Sapphire and Steel, by the numbers. By Rupert Laight

Starburst Magazine #278, October 2001. Available from Visual Imagination

Sapphire and Steel by the numbers

"All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Trans-uranic 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."

S&SSo runs the narration on the title sequence to Sapphire and Steel. Only nine medium 'atomic weights' can be used where there is life. Of course, only five of them listed are actual elements, but we won't let that bother us.

Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are two of these mysterious elemental beings. Best described as Time detectives from another dimension, they are sent to repair dangerous rips in Time through which evil forces may enter the everyday world. In the words of Sapphire, "You cannot enter into Time, but sometimes Time can try to enter into the present. Break in, burst through and take things. Take people." And that's about the only explanation we get. Interestingly, in the title sequence of the final story and also for Episode Three of Adventure Four, "Lead" is replaced in the voiceover by 'Mercury'. There is no apparent reason for this, through rumours circulated claiming that if the series had carried on, Mercury may have been introduced as a new character. Although uncredited, David Suchet (of Poirot fame) [and Amadeus! -ed.] voices this baffling introduction.

Divided into six adventures, 34 episodes of Sapphire and Steel were broadcast on ITV between 1979 and 1982. Created and almost exclusively written by PJ Hammond (who had worked on Z Cars, The Sweeney and Ace of Wands), Sapphire and Steel is one of the most unusual and baffling fantasy serials ever broadcast. It was shown twice-weekly, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 pm. No one is sure exactly who Sapphire and Steel are, where they come from, or what would happen if they weren't around to save the day. All we know is that she's kind and gentle and he's hard and efficient ("He's a shade too serious, but you'll get used to him"). Steel is the organizer, trained to put Sapphire's powers to their best use. He communicates with her telepathically, has some telekinetic skills and superhuman strength. Sapphire has many powers, including the ability to turn back Time and to analyse the age and composition of objects and people.


In Adventure One, Steel lowers his body temperature to -273.2 degrees in order to free Sapphire from a spooky painting of a cottage.

None of the Sapphire and Steel stories has an official title as such, and they are most often referred to as Adventure One, Adventure Two and so forth, although other, more poetic titles have been proposed down the years. Also know as 'Escape Through a Crack in Time' or 'Rhymes', Adventure One most clearly captures the spirit of Sapphire and Steel as it was pitched to ITV: as a children's programme. However, in the early stages of its development the series was abandoned by Thames TV Children's Department and taken on by ATV Drama, who scheduled it as a fantasy for adults and older children.

In Adventure One, two children find themselves left alone in an old country house when their parents mysteriously disappear while reciting nursery rhymes. Sapphire and Steel arrive to help, and slowly, with their make-it-up-as-you-go technique, they sort things out and restore the missing parents, with a little help from jovial Lead (Val Pringle).

Deadly Enemy An intelligent blob of white light, excited by nursery rhymes read in the old house.
How To Defeat It Try reciting Ring-a-Ring o' Roses backwards. Or simply trap the light in a stone and ask Lead to crush it.


Joanna Lumley was 33 years old when she landed the role of Sapphire. Already famous as the dexterous Purdy in The New Avengers, she had also made a number of guest appearances in such shows as Are You Being Served?, Steptoe and Son and Coronation Street. Lumley became a household name again in the 90's when she was rescued from obscurity to play the drug-addled Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous.

Lumley's costar in Sapphire and Steel, David McCallum, was born in Glasgow in 1933 and has appeared in hundreds of TV series, including The A-Team, Murder She Wrote and Babylon 5. He is, however, most famous for his role in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The only time the pair got to work together again was in the 90's television game show Cluedo. McCallum played Professor Plum while Lumley took the part of Mrs. Peacock. This time the mysteries were left to the public to solve.

George Tully (Gerald James), a psychic investigator, is 52.9 years old when Sapphire and Steel meet him in an otherwise deserted railway station in Adventure Two (aka 'The Railway Station').

During the screening of the story in the autumn of 1979, a strike took ITV off air for several months. When transmission recommenced, the channel opted to re-show Adventure Two from the beginning. This may account for it being the most well-remembered serial of the run.

Deadly Enemy A shadowy energy force which feeds off the negative energies of the dead.
How To Defeat It Give it all the negative energy it wants in the form of poor old Tully, who will resent dying before his proper time.

Sapphire and Steel saw its share of related merchandise. PJ Hammond's 135-page novelisation of the first adventure was published in 1979 by Star Books. An annual followed for Christmas 1980. The kids' comic Look-In ran an attractive, atmospheric comic strip for almost two years.

Adventure Three (aka 'Animals') is perhaps the most peculiar of them all, and the one that most steadfastly defies explanation. Rothwyn (Catherine Hall) and her husband Eldred (David Gant) are on day 27 of an exploratory study of life they snappily call Experimental Project ES/5/77, having traveled from 1500 years in the future in a sparse apartment.

The laid-back and superbly suave Silver (David Collings) makes his first appearance in this story. Silver is termed a "technician" or a "specialist" whereas our heroes are simply "operators". Sapphire, in oriental pyjamas and comedy wig, gets transported to a farmhouse full of dead people. Silver gets sent back in Time by an overgrown baby wearing in an ill-fitting romper suit. Lucky for Steel, he only has to do battle with an unconvincing toy swan.

Deadly Enemy A life form comprised of aspects of every animal is seeking revenge on cruel vivisectionists from the future.
How To Defeat It Lure the creature back into the wall with a leg of lamb, then send the whole flat back to the future.


The number of minutes into the final episode of Adventure Four (aka 'The Man Without A Face'), when the sound of a crew member's hacking cough can clearly be heard in the background of a scene, while Steel and Sapphire carry on as if nothing's happened.

In this story, our heroes arrive at a bizarre lost-and-found shop. Upstairs is a rooming house, home to a night-club entertainer called Liz. She has never seen her landlord's face because, erm... he doesn't have one! This figure -- straight from the imagination of Renee Magritte -- lurks, somewhere unseen, in every photograph ever taken.

As Liz comes to discover the truth about her landlord, he traps her in a photo which he then tries to burn. Actress Alison Spyro, who played Liz, went on to star as Sarah Sugden in the soap Emmerdale; a character who, spookily was burned to death in a barn.

Deadly Enemy A faceless man with a penchant for old photographs and nineteenth-century children.
How To Defeat It Trap him in a kaleidoscope and place it on board a sinking ship, where it won't be found for 75 years.

It was on the third day of December 1872 that the ship Marie Celeste was found adrift and deserted off the Azores. There was no sign of life on board, it was as if the crew had vanished into thin air. According to the ship's log, the vessel had remained on course for 10 days and traveled some 800 km with no-one at the helm. Sapphire and Steel mention having worked on the Marie Celeste, and that they had to sink it "for it's own good". Steel claims to have left only the replica of the ship behind. The "trigger" for the time troubles was an out-of-date ship's log.

During the screening of Adventure Five (aka 'Doctor McDee Must Die!') in August 1981, Green Door by Shakin' Stevens was No. 1 in the pop charts. This is an odd coincidence, as a green door leading to a mysterious office features heavily in Adventure Five. As Shakey says, "What's that secret they're keeping behind the green door?"

A party is held in a country house on 21 June 1980. Time, however, has different plans, and gradually the party slips back 50 years to 1930, when geneticist George McDee is about to die. If Time can save him, his work will lead to the total destruction of the human race.

In this Agatha Christie pastiche, guests are bumped off one by one as Sapphire and Steel play detective, disguised as the Honourable Miles and Virginia Cavendish. This is the only story not to be written by PJ Hammond, and is the work of Don Houghton and Anthony Read.

Deadly Enemy Time itself, with a little help from the elderly yet still lovesick Emma Mullrine.
How To Defeat It Shoot Dr. McDee and set fire to his laboratory. Simple!


When Sapphire and Steel arrive at a roadside service station trapped permanently at 8.45 in the evening, they find themselves facing their final and most deadly mission.

In Adventure Six (aka 'The Garage' or 'Time Trap'), they are joined again by Silver, but find the only other inhabitants of the service area are a sinister couple from 1948 who are supposedly eloping together. But this is the battle our heroes can't win and, in the end, they find themselves floating through space, trapped for eternity in the cafe. "This place is nowhere and it's forever."

Deadly Enemy Three "Transient Beings" who "answer to a higher authority", disguised as a man from 1948, an old man from 1925 and Johnny Jack, an entertainer from 1957.
How To Defeat It Use a handy travel chess set with mysterious powers. But you've got to open it faster, Steel! Too Late!

Rumour has it that PJ Hammond planned a seventh adventure for Steel and Sapphire, where the pair were rescued from their cafe hell by Silver and continued their work. Sapphire and Steel is fondly remembered, so maybe one day we will see the return of these strange time detectives....

It's now 19 years since the end of Sapphire and Steel. The quality of Lumley's relationship with McCallum has never been clearly established. Some say they were having an affair, while others claim they couldn't stand one another. By chance, they were reunited on the chat show Wogan. Lumley was presenting while Terry Wogan was on holiday, and McCallum was an interviewee. The atmosphere was decidedly frosty. In her 1989 autobiography, Stare Back and Smile, Lumley said: "It was an absorbing show which I was sad to finish. To our dismay, the last episode had us banished in a time lock... We were assured we'd be released in the next series. There never was another series, and our characters are still up there, waiting to break free and continue the fight. It's like a film of someone diving, inched forward frame by frame but never hitting the water. It interferes with your breathing."

S&S with Tully