PJ Hammond (2007)
An interview with the creator of Sapphire and Steel, from Death Ray 08.
Steeling the show: Q&A Peter J. Hammond
A television screenwriter of no small repute, Hammond has written for many of the country’s best-loved dramas in a career that has spanned four decades. Yet for SF fans, his most memorable work was on Sapphire and Steel, a show he created, writing five of the six stories. Hammond talks to Death Ray about the series and his episodes for seasons one and two of Torchwood.
Guy Haley: Legend has it Sapphire and Steel was inspired by a stay in a haunted house. Is this the case?
PJ Hammond: No! While I was in the process of writing it, I did move to a place that resembled the house in the first story. I think that’s where the story came from, but it got a bit twisted from there on. I don’t think I’d like to stay in a haunted house anyway.
GH: Sapphire and Steel, we loved it. But it absolutely terrified us…
PJH: That’s the idea! There’s a lot of people that have been frightened by it over the years, I feel a bit guilty sometimes, but as long as it provided entertainment, that’s all that matters.
It was pure fear, there was no blood, no knives, no shootings… Just fear alone. Everyday items that turn against us and scare us, that’s what I wanted to do. Objects that we love dearly, our toys, our nursery rhymes… that’s going to provide the chill.
I wanted to write stories about ordinary people confronted by extraordinary circumstances, and I didn’t think you could have police or a priest coming along and solving that. I thought the best thing was to invent these, I suppose “time detectives”. And they had the answers before they arrived, which helps the plot a lot.
GH: Did you have an idea of what Sapphire and Steel were?
PJH: Not at all, I’ve never known. A lot of people have asked over the years where they came from. But I’ve no idea. Strangely enough, seeing the last episode again when I did the commentary, I realised that there are so many questions almost answered there that if it went any further, one would have to explain a lot more about them.
GH: You said some time ago that you wouldn’t go back to Sapphire and Steel. Is that still true?
PJH: When I said I didn’t want to do any more. it was because the commissioning agents weren’t buying SF. Now SF has returned to popularity it would be a good idea to bring it back, but it would have to be thought about carefully.
Recently ITV had discussions with me. But it was over a year ago, and I think the people involved moved on. But we had some very good conversations. They wanted to bring it into the 21st century by starting again from scratch. I agreed, but at the same time I felt that, because there’s such a big fanbase, not to explain what happened at the end of the first series would have been cheating. So there was a slight impasse.
It would be intriguing to revisit it. We have different thoughts about how science fiction works now, it’s not sneered at so much. People were rather grand about science fiction and put it down a lot, but these days it’s very popular. I think Doctor Who has proven that it can be done.
GH:You’ve written a lot of scripts – Emmerdale, The Bill and more. Do you prefer straight drama?
PJH: I think my first love is SF. I grew up reading Ambrose Bierce, Walter De La Mare, and Edgar Allen Poe. Nigel Kneale also greatly inspired me. With all the other dramas, I’ve always tried to put creepiness in. I think I wrote 40 Bills; very few of them were to do with crime, they were about things on the edges of crime. Little odd, scary things. I like to write about things that are not quite right, things that are slightly out of order, things that disturb us. And I did write one paranormal Bill episode. Recently I’ve been writing Midsomer Murders, and that’s pure fantasy, it’s in a strange world!
GH: Which is your favourite show?
PJH: Torchwood is the closest I have come to the kind of science fiction programme that I like to write for, apart from Sapphire and Steel. And Ace of Wands, that was a bit of fun, though the special effects were done with a knife and fork!
Another favourite is an episode that I did for Thames TV for the anthology series Shadows, called ‘And for my last trick…’
But it would have to be Sapphire and Steel, that’s my own baby.
GH:You wrote ‘Small Worlds’ for Torchwood. In Death Ray‘s opinion, the best episode in season one. What we liked about it was that they didn’t win… Do you like black endings?
PJH: That was great. That’s what I like about Torchwood. In Doctor Who they would have had to have won in the end
I think characters have to win the right to win, if you like. In this story I think the girl won. Had it been a story where she was being abducted by fairies and she didn’t want anything to do with it, she would have to have been saved. But it was the world she wanted to be in. So it would have been unfair – wrong – to give a happy ending. Of course, her poor mother copped it. In Sapphire and Steel, the first story had to be put right, the children had to get their parents back, but there were losers – the people from the future in assignment three… They’re all not terribly happy endings. But I don’t like happy endings. You have to leave questions.
I’ve just finished my episode for the second series of Torchwood. It’s going to be shown round January. This is very, very scary. But I can’t say a lot about it.
GH: There was lots of CGI in ‘Small Worlds’. What do you think of it?
PJH: It’s good to have, if it’s used sparingly. In one sequence in Doctor Who there are hundreds of Daleks flying through the sky, and I think that’s an excess.
We didn’t have any of those tricks on Sapphire and Steel until they got to story four, with the people going in and out of photographs, which was brand new then. Actually, that story didn’t have a very happy ending either – that poor girl was told never to have her photograph taken again. That was terrifying!
GH: Do you ever scare yourself?
PJH: If I’m working late at night, I do. I think that’s a good sign. There’s nothing worse than being blasé about what you’re doing. I think you’ve got to scare yourself, it shows the story works.