Sunday, January 04, 2009

Taking Dramatic Steps

Drama at Christmas usually meant some argument kicking off around the dining table followed by everyone simmering in stony silence as we retired to sit in front of the television, hoping for an eventual détente. This year, with everything all remarkably quiet on the familial front, there was nothing else to do but rely on the box for any action. Typically we come up short.

Because we watched comparatively little television over the holiday it probably meant that we missed a slew of remarkable programmes. But knowing the pretty rancid state of British television nowadays, I’d say that was doubtful. While many people complain about the amount of repeats on television they do occasionally prove to be beneficial. Especially when, four years ago we all somehow managed to miss the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking. Of course the reason we let it pass by the first time around was the feature-length drama was probably shown over Christmas that first time out.

Remarkably, Rupert Everett made for a spectacularly louche Sherlock Holmes. Not only that but the plot was one that solely revolved around Holmes’ famous maxim that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. It couldn’t get any better than that. Once the credits rolled the only real mystery that remained was why the BBC hadn’t set some money aside to gather Everett and Ian Hart as the stout Dr John Watson together for another adventure.

Instead this year the chief BBC Christmas drama came from the pen of another writer from the same era as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with an adaptation of John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps. Missing it on the day of transmission because I was out with the Lovely Actress, I asked my folks if it had been any good but they had watched the Top Gear Vietnam Special instead. Back in London, I eventually caught it on iPlayer yesterday evening.

Every previous adaptation, beginning with Alfred Hitchcocks’ 1935 film, took liberties with Buchan’s story, whether it was the appearance of Mr Memory or Richard Hannay hanging from the clock hands of Big Ben in the more recent Don Sharp-directed version. This time around, while pretty much sticking to the novel’s plot, came the introduction of a rather feisty suffragette to help Hannay stay one step ahead of the British police and German agents.

Much as I admire Lizzie Mickery’s earlier work, adapting Boris Starling's Messiah and co-writing the political drama The State Within with Daniel Percival, even with all the new twists and turns piled on to beef up Buchan’s story, somehow it all turned out to be quite boring. It started well, with Eddie Marsan’s Scudder evading the foreign spies by forcing his way into Hannay’s bachelor apartment. But once he was offed by the dreaded Hun before he could finish his egg on toast it all went downhill.

Fresh out of Spooks, Rupert Penry-Jones may have made a decent fist of portraying Hannay, running from a biplane rather than hanging from the Forth Rail Bridge, but he just didn’t have the lively personality of Robert Donat. Also, at no point was he handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, which, when it comes down to it, is what we all would have wanted, right?


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