The 39 Steps, BBC1
The BBC's remake of John Buchan's 'The 39 Steps' follows a long tradition of being unfaithful to the book
Sunday 04 January 2009
Was there ever a piece of work more likely to cause family discord than The 39 Steps? Watching the latest BBC adaptation, Mother (who has only seen the 1935 Hitchcock version) asks "But where is Mr Memory?".
Daughter (who has only seen the 1959 version) says "And what about the scene in the girls' school?" Father (who has only seen the 1978 version) says: "No, no – at this point they should be hanging off Big Ben." Grandma (who has only read the book) says: "You're all wrong. There isn't a single woman in The 39 Steps."
Everyone loses their temper, and granny is a step closer to being entrusted to a home. But she's right; there aren't any women in John Buchan's novel. There isn't a Mr Memory, nor any basis for the scene in which Robert Donat has to stay handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll while she gets out of her wet stockings (worse things have happened to a man).
But what is in the book has never mattered much. It's simply a starting gun for the imagination. Published in 1915, its secret message, stamped on every page, is "Enlist! Enlist!". Buchan provides atmosphere, character and the bare bones of plot; screenwriters and directors make the skeleton dance. Hitchcock did it best; this new BBC attempt is unlikely to endure.
It started with an appalling voiceover. Rupert Penry-Jones (dashing, adorable) sighed that "London was cliquey, claustrophobic and class-bound". Only a 2008 scriptwriter could have thought of those words.
Next, it was very taken with its plotline about a suffragette (winningly played by Lydia Leonard) who turned out to be the real puppet master of the piece – the inevitable fate for any book originally designed as a fable of male empowerment. The pace was good; the music huffed and puffed hysterically; the tone, Spooks-like, was gauchely sincere yet arch, its fingers crossed behind its back. Ultimately the hero and heroine slavered mustard on each others' wounds, which they managed to do with admirably straight faces. Bring back good, clean, old-fashioned stockings and handcuffs, I say.
Affinity (ITV) was Prisoner Cell Block H goes Victoriana, Bad Girls in mob caps: dykey wardens jangling keys (and vowels), lady visitors with quivering petticoats, orgasmic wails from neighbouring cells ... A lead role was played by a ghostly vaporising hairpiece – this was, after all, set in a time when spiritualism was widely practised but no one believed in lesbians. Sarah Waters, unlike Buchan, is a supreme plotter, precise as a watchmaker, and this adaptation by Andrew Davies was a good working copy, even if it planted too few clues and rushed the marvellous denouement.
Home alone on New Year's Eve with the norovirus, I felt an overwhelming need to be part of what was going on at midnight, and groped for the telly. There were forced smiles down at the Thames fireworks (BBC1); Elton pounding out his hits over gruesome footage of a lookalike Marilyn (ITV); and Jools Holland offering the most convincing jollity with a studio party full of famous friendly faces (BBC2). And so I discovered TV's divine provision: company when you need it.
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