Writer: Steve Lyons
Director: Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music: Nigel Fairs
Sound Design: Nigel Fairs, Nicholas Briggs
Release date: May 2005
Main cast: David Warner (Steel); Susannah Harker (Sapphire); Gold (Mark Gatiss), Hugo Myatt (Philip Burgess); Jackie Skarvellis (Mrs Warburton); Neil Henry (John Andrews); Clare Louise Connelly (The Princess)
The plot: A 1930s steam train. Twelve passengers with ulterior motives. A mysterious conductor. One victim. And two detectives …
All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.
The new series of Sapphire & Steel gets off with something of a ‘soft launch’ in this debut audio, one that is cast very closely in the mould of the original television series. Specifically it emulates the second TV story, also beginning with a man in late middle-age on a deserted railway platform who is later beset by ghosts from different time periods motivated by a sense of betrayal and injustice. But this is no bad thing as ‘Adventure Two’, to use the home video designation as the stories have no individual onscreen titles, is probably the best of the series and also the best remembered which sensibly helps listeners to get refamiliarised with the general concept and also settle into this new audio incarnation of an old favourite from the late 1970s and early 80s. After a peremptory ‘it’s been a long time’ by way of acknowledgement that a good 20 years have passed since they were last seen in action, the familiar story template eases us smoothly into a new era of paranormal entertainment featuring PJ Hammond’s cult classic duo, elementals who fend off incursions into the present from ‘time’ itself, here presented as a dark, destabilising force.
The approach may be familiar but there are new and exciting things to enjoy here, not least the excellent new leads. Susannah Harker with her dulcet, crystal-clear voice makes for a very appealing, warm and appropriately sexy Sapphire well in keeping with Joanna Lumley’s original portrayal while David Warner makes for an older, gruffer and gravelly Steel, but still thoroughly commanding. They prove to be exceptionally good choices and never feel like replacements for the TV actors as they instantly make the roles their own. In this story they are joined by a new ‘rogue’ element, the callow and arrogant Gold, played by Mark Gatiss with what sounds like a permanent smirk on his face (sic). He gets most of the good lines (‘Timing, as they say, is everything’), all of which, no matter how arch, are delivered with just the right dash of humour while maintaining the slightly lofty detachment frequently displayed by the series’ other elementals when dabbling in human affairs.
We all have to live with the indifference of time
The main location, which again would have worked superbly well on TV too, is a steam train, one in which each of the carriages seems to belong to a different time period. It is populated by characters that are literally just out of a book – in this case, the ‘trigger’ for Time’s attempted incursion is a first edition of a detective story recently purchased by book dealer Philip Burgess, a man hounded by nightmares about his past. Although unnamed, the book is clearly meant to be Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and those who don’t know it should be warned that it does spoil its celebrated twist ending! The other characters in the train are analogous to the Christie creations with Gold as an unknown factor brought in by Steel to upset Time, here represented by the mysterious non-speaking train conductor. It eventually transpires that all the passengers, including a bolshie working class nursemaid (very nicely played by Jackie Skarvellis), a psychologically disturbed World War II RAF pilot, a posh couple and a young girl (the princess), are in fact all dead, accident victims who have been induced by Time to see Burgess as the cause of their demise. Lyons’ plot isn’t too complex and the climax eventually resolves itself into something akin to a therapy session, an otherworldly intervention in which Burgess, and the dead passengers, all have to come face to face with their demons before they can return to their proper place in the continuum. The resolution is a little bit pat and a bit too neat for my liking, but later stories in the series go completely the other way in this regard so it is actually quite good to have some stories that are not swamped in ambiguity!
The episodes are structured so as to resemble a 4-part serial as per the original TV series, with a teaser followed by the titles sequence using the same introductory narration and the Cyril Ornadel theme music and with each segment lasting approximately 25 minutes. The original show was highly visual and some elements of the story don’t quite work on audio like the ominous but permanently silent conductor (for obvious reasons) while Gold getting thrown first into limbo and then into the pages of Burgess’ book aren’t quite as dynamic as they could be perhaps as it is not immediately clear what is actually happening to the character.
Despite these quibbles what we have here is a decent story that is very well acted and which has a robust sound design that is well up to Big Finish’s very high standards. Not the most original or distinctive story that this season would offer perhaps but a good traditional (to the extent that this highly unusual series can be seen that way) introductory installment none the less – and one that lays a strong foundations for the new audio version of the show to build on.