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The 39 Steps (DVD)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

TELEVISION adaptations of classic novels are something the BBC does well. We saw that recently with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Now comes John Buchan’s spy thriller The 39 Steps starring Rupert Penry-Jones as dashing hero, Richard Hannay. But does it live up to expectations?

Set immediately prior to the outbreak of the first World War, Hannay’s life takes a sudden turn for the worse when British spy Scudder literally barges into his flat with information about a German spy ring based in Scotland. And when Scudder is killed, Hannay finds himself accused of murder and duty bound to deliver the dead man’s coded notebook to the head of the British Secret Service.

So begins a race against both time and the enemy (here include police), which sees Hannay on the run in the wilds of Scotland, accompanied by a certain Miss Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard), a feisty and very pretty young suffragette he just happened to meet along the way.

Many of you will be familiar with the novel or one, if not all, of the three film adaptations, the most famous of which is Hitchcock’s 1935 version starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Alternatively, your knowledge of The 39 Steps may be confined to Patrick Barlow’s award-winning stage adaptation, which is currently delighting audiences at London’s Criterion Theatre.

But whatever, Lizzie Mickery has taken Buchan’s tale and made it her own and while it may lack the suspense and drama of its forerunners – who can forget Hannay’s daring escape on the Forth Bridge or the death defying finale at the London Palladium – it does have a certain panache, courtesy of stunning locations, two vintage vehicles (a grey 1924 Morris Oxford and a green 1926 Darracq) that positively race round the Highlands, a 1916 SE5A bi-plane (alright, a three-quarter replica) and a beautiful old steam train.

And of course, there’s Penry-Jones who, if my daughter is anything to go by, is sex on legs. He does play the dashing hero rather well though, as we’ve seen before in Krakatoa – The Last Days and, more recently, Burn Up. And here, as befits the period, he’s suitably gallant, even a little hesitant, when confronted with the opposite sex. His relationship with the tempting Victoria is nothing short of honourable, though if you expect a repeat of the famous stockings and suspenders scene, you’ll be disappointed.

On the negative side – and these really are small issues – while on the run and seemingly in the back of beyond, Hannay miraculously produces a fully operational hurricane lamp from nowhere, while Victoria is rather too quick in demonstrating she can do more with a hairpin than fasten her hair.

That said, this really is an excellent production; one that entertains even as it evokes memories of a distant, bygone era. And there are fine performances, not only from the two leads but also from a supporting cast that includes David Haig (My Boy Jack, Journey’s End) as Sir George Sinclair and Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady, Present Laughter) as Captain Kell.

So yes, The 39 Steps more than lives up to expectations and is certainly not to be missed.