Sapphire and Steel by P.J. Hammond

Sapphire and Steel is one of the strangest and most fascinating television dramas that I remember from childhood. Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) are agents of a mysterious sort of inter-dimensional police force. Where they come from is never quite made clear – only that they are not human, and they appear to know a great deal more about the world than we do. They arrive on our dimension at certain times and places, to contend with a mysterious malignant force that is regularly attempting to break into time. Each agent has his/her own unique paranormal abilities with which to do battle.

There were six seasons of Sapphire and Steel, and this short book is a novelisation of the first season. It concerns a family who live in a big house filled with clocks. The reading of a nursery rhyme becomes a “trigger” that causes all the clocks to stop and the parents to vanish into thin air, leaving two bewildered children behind. Then two strangers appear at the front door, a steely-eyed man and a woman in a blue dress. The children have no clue whether they are friend or foe, but Rob, the boy, quickly learns that if he is ever going to see his parents again, he must put his trust in them.

These words of mine can’t quite convey the spooky feel of the show. The writer, P.J. Hammond, had a real knack for unnerving the viewer that was almost Lovecraftian – giving us nothing more than quick glimpses of a dark and terrifying reality just beyond the range of human sight. I think this was billed as a children’s show back in the late 1970s, but it’s anything but. I remember having childhood nightmares about being trapped in time, and when I finally revisited the series when it first came out on videotape in the early 1990s, I was able to connect the dots.

I don’t normally read novelisations, because they tend to be mere cash-ins on a successful series or movie, but I made an exception this time because it’s written by the series’ creator P.J. Hammond. I thought it might offer fresh insights into the bizarre mythology, but sadly the book reads almost like a word-for-word reconstructions of the script, fleshed out with descriptive detail. Most of the book is told from the point of view of Rob, and so, nothing more is learned about the characters of Sapphire and Steel than what was already on display on the television screen. I feel this was a missed opportunity to go deeper than what the visual medium allowed.

I can understand how a book like this would have been a worthwhile purchase back in the late 1970s, before the era of videotapes and DVDs, when we there was no opportunity to revisit your favourite programmes other than waiting for re-runs which might never come. But nowadays, you would be better served by picking up the series on DVD. If you have a taste for sci-fi that’s a bit “out there,” I recommend you check it out. As for the novelisation, its only value is as a collectible.

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