Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 2 Episode 1

I like to say that the repeats of The Avengers on Channel 4 in the eighties started my interest for sixties TV, & it's true. But this is the Sapphire & Steel assignment that started my interest in cult TV, & quite probably my interest in all sorts of weird things.
As a child I was both terrified & fascinated by this assignment. I'd already got an interest in ghosts from somewhere & the 'scientific' methods Tully used in this fascinated me. How atmospheric can you make the beginning of a TV programme? There's simply everything here, the railway station itself, the wind-swept platform, the fact that it's twilight if not dark. The fact that Tully approaches from the platform implies that he's there without the owner's permission. In fact I've just realised that this assignment begins with classic magical omniscience: there is no attempt made to delineate why Tully is at the station or what its reputation is among the ghost hunting mob. He just arrives. Of course from Sapphire & Steel's point of view that's probably something to do with Time drawing him in at that moment.
Of course what he gets isn't a ghost at all (at first), it's Steel. I love his joke about being from 'the other side' meaning the down platform, & his complete disregard for Tully.
I'm interested in Tully's approach to his work, & how he sets up his equipment. He is actually the second 'thing' (after the moon) seen in this episode, & the first 'person' - or perhaps the only one, emphasised by the fact that immediately after he draws up his collar we see a lit lamp in the refreshment room, bringing our attention to the fact that he genuinely is not alone at the station. Then we see him lighting the same type of lamp, but a different colour, with a match. This either introduces an ambiguity as to whether he lit the first lamp himself or delineates that there are two parallel universes happening here. It is immediately shown to be the first one, because he closes the door of the lit refreshment room behind him - I am actually realising the full extent to which this show suggests possibilities merely by atmosphere & a shot through a window. With one lamp in each hand he walks down the platform with the wind blowing fallen leaves around. I have read somewhere that all the booking hall scenes were shot first, then the set was dismantled, & the hotel or upstairs scenes shot all together: to me it has always clearly been a set, but again full marks for effect if people xcan be asking what station it was filmed at. He shuts the booking hall door behind him & places a lamp on either side of the room, at which the studio lights are raised. To me this indicates the date of this series, the fact that it was 'real-world' effects being used: I feel probably a darker & spookier effect could be achieved now. Tully then lights two candles, places one at the door of the booking hall, & the other on the staircase. Coming to this for the first time we wouldn't know where it goes. These candles are clearly unnecessary for light, because of the lamps, & I find it interesting that they are placed at 'entrances' to the room he is in. Perhaps the intention is to show if 'something' passes through them: as a ghost researcher it would be somewhat illogical to use them as a ritual guard. He takes a third candle, places it in a darkened corner of the room, lights it, & when the lights come on we see it is another door, so this one fulfils the same purpose as the other two. He walks across the room, puts the matches down on a bench, as he does his overcoat & scarf. He sits down on the bench next to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, he bends a coat hanger as a microphone stand, places the microphone in it, starts the tape recorder, taps the microphone as a test, & says, 'In the name of God, please tell me who you are... Because I know you're here... I'm a friend... And I want to help you... So will you let me help you?... Please... You can trust in me.' The camera pans round the booking hall as he does this, & the sound indicator on the (doubtlessly expensive German) tape recorder moves when he is not speaking. There is then the sound of a pigeon flapping against the outside of the building. He picks up the tape recorder & puts it on the stairs, picks up the candle & walks up the stairs, carefully avoiding a thread he has placed across the stairs. He repeats that he wishes to help, & there is now the sound of a footstep. This is where Steel appears from the other side of the station & the theme music begins.
I've gone into such detail because this sequence both shows us who Tully is, & in doing so sets up his role for the whole programme. His equipment is an interesting mixture of the - for the time - very expensive & a home-made microphone stand. Clearly a one-man-band: no hope of the Most Haunted team turning up here with EMF meters, & what have you. His use of candles in a sort of ritual is interesting, as is his invocation of God, as an indicator of his approach to ghosts. Tully is additionally obviously a true believer, he is starting the show with the conviction that there is something there & it also needs help.
He is clearly a kindly soul, & in this his function here is as a foil for Sapphire & Steel: Steel is firmly convinced that whatever is there doesn't need help. On another level Tully represents humanity, our limited understanding, compared to the differing natures of Sapphire & Steel.
Right from the start in this assignment Sapphire & Steel's different approaches are to the fore: Steel is convinced 'it' must be malevolent. Sapphire, who manages to be sexy even on an abandoned railway platform, is more open to the possibility it isn't. Sometimes it's as if their roles (sort of) reverse, meaning that Steel does the talking with Tully, badly of course. Something that always strikes me about this assignment is that Sapphire is the knowledgable one, the one with abilities. It is she who does a complete profile of Tully while holding his hand, who knows the different dates it is at different parts of the station. This leaves Steel in a role of - almost - narrator, explaining what's happening while Sapphire is doing the skilled bit. Notwithstanding Steel has to do some looking out for Sapphire right at the end of the episode.
Sound & visuals are both excellent on this one: the sound effects create genuine suspense. The semi-darkened station (darkness is about the oldest trick in the book to create a sense of mystery) is so atmospheric, & its grey-scale colours are a perfect foil for the actors. Patches of colour, such as when flowers appear or Sapphire's clothing changes, create a completely different mood. These comparatively simple tricks are used to such good effect here. Even the setting of a disused railway station can hardly fail as a winner in the atmosphere stakes. And all of this achieved on a low budget: few actors (so far) few effects, even 'it' starts off as merely a dark shadow.
This Sapphire & Steel assignment has to go into my category of stonking good television, if only for the reason that in thinking about it, I'm aware that I can't answer all the questions it raises, & that some things may be seen differently by other people. This sign of really good television - obviously shared by The Prisoner - is in contrast to the relatively lightweight but still enjoyable series such as The Champions, where it's easy to feel you've wrung everything out of an episode. It also takes repetition & manages to remain suspenseful, which can only be a sign of quality television.
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