Born to Run: The 39 Steps returns

Richard Hannay is back – played by Rupert Penry-Jones – in the most exciting version of The 39 Steps since Hitchcock. James Rampton reports

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 8pm

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media