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The final three episodes of Sapphire and Steel were the only ones I watched on their original transmission (I only came across the second episode of this final four-parter by chance – we weren’t a TV Times household) and I think it is a testament to the striking originality of this series that elements and images from them have remained with me ever since. I was already aware of the programme, mainly from – I think – a Look-In annual with a heroically inaccurate guide to the series and its main characters – I kept waiting for Steel to use his power to turn his enemies into metal (this completely untrue factoid may have resulted from a misreading by the annual writer of the Sapphire and Steel comic strip, in which Lead demonstrates the bizarre ability to turn people into metal toy soldiers). Watching again now, they are amongst the most atmospheric of the series, and also the most cryptic: so not at all unrepresentative of the series at its best.

The setting appears to be a motorway service station somewhere in England in the early 1980s (the programme makers have learned their lesson and don’t specify an exact year). The reason for the presence of Sapphire and Steel (and Silver, rather unusually) is that the whole place seems to be stuck in a moment it can’t get out of: the same few seconds at 8:54 in the evening repeat themselves endlessly. It certainly looks like the kind of time anomaly they usually concern themselves with, and there is a further mystery – a couple (Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby), claiming to be from 1948, have arrived by Rolls Royce. They seem strangely unconcerned about having inexplicably slipped forward by three decades, and are uncooperative and hostile towards the operators, refusing to give their names or any other details about themselves.

The mystery intensifies: time starts to jerk forward, ten and twenty minutes at a time. They encounter an older man (John Boswall), who says it is 1925, and a younger one (Chris Fairbank), who believes himself to be in 1957. None of it seems to make any rational sense, even to Sapphire and Steel. Other strange details take on an unexpected significance in the circumstances – why was Silver sent here six hours before them, when specialists like him are normally only assigned after a request from ‘regular’ agents? Why was their ‘briefing’ on this situation so vague and general? The suspicion dawns that nothing here is what it seems, and no-one can be trusted…

None of the participants seem to be able to agree on whether or not this was intended from the start to be the end of the series, or indeed why the series concluded: ITV franchise politics may have been a factor, along with the issue of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley’s availability. There is also a suggestion that P.J. Hammond was tired of doing the programme, but this jibes somewhat with his recollection that he originally wrote a method of escape for the characters into the final episode, only for it to be removed at the request of McCallum (it involved Silver, and McCallum felt the final scene should focus on the two title characters only).

The big twist of this story is that, as the fanon title ‘The Trap’ suggests, the whole situation has been contrived to target Sapphire and Steel (and, possibly, Silver) for death and destruction (Sapphire uses the two words interchangeably, which is curious and perhaps indicative): this is why it is so bizarre and inexplicable. Of course, the problem with this from a writing point of view is that every situation in Sapphire and Steel seems bizarre and inexplicable, so how do you communicate the special nature of this one to the audience? Wisely, Hammond chooses to do so through the main characters’ reactions: Sapphire and Steel start to smell a rat as early as the second episode, and their increasing unease and concern at what’s happening around them communicates very well to the viewer.

If this was intended to be the final story, you would expect it to be the point at which some of the mysteries of the series were explained: but of course they’re not. Quite the opposite, in fact: the creatures working against the operatives are transient beings, supposedly trapped in the past normally, who seem to be more powerful than them (one of the transients overpowers Steel very easily, no mean feat considering some of the stunts he has pulled off elsewhere in the series). The transients are apparently ‘agents of a higher authority’ which Sapphire and Steel have antagonised by refusing to work for it. While they have been marked for destruction, Silver apparently still has a chance of survival.

The questions inevitably pile up. If Sapphire and Steel are the guardians, or possibly regulators of Time, then they are surely connected with the great cosmic principles of the universe – what ‘higher authority’ can there be? (Especially one which seems to be rather malevolent.) The implication is that the operatives have an existence separate from their roles when assigned – that this is, in some way, just a job for them. It also seems rather peculiar, given the vast cosmic forces apparently involved, that the transients are so dependent on the time box they have been equipped with (then again it is, almost literally, a plot device).

It’s a different kind of story, particularly in the final episode, but this doesn’t mean it’s any more conventional than usual. It still works, of course, partly due to the performances (the leads are as good as usual, while Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby are impressive as the main guest stars), and partly because the director understands pacing and the power of a good image: the moment at the end of the third episode, where the transient beings drop their human guises and reveal themselves to be hostile analogues to the operatives, is one of the most effective in the series (there’s something very British about the agents of higher cosmic authority appearing in the form of men in grey suits).

As we approach the end of the very tense final episode, it almost looks as if Sapphire and Steel have managed to dodge the trap their enemy has prepared for them – but, of course, there is one last twist to come. The end of the series comes abruptly, almost anticlimactically, and the final fate of the operatives is all the more downbeat for coming so abruptly and inexplicably. The ending of Blake’s 7 almost seems cheery by comparison: death is one thing, but eternity trapped in some surreal cosmic oubliette is surely much, much worse. No wonder it stuck with me so clearly. Perhaps not the ending one would have hoped for, but one which feels entirely appropriate for this series – after all, if Sapphire and Steel had been interested in routinely offering explanations, it would not have been the distinctive and memorable series that it remains.

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It is a peculiarly topical thing to say, writing as I am during the Great Pandemic Lockdown of 2020 (younger readers, ask your parents): anything can become normal over time, no matter how strange it may feel at first glance. But true, nevertheless – there is something surpassingly peculiar about Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Five, and this is how conventional this particular serial is compared to the rest of the series.

The reason for this is fairly obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention during the title sequence: creator P.J. Hammond was apparently too busy to write this run of episodes (and may have been feeling a bit burned out), which is why it is the work of other writers, namely Anthony Read and Don Houghton. Now, I should say that I’ve nothing against either of these guys at all – in addition to both contributing good stuff to a prominent BBC fantasy series on which I do not comment, Houghton wrote some enjoyable scripts for late-period Hammer movies, and Read was responsible for the TV adaptation of Chocky (apparently the first John Wyndham adaptation which the writer’s family actually enjoyed). But it’s almost instantly apparent that their take on Sapphire and Steel is wildly different from Hammond’s.

We are in the country mansion of wealthy and successful businessman Lord Mulrine (Davy Kaye), in the summer of 1980 (oddball scheduling meant the story was actually transmitted in August 1981). Mulrine is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of his company and has invited various colleagues, friends, and family members for what’s effectively a murder mystery costume party sans the murder mystery: everyone has been given strict instructions to come in period-correct dress for 1930. Soon they begin to gather (in what may strike regular viewers as surprisingly large numbers), and as they do so come the first signs of something strange occurring – a radio seems to be picking up actual transmissions from the thirties, while the door which currently leads to Mulrine’s office is intermittently replaced by that to the laboratory of his colleague George McDee (Stephen Howard), who died almost fifty years ago to the day (the office occupies the same space that the lab used to).

Just as well that amongst the guests are Sapphire and Steel – who are, in another departure from the norm, working undercover, as a couple named Miles and Virginia Cavendish (Steel says his business is ‘futures’, which is true enough). For some reason they arrive in their regular outfits and go upstairs to pretend to change (Steel apparently has the same kind of shape-shifting powers as Sapphire, using them to grow an instant moustache). The period-perfect party is at grave risk of causing the kind of time break they are usually sent in to deal with, but it seems that something even more serious is in progress: the two time periods (1930 and 1980) seem to be merging, with the supposedly dead McDee turning up for the party, and some of the others not seeming particularly shocked by this…

You do get a sense that Read and Houghton may have seen the odd episode, or perhaps read some kind of a series bible, but haven’t actually sat down with P.J. Hammond so he could explain the premise and style of the series to them in depth. The premise of the story is quite different, for one thing – rather than the time break being the problem the operators are here to fix, it appears that it is being used as a means to an end by some other malevolent force. The power in question is seeking to change history and cause a catastrophe on an incomprehensible scale, and towards the end of the story it is suggested that this power is Time itself. Now, there are passing references in the first story to ‘Time breaking in’, suggesting a sort of hostility, but fairly soon these are replaced by the idea that Sapphire and Steel’s job is basically to protect the structure of Time. You could possibly find a way of resolving these two conflicting views – is Time their enemy or their ward? – but the series doesn’t do so.

The new writers also offer some hints as to who and what the operators are, although the bulk of this scene takes place off-camera. Felix (Jeffry Wickham), who becomes their ally in this story, sums this up by saying they are ‘an inter-planetary police force, sent down here to keep order’ (this seems so at odds with what we see elsewhere that one has to conclude Felix is being lied to) and also that they are aliens ‘in the extra-terrestrial sense’ (this does feel a bit like the kind scene you often find in that other show to which I alluded at around this time).

This story’s other big innovation is that Sapphire and Steel, finding themselves in need of back-up, opt to essentially deputise one of the locals, giving him the codename Brass and bestowing their telepathy on him. Once again, it is an interesting and suggestive notion rather than saying anything definitive about the format; this story is also much more about human interaction than the others, which explains why they need an ‘inside man’.

As noted, this story does feature as many guest characters as all the previous ones combined, and rather than taking place in a lonely cottage, a disused railway station, or somewhere else remote, it’s in a country house full of people. I’ve discussed possible influences on the other stories before, but this story seems (yet again) to be doing something different – it’s mainly a steal from the traditional country house murder mystery genre made famous by Agatha Christie and others, although this ultimately proves to be a subversion of the form.

Whatever else you think about it, it certainly doesn’t drag or feature obvious filler in the way that many of the other stories do. I believe I read somewhere that Read and Houghton didn’t write together, and indeed structured their process as a kind of game, usually writing alternate episodes and building up to a cliffhanger which the other man would have to find a way to resolve. One presumes there was some sort of polishing up process following this, for the finished story is solid and interesting, if not as arrestingly peculiar as the Hammond-written episodes. As a Sapphire and Steel story this is definitely an outlier, but as such it is only odd in the way that it is not nearly as strange as the rest of the series.

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More than any other story in the series, Assignment Four of Sapphire and Steel seems to have burned its way into the minds of those who saw it at an impressionable age back in 1981. Even the most casual piece looking back at the series almost always refers to the one with the photographs and the man with no face. It’s easy to see why: with this story you do get a sense of a show hitting its stride and learning how to make the best use of its advantages.

This is another studio-bound production, set in a junk shop, the yard behind it, and a small block of flats above. Children are playing, but there is something curiously Edwardian about them – almost literally so. They disappear when Sapphire and Steel arrive, having been sent to investigate… well, some kind of time disruption, their information is limited on this occasion. Steel sourly assesses the junk shop, stuffed with old things, as ‘a room full of triggers’, recalling Assignment One’s idea of things from the past being weak points where things from outside time can break through into the present. Is that what’s happened here? Someone or something briefly manages to trap the two investigators – they refer to themselves as ‘operators’ here for the first time – inside photographs, which suggests a malign power is at work.

They meet a young woman lodging in the building, Liz (Alyson Spiro), who does not seem very impressed by them, despite another casual display of their strange powers (in this story they seem able to manipulate simple mechanisms and devices by a form of telekinesis – perhaps they acquired this from Silver, as there’s also a suggestion that in a crisis they can mimic the powers of their colleagues). Liz reveals the old landlord of the building was fascinated by old photographs – but she hasn’t seen him, or her fellow lodger, for ages. There is a new landlord now – but she can’t for the life of her recall what he looks like…

Soon enough the new landlord returns. The creepy children inform him of Sapphire and Steel’s presence, and he is neither impressed or intimated. At least, if he is, he doesn’t show it, not having an actual face…

As mentioned, there’s a callback to Assignment One here, but also to Assignment Two in the way the antagonist recruits shades or echoes of people from the past – not their actual ghosts on this occasion, but the images they leave behind in old photographs. This itself is a rather creepy idea, before we even come to the idea behind the Shape – a being that has somehow become inextricably linked with the whole concept of photography, capable of travelling through or manipulating every photograph ever taken. Of course, if the Shape has a wider agenda beyond simply causing chaos it is never made clear (one wonders just where he has been when he returns at the end of the first episode). Up until now, Sapphire and Steel’s opponents have always been rather abstract, but giving them an enemy who can interact with them (even break in on their telepathy) works rather well.

Another significant plus for this story is that it is one of the shorter ones, meaning that there is less of the obvious padding that has been there to fill out the previous stories. Four episodes (or about an hour and a half) really seems to be the optimum length for this kind of story, for all that longer outings may be less of a strain on the budget. I’ve seen comments that the conclusion of this episode feels rather abrupt – well, perhaps in some ways it is, but you can see why they cut it short before having to show Sapphire and Steel teleporting off to the other side of the world. Maybe the method used to neutralise the Shape is a little contrived, but given the vastly powerful nature of the character this was probably inevitable. At least the story’s end includes Sapphire and Steel’s chilling advice to Liz – to find every photo of herself ever taken and burn them all, and never appear in another. One wonders how she would cope with today’s camera-obsessed world…

Given how indifferent Steel in particular has been to human lives in previous stories, it is a little surprising to find the agents quite so concerned with the wellbeing of the Shape’s victims – both seem genuinely concerned and even outraged when he sets fire to a photo in which he has trapped two people, burning them to death. It is another surprisingly chilling moment, and again one wonders whether you could show something like this in prime time nowadays. Probably not.

In the past I have mentioned a couple of times the influence Sapphire and Steel had on a Call of Cthulhu scenario I wrote before even seeing the episodes concerned. I know that one of my players is familiar with the series, but otherwise I would certainly be looking to recycle bits of this story as a game scenario as well – it has a strong theme, an interesting gimmick, and a creepy villain. I’m not sure I would strictly call it Lovecraftian, though – the story’s references to different forms of art (as well as photography, the initial arrival of the Shape surely alludes to Magritte – if you google for ‘Magritte faceless man’, a still from this story appears!) and other imagery suggest to me no more and no less than the presence of Hastur, that most enigmatic member of the Mythos pantheon (though we are admittedly quite a long way from Robert W Chambers at this point). The situation in the story probably needs some modification, if only to prevent the Shape from TPKing the players, but this shouldn’t be too tricky to achieve.

Assignment Four is perhaps the most conventional story so far in Sapphire and Steel – it doesn’t have the longeurs of the first two, or the sheer weird angular strangeness of the third – but it manages to maintain the strengths of the series without losing the peculiar atmosphere which makes it so distinctive. It’s hard not to conclude this is the high point of the series.

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Stranger things may have appeared as primetime entertainment on a commercial British channel than Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Three, but I can’t imagine what they were. The first couple of stories bear a kind of familial resemblance to the classic English ghost story – Assignment Two in particular has all kinds of half-echoes of things like M.R. James, Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man and even a touch of Nigel Kneale. Assignment Three is very different – if it owes a debt to anything at all, it’s new wave British SF (maybe J.G. Ballard or Christopher Priest), but it’s a very tangential connection at best.

The setting is urban, modern, austere: an apartment in a tower block in a British city, in the year 1980 (the year before the story was actually broadcast). The inhabitants are a couple, she rather younger than he; they have a very young child. Almost at once it becomes clear that things are not quite as conventional as they appear – the couple are really time-travellers from the 35th century engaged upon a study of life in the late twentieth century.

Soon enough, Sapphire and Steel appear – materialise? manifest? – in the building. In this story their agenda is made quite explicit: the well-being of individual people is only a secondary concern, their priority is to protect the structure of Time. As you might expect, they have no fondness for time-travellers, but the situation here is more complicated than simply dealing with the intruding researchers. Some other force is operating, one that is hostile to the intruders and might conceivably cause greater damage to the timelines.

Steel’s rather dour fall-back position is to prepare to blow up the entire block, killing over sixty people, but Sapphire is reluctant to pursue this course. A methodical search of the block reveals no sign of the time-travellers, until they visit the roof – the time-travellers are living in a perfect replica of a contemporary flat, invisible, completely sealed off from the outside. It’s so comprehensively isolated that not even Sapphire and Steel’s powers can effect an entrance to it.  (There is something undeniably odd about the fact that the observers are apparently mimicking the forms of twentieth century life but remain perfectly cut off from it. But we are still only on the outermost lip of the rabbit hole.)

Needless to say, odd things are beginning to happen within the time-travellers’ capsule. They have lost contact with their superiors in the future, and also with two other research units in other parts of the country. When the woman, Rothwyn (Catherine Hall), goes through the motions of preparing a meal, she is besieged by visions of animals in an abattoir and the sound of their frightened cries. Small loose objects begin to move spontaneously within the apartment. The climax of the first episode comes when a pillow takes flight, turns into an angry swan, and hurls itself at Steel, who is precariously clinging on to the exterior of the unit.

Well, it’s an undeniably arresting opening episode, establishing the odd, alienated tone of the thing. To be honest, for all that this is clearly being made on a slightly higher budget than the earlier stories (it’s a bit of a shock to see Sapphire and Steel on film, when they venture onto the roof), it still comes perilously close to being unintentionally funny when the soft furnishings turn hostile.

This is another six episode story, and – as is practically standard in the series at this point – the pace of the thing is somewhat languid, to say the least. All the stuff established in the opening episode does get picked up on and resolved by the finish, but it goes off down some very circuitous pathways before this happens: one might even call it padding, but it’s some of the most surreal and diverting padding ever incorporated into mainstream entertainment.

Most of this concerns the peculiar fate of the time-travellers’ child, who is transformed into an adult (a genuinely eerie performance from Russell Wootton) who has time-manipulation powers (the touch of one hand sends objects into the future, that of the other reverts objects to their primal state – so glass becomes sand, and so on). Sapphire, meanwhile, is transported against her will to one of the other research units, where she makes some grim discoveries.

Turning up to help Steel out in Sapphire’s absence is Silver (David Collings), another of the elemental creatures. It seems to be generally accepted amongst fans of this series that Sapphire and Steel are ‘Operatives’ and Silver is a ‘Technician’, suggesting some formal difference in their status, but this is no more than implied on screen: Silver has his speciality (machinery and mechanisms), but then so do the others (Sapphire’s seems to be information gathering, while Steel’s is resolving problems, usually taking a direct approach – in this episode, he ties knots in elevator cables with his bare hands to isolate the roof).

Introducing Silver is really the story’s most successful innovation, as the three-way dynamic between him and the others is very engaging (David Collings’ performance is of the sort which makes you wonder why he remained a fairly unknown character actor throughout his career). Silver clearly winds Steel up very, very badly – where Steel is dour and serious, Silver is much more of a dandy, and one with a very high opinion of his abilities. Could there be something going on between him and Sapphire? There is certainly a whiff of tension there, and also the suggestion that the elementals are more human than they sometimes appear – there is talk of Silver’s childhood, while Sapphire seems genuinely frightened and even bleeds at different points in the story.

Even so, there does seem to be something very off about the pacing of this story: an episode or two of diversion, before a return to the main plot – but in Assignment Three things get largely put on hold towards the end of episode two and the plot only really picks up again in the final episode – the elementals and the time-travellers only meet face-to-face towards the end of episode five. The concluding episode inevitably feels very rushed as a result. The overall sense and message of the thing is clear – the story is, perhaps, a very oblique piece of agitprop about animal rights, with the biomechanical systems of the time capsule spurred into revolt by the journey into the past – but exactly how things resolve is left open – is there any significance to the fact that supposedly sealed capsule apparently had a mouse in it?

There’s a lot of interesting and often impressive stuff in this story, which shows that Sapphire and Steel can function as a more obvious piece of SF. But it is slow and baggy; often it’s only the sheer arresting weirdness of it which makes it work. It’s always very strong on the what-will-happen-next? factor, not least because it soon becomes clear that the answer is usually ‘anything the budget can afford’ (this is less impressive than it sounds). Nevertheless, as weird-and-distinctive pieces of TV from the past go, this is as striking as they come.

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I make no apologies for preferring the fantasy and SF series of years gone by over contemporary series – I say this like I actually watch a lot of modern shows, which isn’t really the case. I’m watching and enjoying Picard, up to a point at least – it more closely resembles my idea of Star Trek than Discovery does, though that’s hardly saying anything – and I must confess that I did enjoy watching the first season of Supergirl when I was briefly out of the country a while ago (it’s not on UK Netflix and I can’t be bothered with trying to keep up with the showings on Pick). Of course, the problem with limiting yourself to the past is that you inevitably run out of new things to watch – although perhaps not as quickly as you might expect. It looks like being 38 years between my first seeing an episode of Sapphire and Steel and finally catching up with the complete run.

The only episodes I saw on their original transmission were the very last ones, although I was always vaguely aware of it from the spin-off comic strip and other things. I went to a fan group meeting in 1988 supposedly devoted to the most famous of all British fantasy TV series, and one of the most memorable parts of the afternoon was a showing of the first episode of the show. At university I did eventually see the whole of that first story. In between times I absorbed synopses of the stories and other articles about the series: I wrote an RPG scenario based just on that first episode; last year I wrote another one, based mainly on a story which I had not even seen.

Given it has clearly exerted quite a hold on me, I wonder why it has taken me so long to finally sit down and watch the programme properly. I don’t know: possibly the concern that it may not live up to expectations, also the fact that this is really it – with Sapphire and Steel out of the way, I have pretty much seen (and in many cases own) all the famous British SF and fantasy shows from the 1970s and early 80s (not that anyone was really initiating new genre TV shows at that point; most of the few that did get made were hardly great successes). But one can’t put these things off forever.

So – Sapphire and Steel Assignment One, from July 1979. The story is set almost entirely in an remote old house in the countryside (the series is clearly being made on the tiniest of budgets), where a young boy named Rob (Steven O’Shea) is doing his homework in a kitchen full of clocks. Upstairs, his parents are reading nursery rhymes to his younger sister Helen (Tamasin Bridge). She insists on one rhyme after another… until suddenly the clocks stop, and his parents’ voices are gone. Not just their voices: they have vanished into thin air, leaving his sister frightened and confused.

So far everything has been intimate, domestic, understated and eerie; but the titles now roll and they are expansive (almost to the point of being cosmic) and bombastic. Weird, abstract vistas unfold as threatening music plays; a stentorian voice-over (a young David Suchet, who has since forgotten ever doing it) declaims about ‘the forces controlling each dimension’ and how ‘transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life’ – finally, that ‘Sapphire and Steel have been assigned’.

Then we are back in the house. Rob, quite sensibly, has called the police, but impossibly quickly there is a knocking at the door. It is a man in a grey suit (David McCallum), and a woman in a blue dress (Joanna Lumley): they are Steel and Sapphire, and they have come to help. Quite what form this help is to take, and indeed what the actual problem is, never becomes what you might call concretely defined: the really distinctive thing about Sapphire and Steel is its total refusal to provide the viewer with information about what is actually going on. You are left to work it out for yourself; the episodes themselves are routinely vague and – in the case of this story at least – appear to sometimes contradict themselves.

What seems to be going on is this – the age of the house, all the old clocks, and Rob’s sister’s love of old rhymes seem to have combined to make it so the room at the top of the building has more of a presence in the past than the present day. This has put such a strain on the fabric of Time that a rupture of some sort has occurred, allowing something from outside reality as we know it to penetrate the house, abducting Rob and Helen’s parents and threatening to encroach further into their home. The entity appears to only manifest in conjunction with old rhymes and pictures, though it seems to have a particular affinity for the seventeenth century.

As far as Sapphire and Steel go – well, it is certainly implied they are elemental beings of some kind (even though neither sapphire nor steel are elements, obviously). Steel seems to be the one in charge and the one responsible for getting things done; he has very poor social skills. His main ability seems to be that he can reduce his body temperature to absolute zero, which apparently gives him the power to freeze manifestations of the encroaching force (there is an odd elision between freezing things in the conventional way and freezing time itself going on here). Initially Steel seems to need to dismantle a chest freezer in order to do his schtick, which is a very off-beat touch.

Sapphire seems to be in charge of diplomacy and fact-finding; she can manipulate the flow of time to some extent, and also seems able to change her appearance at will (adding to the likelihood that the human demeanour of the two operatives is entirely illusory). She is sensitive in all sorts of ways that Steel is not, both when it comes to dealing with people and with other more abstract phenomena.

There is quite big, broad, ambitious world-building going on here, in a cryptic way: Steel off-handedly refers to his role in sinking the ‘real Mary Celeste‘, and halfway through the story the duo receive backup from one of their colleagues – the jovial giant Lead (Val Pringle) arrives, who in addition to being a genuine element also possesses superhuman strength, insulating powers, and a fine singing voice.

To be honest, Lead doesn’t actually do much beyond pepping up a story which markedly starts to flag in the middle section – the opening two episodes, setting up the premise, are brilliant, genuinely creepy and disturbing stuff. But there’s not really enough there to sustain the narrative over two-and-a-half-hours, and so by the time of the third and fourth episodes there’s a definite sense of the writer (P.J. Hammond) casting about to find new things to do with it – Sapphire gets stuck inside a picture, Lead turns up, and so on. Things pick up again as episode five starts to build towards the climax, and one again has to wonder at the fact that this was considered children’s programming, even in 1979 – Rob encounters a malevolent replica of his father, who needless to say has unpleasant intentions for him, although of course exactly what fate awaits the lad remains unclear.

The actual climax and resolution are surprisingly satisfying and even border on the intelligible: the force which has entered the house is lured down into the cellar – it is compelled to manifest when old rhymes are spoken, apparently – and forced into the oldest part of the building, a foundation stone, from which it cannot escape. Steel and Lead between them destroy the stone in the seventeenth century, resolving everything and apparently resetting events back at the point at which the whole weird chain of events began (I did say this was weird and abstract).

The story may sag in the middle, but it is always watchable, and not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen on TV: the programme is understated, thoughtful, relies on dialogue for most of its story-telling, and through the juxtaposition of the domestic setting and some vaultingly ambitious ideas it achieves a sense of scale and contrast, a breaking-down of conceptual barriers, that is the hallmark of genuinely interesting science-fiction. But it’s quite hard to pin this series down, on the strength of the first story at least – is it for adults or children? Is it intended as horror, science fiction or fantasy? The questions keep coming, vastly outnumbering answers of any kind. The one definite certainty is that this is an intriguing debut for a new series, promising a lot of potential for future stories.

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If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varies hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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You have to admire the nerve shown by the producers of Mystery and Imagination in doing adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula in the same year, especially when the year in question was 1968. If that wasn’t quite the point of peak Hammer Horror, it was certainly thereabouts: the company released Dracula Has Risen From the Grave that year, while it was also the off-year between Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Beyond the marquee value of the names of these two most well-known Gothic novels, one wonders if there was any further motivation for doing them – some puritanical impulse to strip them of their Hammer trappings and restore them to their place as Classic Literature, perhaps?

There have been a fearful number of Frankensteins and a dreadful number of Draculas down the years, so the same question applies to the Mystery version of Dracula as to their Frankenstein – how to justify it? What makes it a worthwhile addition to the canon? Doing it as a largely studio-bound, black-and-white video-taped production also brings with it a set of additional challenges. Perhaps because of this, this hardly qualifies as an attempt at doing the novel faithfully – but there is a certain fidelity to Stoker, as we shall see.

The play (directed by Patrick Dromgoole) opens in an asylum somewhere in the Whitby area, where a mysterious inmate (the actor Corin Redgrave in a fright wig) is pleading for water from the attendants. But this is just a ruse, and the madman breaks free from his straitjacket and crashes a party being held upstairs by the proprietor, Dr Seward (James Maxwell). Present are local grande dame Mrs Weston (Joan Hickson) and her strikingly nubile daughter Lucy (Susan George). Less nubile and more noble is another guest, an exiled Eastern European aristocrat who has recently arrived in the area – Count Dracula!

Dracula is played by Denholm Elliott, who would normally seem to be cast against type, were it not that Dracula here is to some extent written against type. Eloquent, bearded, and occasionally wearing dark glasses, such is Elliott’s charisma that his sway over weaker-willed locals seems entirely understandable. The madman is packed off to his cell and Dracula continues to charm his hosts, especially Lucy. Seward remains somewhat sceptical about this new figure on the local scene.

However, the mystery of the lunatic deepens with the appearance of Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve), whose husband Jonathan has disappeared while on a business trip to Transylvania to visit Castle Dracula. Seward has called in his old mentor Doctor Van Helsing (Bernard Archard) to consult, and it transpires that the madman in the asylum is indeed Harker, left unhinged by his experiences abroad (there is a brief, filmed flashback to the goings-on at the castle, and very evocative it is too). But why does Harker call Dracula ‘Master’? Why does Dracula profess not to know who the inmate is? And could it all have anything to do with Lucy suddenly coming down with a bad case of anaemia?

As you can perhaps surmise, Charles Graham’s adaptation performs brisk, reasonable surgery on the sprawling source novel, limiting the setting almost entirely to Whitby and the time period to a few nights. (You do miss the London scenes a bit, to say nothing of Transylvania, but the budget is clearly demandingly limited.) The roles of Renfield and Harker are combined, which makes a certain sense as Harker rarely gets anything interesting to do, while Quincey and Arthur are dropped from the story entirely; I have to confess I didn’t miss them at all.

So it’s a cut-down Dracula but still a surprisingly effective one. What we are left with is a potent brew of graveyards, sex, and outraged Victorian sensibilities, so you could certainly argue that the essentials of the story have certainly survived. This could never have been as lavishly lurid as one of the Christopher Lee movies Hammer were doing at the time, but then for all their definite pleasures those films are so often a kind of schlock pantomime. Bereft of eye-catching production values, this version of Dracula is obliged to dig down into the text and actually engage with it in order to work.

But does it succeed? It is certainly a strikingly different version of this much-told fable. Elliott is certainly a very distinctive Dracula, employing his legendary scene-stealing abilities to full effect. You can imagine Christopher Lee grinding his fake teeth in fury as Dracula is actually given dialogue drawn from Stoker’s novel to deliver, which Elliott does with predictable aplomb. Whether the decision to give him rat-like incisor teeth rather than the traditional canine fangs is justified is probably a question of personal taste; the way that Dracula summons up his mesmeric powers by basically just screwing up his eyes and squinting at people is the only real element of Elliott’s performance which definitely feels a bit dud.

You would expect him to have a formidable opponent in the form of Bernard Archard: an actor capable of being mesmeric himself, given the right script and direction. Here, though, Van Helsing’s fake beard is the least of his problems. Rather than the smooth, unflappable savant that Peter Cushing invariably played, Archard’s Van Helsing is a bit rough around the edges and eminently flappable. The play decides to stick with Van Helsing being Dutch, but the good doctor’s battle against the undead is nothing compared to Archard’s struggle to get the accent right. We end up with another one of those vocal Grand Tours: Van Helsing may start off coming from Amsterdam, but at various points in the play he seems to be a native of Pontypool before finally settling on being from somewhere near Karachi. But on the whole Archard is quite acceptable despite this.

The play is mostly well-performed, anyway, especially by Susan George and Suzanne Neve. It is they in particular who make you realise just how bland and inappropriately bloodless most of the sex in the Hammer Dracula movies feels: the women tend to do a lot of limp sighing before quietly yielding to Christopher Lee. Here, there is a genuine erotic charge to the scenes between Dracula and his victims: in this sense at least, the play is a lot more explicit about the nature of the metaphor, for all that it contains no nudity and relatively little gore. The women are given real agency, too: Lucy is clearly dead keen on having a fling with their new neighbour, while Mina likewise seems almost to be an active participant, consciously choosing to become undead.

It all builds up to a final semi-twist in the tale – I say semi-twist because it is so understated, or perhaps just slightly fluffed by the script and direction, that it’s not entirely clear whether this is an intentional thing or not. It’s certainly not enough to spoil one of the better adaptations of Dracula that I have seen. Most attempts just take the premise and ditch as much of the plot as they feel they can get away with, but this one does seem to be making a genuine effort. It keeps enough of the traditional trappings to be recognisable and familiar, but isn’t afraid to try new and different things – even when being new and different means going back to the original book. A worthwhile piece of vampirology.

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