Thursday, 7 November 2013

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 1

 I've picked what is usually considered the odd one out to start writing about Sapphire and Steel, since assignment five was written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read, rather than P. J. Hammond, who wrote the other five assignments. I say usually considered to be different to the others, because while it feels different, I would argue that that is only because it more obviously accesses the obvious cultural reference for the setting for Sapphire and Steel's adventures. There is a recurring theme in the other assignments of Sapphire and Steel finding themselves in a totally enclosed environment: the action of each of the assignments takes place in a setting wholly delineated right at the beginning, whether a petrol station, railway station, etc. What is made explicit in this assignment against the others is its similarity to classic detective stories, specifically Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In that story ten people who have supposedly committed crimes are invited to s desert islend and killed one by one by a judge who believes that they have evaded justice.
What does feel different is that more emphasis is placed in this assignment on setting the background to Sapphire and Steel's investigation, and on setting the period detail for the adventure. Some reviewers go so far as to feel that the rest of the story almost trumps Sapphire and Steel's role, so that they are almost onlookers to the story. I would disagree with that: I feel it is important to see this story through Sapphire and Steel's eyes and understand their take. It is as if the writers want to distract the viewer with the relative richness of the scene setting from Sapphire and Steel's mission, to discover where a time disturbance has occurred. In fact this distraction is almost exactly the same sort of trick that Time itself plays on people in the series!
For this reason I will avoid giving a lengthy synopsis of the plot and try to focus on the Sapphire and Steel's investigation of the time disturbance, which is not to say I am ignoring the fact that merely making as much effort as Lord Mulreen is making to turn the clock back to 1930 for a weekend, is almost inviting Time to step in! In fact the time theme is apparent right from the first comment, with Emma Mullrine commenting that it is a little 'late' to send roses. There is another interesting time anomaly inserted for us by the mere fact of watching this episode thirty years after it was first broadcast: how very dated Lord Mulreen's office looks. The backwards-looking decor of his house is more classical and so does not actually look as dated as the up-to-date for the 1980s decor and equipment of his office. Of course this would have been read differently by viewers at the time: they would have read it as intended: an attempted flight from the present back fifty years to 1930.
Steel (less so Sapphire) would be relatively uninterested in the human relationships and emotions delineated in the first part of the programme. I personally refuse to let Time distract me by the suggestion that Mulreen is having an affair with his secretary, and am more interested in her comment, when he leaves behind the ultrasonic device that opens the door between the office and the house, that he couldn't get back there if he tried. That delineates the point at which the 1980s are left and the time rift opens to take the characters back to 1930. Perhaps one thing which is different in this assignment from the others is the extent to which the characters talk about time: it is as if they either have a limited awareness of what is happening, or else they have such an obsession of time to start with that it invites Time's intervention.
The real Sapphire and Steel story starts with their unusually late entry timed at 12 minutes, when we first hear Steel speak. It is perhaps a little obvious for Mulreen to assume that he is that chap who deals in 'futures', and for Emma Mulreen to ask whether he would mean all our futures. This also does not chime well in this episode with the role that Sapphire and Steel normally take, of entities knowledgeable about time against a background of humans who do not know what is going on. So it is true to say that the roles of Sapphire and Steel contrasted to everyone else are slightly different in this assignment from how they are in the other assignments.
The 'human interest' of this story obviously appeals to Sapphire's character, while merely irritating Steel. When she asks, with obvious relish, which side of the bed he'd prefer, he replies by asking for confirmation that there is no other way to do this one. The entire contents of the house now dates from before 1930. Steel wonders whether the other characters realise that, touching on the role their understanding has in this assignment. Meanwhile the other characters' conversation makes the increasing disturbance of time evident by their varying understanding of what is happening, and even what year it is.
Sapphire and Steel's working hypothesis is that Time has taken over one or more victims among the characters. It is interesting that they magically change into evening dress, yet also manage to remain aloof of being dragged into the time confusion of the other characters. The viewer is invited to become time confused by the 1930s-style music which starts as Sapphire and Steel go down the stairs to join the others, different from the other music playing before. Sapphire and Steel continue to communicate with each other about what is happening, making it evident that this case really is more Sapphire's kettle of fish that Steel's. He is uninterested in the social conventions of the time, having to have them explained to him by Sapphire, even forgetting the name he has chosen for his role, while wanting to focus narrowly on their assignment.
It is only on Sapphire and Steel's entry into the drawing room that the characters are formally introduced both to them and to us. They suspect that Annabelle Harborough could be 'the one' because of her temperature loss, which interestingly is also picked up on by the other characters. Of course Sapphire and Steel pick up on the entrance to the office as being a major problem in the time problem. The episode ends with Sapphire passing 'psychically' through the door, making a noise indicative of shock, and Steel anxiously calling her back.
I feel a major criticism of this episode is one of casting: Davy Kaye, who plays Lord Mulreen is far too young for the role, born in 1916, while Patience Collier, who plays Emma Mulreen, was born in 1910 but in this role looks much older than him, much more convincing when she talks about memories of fifty years before. For me this makes him lack conviction as the major character in this episode. I don't personally dislike the relatively slow build up to the entry of Sapphire and Steel, because it allows the groundwork to be set for the time anomaly to be explained, although trying to see this episode through Sapphire and Steel's eyes, it would either be a source of human fascination, or a source of useless filling.
I feel the Christie milieu is a very interesting development of the previous Sapphire and Steel assignments, in a sense it is the obvious milieu for that development, since it draws parallels with the detective story. The specific theme of Christie's story - evading justice and the need or right to impose justice - is explored more fully in succeeding episodes.

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