David McCallum’s X Files: how Sapphire & Steel chilled the nation

Spooky: David McCallum and Joanna Lumley in Sapphire & Steel
Spooky: David McCallum and Joanna Lumley in Sapphire & Steel - Alamy

He was the man from some of the most beloved television of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. David McCallum, who has passed away aged 90, brought movie star charisma to the small screen with iconic turns in Colditz, Kidnapped – and, of course, the Man from U.N.C.L.E., where his cool charm combined perfectly with hard-boiled style of co-star Robert Vaughn.

That A-lister aura was explained by the fact that, by the time he signed up for U.N.C.L.E in 1964, he really was a movie star. He’s appeared in pre-James Cameron Titanic epic a Night To Remember, worked with John Huston on Freud: The Secret Passion and acted opposite Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

However, it was TV that made him enduringly famous, beginning with U.N.C.L.E, where he brought a low-burning drollness to Illya Kuryakin, phlegmatic Russian side-kick to Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo.

U.N.C.L.E.  – an acronym for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement” – was a fantastic showcase for McCallum’s understated acting. But it wasn’t the only highlight of a career that spanned decades. In the Eighties, he starred opposite Joanna Lumley in one of the strangest television dramas ever – a spooky, esoteric time-travel saga that made Doctor Who look like Dallas.

Sapphire and Steel followed the adventures of a pair of time travelling super-agents – Sapphire (Lumley) and Steel (McCallum). Their mission: outwit ghosts, aliens and other malevolent entities. And scare the bejesus out of tea-time audiences across Britain.

Sapphire and Steel’s trippy dystopias were brought to life by an ITV production team toiling on a shoe-string. The parade of horrors they churned out was hugely unsettling. The restless spirits of plague victims, a man in a bowler hat without a face, submariners choking to death. Here was nightmare fuel was laid on with a shovel.

It terrified the daylights out of viewers tuning to its early evening time slot across six seasons. And then Sapphire and Steel then said farewell with the mother of all shock endings.

The setting was a truck-stop restaurant, to which Sapphire and Steel had been lured by nefarious figures known as Transient Beings – precursors to Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith from The Matrix. The final twist came as Sapphire and Steel discovered the cafe had been relocated to deep space. And that is how Lumley and McCallum took their bows – lost in space, gawping into the void.

The plan was for Sapphire and Steel to return. Alas, organisational changes within ITV led to its cancellation (Luther creator Neil Cross tried unsuccessfully to reboot it several years go). It went out on a high, though, with that truck stop episode ranking as one of the week’s most watched shows.

Time Joanna Lumley as Sapphire and David McCallum as Steel
Time Time Joanna Lumley as Sapphire and David McCallum as Steel - Shutterstock

Lumley was a former Bond Girl and a familiar face to ITV viewers. McCallum was more elusive as Steel – a testament to his ability to disappear into parts. He had been born in Glasgow in 1933. His father was the leader of the Scottish Orchestra, as it was then called, his mother a cellist. The family left Scotland when David McCallum Snr was appointed leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, though young David was evacuated to a village near Loch Lomond during the war. He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where Joan Collins was a classmate.

McCallum’s intense looks meant he was never going to become a conventional leading man. But he began to pick up work shortly after graduation, starring opposite another future spy, Sean Connery, in Hell Divers. Six years later, in 1963, he was cast in the Great Escape, playing Royal Navy lieutenant commander Eric Ashley-Pitt.

It’s hard to think of entertainment further removed from The Great Escape than cosmically odd Sapphire and Steel. Nonetheless, the show is fondly remembered and has a cult audience.

They are drawn to its distinctly bleak ambience. In Doctor Who, time travel is a fun water-slide: wherever the Doctor ends up, they’re going to create splash. In Sapphire and Steel, by contrast, time is sentient and malevolent. We know this because Steel says so in the very first episode, in which he and Sapphire investigate the disappearance of a mother and father in a spooky house containing too many clocks and not enough light sources. “You cannot enter into time,” Steel tells the aghast son of the missing couple. “But once in a while, time can enter into the present… break in… burst through.”

Joanna Lumley as Sapphire
Joanna Lumley as Sapphire - ITV/Shutterstock

If Sapphire and Steel is remembered in 2022 it is as a harrowing helping of late Seventies and early Eighties “Hauntology”. This was the heyday of utterly terrifying public information videos and of children’s TV so hair-raising it would today come with a health warning for adults, to say nothing of the under-12s.

Sapphire and Steel is undoubtedly part of that tradition (it was originally intended as a kids’ show, in the vein of Children of the Stones). Watched in the 21st century, though, it is obvious its legacy goes beyond this niche corner of popular culture.

“It was a forerunner of the X-Files,” Lumley declared, picking up on the parallels between her and McCallum’s characters and the iconic Nineties duo of Mulder and Scully. And it’s hard not to imagine that David Lynch didn’t come across Sapphire and Steel at some point. The low-key eeriness and the way in which the mundane is rendered blood-curdling mark it as a blatant influence on Twin Peaks.

As with Twin Peaks, the uncanniness was to a large part rooted in a refusal by the show’s creator, Peter J Hammond, to explain too much. One popular theory is that Sapphire and Steel are aliens sent to earth (they have quasi-magical powers – Steel is able to lower the temperature; Sapphire can rewind time). And yet their extra-terrestrial status is never confirmed – instead we learn only that they are part of a team of interstellar investigators named after elements, precious stones and compounds (we are introduced to two others, Lead and Silver). “I didn’t want to give too much away,” said Hammond, “because once you say where they’ve come from, you’re committed.”

Sapphire & Steel follows a special taskforce of interdimensional agents
Sapphire & Steel follows a special taskforce of interdimensional agents - ITV/Shutterstock

Hammond was a jobbing TV writer who had worked on venerable fodder such as Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars before graduating to Emmerdale and The Sweeney. Prior to Sapphire and Steel his break-out project was Ace of Wands, a kids’ show about a stage magician with telekinetic abilities.

Its success convinced Thames TV to commission him to write another children’s series, The Time Menders. However, it was judged too disturbing – even for the Seventies – and shelved. Enter buccaneering producer and Svengali Lew Grade – no stranger to outré telly having green-lit Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner in 1967.

He snapped by the Time Menders for his ITV franchise, Associated Television. Renamed Sapphire and Steel and reconfigured for adults, it appealed to Grade because, if scary and esoteric, a reliance on indoor locations and a dialogue-driven plot ensured it could be put together on a shoe-string.

Grade understood smart casting was crucial. And so he sprung open his cheque book for the mega-wattage duo of Lumley and McCallum. Arriving on set, Lumley may well have sensed most of the budget had gone on her pay. “It was made for chips – as everything was back then,” she would state.

But the lack of resources didn’t put her off and she was grippingly serious as Sapphire – though her performance rated as positively ribald alongside the even more severe McCallum. They were a partnership forged in creepy TV heaven and across those half dozen seasons – each consisting of a number linked episodes – created arguably one of the greatest ever British sci-fi shows.

The horror factor was up front, despite the pre-watershed slot. Season one takes place in a house haunted by ghosts summoned by a young girl reciting Ring a Ring o’ Roses. Scarier yet is the series two setting of an abandoned railway station stalked by the spirit a World War One soldier shot hours after the Armistice. Later, Sapphire & Steel introduced aliens who have declared war on eating meat and the aforementioned Transient Beings, who dress like regional bank managers yet whose eyes glow red.

For all the spookiness, though, Sapphire and Steel was generally easy on the grey matter. Everyone involved felt an obligation to create TV accessible to the average viewer. “My mother used to have a cleaner, Mrs Puttock,” McCallum would say, “and she saw the first episode and said to me: “I loved it, but I didn’t understand it”, so we always tried to make the stories Puttock-proof.”

Still, the potential audience for marrow-chilling time-travel telly made on a micro-budget was always going to be finite. And so, in 1982, with ATV having been acquired by Central Television, the plug was pulled. And with that, the cliff-hanger in which Sapphire and Steel are lured to the restaurant at the end of the universe was doomed never to be resolved. To this day, it rankles with at least one of those involved. “I hate it,” Lumley lamented. “I’m still up there. I’m stuck in that petrol station.”