Thank the BBC, then, for their new adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

TV Much as I love the kinds of period dramas Andrew Davies is renowned for, and how much I like to think of myself as a feminist, isn’t it a tad boring that ninety-nine percent are of them are of, well, a girly vintage? They might well be insanely popular, but surely there are only so many times you can watch girls and boys in corsets and cummerbunds leisurely fall in love over six episodes as such impediments as the class system and cash keep them apart? Do we really need the version of Wuthering Heights ITV are bringing us in the new year?

What about the dozens of adventure novels written around the period and since, most of which haven’t seen the screen for decades? Thank the BBC, then, for their new adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (which was on last week), precisely the kind of much needed ripping yarn, in which romance though not entirely forgotten didn’t get in the way of a fugitive with vital information about a German invasion being chased through London streets by spies or a picturesque Scottish moor by dozens of police dogs and their master’s whistles.

Loosely based on Buchan’s novel about espionage in the run up to the First World War and borrowing some elements from Hitchcock’s 1935 film version, Lizzie Mickery’s script offered precisely the kind of adventure which seems like a lost art for television, taking advantage of the period’s antiquated phone and transport systems and demonstrating that with the modern world ringed by satellites and saturated with surveillance, the most exciting way to make a thriller is to set it in the past. There’s no better sight than a wanted man fleeing a train from one of the doors and out onto the tracks under a rail bridge. You can’t do that on a Virgin Pendolino.

In rewriting Buchan, Mickery offered some useful historical perspective, wrapping Richard Hannay’s unlikely mission directly with the reasons for the outbreak of the Great War, drawing extraordinary pathos from the inevitability of conflict, and refreshingly didn’t give in to the recent tendency to somehow make the Germans into sympathetic figures, understanding that this kind of story doesn’t work unless the hero is fighting an insurmountable, one dimensional evil -- though it’s a pity that as the face of evil, Patrick Malahide, couldn’t have been given a bit more to do.

But perhaps that would have detracted from Rupert Penry-Jones’s storming turn as Hannay. RP-J is the BBC’s go to man for upper middle class, buttoned up, establishment educated spies. As well as spending three years leading the Spooks, he played real life agent Donald Maclean alongside the rest of the posher members of the Brit pack in Cambridge Spies, and he was absolutely perfect as this man on the run, realistically charming even as he’s chauvinistic, but bringing the required gravitas when outlining the dangers to the country he’s risking his life to combat. An able comedian too -- I don’t think there are many actors of his breed who could have carried off the scene with the ventriloquist's dummy (and yes, I do realise how surreal that sentence looks if you didn’t manage to watch this).

He’s also especially good with the elements of screwball humour Mickery threw in as part of biggest deviation from the book to evoke some of the sexual politics of the era probably in an attempt to balance out the testosterone at the heart of the novel. It was Hitchcock’s invention to give Hannay a female foil to spar with on his journey, and Mickery’s version, suffragette Victoria Sinclair (perhaps inspired by Mary, Hannay’s wife in Buchan’s later novel The Three Hostages) is just mouthy enough to make our hero question his values, but not so shrill as to become the typical stereotype of a women’s libber.

It helps that Sinclair’s played by the film’s real find, the luminous Lydia Leonard, the kind of actress who seems like she’s been doing this kind of thing years but in reality this is probably her big break (assuming enough people were watching). Previously seen in The Line of Beauty, her sardonic delivery reminded me of the leading ladies of classic Hollywood, the likes of Jean Arthur or Claudette Colbert, giving the midsection of the film the feel of one of those old road comedies like It Happened One Night, especially in the bedroom scene, though we never saw Colbert and Clarke Gable get quite that close.

As the film sped credibly to its conclusion, aided by Doctor Who veteran James Hawes’s sprightly direction, Mickery cleverly tied up this apparently extraneous relationship with the main plot, turning the reveal of the mystery of the thirty-nine steps (surprisingly close to Buchan) into an interesting piece of character drama rather than a simple case of spy versus spy. If the final shock seemed a bit gratuitous, at least it offered the chance to finally tie-up the story with the impending conflict suggesting that the BBC isn’t quite yet ready to leave Hannay and Sinclair to their fates. Buchan wrote four more books about Hannay. Perhaps we’ll be seeing those too.

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