Val Gielgud and the BBC


The location of Portland Place is a backdrop for a key scene in the 1935 Hitchcock film "The 39 Steps":


Map showing Broadcasting House


The original John Buchan novel (first publication possibly in 1915) sets John Hannay's London flat in the first floor of a new block behind Langham Place. This is where Scudder or 'Captain Theophilus Digby, of the 40th Gurhkas' is murdered 'sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor'.


Broadcasting House


Hitchcock and his screenwriters cleverly switch the character to make it female 'Miss Smith/Annabella) played by Lucie Mannheim. In my view the Hitchcock film of 1935 was more exciting in the sense that the use of femme fatales and switching Buchan's secondary male characters for women added a zest. Furthermore the Forth Bridge scene is filmic and not part of the original book.


Hitchcock's film made a year after 'Death At Broadcasting House' was eminently more successful because it was based on an excellent and best selling novel and also because of the widely acknowledged talent and qualities of its director. The original novel and the first film therefore has considerably more cultural and literary resonance and significance.

Chapter 9 of The Thirty Nine Steps

Review of the film


The entire book available online


Review of the book

The Thirty Nine Steps educational resource

Another source for the original text

Another source for original text and a link to a chatroom or newsgroup


The performances of Robert Donat as Hannay, Madeleine Carroll as Pamela and the young Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret have been consistently praised by the critics.


The 1935 Hitchcock film is available on DVD

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (1935) A Film Review by Ted Prigge

Gallery of Pictures from the film

Article on The 39 Steps Hitchcock film by George Perry

Hitchcock deliberately handcuffed Carroll and Donat on the set to get them used to doing their scenes together. Buchan's novel is very much an artefact of its time and has become a source for studying the negative representation of Jews and other 'foreigners' as well as being a symbol of Imperialist culture. Buchan's attempt to reproduce the dialect of Scottish people is also rather farcical to modern eyes and ears.


The original 39 steps and the writer John Buchan - later Governor-General of Canada


John Buchan

Location of The 39 Steps


Critical Evaluation of the novel

Further critical issues in literary studies

The real steps which were the inspiration for the book


Orson Welles and the CBS Mercury Theatre on the Air also did a radio adaptation of The 39 Steps on the 1st of August 1938. This edition went out on a Monday night between 9 and 10 p.m. and the first season of plays was called 'First Person Singular'. There was also a production and broadcast in 1937 - a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation performed by Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino.

Audio book version available read by Frederick Davidson

The book was also made into another film in 1959 starring Kenneth Moore with spectacular Scottish locations

Review of the 1959 film


Poster for 1959 film


A third film version was made with Robert Powell in 1978

The Richard Hannay character ran for a total of 5 novels many of which provided the impetus for the BBC to develop the character over long serials on the radio and incorporating the separate books into Hannay story sequences. The Three Hostages is regarded by many critics as one of the strangest and best of the stories with high adventure, and more profound and culturally alarming resonances.


The Three Hostages book cover


It would appear that the first BBC production of John Buchan's The 39 Steps was 23/7/1939 and adapted by Winifred Carey. This would have had cultural poignancy being weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War as the book is all about nefarious German espionage activity weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. And the Richard Hannay mythology was very much the cultural reference point for British/Imperial intelligence and counter-espionage values before Ian Fleming's James Bond and Mrs Moneypenny arrived post Second World War. Buchan died in 1940. Same adaptation was produced by the BBC on 9th November 1948. Winifred Carey's adaptation of the novel was reproduced in 5 episodes in a series of 'The Adventures of Richard Hannay' on 15th January 1950.

In fact the novel was clearly very popular throughout the 50s with another adaptation produced in February 1953. David S Boliver was responsible for an adapatation produced and broadcast by the BBC on 30/09/1953 and J.C Gosforth on 19/06/1958. After the Second World War these were all Home Service transmissions. It was hardly Third Programme material, Winifred Carey's Adventures were produced presumably by pre-recorded production processes for BBC Radio 4 on 13/08/1972.

John Buchan's representation of non Anglo-Saxon white people in his novels contains alarming and rather repugnant constructions of racist stereotypes. The Richard Hannay character and adventures of the Edwardian, First World War and between the wars period coincided with the entrenchment of anti-Semitic propaganda and he does not exercise much restraint in the depiction of derogative anti-Jewish comments and attitudes in his characters.

Hannay's description of a black jazz band in a Fitzrovia club of the 1920s is very offensive to an audience of today:

'We paid five shillings apiece for a liqueur, found a table and took notice of the show. It seemed to me a wholly rotten and funereal business. A nigger band, looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded some kind of barbarous jingle, and sad-faced marionettes moved to it. There was no gaiety or devil in that dancing, only a kind of bored perfection. Thin young men with rabbit heads and hair brushed straight back from their brows, who I suppose were professional dancing partners, held close to their breasts women of every shape and age, but all alike in having dead eyes and masks for faces, and the macabre procession moved like automata to the niggers' rhythm. I daresay it was all very wonderful, but I was not built by Providence to appreciate it.

"I can't stand much more of this," I told Archie'

Page 85, Buchan, J (1995) The Three Hostages, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics.

Professor David Daydeen and Nana Wilson-Tagoe critique Buchan's 1910 novel 'Prester John' in 'A Reader's Guide to West Indian and Black British Literature (1988) London: Hansib Publications. On pages 111 to 116 a clear case is made out that the book 'depicts Africans in a negative light. The theme of adventure only works by presenting Africans as unfamiliar, mysterious creatures who share little with the whites.' Although they acknowledge that Buchan has attempted to undermine imperialism but his strong and positive depiction of the character Laputa depends on europeanisation and an absence of 'squat and preposterous Negro lineaments.' The African remains 'relegated to the status of the "savage other".'

In 'The Thirty Nine Steps' it is Scudder's description of Jews being behind a force of malevolent international finance which throws up echoes of the anti-Semitic and faked 'Protocols of Zion':

"'Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell. 'Do you wonder?' he cried. 'For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him.

Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German businessman that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you're on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.

Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.'

I could not help saying that his Jew-anarchists seemed to have got left behind a little.

'Yes and no,' he said. 'They won up to a point, but they struck a bigger thing than money, a thing that couldn't be bought, the old elemental fighting instincts of man. If you're going to be killed you invent some kind of flag and country to fight for, and if you survive you get to love the thing.

Those foolish devils of soldiers have found something they care for, and that has upset the pretty plan laid in Berlin and Vienna. But my friends haven't played their last card by a long sight. They've gotten the ace up their sleeves, and unless I can keep alive for a month they are going to play it and win.' "

Chapter 1- The Man Who Died. From the Internet version of The Thirty Nine Steps at Gutenberg

Later in the novel Hannay observes that Scudder does not like Jews but this virulent and demeaning expression of racism is contextualised as 'an odd bias':

'He had the artistic temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red. Jews and the high finance'.