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Posts Tagged ‘PJ Hammond’

This is another piece from my defunct film website. Written way back in 1998, before science fiction fandom became ‘mainstream’

I first came across Sapphire and Steel, an obscure British science fiction series made in the early 1980s, while I was browsing through a mail order catalogue in the late 90s. I read the description: ‘a strange and fascinating show – definitely something different’. Always on the lookout for the unusual, I ordered volume one expecting no more than the usual B grade offering that is unfortunately usually the rule when it comes to television science fiction. I was more than pleasantly surprised when I discovered something that actually did match the catalogue description. By the end of Adventure 1, I was hooked and submitting my credit card to a severe workout, I ordered the remaining 5 Adventures on tape. At the same time as I was watching the series I was also reading the works of Antonin Artaud. The combination was quite extraordinary – the television series echoing a number of Artaud’s insights into the radical disjunction between words and things.

The piece below probably won’t make a lot of sense if you have seen the series. An overview and information can be found on the Wikipedia page for the series. You might also like to have a look at an earlier post on Sapphire and Steel on this blog.

Introduction

One of the most striking features of Sapphire and Steel is the fact that it offers so few explanations and so few obvious answers. Not only do the backgrounds of the characters and events remain mysterious, but the most ordinary objects take on completely unexpected meanings. A feather pillow becomes a dangerous vengeful creature, a nursery rhyme the physical manifestation of an evil force, a travel chess set a terrifying weapon and gateway to time and other dimensions. Nothing can be taken for granted in this series.

This indeterminacy of meaning and explanation encourages viewers to actively imagine and speculate, to create their own very personal interpretations, to face particular types of limit experiences and the possibility of other worlds using the structure of their own psyches and imaginations. The whole series is an invitation to think beyond it, to engage in difficult confrontations and experiments in thought and imagination: it is an open challenge to question accepted visions of social and physical reality without this ever being a stated or obvious intention of the series. Thus, even if the series is a relatively short one, it offers far more fodder for creative discussion and invention than do a number of other longer running productions with more elaborately developed and codified world views and with far more visible signposts as to their intentions.

This article will take up the challenge and provide speculative answers to questions raised by Sapphire and Steel. These answers are by no means intended to dispel the original mystery and indeterminacy: their purpose is rather to open further opportunities for debate, speculation and imagination… And what better place to start than with the most obvious question?

Who are Sapphire and Steel?

Ostensibly, Sapphire and Steel are two operatives who are sent to earth to prevent or repair ruptures in the strictly ordered fabric of time, to maintain the integrity of past, present and future. These disruptions to time are initially assessed by ‘investigators’ who are never seen, who then brief and send in ‘operatives’ such as Sapphire and Steel. ‘Specialists’ are sent to the scene at a later stage to undertake any specialised tasks that operatives are unable to perform. This rather summary information emerges in a somewhat fragmentary and incidental manner at various points throughout the series in conversations between the two main characters, with humans and with the two specialists Lead and Silver. This is what Sapphire and Steel do but what sort of beings are they and where do they come from?

Are Sapphire and Steel alien or human?

This question is worth asking for a number of reasons, especially in view of a regrettable tendency in many American science fiction series in particular, to make most of the principal ‘alien’ characters semi-human at least in some way. In the original Star Trek, the alien Spock is only ‘half’ Vulcan, the ‘other half’ is human. The crew of the Enterprise in the next generation of Star Trek features a half human betazoid, a Klingon brought up by human parents and an android engaged in a life long quest to become human. And in conversations between the alien Q and Captain Picard we see the standard rhetoric that for all their faults and weaknesses, humans have ‘special qualities’ unique in the universe. In the other two offshoot series of Star Trek, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, the resident aliens are even more tedious and predictable than the humans. It might be argued that Babylon 5 is slightly better on this score – but the writer Joe Michael Straczynski still cannot resist the temptation of mixing human with one of the more ‘noble’ alien races, the Minbari. The Vorlons have also demonstrated suspicious fraternising tendencies – of a kind at least – in their use of figures such as Jack the Ripper to do their dirty work for them. Neither can Straczynski resist the ‘unique quality of humans’ school of rhetoric. Even in that post gulf war expression of military paranoia Space Above and Beyond, it transpires that the evil and hideous aliens had somewhere back in depths of time originated from the planet earth. British science fiction tends to perform a lot better on this front, but not even the Paul McGann version of Doctor Who, it seems, can survive a trans Atlantic regeneration intact. In a truly horrifying gesture, undermining a fine tradition of long standing – the completely alien doctor suddenly acquires a human parent, thereby ‘explaining’ his long term interest in earth. Is it really necessary to be part of a species or culture to show some interest in it? Why is there such a determined and rigid obsession with rendering the entire universe human in American science fiction? This is indeed a fascinating problem and certainly one worth exploring at more length. As some writers have suggested all of this is perhaps a thinly disguised reflection of the USA’s current imperialist stance with regards to cultures which are not American.

In such a human centred universe, Sapphire and Steel are a welcome arrival. They are clearly alien ‘in the sense of being extraterrestrial’ as Steel confirms in as many words in Adventure 5. Attempts to appropriate anything like a ‘human past’ for Sapphire and Steel have been firmly but politely rejected by the writer of the series P.J. Hammond in an interview with Rob Stanley.

How do Sapphire and Steel differ from humans?

As P.J. Hammond remarks, if Sapphire and Steel are more than ‘mere mortals’ they are still to some extent ‘mortal shaped’. They both speak English (that well known universal tongue!) and appear to have a human form, but for all this, the nature of their relationship to their bodies is uncertain. The opening animation, which shows glittering spheres representing a number of different ‘elements’, might suggest that their human shapes are something they adopt for the sake of convenience. Yet in Adventure 4, Sapphire, addressing a creature which changes its face at will, states that she and Steel have only ‘one face’. Their bodies can also be damaged as various incidents with absolute zero temperatures, barbed wire, knives, imaginary swans and attempts at strangulation indicate, but at the same time they appear to have remarkable powers of regeneration. In Adventure 3, the technician Silver refers in passing to a faculty of ‘instant reduplication’ which might explain these recuperative powers, but even this, it appears, is fallible. It is the failure of this faculty which results in his disappearance into his own past at the hands of the changeling, and he also mentions when threatened by the transient beings, that he would not survive in the Triassic period. One thing is clear, however, the relation Sapphire and Steel and similar beings have to their bodies is quite different to our own.

The fact that they are not human is apparent right from the outset. Almost as soon as they walk in the door in Adventure 1, we see Sapphire’s eyes turn a brilliant shade of blue as she briefly investigates the situation. The two operatives are able to communicate telepathically with each other and have obviously arrived at the house through some means of transport other than the more conventional ones of car and boat, which as the boy explains can be heard coming for miles in that isolated spot. Adventure 2 shows them teleporting and they make more use of this power in subsequent adventures. A marvellous but very brief scene in Adventure 5, a fine example of Shaun O’Riordan’s direction, offers perhaps the closest thing on film to a subjective view of teleportation. The background behind Steel fades to black and we see him in a closeup shot turning to face a new environment. Other series, notably Blake’s 7, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Tomorrow People have all attempted subjective views of teleportation, but where Sapphire and Steel is radically different is in the fact that the two main characters do not require technology to assist them. Neither does Steel signal in any way his intention to teleport. Like many other scenes in the series it remains mysterious and there are no obvious indications as to how the viewer is meant to interpret it. As a result, this sequence arguably works far better than other more detailed and elaborate efforts to convey what teleportation might actually feel like.

It would also appear that the two agents have a very long lifespan in our dimension. In Adventure 1, they reveal that they dealt with a problem on the Marie-Celeste and indicate in Adventure 4 that the passage of hundreds of years is of little consequence to them. They have other powers as well: the enviable ability to change clothes and hairstyles in the blink of an eye, for instance. Sapphire parades a number of outfits in front of Rob in Adventure 1 and both she and Steel waste no time changing into their thirties costumes in Adventure 5. In addition, they both possess telekinetic abilities – very handy when it comes to locking and unlocking a variety of doors and turning off record players! Sapphire is able to ‘take time back’ for limited periods, to ascertain the age and nature of objects and to access historical data of both a general and individual kind. Steel can reduce his body temperature to just above absolute zero and he is very strong both psychically and physically and often acts as a kind of anchor for the more volatile Sapphire. Both of them appear to have hypnotic powers of persuasion over humans which they can exercise by a touch or a gaze but they only seldom choose to do so.

But these things aside, what most marks them as alien is the way they respond to situations and the kind of remarks they make about humans. They clearly regard humans as very different from themselves and Steel, in particular, frequently expresses a mixture of exasperation and puzzlement over human behaviour and customs. First impressions of both Sapphire and Steel are of a rather chilly and impersonal detachment. Steel is frequently abrupt to the point of downright rudeness and while Sapphire might initially appear more gracious, she is certainly a match for Steel when it comes to coolness. While shaking hands and making polite conversation with Tully, she is in reality communicating a cold scientific analysis of her subject to Steel.

Neither of them react in quite the ways we would expect people to react in similar situations, yet it is not a question of that other well-worn science fiction cliché: the aliens-who-know-no-emotions in the face of a unique, and as such, admirable, human prerogative. It is more a question of a different emotional response – one that does not always match our well trained social expectations. There is, for example, a definite, if very understated, romantic attachment between Sapphire and Steel, but the way this is played out is by no means conventional, leading some viewers to wonder whether their feelings for each other are real or indeed, whether they exist at all. Again, nothing is at it appears to be: the coldly distant demeanour of both characters is continually belied by their actions in taking the most extreme risks to save humans at every possible opportunity. If Tully is sacrificed, it is to save hundreds of human ghosts. Both Sapphire and Steel endanger themselves to help the woman in Adventure 6, Steel explaining to Silver that it is their duty to do so. Indeed, it is perhaps as a direct result of this concern that they are caught in the trap at the end. Both agents, in fact, display strong, if strictly controlled, emotional responses in relation to humans on a number of occasions. For example, when Steel realises that he has almost stabbed a baby and when the creature in Adventure 4 burns two people alive in a photograph, he is clearly upset. There are numerous other examples. But all these observations do no more than raise further interesting questions, further fodder for speculation. They merely begin to scratch the surface of the hundreds of possible questions that one might ask…

Links to other Sapphire and Steel pages

Revisiting Sapphire and Steel
Sapphire and Steel. Sci Fi Freak site
Page on TV Tropes
Stephen O’Brien SFX magazine
Page on British Horror Television

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Tarot's padMy rating: *****
The Ace of Wands website
See here for my main post on this series.

I am enjoying my repeat viewing of the series and finding it a lot less clunky second time around. Nonetheless the hilarious difference between the shots of the cast on donkeys in a sandpit with a tame camel tethered in the background and the stock shots of Egypt still makes me laugh.

Another enjoyable thing about the series includes the very 60s/early 70s theme song (composed by Andrew Bown, a future member of Status Quo with lyrics by Trevor Preston) which are the absolute embodiment of meaningless 60s psychedelia.

Velvet roofs
Tattooed streets
Patterns made from words
Laughter echoes in the dark
Life hovers like a bird

This song accompanies a psychedelic animated sequence which is an equally classic period slice.

The endings of all the stories remain a bit of a let down with interesting supernatural themes being swept under the carpet by so-called ‘rational explanations’ or simply being too hastily and abruptly resolved. In P.J. Hammond’s stories one can see the embryo of many of the ideas he went on to develop much more fully and more satisfactorily in Sapphire and Steel. It is a pity that Hammond hasn’t in general had more opportunity to work in the supernatural/fantasy genre where he is able to generate unique and striking ideas conducive to further philosophical reflection. Instead most of his work has been in crime fiction with a number of outings in recent years in Midsomer Murders, a modern entry in the English country village murders genre à la Agatha Christie.

The acting is good all round in Ace of Wands and there is a warm friendly cameraderie between the three members of the main cast which makes for easy repeat viewing. And of course the fashion and the pet owl add to the ongoing aesthetic fascinations.

It has prompted me to think about doing a comparison with other series featuring stage magicians (eg Jonathan Creek and Bill Bixby’s The Magician) and I might write something about those further down the track.

My other posts on Ace of Wands
Ace of Wands (1970-72)

Links to other pages on Ace of Wands
The Ace of Wands website
David Sheldrick
Geoff Wilmmetts
Andrew Screen
Review on the Retro to go site

Mondo Esoterica Review
BFI screenonline page Includes video clips
Pages at Clivebanks.co.uk

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Tarot

This post was updated 24 April 2014

My rating: *****

Note: Simon Coward’s comprehensive, but now defunct, Ace of Wands website (available in the Wayback machine internet archive) and Andrew Pixley’s copious viewing notes which accompany the 2007 Network DVD release have been invaluable in providing background information and quotations for this review.

This British children’s fantasy series is by all current technical standards fairly dire. It is slow, there are noticeable differences between filmed exterior shots, archive stock footage and videoed interior shots as well as glaring continuity errors and booms in shot. The special effects induce hilarity rather than wonder or horror, there are gaping plot holes and dialogue is sometimes stilted. Yet one reads enthusiastic review after review of this series – all of them recent – on the web. Perhaps, it might be argued, that these represent nothing but the rose coloured reminiscences of the legion of nostalgia buffs out there. Yet there are people new to the series, seeing it for the first time (it was made available on DVD in 2007) who are equally keen, even if one admits that those buying such a set are already a specialist audience amongst specialist audiences.

When I first started watching the DVDs I found the stories hideously slow and unconvincing. The special effects (shaking rooms and floating Egyptian artefacts) and faux location shots in quarries were entertainingly amusing rather than gripping. Neither am I a fan of borderline pantomime villains of the type found in The Avengers and the later series of classic Dr. Who. But by the end of the series I was completely hooked. So what happened, what drew me in and kicked all my fan mechanisms into gear? But before talking about that let’s provide some background on the series first.

Ace of Wands is a children’s fantasy series originally broadcast by Thames Television from 1970 to 1972. The central figure, Tarot, is a highly successful stage magician and illusionist who, dressed in the height of early 70s fashion and with the help of two assistants/friends (one male, one female), investigates and solves weird goings on. His pet owl, Ozymandias, although not of any practical help in these proceedings, provides moral and aesthetic support.

Three seasons of the series were made and in the historical and cultural vandalism that marked television policies of the 1960s and early 1970s, the first two seasons were wiped by the television company who were out to save money by reusing old videotape. Little did they realise that some thirty years down the track this would be a more than false economy, and that they had unwittingly deprived themselves of a goldmine. There is a lesson in there somewhere. Fans continue to scour the world in the hope that, as with Dr. Who, copies will be found secreted away in the archives of some less irresponsible television station outside the UK.

If these first two seasons ever do come to light, one thing I would particularly like to see is Tarot’s minimalist and futuristic Japanese style warehouse flat. For some inexplicable reason, in season 3 he is moved to a houseboat. I have a serious weakness for futuristic white minimalism and can only see a houseboat as a backwards step in this context.

Perhaps the secret of the series, and what finally engaged my fan interest is the conceptualisation of the central character and Michael Mackenzie’s performance in this role. Indeed the acting all round, of both principals and villains, is very solid which helps make up for other shortcomings. Mackenzie explains the considerable success of his character with the audience at the time, which included not only children but large numbers of university students. Tarot was, he says, ‘a really good looking bloke in attractive trendy clothes of the time – someone the girls like. For the boys he has a pet owl, fast cars and motorbikes’. One might remark, however, that this statement in relation to gender preferences is perhaps unduly limiting. Not a few girls, then as now, tend to look favourably on a man who accessorises himself with fast expensive cars and an animal as exotic as an owl.

In an interview with Simon Coward Mackenzie further remarks on his approach to the role:

I had no idea what I was doing at first, apart from making sure that I looked good in the trendy clothes, fast cars and beautifully designed sets! I thought he should convey the impression of great inner strength and mental and spiritual development but be relaxed. But basically I was so inexperienced I thought it was best to do what I was told by the directors.

He notes elsewhere, ‘I think Tarot is a rather reserved and mysterious person’. In fact we have no background information on Tarot at all and he seems to possess vaguely paranormal powers. A character like this is usually played with a degree of coldness and remoteness, but Mackenzie as well as admirably succeeding in conveying all the character traits he lists above, opts for a warmth and humility which nonetheless, as he says himself, doesn’t preclude Tarot from being a bit of a ‘smartarse’. It is perhaps telling that Mackenzie prefers the episodes penned by P.J. Hammond (of future Sapphire and Steel fame) where Tarot is under genuine threat from adversaries who are far stronger than himself.

There is also a good deal of chemistry between Tarot and his friend Mikki and also it would seem from remarks about the earlier two series, between Tarot and her predecessor Lulli. Nothing is ever stated but perhaps the actors decided that in real life, in non-television land, two people who shared an unusual telepathic link, who embarked on numerous adventures together and who both shared a love of 70s fashion would inevitably get together. We notice Tarot and Mikki flirting quite outrageously sometimes and a discreet physical contact between them that would seem to indicate that offstage in uncensored reality, something was going on that couldn’t be dealt with up front in an early 70s children’s series. Further, as Michael Mackenzie indicates, Tarot had to be seen to be available and unattached to maintain the attention of the female viewing public.

Personally, I have never really understood this argument which is frequently advanced in relation to the depiction of male leads in TV series. From my own point of view, I find it far more interesting to see how my male heroes deal with attachment rather than avoid it or fail to achieve it. It would seem for all these prohibitions, however, that the actors manage to slip the hint of a relationship under the radar and in between the lines. In the DVD commentary tracks Mackenzie and Petra Markham (who plays Mikki) refer to the problematic nature of the undefined relationship in the script, and joke about the flirting between the characters but say nothing about the choices they made in playing the roles at the time.

If Judy Loe (Tarot’s first female ‘assistant’) left the series at the end of season 2 justifiably fed up with, as she says, ‘being allowed some intelligence, but always having to be rescued by the man’, her replacement was given more character scope and freedom. Mikki although sometimes a bit airy fairy and impulsive frequently gets Tarot out of trouble and occasionally initiates an adventure herself (‘The Beautiful People’). It is her brother Chas (Roy Holder) who is the one who usually needs rescuing. This change may have been due to writers such as P.J. Hammond taking over more script control as Trevor Preston, the originator of the series, started to move on to other projects. P.J. Hammond, of course, was to go on to write a wonderful female role (greatly aided and extended by Joanna Lumley’s uncompromising approach) in Sapphire and Steel.

The character of Tarot shares much in common with his contemporary Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in Dr. Who. Both characters have a love for flamboyant 70s fashion – although Tarot’s wardrobe is far more extensive and expensive (!) than the Doctor’s. Both use their wits and intelligence to fight adversaries, even if they can both be irritatingly secure in the conviction of their superior knowledge. Both have mysterious origins – Tarot perhaps more so, as at least we know that the Doctor is an alien from another planet. Both characters also display a warmth and a sympathy towards those around them – even if the Doctor demonstrates an irascibility and impatience that we never see in Tarot. Likewise (unlike David Tennant’s Doctor), they are not willing to condemn their opponents to oblivion. The Doctor is devastated when Unit blows up the Silurian stronghold, Tarot recognises ‘Mama Doc’s’ behaviour as the result of mental illness and arranges some discreet intervention after he has dealt with the main problem. Both characters are also linked in with the ambient early 1970s cultural interest in the ‘mystic East’ and the then trendy interest in the paranormal, the ‘mystical’ and the ‘occult’. These cultural tropes went on to be read very differently in the 1990s during The X Files period.

Most unfortunately, after season 3, in spite of excellent ratings and no sign of a wane in popularity, the series was cancelled, ending on a sudden cliffhanger. The cancellation was due to a change in the directorship of children’s programming at Thames and the series was replaced with the arguably inferior and less subversive The Tomorrow People. One can only speculate on what the series might have become with a couple more seasons, but like so many other promising shows that have been cancelled, we will never know.

The other attraction of Ace of Wands for current viewers is that it is a concept (good looking, mysterious and stylish stage magician investigates weird things with his friends) which still holds up very well today and in this age of the remake and the ‘reboot’, a reactivation of this series could go down very well indeed. (Hint, hint to any program developers out there).

My other posts on Ace of Wands
Ace of Wands (2)

Links to other pages on Ace of Wands
The Ace of Wands website – now defunct but still archived on the Wayback Machine
David Sheldrick
Geoff Wilmmetts
Andrew Screen
Review on the Retro to go site

Mondo Esoterica Review
BFI screenonline page Includes video clips
Pages at Clivebanks.co.uk

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My rating: *****
See my other post reflecting at more length on Sapphire and Steel

Sapphire and Steel is my favourite science fiction series and I have watched quite a few. Starring the blond duo Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, it was broadcast in Britain from 1979 to 1982 and then, like the characters at the end of the series, assigned to oblivion. Precious, but poor quality tapes circulated amongst the fan community for some years after that: the snowy lack of picture definition and the muffled sound only adding to the mystery. I purchased the VHS tapes which were released in 1992 in the late 1990s, and then the later two DVD releases in the first decade of the new millenium.

The premise is that Sapphire and Steel are two non human agents who arrive from somewhere that is never specified. Their job it is to maintain the integrity of the flow of time which is all too often under assault by malevolent forces. The destruction of the integrity of time can have disastrous and final consequences for life on earth.

My interest in the series is not fueled by nostalgia which is often the case amongst the viewership of older cult TV series. I didn’t see the series when it first came out. I first came across it in the late 1990s and watched it then in an endless loop. Ten years later, I find myself once again absolutely rivetted by its minimalism, by the chemistry between the two attractive leads and the sheer unexplained mystery of some of the events and actions of the characters.

If the series moves at a slow pace by current standards, this merely builds the very considerable atmosphere of menace and danger and allows one to study the character interactions at leisure. The effects were achieved with creative effort and ingenuity rather than with the blithe facility of some current CGI effects. As the director Shaun O’Riordan points out – this gives the series a weight that comes from that investment of creative invention.

I have been watching the 2008 re-release of the series which is quite an improvement in quality over the earlier DVD release. It also includes a documentary which puts together a series of interviews with the director producer Shaun O’Riordan, the writer PJ Hammond – who writes with a truth that comes from the heart and utter conviction – and McCallum and Lumley. All involved in the series – crew, actors, director, writer – were passionate about it and did their very best work and all came up with creative ideas which enhanced the series. The lighting, camera work, special effects, sound and music are all noteworthy in creating the very unique atmosphere of this series.

It is evident from the documentary that those involved remain intensely and genuinely proud of their work and would willingly do more if the opportunity ever arose – which, alas, looks unlikely. All the stories are strong with the possible exception of Assignment 5, which was not written by Hammond but by two writers who penned many Dr. Who scripts. Assignment 5 introduces ill-advised humour (read downright silliness) and lacks the menacing intensity, truth and sheer alien strangeness that P.J. Hammond invested in the rest of the series with the aid of all involved. But even this assignment has its attractions, notably the interplay between the two main characters and a brief but fascinating scene with Steel teleporting – a small masterpiece of lighting and camera work.

My main regret in viewing this series is that there are not more episodes. There is an ongoing audio series with cult stalwart David Warner playing Steel and Susanna Harker as Saphhire, but I am hesitant to risk tampering with the sheer perfection of the original series by listening to it. In addition, much of the attraction of the series for me is the odd disjunction between what you are seeing and the words that are being spoken. This is something that only works in a visual medium and would be impossible to render on audio.

The most notable way in which this disjunction works is in the relationship between Sapphire and Steel. The content of what they are saying and the visual indications of their emotional connection are often not related in obvious ways. John Kenneth Muir puts it very nicely in his blog:

Although the actors’ deliver their lines deadpan and non-emotionally, a whole universe of subtle emotion flourishes between the lines; in their eye-contact; in their physicality; in their tone, in Sapphire’s occasional smile, even in their proximity to one another. These are amazing performances which strongly “hint” alien, but are also filled with a kind of nuanced complexity and humanity.

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