Monday, 29 December 2008

'The 39 Steps' (2008)

As anyone who has read this blog over the past couple of years will know despite my liberal politics I am enamoured with adventure novels of the 1910s-1930s. Partly in an age in which the individual has so little power against governments and those of wealth, I like to look back to stories in which a hero can alter things, though I recognise that even then, they probably had less power than the fictional characters wield. Having actually read many of them, I am aware when liberal critics are accurate in referring to the discrimination and misogyny in the stories and when they are lumping together very different authors and stories. One author I have particularly admired is John Buchan. I have read all of his Richard Hannay novels, and have seen all the film versions of the first and best known of the novels, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915).

The novel is readable online at:

The basic story of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' is that Richard Hannay, a British mining engineer, brough up in Scotland, has returned to Britain in 1914 and rather bored with life is drawn into a conspiracy when a neighbour in the block of flats he is living in, Scudder, passes him information about an assassination attempt on the life of the Greek premier. Scudder hiding in Hannay's flat is murdered by German agents and Hannay has to flee when accused of the murder. Scudder's information takes him to South-West Scotland where he seeks out the German gang seeking to not only carry out the assassination but also uncover the plans of Britain's naval dispositions in the war the assassination is expected to trigger off. In the novel the thirty-nine steps are particular steps down to the sea at a location on the East coast of Britain where the spies plan to escape after the plot has been carried out.

There have been three film versions of the novel. All of them have a train journey from London to Scotland, a traitorous local professor and a pursuit over the Scottish countryside, plus Hannay having to stand in for a Liberal Party politician at a public meeting. In contrast to the novel, the movies as with the latest television dramatisation, have an element of romantic interest, often with the woman handcuffed or tied to Hannay. In 1935 there was the Alfred Hitchcock version in which Hannay is played by Robert Donat. The story is set in the contemporary period, which is only 21 years after the novel was set and of course with new tension between Britain and Germany. In this story the woman is Annabella Smith, a British spy who reveals German plans to steal the designs of a silent aircraft engine. In this movie 'The 39 Steps' are a group. There are striking features such as the use of an aircraft to chase Hannay (revived by Hitchcock for his 'North by Northwest' (1959)) and the traitor identifiable by his missing fingers which allows a very subtle revelation of what is going on when Hannay thinks he is safe but realises he has walked into the enemy's base in Scotland.

The Ralph Thomas 1959 version is really a remake of the 1935 movie rather than a new version of the novel. It is set in the contemporary period. This time the 'MacGuffin', to use the Hitchcockian phrase, is a ballistic missile called Boomerang. A woman rather than Scudder brings the information and is killed in his flat. In the Hitchcock version the traitor is Professor Jordan and in the Thomas version, Professor Logan. In both versions a stage performer, Mr. Memory plays a role, though in the latter version he is shot before he can reveal what the 39 Steps are. The 1959 version is admired, but I find it very weak, almost comical at times and lacking the suspense of other versions. The featuring of light comedy actors such as Sid James, and Kenneth More playing Hannay struggling to keep up with a cycling club reduce the tension greatly. Having a missile called 'Boomerang' is also comic as boomerangs are famous for coming back! In the 1935 and 1959 versions Hannay is handcuffed to the female lead and they spend a night in hotel together.

The 1978 version directed by Don Sharp returns to the novel. It is set in 1914. Given the increasingly exotic set-ups for Second World War movies that had developed by the 1970s, there was a brief erratic fad for returning to 1900s-1910s settings, such as 'Zeppelin' (1971) and 'The Riddle of the Sands' (1979). Anyway, in the 1978 movie Scudder is present but he is British (played by John Mills) rather than an anti-Semitic American as he is shown in the novel; his full name being Franklin P. Scudder. He is still a freelance agent (this is a necessary plot device, if he had been working for British intelligence directly he could have communicated what he knew immediately and directly) but much more pleasant than the man in the novel. Anyway, the plot in this movie, like the novel is that the Germans are plotting to assassinate the Greek premier Constantine Karolides (the real Greek prime minister October 1910-March 1915 was Eleftherios Kiriakou Venizelos who was the country's prime minister seven times between 1910-33). In the novel it is believed that such an assassination will lead to war between Germany and Russia which would be to the benefit of anarchists backed by Jewish financiers and disaffected members of the German nobility. In the movie, this complexity is left out and it is really seen as a replacement for the actual assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia in June 1914 which actually helped provoke the war.

The German agents are led by Sir Edmund Appleton who near the end of the movie disguises himself as Sir Walter Bullivant (a character appearing in a number of the Hannay novels but more in a spymaster than cabinet secretary type role) who is taking minutes at a inner Cabinet meeting about the naval dispositions. Of course we know now that Buchan was wrong to see anyone else bar the Kaiser and the German High Command as being keen on a war with Russia. As early as December 1912 between the Kaiser and his military advisors there were discussions about provoking a war following an assassination in the Balkans in the Summer of 1914 when the widening of the Kiel Canal would be completed so allowing Germany's heaviest gunned battleships to sail easily to the North Sea to oppose the British. To this extent, the Sharp movie was closer to the reality even than Buchan had been. While the Germans had hoped the British would stay out of the war, they were conscious from 1898 onwards that either at the time of war with Russia and France or sometime in the future they would have to fight the British at sea.

The Sharp movie has romantic interest in the form of Alex(andra) Mackenzie, an Englishwoman engaged to Scottish landowner David Hamilton on to whose land Hannay runs while being pursued across Scottish moors. Hamilton and Mackenzie help Hannay evade the Germans (well, they are specified as Prussians, though given that Prussia covered two-thirds of Germany at the time that is not overly specific) and Hamilton is killed as a result, leaving Hannay open to woo Mackenzie at the end of the movie. What is interesting is that in these movies it is the working class Scots, the shopkeepers, crofters, landladies, etc. who have Scottish accents and aside from Hamilton, the other upper class Scots shown seem to be English living in Scotland. The Sharp movie ends in London with Appleton seemingly got away with the naval plans and the bomb to blow up Karolides when he addresses the Houses of Lords and Commons concealed in Big Ben tower (Big Ben is the bell, not the clock) over the Houses of Parliament. Hannay ends up hanging off the arm of the clock to stop the bomb detonating and giving a very dramatic scene over London. This, no doubt, was done with an eye to the potential US audience for the movie. The scene is similar to the climax of the black comedy Will Hay movie 'My Learned Friend' (1943). While Hannay prevents the death of Karolides war is not averted, but capturing Appleton who is waiting disguised as a river policeman does stop the naval plans going to the Germans. In this movie the 39 steps are a set of steps in the Big Ben tower.

So, this brings me to the 2008 version which was shown on BBC1 last night, 28th December 2008, showing 20.00-21.30 GMT. There were efforts to shake off the Hitchcock influence. There were some elements such as the use of the aircraft by the treacherous Professor Fisher (very suitably played by Patrick Malahide), the fact that two of the characters, Sir George Sinclair (also a British traitor) and his niece Victoria Sinclair have photographic memories. Rather than missing fingers, one of the key German agents wears a distinctive signet ring on his little finger.

As with the 1935 and 1959 movies there is no assassination attempt just the Germans trying to get hold of intelligence on British naval dispositions, in this case through using Sir George Sinclair who is at the meeting of the National Defence Committee (NDC) which I imagine was based on the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) 1902-14 (permanent from 1904, subsumed by the War Council once war broke out) which co-ordinated the British Empire's defence plans but had no executive powers. Using the acronym CID in the programme would have led to confusion as this is the acronym for the police detective units, Criminal Investigation Department. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th June 1914 is mentioned so the action takes place in that tense period of pressure being put on Serbia by Austria-Hungary that did not lead to war until the start of August. As with the other adaptations there is love interest, this time in the form of Victoria Sinclair (played by Lydia Leonard). She collars Hannay after he has been thrust on stage at a Liberal Party rally (in 1914 the Liberals had been in power since 1906 and would remain there ending in a coalition which fell in 1922). An election was scheduled for 1914 but did not come about due to the war. There is a similar scene in the 1978 movie. In this story Victoria's brother, Harry, is the local candidate, an Englishman seemingly accepted by the local Scots. Victoria puts herself forward as a suffragette (as opposed to the more numerous suffragists) who were the radicals willing to adopt civil disobedience and even vandalism and suicide as policies to win female votes. This may be because the word 'suffragette' is better known these days despite there being more 'suffragists' in the pre-1914 era.

Hannay and Victoria are handcuffed briefly by Fisher but Victoria releases them with her hairpin and they blast their way out of the oubliette of Fisher's castle. It later turns out that she is an agent of the Secret Service Bureau who has been put on to tailing Hannay when it becomes known he has Scudder's book that the Germans are seeking. Why Victoria was oblivious to the fact that her uncle who she sees regularly was a German traitor and he to the fact that she was a British agent does seem a bit of a weakness in the set up. However, the use of the term Secret Service Bureau is historically accurate. This was formed in March 1909 (or August or October, the reports are conflicting) prompted by the CID and this was what the British Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) grew. Captain Vernon Kell (known as 'K') who features in the programme (it wrongly had him in naval uniform whereas in fact he had been a staff captain in the South Staffordshire Regiment and fought during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; he later rose to be a major-general) was in reality a founder of the Bureau along with naval Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming ('C'). Kell served as Director General of MI5 from its foundation in 1914-42. The reference to 'The Weekly News' offering £10 for German spies that its readers could uncover was also factual. It is unlikely that given that by April 1914 the Bureau only had 14 staff that Victoria would be an agent. However, the Bureau did capture 20 German agents 1909-14. One could imagine with such small forces they would need freelance agents like Scudder. Hannay is said to have been in British intelligence in the Boer War which seems feasible as by the middle of that war the British Field Intelligence Department had 132 officers and employed thousands of agents of different races and women as well as men.

I am rather uncertain that it was as easy to ring up the Secret Service Bureau in 1914 as was shown in the programme. In those days, as shown, all calls went through a local exchange, you could not dial directly, so even accepting that Hannay has worked in intelligence and Victoria is an agent it would have been a challenge to get connected. When MI5's phone number (now 020 930 9000) was released for the first time in March 1998 it was said that it was the first time it had been given out. This number is for people who want to provide information about subversive groups, apparently it is not for people who want to join MI5 (for that write to Inquiries Desk at PO Box 3255, London SW1P 1AE; they are currently especially seeking people from ethnic minorities). When I met the Director General of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, in the late 1990s he did say that at the time he had had 22,000 calls; in 2000 they started advertising in newspapers for recruits. MI5 does filter out crank calls and also people trying to apply, and so this number effectively works in the way that something like Crimestoppers does that people can ring up with information. I suppose even in 1914 they would not turn away such calls as Hannay and Victoria were trying to make even with the spy hysteria prevalent at the time.

The drama handled the tension of an unmarried man and woman spending the night together in 1914 well and much better than the rather light-hearted approach of the 1935 and 1959 movies. To some degree the revelation of Victoria's role sows doubt in viewer's mind (as for the character) whether any feelings for Hannay are genuine or part of the job. Of course the writer of the drama, Lizzie Mickery (who was a TV actress 1978-2000 and a screenwriter since 1989; she played a suffragette in the 1983 series 'Number 10') has to appeal to a far broader audience than Buchan ever had to. In fact more of her audience may have been female than male whereas in 1915 the bulk of Buchan's readers would have been men (though even he, in 'Mr. Standfast' (1919) has romantic interest in the form of nurse Mary Lymington). There is no climax over the Houses of Parliament, partly because the assassination element has gone. Instead the vital meeting of the 'NCD' is at Stirling Castle in central Scotland, which not only makes a picturesque backdrop but also makes sense if the German operation is being run in Scotland. In the programme the 39 Steps are a staircase leading from Fisher's castle through the rock to a sea loch in which a German U-boat emerges to transport away Fisher, Sinclair and the German agents. This seems to be a logical conclusion to the story and allows a dramatic gunfight, with Victoria blasting away and Hannay plunging in to wrestle Sinclair. The emergence of the submarine even for a modern audience is a moment of suspense. The apparent death of Victoria and then the revelation that she has survived work pretty well, though the scene four months later, i.e. October 1914, when Victoria reappears, with Hannay and Harry Sinclair both at Charing Cross awaiting shipment to the Continent, does seem rather tacked on

You feel that Mickery has been influenced by the movie 'Enigma' (2001). Victoria Sinclair seems like a combination of Kate Winslet's intelligent, sparky, practical Hester and the more glamorous Claire played by Saffron Burrows who in fact is a British counter-spy with her own agenda. At the end of 'Enigma' with the hero Thomas now married to Hester he sees the supposedly dead Claire (she, like Victoria has supposedly drowned) walking through Trafalgar Square (which abuts Charing Cross railway station). The climax of that movie is Thomas trying to prevent the traitor 'Puck' boarding a German submarine in a remote northern location too. I suppose the logistics of the revised story would lead Mickery in this direction and it might be intentional as 'Enigma' was a well known wartime movie set in the UK with similar themes of treachery and weakening the British war effort through revealing secrets. Mickery also seems to have been aware of the 'Hannay' series of 1988-9 which ran to 13 episodes over two seasons and featured Robert Powell reprising the role from the 1978 movie. These stories are set in 1912 (with Gavin Richards probably doing his best TV role as Hannay's German nemesis Count von Schwabing in 4 episodes) and one in the first series sees 'The Fellowship of the Black Stone' (the Black Stone is the spy ring in the original novel) involves Hannay preventing German agents spying on the British fleet at Scarpa Flow and in the second series in 'The Terror of the Earth' Hannay charges around the countryside with a Swedish female scientist, Kirsten Larssen (played by the ever excellent Alex Kingston) who comes over very much like Victoria Sinclair (as do a number of other women in the series, such as Lady Madrigal Fitzjames played by Geraldine Alexander in the episode 'A Point of Honour' in which her and Hannay as in this recent story, have to pretend to be a married couple and share a bed).

I have rather neglected the heroes of the different movies. The worst I feel is Kenneth More (1914-82), not because he was a poor actor but because he was miscast in the role. He does not have that effete manner necessary to play Hannay. The character combines being a 'clubland hero' with a practical side and More seems to have insufficient of either of those characteristics. Donat and Powell are far better cast. Robert Donat (1905-58) is more of the man about town and Robert Powell (born 1944) looks more like the man who has been a mining engineer and a wartime intelligence agent. Their respective ages playing the roles are 30, 45 and 34 (and 44-5 when Powell was in the television series). The latest actor is Rupert Penry-Jones (born 1970), whose actual name sounds like a character from a Buchan novel. He appeared in the drama about MI5, 'Spooks' 2004-8. Though he is now 38 he easily looks ten years younger than that and that is an issue. If he had been an intelligence agent in the Boer War (1899-1902) it is feasible to have a man who would have been 23-26 in that role, but Penry-Jones as Hannay looks like he would have been 16 when the Boer War finished. That is not the actor's fault. It does go to the issue of casting period dramas and why so many British actors appear in US series because they physically look like someone who could have been around in 1914 or 1812 or whenever, whereas American actors look too well fed and samey. He plays the man about town part role well; he was good with the encounters with Victoria and can act the gentleman well enough but somehow lacks the grit when on the moors. However, this may be an issue around interpretation of the Hannay character.

Just to finish off. Casting Eddie Marsan as Scudder is interesting. Mills looked rather like a gentleman painter, but Marsan with his East End background has often played criminal or characters on the margins of society. He seemed well cast for the rather furtive role of a freelance spy. The other thing was the biplane. Penry-Jones wanted to be pursued by one over the moors like Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest', but it did lead to anachronism as he is pursued by a 1916 biplane, acceptable given there were biplanes but twin machine guns firing through the propellor which was introduced to Fokker EI-IIIs in the Summer of 1915 with a synchronising gear. I know the Germans had been working on it since 1914 but anyone having a working model then would have become immediately supreme in the air when war broke out. Perhaps it is Professor Fisher's own invention or a prototype that the Germans were inventing. Having the pilot fire with a pistol (presumably an automatic like the other German agents are shown wielding in wide variety).

Overall, aside from some minor details and the difficulty of killing then resurrecting Victoria Sinclair and the issues of her relationship with her uncle, I enjoyed the programme and liked the efforts to set it in the correct time. It would be nice to see some of the other original Hannay stories made into programmes. They are quite short so easily adaptable for a one-off drama of 90 minutes. Not all are as gripping as 'The Thirty Nine Steps', but 'Greenmantle' with its Middle Eastern setting and the more low key 'The Three Hostages' might be interesting.


MCG said...

Only mildly related, but you might be interested in "The Coming Conquest of England" - a German future-war novel from 1903, which I recently found on Gutenberg (

Rooksmoor said...

MCG - excellent, thanks for this. Gutenberg is proving to be a real gold mine for early 20th century literature. In the New Year I will see if I can get around to doing a posting about invasion literature of the time. It is interesting as 1903 was the year 'The Riddle of the Sands' by Erskine Childers was published, probably the best book written warning of a German invasion.

MCG said...

Try to find I.F. Clarke's "Voices Prophesying War, 1763-1984" - the local library should be able to get hold of it. Very readable roundup of the genre.

Also, have you read Saki's future war novel, "When William Came"? Again, its available on Gutenberg!

Rooksmoor said...

MCG, there is a later, revised version of Clarke's book that I read about ten years ago, the title is 'Voices Prophesying War 1763-3749' and was published in 1993. The main change is that it encompasses all those Third World War predictions that were so popular in the mid-1980s as well as moving into the more science fiction realm. It is a fascinating read. Amazon refers to such fiction as 'unusual' but if you see how many books have been written on that theme it seems common. I suppose that often there is a political as well as an entertainment aspect to such books. Having lived through the 'coming WWIII' era of the 1980s I know how scary these things can be. Two friends of mine were doing different projects one on the cultural impact of the Cold War and one an oral history of young people living through the latter phases but neither seems to have been published.

I used to be a huge Saki fan and read absolutely everything he wrote and when I lived in London would also try to see fringe theatre productions of his work. I came across 'When William Came' first in Michael Moorcock's collection, 'England Invaded' (1977) and then found my father had a Penguin paperback of it from the 1930s. It is interesting in that it is set after the war and does not have all the sweeping battles of something like 'The Battle of Dorking'. I always felt that it influenced 'SS-GB' by Len Deighton (1978) for his portrayal of Nazi-occupied Britain.

I am glad 'When William Came' is available online and suggest readers track it down.

MCG, thanks as always for your input.