The 39 Steps: A PBS Masterpiece Classic
PBS stations, Sunday, February 28th at 9:00 ET/PC
Starring: Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, David Haig
Producer: BBC; Lynn Horsford
Director: James Hawes
Screenplay: Lizzie Mickery from the book by John Buchan
Series producer and executive producer: WGBH Boston and Rebecca Eaton
John Buchan, who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915, would be astounded to learn that the novel he referred to as a “dime novel” or a “shocker” is now a “Masterpiece Classic.”
Yet, The Thirty-Nine Steps, the “man-on-the-run” thriller archetype, has endured and entertained for almost 100 years. This new BBC version of The 39 Steps, which I would describe as a “dime novel-lite,” provides a very enjoyable 90 minutes of television on February 28, 2010.
The action begins in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Mining engineer and former spy, Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones, Persuasion, MI-5) has returned to London after years of adventure in Africa. He returns suave, unflappable, clever and rich but bored by the stuffy conventionalism of England. We like him already.
That boredom soon ends, however, as an undercover British spy, Scudder (well played by Eddie Marsan, Little Dorrit), is killed in Hannay’s flat. Before dying, he tells Hannay of a perilous plot against Britain and leaves Hannay a secret codebook.
Hannay then becomes entangled with German spies, as he is framed by them in Scudder’s death. He is thrust into a dangerous situation that he can’t fully understand. Nevertheless, he stands by his strict moral code, his patriotism, and his innate bravery to win the day.
“Boy and girl meet cute” (as they say in old Hollywood lingo), when, during Hannay’s escape from the London Police, he meets suffragette Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard, Line of Beauty, Rome) on an empty road in Scotland. She mistakes him for a visiting politician who is about to give a speech. She and her brother whisk him of the town and place a dumfounded Hannay before the waiting audience.
Eventually, Victoria warms up to Hannay and helps him on his frantic quest to solve the mystery of the secret codebook and save Britain They encounter a menacing low-flying plane (precursor to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959), an ominous castle with secret rooms, duplicitous desperate men and a German submarine.
Rupert Penry-Jones convincingly plays the debonair Hannay as a 1914 blond version of Roger Moore’s James Bond, with ever-present composure, ingenuity and verve. Hannay’s courage, spirit, honesty (and good looks) keeps The 39 Steps fresh and engaging after all these years and after the various productions, as described below.
Contrary to other film versions, the new BBC production is a relatively faithful to the novel, although every adaptation subsequent to the novel has added a “pretty girl” into the mix. The settings, the timeframes, the meanings of the 39 steps and the “MacGuffin” have all been altered over time.
• In the 1915 novel and this BBC production, the 39 steps lead down to the beach.
• In 1935, the Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps, added a new plot point with a vaudeville act starring “Mr. Memory.” The setting was changed from the eve of World War I, to the 1930s. Robert Donat plays Hannay, who is visited by a spy being chased by assassins after she uncovers a plot by the 39 Steps, a secret German organization, to steal British plans for a silent aircraft engine.
• By the way, when recently watched Hitchcock’s 1935 film, I found I hadn’t remembered it accurately. Since I never watched the films in chronological order, I remembered a jumble of Hitchcock’s Notorious, (1946), Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959), as well as the 1978 version of Thirty Nine Steps. My memory’s combination was far more thrilling than the actual 1935 Hitchcock version.
• In Ralph Thomas’s remake of The 39 Steps in 1959, Kenneth More, as Hannay, is catapulted into the mystery by the death of a beautiful spy who has told him of an enemy group, the 39 Steps, which has stolen plans for a British missile.
• The 1978 film version of The Thirty Nine Steps, directed by Don Sharp’s and starring Robert Powell, is set in the days before World War I as foreign agents plan to bomb Parliament and assassinate a Greek leader. The 39 steps once again refer to a staircase.
• In 2006, The 39 Steps, a comic theatrical play lightly drawing on the Hitchcock film and written by Patrick Barlow opened in London and then played successfully on Broadway, receiving numerous awards.
©Emily S. Mendel 2010. All Rights Reserved.