BBC Radio 7, 22-23 June 2009
Forget Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film; this adaptation returned to the
original book to create a tale of self-discovery for Richard Hannay (David Robb). At the beginning he is an arrogant prig,
returning to England from an affluent life in South Africa for a brief holiday, and hating everything about the country of
his birth. Even a visit to the music-hall, where he encounters Mr. Memory-Man (who had a peripheral role in this version,
unlike in the Hitchcock film), fails to inspire him. Perhaps because of his stand-offishness, Hannay is chosen by the secret
agent Scudder (William Hope) as a suitable confidante, and informs him that if Hannay does not act quickly, the future of
England could be at risk. Initially Hannay finds the tale preposterous, but he later develops a strange kind of fascination
for the hapless agent. Perhaps it's because of his sincerity, or perhaps Hannay genuinely yearns for something different -
an alternative to the monotony of life as a gentleman of leisure. Eventually Scudder is killed; and Hannay is thrust into
a world of spies and intrigue in which he remains the perpetual innocent - a public-school educated hero with little or no
idea of what to do next.
Bruce Young's production adopted a flashback structure, with Hannay recounting his
adventures to Sir Walter, a friendly aristocrat (Tom Baker). At first Sir Walter seems a buffoon; but we eventually discover
that he is a member of the Secret Service, entrusted with the task of protecting Hannay from harm. All is not what it seems
in the world of spying. Hannay's principal adversary, codenamed The Hawk (Streuan Rodger) is so plausible that he can readily
pass as an Englishman, even though he works for the Germans. Predictably Hannay falls into his hands, but the Englishman manages
to escape with a combination of natural cunning and sheer pluck. By the time the second episode begins, Hannay is well on
the way to becoming a secret agent, working altruistically on behalf of his country with no concern for persoal safety. Perhaps
this transformation is a little too peremptorily handled (we are not told why Hannay should want to become involved in such
intrigues), but nonetheless he turns out to be a creditable hero. We even learn what the thirty-nine steps actually are -
a series of steps in an east coast port, linking the coastline to the sea, which the Germans hope to use once they have obtained
the little black book containing the British government's top-secret naval plans.
Set immedıately prior to the outbreak of World War I, The Thirty-Nıne
Steps shows how the Germans were prepared to stop at nothing to secure mastery over the British in a turbulent Europe,
following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo. Buchan creates an absolute distinction between good
and evil characters, while suggesting that careless talk can cost lives.
Radio seems particularly suitable for this kind of text - a few sound-effects
can set the scene, while the medium can readily accommodate rapid changes of location from Sir Walter's plush apartment to
the wind-swept Scottish Highlands. Hannay emerges both triumphant and omniscient; by the end of the second episode of this
two-part adaptation he dominates the narrative. The experience proves an eye-opener for him both on the psychological
as well as the political level.