The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, adapted by Bert Coules

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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.