Sunday night has long been the home of period drama on BBC One with recent examples being Upstairs Downstairs and Call the Midwife. This Sunday night is no exception as it sees the premiere of The Lady Vanishes. For most The Lady Vanishes will be best known as a 1938 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock which starred Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. However this new piece doesn’t claim to be a remake of the film but rather a new adaptation of the original source novel – The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lena White. Indeed writer Fiona Serres claims not to have seen the Hitchcock film prior to writing the script and has insisted that this is simply an adaptation. I personally feel that the biggest strength of this adaptation is in its production design however the basic plot from the Hitchcock film remains the same.
The plot concerns pretty young socialite Iris Carr (Tuppence Middleton) who is holidaying with friends in the Balkans. As their drinking and partying escalates she begins to tire of their constant drama and decides not to travel back with them. Instead she spends the rest of her holiday on her own, however feels terribly dizzy during several hikes. Her ill health culminates at the station as she faints in the heat and barely manages to catch her connecting train. When on the train Iris is comforted by friendly governess Miss Froy (Selina Cadell) who helps to nurse Iris back to health. When she comes to Miss Froy is nowhere to be found and several of the train’s passengers tell Iris that they never saw her with Miss Froy. These passengers include the secretive Mr and Mrs Toddhunter (Julian Rhind-Tutt and Keeley Hawes) as well as the Reverend Barnes (Pip Torrents) and his wife (Sandy McDade) all of whom are hiding their own secrets. The only person to believe Iris’ story is kindly English gent Max (Tom Hughes) who is currently working for a well-regarded Professor (Alex Jennings). As Iris continues to hunt for Miss Froy several of the characters worry about her mental state however she is determined to be proved right. The film climaxes in Iris finding out the truth about Miss Froy and why several of the characters denied her existence.
The first thing to say about The Lady Vanishes is that it looks absolutely fantastic from the opening scenes in The Balkans to the train journey itself everything is crafted with precision. Director Diarmuid Lawrence was keen to give this version of the piece a modern feel and to an extent I feel he has achieved this. The camera-work throughout heightens our suspicions of the characters while it also questions whether or not Iris’ delusions created the character of Miss Froy in the first place. The opening scenes, which were filmed in Budapest, set the story up perfectly and introduces the lavish landscape which demonstrates why Iris’ friends often holiday in The Balkans. The gorgeous design is also seen through the characters’ costumes particularly the dresses that Keeley Hawes’ Mrs Toddhunter is given to wear. The period detail is excellent throughout and is one of the elements that really grabbed me. The main problem I had was with the script itself as it dragged from time to time and didn’t really add anything new to the original story. Fiona Serres did state that one of the main problems in writing the script was that the whole story was set on a train and after watching the drama I can see exactly what she meant. The fact that the majority of 90 minutes has one setting means that you start to feel quite worn out while watching it. The fact that no mechanical aide was on hand to provide convincing train movements meant that the cast had to portray these movements themselves. Personally I believe they pulled it off as they slightly swung from side to side whenever they were manoeuvring themselves through the carriages.
Talking of the cast, the performances themselves were a mixed bag which again had an adverse affect on my enjoyment of the piece. In the lead role Tuppence Middleton didn’t really do much to make me want to care about Iris or her quest to uncover the truth. Middleton didn’t really portray the growth of the character throughout the drama and instead it hard to sympathise with the spoilt socialite during the majority of the piece. Tom Hughes, who was so good in Dancing on the Edge, was also not given much to work with in terms of the nice but dull Max. Thankfully some of the supporting cast saved the drama most notably Hawes and Rhind-Tutt who were great as the snide and secretive Toddhunters. Also worth a mention are Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones who played the judgemental Flood-Porter sisters. The sisters’ comic asides were one of the only highlights of the script and I personally enjoyed the drama whenever they were on screen.
Ultimately there’s nothing particularly wrong with The Lady Vanishes but at the same time it just seems like a bit of a pointless remake. While the production design and supporting cast were great, others elements were lacking namely in the lead performances and in the script. Overall I would say that if you’re a fan of period drama then you’ll probably enjoy this. If if you’re looking for something original then there’s probably no point in you getting on the train in the first place.
The Lady Vanishes can be seen at 8.30pm on Sunday 17th March on BBC1