Culross in Fife is an idyllic place on the shores of the Firth of Forth, described by Undiscovered Scotland as "the nearest thing to a 16th-century time capsule anywhere in Scotland. It's as if much of the core of the village was simply frozen in time." It is the perfect setting, then, for BBC1's big festive costume drama, The 39 Steps, a film which conjures up values that seem equally frozen in time.
John Buchan's enduring, swashbuckling 1915 adventure story has been adapted for the big screen several times – most memorably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. But this is the first time it has been made for television, and this production has gone to town with the period details. We are standing in the immaculately maintained cobbled main square in Culross, where early 19th-century butcher's bikes, fitted with the correct period baskets, are being ridden by extras in cloth caps. Turn-of-the-last-century vintage cars are tootling around the village being driven by gentlemen in tweed suits. Richard Hannay, the impossibly charming hero of Buchan's yarn, fits snugly into this impeccably preserved world.
In this one-off drama written by Lizzie Mickery (Messiah, The State Within), Hannay (played by Spooks' Rupert Penry-Jones) spends the entire time being chased by baddies – an Edwardian Jason Bourne, but with better manners.
The story opens in 1914, when our hero has just returned to Britain after a stint as a mining engineer in Africa. At first, he is dreadfully bored by London, but his life is turned on its head when his neighbour, a British spy called Scudder (Eddie Marsan from Little Dorrit), bursts into his flat unannounced. Scudder just has time to hand Hannay an encrypted notebook and inform him of a dastardly German plot to invade Great Britain before he is murdered by enemy agents. Framed for the crime and desperate to unravel the fiendish conspiracy, Hannay goes on the run in Scotland. Along the way, he reluctantly joins forces with a resourceful, independent-minded suffragette, Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard).
Going out on Sunday 28 December, The 39 Steps is a bracing thriller, designed to blow away the post-Christmas cobwebs. It also works well at this time of year because it possesses an undeniable nostalgic appeal. It evokes an engaging, lost era of chivalry, a period when a gentleman would rather strangle himself with his cravat than fail to open the door for a lady.
The producer of The 39 Steps, Lynn Horsford, observes that the drama harks back to a kinder, gentler age. "Everything was much more gentlemanly and polite in those days," she reflects. "This doesn't have the unrelenting, visceral violence of the Bourne movies. Hannay represents old-fashioned values. That's enormously attractive. He's decent, charming, suave, witty, and if he smiled at you, you might well go weak at the knees."
Nor does Hannay manifest the professional ruthlessness of another character to whom he is often compared, James Bond. An actor who carries off period white tie and tails with real dash, Penry-Jones explains over lunch that Hannay conforms rather to the Great British tradition of the gifted amateur. "James Bond is a trained killer and superman, while Hannay's just a regular guy who's quite good at looking after himself. He's able to use his brain and his wit to get out of situations – he's not a fighter."
There is something effortless about the way Hannay conducts himself that is deeply enviable. James Hawes, the director of The 39 Steps, contends that, "we are attracted to the idea of the maverick hero with an ironic sense of humour. Hannay is equipped with charm and common sense rather than guns and gadgets.
"He does everything with a terrific swagger – which we all aspire to. Even as he hangs from a cliff by his fingertips, you know he'll get out of it with a smart one-liner. I think we'd all like to be like that. The romantic within us all also shares his yearning for adventure."
For all that, Hannay remains very much a man of his time. Mickery hasn't tried to give him a PC 21st-century makeover by toning down some of his more out-of-date attitudes. He retains, for instance, very Edwardian views on the role of women. He has a turbulent relationship with the feisty Victoria – there is an element of Beatrice and Benedick about their spirited verbal jousting. Penry-Jones says, laughing: "Victoria is very irritating to Hannay at the beginning, always wanting to argue with him, always wanting to drive. Never let a woman near a steering wheel – that's Hannay's rule."
But, of course, the two apparent opposites start to attract. The tenor of Hannay and Victoria's relationship alters when they are forced to hide from their pursuers by sharing a bedroom at a remote Scottish inn. They are both suffering from burns and rub mustard (an unlikely but well-documented cure) from their beef sandwiches into each other's wounds. It's a surprisingly erotic scene.
For all the sparkiness of this new The 39 Steps, two words still hang over it: Alfred Hitchcock. In remaking this work, how does one avoid comparisons with the great director's vision? The makers of this version did so by coming up with their own original conceits. The mustard, for instance, is the equivalent of the handcuffs in the Hitchcock movie – a clever way of bringing the two warring protagonists closer together.
Hitchcock certainly casts a giant shadow over this piece – he loved the story so much, he remade it as North By Northwest in 1959 – and Hawes is well aware of the danger of slipping into parody. "Hitchcock invented the genre of the accidental romantic hero who finds himself thrust into circumstances beyond his control. I hope we've made something that pays tribute to his legacy without becoming a leaden-footed homage.
"Get it wrong and it becomes a cheesy pastiche. So we've chosen music that doesn't have Psycho-style violin shrieks, and we haven't gone too Keystone Cops with the chasing policemen. We've also been very careful with the accents. They mustn't become so posh they become a send-up."
Film-makers have long been drawn to Buchan's story. As well as Hitchcock's version, there was a 1959 big-screen interpretation starring Kenneth More, while Robert Powell played the lead in a 1978 reading of the book, which featured another iconic, invented scene: Hannay hanging from the hands of Big Ben. Robert Towne, the acclaimed writer of Chinatown, is currently working on a big-budget Hollywood remake. It is a testament to the durability of Buchan's novel that it can be reinvented for each successive generation.
Buchan wrote five Hannay novels in all, and if this one is well-received, the producers of The 39 Steps would be delighted to make more. For her part, Horsford enthuses: "I'd love to make more Hannay films. They suffer slightly from the period they're written in. But the great thing about these novels is that you can take the characters, re-imagine them and make them relevant for a contemporary audience. Like Indiana Jones, The 39 Steps is a cracking yarn, and people will always enjoy a cracking yarn."
'The 39 Steps' is on BBC1 on 28 December at 8pmReuse content