The Infantilisation of Audiences
Over Christmas, the UK’s BBC1 television channel showed a brand new adaptation of John Buchan’s perennial The Thirty-Nine Steps. The original had first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1915, and was published in book form later that same year by William Blackwood and Sons. I admit that I was pretty excited by the prospect of a new version of Buchan’s page-turning masterpiece hitting the small screen – I had collected Buchan first editions as a young man, and had always admired his descriptions of natural landscape and his way with a story. Perhaps this time along the BBC would have the good sense to return to the original book, which has been selling a steady ten thousand copies a year for the past five or six decades of its nine decade existence, rather than attempt a politically correct revisionist rehash. After all, if Charles Bennett, Alma Reville [Alfred Hitchcock’s wife], and Ian Hay could pull off the masterstroke of bringing the sublime Madeleine Carroll into Hitchcock’s 1935 filming of the story without prejudicing its Buchanesque spirit, then surely the BBC leviathan would have sufficient nous to call in a scriptwriter who actually felt equal affection for the original material, rather than someone for whom it represented little more than a commercial chore. Somewhat predictably, I was wrong on every count. Whatever BBC producer was chosen to baby The Thirty-Nine Steps along obviously fell prey to a severe dose of aspirational Billy Wilder-ism - I’m thinking, of course, of Wilder’s wonderful The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), towards whose cutting-edge novelty this production only vaguely aspired. The BBC’s problems began because producer and screenwriter both palpably lacked both Wilder’s genius and Wilder’s sense of humour. Instead of a cracking yarn, we got a turgid, quasi-feminist recombobulation of what had once been a great work of adventure. Little by little, our erstwhile hero, Richard Hannay - marvellously played by Rupert Penry-Jones, who would have been perfect casting in an honest production of the book - lost all heroic semblance in favour of a quite stunningly unbelievable and modern-seeming suffragette. Oh dear. Not being a grumpy Wiltshire Colonel, I will draw a partial veil over the continuity howlers, which did, however, include the impossible [in 1914] use of a pair of synchronised machine guns in a bi-plane. Even the cars were of the wrong vintage because, I gather, cars of the period weren’t deemed ‘fast enough to maintain tension’. Well, one maintains tension by the use of imagination, not by hardware! Next time the BBC wants an adaptation of a John Buchan story, may I modestly suggest that they come to me.