The 39 Steps, BBC1

by | Dec 31, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

An often relentless and entertaining adaptation of the classic adventure yarn, which was further buoyed by Rupert Penry-Jones and Lydia Leanard in the lead roles.

What was good about it?

• Even though the original novel by John Buchan has been so twisted out of shape it became less recognisable than Pete Burns, the essence of a thrilling pre-World War one adventure remains.

• The first half of the adventure is an inexorable chase that charges from Hannay’s apartment with the murder of a spy by German agents, along a rail journey that is ended when the police search the train, and across the Scottish moors, where he is pursued by police and dogs, a bi-plane and the German agents in a car.

• The scenery is almost as important in this particular tale. Although not as prominent as in some cinematic adaptations, the bleakly beautiful Scottish moorland represents the sense of disorientation hero Richard Hannay feels. He has recently returned from working in Africa, and the endless verdant desert of the Highlands bewilders him, heightening his sense of isolation from his native land.

• Rupert Penry-Jones has honed the heroic role from his years in Spooks. A talented actor, Penry-Jones excels in a variety of roles, but here his direction seems to have been ‘play it like Adam Carter, only with a sardonic relish of early 20th century machismo’. And for the role of Richard Hannay it worked perfectly.

• The old-fashioned attitude of Hannay, of being a gentleman, of always protecting the women and children, was counter-balanced by Lydia Leanard as Victoria Sinclair. Often more resourceful and determined than Hannay, Victoria’s inherent spikiness and refusal to be patronised gave The 39 Steps a modern sheen without ever appearing to one of those contrived adaptations that feels duty-bound to extinguish anachronisms from the past with neurotic dialogue. Here it is the gallant Hannay who is at the sharp end of Victoria’s ripostes, but who can also fight back with an acerbic quip of his own: “Even for a woman, that’s a remarkably stupid notion!”

• And because of this, their creeping mutual attraction was far more credible when they bickered and locked wits rather than the sentimentalised conventional romantic scenes such as when they kiss in her uncle’s mansion.

• The pace picked up once the cumbersome lovey-dovey interlude was over, as Hannay rushed to Stirling Castle to foil the German plot to steal Britain’s naval secrets.

What was bad about it?

• The baffling dummy denouement. With the German threat vanquished, Hanny held the beaming Victoria in his arms and promised to “woo” her with dinner, flowers etc. Then a half-dead German spy shot her in the abdomen, and she plunged from the jetty into the loch. After finishing the spy off, Hannay searched the waters but couldn’t find her.

• Four months later, as Hannay prepared for World War One, Victoria met him at the railway station. But why had she faked her own death? Was it the suffragette in her that refused to be beholden to a man? Or did her role in the secret service mean that such relationships were impossible? Either way, Victoria had established herself as a formidable woman, and instead of that ornate ruse, she could have more plausibly told Hannay to back off until he returned from the trenches.

• Hannay was hounded by a plane as he scarpered over the Highlands, and was menaced by its machine guns. While we’re not usually that bothered by historical blunders such as this even we know that pilots were pretty much limited to dropping bricks until a few years later.

• Hannay’s enduring evasion of the British police owed as much to their crippling incompetence as his own ingenuity. And his ingenuity owed much to the sanguine susceptibility of the public – a maid believes his tall tale as he hangs from the fire escape after fleeing his apartment, a ventriloquist unquestioning aids and abets a suspected murderer on the trust of his posh accent alone, while Victoria and her brother assume Hannay to be a visiting politician they are searching for after he tumbles down a hill in front of their car.

• Even though we enjoyed it, a remake of The 39 Steps does seem a little pointless when there are a number of very good film versions already made. Still, because it was decent it has more right to exist than the umpteen uninspired remakes lumbering over from Hollywood next year.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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