four. He punched the air as one obstacle was overcome, and then a second… and then it doesn’t end like anybody expected.

He wouldn’t admit to being unhappy, even though his eyes were quite red, and he was numbed with surprise. I asked him to try and explain how he felt, and he said “Like this…” and he socked me gently on the shoulder and then gave me a hug. I asked “So it hurt, but it felt good, too?” And he said yes, and I said that was kind of how it made me feel, too.

The very best television, after all, breaks your heart at least a little.

Sapphire & Steel 6.1 and 6.2

Two people from 1948, fleeing their unhappy marriages together, take a wrong turn and arrive in 1981. But something’s even stranger than this Twilight Zone-styled setup. The service station where they stop is in a frozen pocket of time. Nobody else is there, except for Sapphire, Steel, and Silver, who find these two and their lack of curiosity very puzzling. And except for an old man from 1925, only he seems to be correctly in his own time, and sees the other characters as faded ghosts. And except for somebody who none of them can see, only hear. He keeps slapping a tambourine…

The final assignment in this series is absolutely astonishing. I love all six stories, but I might love this one most of all. I’ve certainly watched it the most. The attention to detail is amazing, and I am really impressed with Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby’s performances as the stubborn, incurious couple who are prepared to wait indefinitely to go home. De Souza was often cast as characters who were a little louche, and he’s perfect here. He radiates insincerity, but that seems to be because he and his pretty young girlfriend are up to no good and he doesn’t feel that anybody has the right to question them.

The tension in Sapphire & Steel is always really tangible, but it’s through the roof in this one. Everybody knows that something is wrong, but nobody can identify what, and as more time zones enter the narrative, the weirder and the worse it gets. Our son went from being pleased to see Silver back to wrapping himself up in a tight ball. “I was so scared I couldn’t move,” he told us.

Sapphire & Steel 5.5 and 5.6

Our son noticed that in the first Sapphire & Steel serial, we met Lead, and in the third, we met Silver, and wondered whether there would be a new agent in this odd-numbered story. There is, kind of. Sapphire and Steel take Felix into their confidence and allow him the power of telepathic communication. He gives himself the code name Brass and thinks this is jolly good fun. Unfortunately for Brass, he remains all too human.

I think that some people consider this the weakest adventure because our heroes’ characterization is slightly off, and their powers aren’t quite “right,” somehow (evidence that writers Don Houghton and Anthony Read weren’t 100% certain of how everything should be), but I love it. It’s like fringe theater, especially when the seventy-some year-old actors return to the original track of the events in 1930 and are playing the roles as they would have as twentysomethings. I asked our son if he had figured out whodunnit, but in this case the mystery is who made some deal with Time to change the events in 1930.

I like how, despite all the weird trappings of this series, and the extremely weird characterizations as some of the players are aware that something is wrong with time and people are dying and some are not, it all comes down to very human and very real motives. Sure, it could have used another minute or so on the climax to give the actors more time to chew on their dilemma, but this was also the first Sapphire & Steel serial that our son admitted to enjoying a little bit, so I think it’s a win.

Sapphire & Steel 5.3 and 5.4

I really enjoy how this turns into a demented and malevolent game of Clue. Was it Miss Blaney in the hall with a knife? Mr. Parnell in the dining room with a revolver? Mr. McDee in the dining room with poisoned port? How about all three? They’re the victims, of course.

The unusual highlight for our son, however, was Sapphire identifying the knife as having been manufactured in Sheffield in the 1920s. He recognized the name of the city from the most recent run of Doctor Who!

Sapphire & Steel 5.1 and 5.2

The fifth Sapphire & Steel serial is definitely the odd one out. It’s got by far the largest cast, it’s not even remotely frightening, and nor does it try to be, and it’s the only one not written by the show’s creator PJ Hammond. It was co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read, who, unlike Hammond, both had long experience working on Doctor Who, and this is a more traditional-styled adventure, set around a dinner party that is pretending to take place fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1930.

Of course, you can’t have a country house full of guests in dinner dress in 1930 without somebody turning up dead. That just wouldn’t be cricket. But with Wimsey, Campion, Poirot, and the Beresfords unavailable, our amateur investigators are Sapphire and Steel, who have arrived in the form of the Honourable Miles Cavendish and his wife Virginia. But before somebody turns up dead, somebody else turns up alive: George McDee, a brilliant researcher who died fifty years earlier.

Surprisingly – to me, anyway – for a production from this time with this many speaking parts, the only actor that I recognized in it is Peter Laird, who had a recurring role in the excellent spy drama The Sandbaggers around this time. I also recognized the unmistakable voice of Valentine Dyall doing a little radio commentary, keeping listeners up to date with the score in England’s Test Match against Australia. Of course, since the match was played half a century ago, the score should be known to everyone who follows the sport, but as time starts getting distorted, memories and actions become a little… unpredictable.

Sapphire & Steel 4.3 and 4.4

I love, love, love Steel’s admonition to the human, Liz, at the end of this story. He tells her to find every photograph ever taken of her, burn them, and never have another taken. Should the “shape” ever escape, that’s how he’ll get back at her. He’ll be the one to burn the pictures, only he’ll kill her when he does that.

Sapphire and Steel have some limited power to predict the future, but clearly they weren’t to know that digital photography was just a few years in the future, and that pictures would one day exist that aren’t made of paper. I wonder whether the creature can get around inside our Facebooks. Maybe that’s the reason I genuinely loathe having my picture taken. It might be because I have always hated my appearance, and hate being reminded that I can’t stop gaining weight, but it also might be because there’s a “shape” inside pictures waiting to strike.

Our son did not enjoy this one, which isn’t too surprising. This was far too freaky, and the shocking death of Ruth, burned alive at the amazing cliffhanger end to part three, really is horrifying. It got him wondering how many photos of him there are. Possibly as many as a hundred and two!

Sapphire & Steel 4.1 and 4.2

“I was super scared, but I also like to make you guys laugh,” our son admitted. It was right at the end of part two of the fourth Sapphire & Steel serial. Our heroes have discovered that their adversary is some kind of “shape” that entered our world at the moment of the very first photograph ever taken, and exists, somewhere, out of the frame or behind the subject, in every photograph since. And then, in a moment which must have looked triply impressive had anybody been watching this story on a black-and-white TV where the special effects joins didn’t show, one of the figures in a very old photograph actually moves and turns around.

Up to that point, the story had presented a couple of really memorable frightening moments. There’s the thunderous cliffhanger to part one, where viewers get a first look at this “shape” being. It’s a scene that unsettled every child who saw this in 1981 and left them yammering about it in chat rooms and forums about old TV ever since, and which those dopey unofficial “titles” that I talked about last time ruined for anybody unfortunate enough to come across them. And there’s a part where Sapphire attempts to take time back so they can get a good look at the “shape,” only to bring instead distortion, glimpses of men photographed in the negative, a babbling and repeating voice, and a monstrous, hideous howling that sounds like something from the soundtrack of an Argento film.

Our son spent most of that scene hiding behind the sofa, and grumbled as he rejoined us that he hoped he never heard that again. We smiled, and then, energized by the unconscious positive reinforcement, when the “shape” turned around in that old black and white picture, he leapt to hide his face with a shriek. He was “super scared,” but he’s also a clown. And for those of you who’ve read the previous two entries, he’s clearly feeling much, much better.

Sapphire & Steel 3.5 and 3.6

The third Sapphire & Steel story climaxes with an unfortunately poor visual effect, as you sort of get used to from watching this sort of program from the period, but our son is still at the age where these things can be completely terrifying. We lost track of him after he sped behind the sofa. I think he left the room entirely.

The scenes where it’s revealed what the time element is really fascinate me. It’s a great inversion of expectations. You get used to Steel being either brusque or unpleasant, and so even though these travellers from Earth’s future are weird, you end up sympathizing with them a little, because who’d want to be on the receiving end of Steel’s bad temper? But then the story reveals that they’re not just weird, they’re from a completely hideous time, and even our inhuman heroes are shocked into silence by these jerks’ inhumanity.

Without revealing that plot point, this brings me in a roundabout way to one of the things that I found so curious and weird about this show when I first heard of it. The stories don’t have titles. I couldn’t find an episode guide for a while in the eighties; I just knew the show existed, but I didn’t know how much of it there was, or what the stories were called. (Even worse, a friend told me at a con in 1988 that he saw a Sapphire & Steel book in the dealer’s room. I rushed to the table all excited, only to be deflated when it was one of those hardback Christmas annuals. I didn’t buy it. Years later, I fell in love with British annuals and I’ve got a whole shelf of them now – I’m quite proud of my little collection, including the very first Doctor Who one – but there’s a hole where the Sapphire & Steel annual should be, had I just paid the stupid five bucks for it.)

Anyway, a friend later found a fanzine called Time Screen, and there, in issue 4, was an episode guide, of sorts. (And yes, it was Time Screen and not Dreamwatch Bulletin. Don’t believe anything you read on Wikipedia.) The article’s writer proposed names for the six stories, and even though the writer was very clear that these were unofficial titles, they somehow stuck. For ages, they were given an absurd level of status and reprinted in countless other magazine articles, and books, and once the internet got started, every ASCII fan page used them. These DVDs I have are A&E’s 2003 release of the series, and right there on the back of each case, there’s the title that some fan concocted in 1989.

This wouldn’t be that huge of a problem if the fan had come up with good titles, but he didn’t. Four of his titles end up spoiling plot points and cliffhangers. (The one for story six is particularly infuriating.) This serial is three hours long, and if you ever watch it with the fan title in mind, that title will make sense about five minutes before the end. Right after you’ve finished snickering about the poor visual effect.

Sapphire & Steel 3.3 and 3.4

Episode three of the third Sapphire & Steel story introduces another one of the agents. He’s called Silver and he’s played by David Collings. Everybody likes Silver. He’s kind of twinkling, clever, a little fey, and much, much nicer than Steel. He’s a technician, and boasts that there isn’t a machine – past, present, or future – that he cannot repair.

Our son spotted a pattern. He noticed that the odd-numbered stories introduce new members of Sapphire and Steel’s agency. There’s another reason to be annoyed that the program ended when it did. Who knows who we might have met in stories seven and nine? Stupid television companies.

Sapphire & Steel 3.1 and 3.2

In 1980, Sapphire & Steel resumed production with 20 episodes comprising four stories. Unfortunately, the network that commissioned the show was in its dying days. The first two stories were shown in January and February 1981 and the third in the summer. ATV closed down in January 1982, its license transferred to the new Central TV, who burned off the final story a year later and didn’t commission any more. It still seems like a bizarre end to a very popular show with high ratings.

The biggest change between the first two stories and the second four is that the show is far less terrifying. It’s still creepy, strange and deliberately slow, and the third story is the first and only time that this works against the plot. That’s because the guest characters in this story are very unsympathetic and it’s kind of aggravating having to spend so much time with them. They are time travellers from about 1500 years in the future, and their capsule is parked, invisibly, atop an apartment building in a large city while they conduct half-baked observational experiments in how the savage people of the 20th Century lived. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned because something is going badly wrong with their experiment. They’ve brought something back from their time that is slowly trying to kill them.

But even though the tone isn’t one of moody horror – this is as close as the show ever gets to traditional sci-fi – it’s still unnerving and strange, and our son wasn’t completely taken with it. He hid his face several times, and really didn’t like it when a power source within the apartment capsule starts talking in a booming voice about the distinctions between ways to measure time. Simultaneously, something accelerates the growth of a baby in the apartment – that baby, incidentally, has the most annoying cry of any child on television – into a weird young man. Freaky, if not as scary as the last time.