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Posts Tagged ‘Don Houghton’

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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