The Weekend's Television - The 39 Steps, Sun BBC1/Caught in a Trap, Boxing Day ITV1

Not a great escape

Robert Hanks
Monday 29 December 2008 01:00

The 39 Steps started well, with Richard Hannay reclining languidly, and Rupert Penry-Jones gave good languid in a London club while the resident Colonel Blimps bored on about cricket. It took about 15 seconds for everything to go pear-shaped: "Everything in England," Hannay mused in voice-over, "seemed cliquey, claustrophobic, class-bound." Hold on, let's go over that again: "class-bound"? That's not something you'd ever find a John Buchan hero worrying about. What kind of pinkos do you think they are? And if we're going to plaster modern liberal values over the heroes of yesteryear, where will it all end? I foresee Holmes explaining to Watson that Moriarty is a victim of his upbringing and deserves our compassion, James Bond telling Pussy Galore that he respects her sexual choices and hopes they can remain friends, and a remake of Zulu with the two sides settling differences via a truth and reconciliation commission.

After that, the initial plot set-up – spy entrusts vital coded messages to Hannay seconds before he gets murdered, and Hannay gets fingered for the job; Hannay flees to Scotland – was reasonably smooth. But then Hannay fell in with a woman, and everything slid downhill, because this wasn't just a woman, this was a feisty suffragette, determined to show Hannay that a girl can be every bit as brave and resourceful as a man. Suddenly, our self-reliant hero, with all his energy and fieldcraft, became a dribbling, indecisive cretin, at every turn needing to be told what to do and where to go, or to have his failing nerve shored up. Having been so very concerned about class division, he suddenly switched tack to become a caricature Victorian chauvinist pig, constantly patronising the little woman and then ending up with egg on his face as she proved herself his superior as marksman, map reader and sexual adventurer. I'd be interested to see how Lizzie Mickery, the screenwriter, would handle Hamlet. Ophelia, fed up with all his wavering, takes matters into her own hands, duelling Laertes to a standstill, whacking Claudius, and abolishing the monarchy in favour of a republic with universal suffrage.

Most people aren't bothered about fidelity to the source material (though my advice to the people who commission this drivel is, as always: if you're not interested in the source material, why not have the wit to make up something new?). What viewers care about is plot and action, in which case they will have been chewing the upholstery off the sofa in paroxysms of tedium and puzzlement, as the feisty suffragette turned out to be a traitor – no, she's a British spy! – and now she's dead! – no, she's mysteriously alive! By the end, my impression was that several pages of the plot must have been eaten by a dog, or a bored actor, and the director had decided, sod it, nobody's going to keep watching this long. Which I wouldn't have if I wasn't being paid.

Caught in a Trap was surprisingly easy to sit through. Connie Fisher, of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? fame, played Gemma, a lonely young woman with a job at the local council collecting money from parking meters. Friendless at work, unhappy at home with her weak-willed father and harridan stepmother, she lost herself in an obsession with Elvis Presley. Having realised how easy it was to pocket a pound here and there from the meters, she embarked on a career of petty fraud that soon spiralled into something much more serious, stealing thousands and going on an Elvis spree, buying up every scrap of tat and memorabilia she could find, and soon coming to realise that doom of one sort or another can't be long postponed.

Fisher was cunningly cast. It needed someone with her charm and apparent vulnerability to make Gemma's dishonesty, irrationality and self-absorption come across as a cry for help rather than a mental disorder. Even so, the finale was hard to swallow. In prison, Gemma found a new confidence to make friends, and finally accepted the love that the devoted, stuttering boy next door has been pressing on her throughout. Meanwhile, back at the office, the vampish girl who was her nemesis was put to work cataloguing all the Elvisiana, preparatory to a sale that would make back all the council's money, and she couldn't stand Elvis. Clearly, we were meant to feel that Gemma had found redemption, and the nasty girl had got her comeuppance. That worked only if you could avoid thinking, even a little bit, about which one was stuck in prison.

I couldn't help wondering, too, whether the balance of sympathy could have been maintained if Gemma was played by somebody older, fatter or wartier. In real life, the woman Gemma was based on was in her mid-forties, and not nearly so sylph-like, and the council didn't make their money back, because she had paid stupid prices for the goods. But, hey, if you can't get away with unrealistic optimism on Boxing Day, when can you get away with it?

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