Thomas Sutcliffe: Steps leading to guilty pleasure

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The Independent Online

I went to see John Buchan's 39 Steps at the Tricycle Theatre the other night, though the authorial attribution is a little problematic - since Buchan's yarn appears to have passed through a large number of digestive tracts before appearing here. That last metaphor, incidentally, isn't a sly comment on the quality of the production, which is very far from the excremental - only a recognition that Buchan would have to jostle with quite a lot of others if the audience called for the author. This adaptation is by Patrick Barlow, though it's not from the novel but "from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon", whose own version toured extensively from 1996 onwards. And another crucial collaborator doesn't even get a formal namecheck - since it's soon apparent that this is really an adaptation of Hitchcock's 1939 movie, an early example of the Master's insouciant attitude to literary fidelity. He even gets to make an appearance - his portly silhouette appearing during a shadow-play version of the aeroplane chase across the moors.

It is then, in an unusually literal sense, a pastiche - a word which has its origins in an Italian pie made with many different ingredients. Whether it is a pastiche in the more conventional current sense is more debatable though - since it's not exactly an imitation of a genre, or an application of a well-known style to new material. It isn't really even a self-pastiche - since the comic bathos for which Barlow is probably best known only occasionally makes its presence felt. The National Theatre of Brent effectively imagined what the results would be if the rude mechanicals of Midsummer Night's Dream formed their own theatre company - but the mismatch between ambition and means is far more cocky and knowing here, a kind of shared joke between the audience and the performers. In the National Theatre of Brent the poverty of the special effects would be a source of agony to Desmond Olivier Dingle. Here it's just an enjoyable challenge.

What the production does have though is that odd, insulated distance of ironic pleasure - an aesthetic double-glazing which means that we can enjoy absolutely anything, however hackneyed or outmoded. And it got me wondering whether such carefully qualified affection was the fate of all popular fiction in the end - or is only reserved for certain books? In 80 years' time, will The Da Vinci Code have a continued life as a source of parody and satire - or is it so devoid of style that it will become one of those fabulous bestsellers that disappear completely? Curiously this year's Edinburgh Fringe - an informal biopsy of the satirical impulse - doesn't appear to offer any shows exploiting the mysterious success of Dan Brown's work - although there is a serious event in which Codists can explore the iconography of the Rosslyn Chapel. And this seems a little odd. Such a big and provocative fish, in such a large barrel - and yet nobody appears to be shooting at it. I'm sure someone will get round to it eventually - and I'll happily buy a ticket when they do, provided the satire is vicious enough. But I doubt that The Da Vinci Code will ever mature into the status of The 39 Steps, to become a work which is read through inverted commas.

If we look back on it at all it won't be with amused condescension but with a faint sense of bafflement at our collective madness. And that offers a clue as to what's going on when a style or a work is preserved by pastiche rather than simply being abandoned and forgotten. It's our way of negotiating the gap between a durable classic and the utterly negligible. I'm sure the words "timeless classic" have been applied to The 39 Steps but if so they were misapplied. Because it is so steeped in period that you only have to open it at random to discover an instance.

If you want a harmless example, take the hero's summary of his plight when he discovers a dead body in his smoking room - "I was in the soup - that was pretty clear" - a line that cannot be read aloud by any modern reader without adopting a burlesque RP accent. The 39 Steps is hopelessly embedded in its time and cannot successfully be re-read or re-imagined as a true classic can - but that has become an extra source of pleasure rather than a handicap. To read it is to put on cultural fancy-dress for a time - and pastiche and irony are a way of negotiating past our faint embarrassment that we should still find it so enjoyable to do so.