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New `Thirty Nine Steps` a nod to a gritty James Bond says reviewer

26-Dec-2008 • Bond Style

In the world of that great 20th-century literary invention, the spy story, Before Bond is like Before Christ in human history. But even 007 had his John the Baptist: Richard Hannay, a spy who has been reincarnated almost as often reports Times Online.

Hannay, the creation of John Buchan, a Scottish scion of empire who became a propaganda expert in the First World War and eventually Governor-General of Canada, returns to our screens this Christmas in a new adaptation of Buchan's classic The Thirty-Nine Steps that is both up-to-the-minute and a return to its origins.

It is set in a world of steam trains and maids in starched uniforms, but any Merchant Ivory overtones are offset by having Hannay played by Rupert Penry-Jones, familiar to spy-fi fans as the tough, contemporary Adam in Spooks.

Vintage cinema buffs still thrill to Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 black-and-white version starring Robert Donat, with its famous music-hall scene in which Mr Memory is shot on the point of revealing details of a German spy network.

For all its fame - it was repeated in the 1959 colour version starring Kenneth More - the Mr Memory scene was a Hitchcock invention. Its plausibility is often questioned (why wouldn't the Germans have got rid of him earlier?) and it has been ditched by the BBC.

The first two screen adaptations moved Hannay's adventures to contemporary times: the interwar years and then the Cold War. A 1978 version starring Robert Powell took him back to the original 1914 setting, but Powell's crinkly hair and a climax that had him hanging from the hands of Big Ben made it more of a Seventies period piece.

Now the writer Lizzie Mickery has put Hannay back where he belongs, on the eve of the First World War, but in a style that gives more than a nod to the grittier James Bond of Daniel Craig.

In fact Bond owes a major debt to Hannay. Both were born in Scotland, went to public school, and were hardened by early exposure to warfare: in Hannay's case, the Boer War, in Bond's, the Second World War.

Both represent the life that their authors aspired to, or at least fantasised about. Fleming served in naval intelligence, Buchan wrote for the War Propaganda Department. The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915, was a morale-boosting hit in the trenches.

Its sequel, Greenmantle, sent Hannay east to Turkey and an encounter with a devastating femme fatale, a story that has parallels with Fleming's From Russia with Love, though its vision of a radical Muslim uprising rings familiar today.

In Greenmantle and later adventures, Hannay also finds his own equivalent of Bond's CIA sparring partner Felix Leitner: the American agent John Scantlebury Blenkiron.

Like Fleming, Buchan gave his hero an ordinary name but more exotic monickers to supporting characters: Sandy Arbuthnot and Sir Walter Bullivant, Hannay's version of M.

Despite ditching features of the film storyline, the new BBC version pays homage to both Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the superb but little-known British 1945 horror flick Dead of Night, with its sinister ventriloquist's dummy.

Among the new inventions are a recasting of the love interest - something the very Boy's Own Buchan didn't do at all well - as a militant young suffragette. The author, who as a politician, campaigned for the female vote, would have approved, though I'm not sure what James Bond would have had to say.

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