Despite mixed fortunes, numerous attempts to interpret The 39 Steps pay testament to a compelling story.
| By London Theatre Direct
The West End production of The 39 Steps is a show that refuses to die. Seldomly playing to capacity audiences these days it still musters enough interest to tick over and is now well into its sixth West End year. The stage version is adapted by Patrick Barlow and is based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan, but actually leans more towards the better known 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film version. Taking the wry comedic undertones from the film to the next level it emerges as a twisted farce version of the Hitchcock classic. This is heightened by the fact that only four actors appear on stage - one as the lead Richard Hannay, one as the three woman he has romantic liaisons with and another two playing between 100 and 150 other roles, from men, women and children to inanimate objects. They change into these roles at lightning speed, oftentimes having to play multiple characters at the same time with the frenetic pacing played for laughs.
The original novel introduced the character of Richard Hannay, an all-action hero who has an uncanny knack of being able to get himself out of all kinds of scrapes. The book's success led to four more in a series. Arguably the most well known adaptation of the book was Hitchcock's 1935 black and white classic. It starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll and was a looser adaptation of the source material than later incarnations. It came fourth in a 1999 British Film Institute list of British films and Total Film rated it the 21st greatest British film of all time in 2004. Lesser known perhaps however are the other versions of the story.
A 1958 colour version used extensive outdoor locations as opposed to Hitchcock's studio bound treatment. It starred Kenneth Elg and Taina Moore as well as Carry On veteran Sid James and definitive Miss Marple Joan Hickson in smaller roles. The film was seen as inferior to the original with even director Ralph Thomas stating it was not his favourite film. He was under contract with Rank at the time who owned the film rights and even spoke to Hitchcock about the prospect of doing a new version, revealing "…he said "If you have the chutzpah to do it, you go ahead, my son and do it. You won't do it as well as I did it." And of course he was right. His film was a wonderful picture. I think mine was a piece of effrontery that didn't come off, and on the whole I regretted it."
A 1978 film version directed Don Sharp also released by Rank Studios was slightly better received. It is seen as being the closest of all the adaptations to Buchan's original source material. It starred Robert Powell as Robert Hannay and the film's success led to a two series TV spinoff a decade later in 1988 entitled Hannay with Powell reprising his role. The 1978 film stays true to the book's pre World War I setting and the overall tone and feel is more in line with the original thriller, although its signature set piece which sees Powell's Hannay hanging from the hands of Big Ben was an entirely different denouement from the Kentish coastal town setting at the novel's climax.
A 2008 film version starring Spooks star Rupert-Penry Jones was poorly received. Produced by the BBC it was the most watched programme of the day on its initial TV broadcast on 28 December as part of the Christmas schedule, but it fell afoul of critics who compared it unfavourably to the better-known Hitchcock version. Before it was broadcast Penry-Jones said of the BBC's thoughts on a follow up if the show was popular "They'd like to do more if they can. I definitely would". This was not to be. The show was shunted from its planned Boxing Day slot to the 28th and numerous historical inaccuracies were picked up on. Sam Wollaston of The Guardian felt "It's all very silly…it doesn't have the pace, the moodiness or the wit." Sunday Herald's Damien Love blamed Penry-Jones for the film's "tepid pace", claiming he was "…not at his best, and more reminiscent of a well-stuffed armchair on wheels."
The stage version's radical reworking seems to bring the best elements of the original novel and the Hitchcock film, and in ramping up the comedy and frenetic pacing audience's are still lapping it up. There seem to be no signs of The 39 Steps vacating the Criterion Theatre in the near future.