Handling irregularities

In the on-going fight between the ball-and-chain's Collyer Brothers Syndrome and my slightly neater ways, sometimes things I forgot we owned push their way to the top of a pile. Earlier this year, I stumbled on my collection of early-1990s VHS releases of ATV's Sapphire and Steel.

S&S was a strange old series, following two agents sent by a higher authority to solve problems caused when time "leaks" out from its true place and seeps into real life – turning nursery rhymes real, bringing old photographs to life – or where humans have forced time to leak by attempting to travel back or by nursing a strong grievance against others.

I watched these at the time, as a very (very) small child. I'm at a loss as to why my mum was letting watch ATV at 7pm when I was 4, especially since S&S is still terrifying to this day. My better half had also watched them, from the comfort of his late 20s, and vaguely recalled liking the series. So we decided to watch two episodes a week (on average). It's been ten years since I last watched the tapes, so we picked a strange order for the series, based on what I remembered were good adventures with the less good ones hammocked in between.

That meant we watched the "Assignments" in the order 3, 5, 4, 1, 2, 6. And my memory was wrong: there were no "less good" adventures. The entire series bombs along quite happily without needing my intervention.

The 1991 ITC VHS copies were truly terrible in quality. Unremastered transfers with awful sound problems and a fluttery picture, plus 20 years of poor storage and being carted hither and yon as I've moved house, so I gave up and ordered the Network remastered DVD versions. These were much better quality and, as a bonus, the later episodes kept the famous ATV Zoom 2 ident on the front, which doubled the pleasure had from the episodes for some reason.

While the series is slow by today's standards – they'd write each adventure as two 45-minute episodes rather than up to eight 25-minute ones now – each episode manages not to drag. If I sat down with a video editor, I think I could trim a maximum of 3 or 4 minutes out of each episode to improve the pace, which is nothing. The series is tightly plotted, so you don't really notice any drags. Given that it was made on an ATV budget (all the money goes on the stars and the production has fourpence to play with), only in one place is there a ludicrously poor 1970s foam monster; the rest of the time, the terror is nicely psychological.

S&S has really stood the test of time (pun intended) by being completely riveting thirty years later, so much so that we're going to rewatch them again later in the year, in the correct order.

Oh, and also try to solve a seeming mystery in the production of the series (mainly by speculating until we hit on what sounds like a likely answer rather than doing any actual research). There are two versions of the opening announcement (probably voiced by Francis Matthews):

"All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Trans-uranic, 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!"

and

"All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Trans-uranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: gold, mercury, copper, jet, diamond, radium, sapphire, silver and steel. Sapphire and Steel have… been assigned."

Subtle, but clearly two recordings. But then there appears to be two versions of the music, one brass-heavy, one more on the strings. Both announcements are used across both pieces of music, meaning there are four versions of the title sequence, fairly freely mixed together.

Finally, in the last ever episode, it becomes clear that ATV/Central didn't have a clean copy of the title sequence available (how come??) and therefore dropped a copy from a previous episode on to the tape, with a very very clunky edit at the start and three or four notes of the background music of the older episode left on the front!

We're going to really concentrate and take notes next time we watch, because we are, quite simply, very very big geeks.

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One comment

  1. In my capacity as someone who is shit hot on identifying instruments in an orchestra (after a lifetime of collecting themes and being able to spot a cover version at 100 yards) I would say the two versions of the music are (a) trombone heavy and (b) trumpet heavy (outblasting & eclipsing trombones). It may be two very different mixes of the same recording session. Or two versions. I don’t think the strings input is significant here and is actually rather minimal. Hope that helps! – Also, when you sat next to me watching the bloody things, I must say it was a series of the most enjoyable evenings we have had in front of the telly for ages and I really enjoyed them. Having been a shift worker in 79 & 80, I was alternating earlies & lates (still am 30 years on!!) and I now realise why my memory was fuzzier of some episodes than others. I saw alternating weeks only!!!! Blank VHS tapes were ??12 each then so I taped very selectively! 😉 xx

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