Spy ware

PBS does The 39 Steps
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  February 23, 2010

CAT-AND-MOUSE: Forget World War I and British naval secrets — this 39 Steps is all about Penry-Jones and Leonard.

The 39 Steps | Directed by James Hawes | Written by Lizzie Mickery, from the novel by John Buchan | with Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, David Haig, Patrick Malahide, and Patrick Kennedy | a Masterpiece Classics presentation, February 28 at 9 pm on WGBH Channel 2
Hitchcock fans will feel right at home with the DVD box of the 2008 BBC production that's making its American debut this Sunday on Masterpiece Classics. There's our hero on the run, with the familiar menacing biplane in hot pursuit. Only thing is, he's racing through a Scottish moor, not an Indiana cornfield. And the thriller he's in is not North by Northwest but The 39 Steps.

What gives? Turns out that in the 1915 novel by John Buchan that inspired Hitchcock's 1935 film, Richard Hannay does spot a monoplane scouring Galloway for him. Hitchcock substituted a helicopter and filed the plane away for use in a later movie. In fact, he made many changes in his The 39 Steps, turning Scudder — the British spy who starts things off in Hannay's London flat — into Annabella Smith and then, in Scotland, giving us Pamela, the blonde played by Madeleine Carroll to whom Robert Donat's Hannay is so memorably handcuffed. There are virtually no women in Buchan's novel. No Mr. Memory in the London music hall, either, and the explanation of the "39 steps" is altogether different. Notwithstanding the enduring popularity of Hitchcock's film, the BBC decided on a remake that would hew closer to Buchan's original.

The catch is, Buchan's original (newly available as a "companion edition" in Penguin Classics) isn't very inspiring. It runs barely more than a hundred pages, in the course of which Hannay — a mining engineer just returned to England from Rhodesia — flees to Scotland after the murder of his spy neighbor and has various mundane adventures with the locals before he just happens to walk into the enemy's headquarters. Escaping from that predicament, he gets the information he's deciphered from the murdered spy's notebook to the government, and high-ranking officials stand back in admiration as he shoots off to Kent, climbs down the 39 steps, and prevents the Germans from learning about the disposition of the British fleet.

Like Hitchcock, the BBC took its own steps. Its Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones) is a proto–James Bond — Michael York with a touch of Roger Moore — who when Scudder pulls a gun is ready with his own. And standing in for Pamela is Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard), a suffragette who seems to know more about Hannay than she should. Indeed, Leonard and Penry-Jones could be auditioning for M and 007 in a future Bond flick, with Patrick Malahide as the requisite suave but sadistic super-villain. The time period has been moved up a month or so from the novel's May 1914: it's late June, and as Hannay is fleeing London, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand sets World War I in motion. But this version's thrills are personal rather than political. Hannay starts things off by admonishing Victoria, "You ladies should be grateful you don't have to get your petticoats dirty fighting for your country"; when he tells her he's being chased by German spies, she counters, "Not just a murderer but a delusional maniac — just my luck." It's all stiff upper lip: when Victoria threatens to shoot a traitorous relative, he replies, "I would expect nothing less."

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