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.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 3 Russell Brand backs Ed Miliband: 'You gotta vote Labour'
- 4 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils