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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Fairbank’

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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I am old enough to remember when the word ‘prequel’ was new-minted and sounded vaguely exotic and exciting. The first film I heard it applied to was Raiders of the Forbidden City (as the movie in question was then known), which was a bit of a novelty at the time – these days, of course, you can’t move for prequels, parallelquels, preremaquels, preraquels (this is a term specifically applying to prequels to movies starring the beauty queen and pin-up Ms Welch, in case you were wondering), and all sorts of other things. Yet more Disney stellar conflict prequels are in the pipeline, numerous more visits to Harry Potter world are planned, and H.R. Giger’s little baby bursts back onto the screen in a matter of days (will the line stretch on to the crack of doom?).

You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is yet another egregious addition to the trend, filling us in on the early life of one of Shakespeare’s more memorable psychos. But no: this is actually a literary adaptation of another kind, a transplanting of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District to northern England in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Front and centre throughout is Florence Pugh, delivering the kind of tremendous performance that in any sensible world should see her elevated to major stardom pretty sharpish. Pugh plays Katherine, a young woman whom we first meet on her wedding day. We learn nothing about her background or history except that she has effectively been bought as the bride for Alexander (Paul Hilton), the less than impressive son of wealthy landowner Boris Leicester (the magnificently-faced veteran character actor Christopher Fairbank at his most baleful). Katherine doesn’t seem to be initially overly concerned by her lot, but is rather surprised when, on their wedding night, her new husband instructs her to take off her nightdress only to immediately turn out the light and fall asleep.

Finding herself confined to the house and not receiving the attentions she was expecting, Katherine rapidly becomes deeply dissatisfied and actually rather frustrated by her lonely existence in the large and spartan country home of her new family. However, events conspire to see both her husband and father-in-law away on business for an extended period of time, leaving her as the lady of the house. This taste of freedom rather goes to her head, and she promptly starts drinking the wine cellar dry and launches herself into a liaison with one of the hired hands (Cosmo Jarvis) – though initially tentative, this rapidly becomes full-bloodedly enthusiastic.

Eventually, of course, her father-in-law returns and is far from delighted by what he discovers. But it transpires he has severely underestimated the girl he purchased solely to provide the family with an heir – rather than being just a decorative, mousy little thing, Katherine has hidden depths. And it seems there are none she won’t sink to in order to get what she wants…

As you might have gathered, this is obviously a costume drama based on a piece of period literature, but it has none of the cosiness or the delight in its historical trappings that routinely afflicts this type of movie. Lady Macbeth is from the bleaker and darker end of the genre (and that’s possibly putting it a touch gently). At showing I attended the BBFC certification was omitted (an unusual oversight), leading me to wonder exactly what I was in for – having seen it, I now suspect this film is either a very strong 15 or a low 18, and the accompanying disclaimer when it eventually turns up on BBC2 will run along the lines of ‘This film contains scenes of sex, violence, very strong language, and moments which viewers may find upsetting’. Mainstream it probably isn’t – or, to put it another way, it only goes to prove you can get away with no end of blood, horror, frequent nudity, and frantic rumpo provided you’re making something properly cultural.

The film starts off looking like a cross between Wuthering Heights and a fairly typical story about the oppression and repression of desire, and Florence Pugh is appropriately vulnerable, determined, and (dare one say it) sexy in the part. Her warmth and humanity puts you on her side almost at once, and of course she’s instantly sympathetic given the way she is used and abused by her in-laws virtually from the moment of her wedding. The question, of course, is to what extent she deserves to retain that sympathy, as what starts off as a completely understandable search for happiness spirals out of control and Katherine starts to display more sociopathic, and even homicidal qualities. One of the distinguishing things about Pugh’s performance is that she never completely loses your sympathy, even after committing the most appalling crimes. This is ultimately a bleak and very uncomfortable film to watch, given how the story develops – it’s a fair chunk of the way to being a psychological horror movie, and you can easily imagine Pugh leading a Nu-Hammer movie on the evidence here – and not one which offers easy certainties or conclusions to the audience.

Pretty much the only issue I can raise against a film of almost immaculate focus and precision is that… oh, dear, I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here… well, I know we are obliged to discuss the whitewashing of history these days, but it is surely possible to overcompensate in this department, and the decision to make virtually every working class character non-white or of mixed race is actually rather intrusive and a bit distracting. Maybe the film-makers are just trying to make a point about the universality of the story and that race shouldn’t be an issue at all, but given the studied naturalism of most of the film this kind of abstraction doesn’t really work. (Mobs of outraged diversity campaigners with blazing torches please assemble at the usual address.)

I am happy to report that Lady Macbeth, though primarily released as counter-programming to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a couple of weeks ago, is apparently doing really well for itself – by art house movie standards anyway. Nice to see that a very impressive movie can do the business financially, especially one as challenging as this. One to watch out for, I would say, and the same is definitely true for Florence Pugh, too.

 

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