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How ‘The 39 Steps’ Went From Tense British Thriller to Broadway Comedy

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1. John Buchan, a young civil servant in colonial South Africa, publishes The Thirty-nine Steps in 1915. In the book, Richard Hannay, a former “soldier of adventure,” is framed for a spy’s murder, learns of a plot to steal British secrets, and flees London for Scotland. Four Hannay sequels follow, but the first is the smash, and stays in print to the present day, thanks to…


2. …Alfred Hitchcock, who adapts it (loosely) in 1935. He adds, among other things, romance (like a notorious scene in which Madeleine Carroll removes her stockings while handcuffed to Robert Donat). The year it’s released, Buchan—who says Hitchcock has improved on his novel—becomes governor-general of Canada.


3. But others believe they can improve on the movie. In 1959, Ralph Thomas makes a Technicolor version matching Hitchcock almost shot for shot. Another remake, in 1978, stars Robert Powell, and hews much closer to Buchan’s novel—that is, until a final scene in which Hannay (like Harold Lloyd and, much later, Jackie Chan) dangles from Big Ben’s clock hands.


4. Ten years later, Powell stars in a TV version, Hannay, which lasts only thirteen episodes. Then, in 1996, yet another remake is discussed: a contemporary American one, to be written and directed by Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown. Rumors soon pop up that Mel Gibson will star, but nothing materializes.


5. In 1998, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon script a stage adaptation using only four actors that re-creates panoramic chase scenes with sheets, ladders, and trunks. Beginning in 1998, they tour Britain. Auberon Waugh sees it and says, “I have never known such happiness from a theatrical production.” Producer Edward Snape buys the script in 2001, but can’t seem to get it to London until…


6. …in 2004, he hires Patrick Barlow, founder of a comic troupe known for bare-bones send-ups of the Bible and the Ring cycle. Barlow, meant to play Hannay, instead rewrites the play, adding numerous Hitchcock references. Two years later, director Maria Aitken joins, adding a vaudevillian flavor and still more characters.


7. Transferring to the West End in late 2006, the show wins a surprise Olivier for Best New Comedy, and makes it to Broadway a little over a year later. And what of the Towne remake? Still on the back burner today. So America will have to settle for yet another British import.


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