When you think of genre-defining Scottish spies, you usually think of James Bond. True, James Bond started off as the quintessential English hero in Ian Fleming’s books, but once Sean Connery assumed the mantle in the movies, he became so synonymous with Bond than even Fleming felt compelled to make Bond Scottish, something very evident in the latest Bond movie, Skyfall.
But long, long before Bond, back when even Ian Fleming was just a young boy, there was another Scottish spy who more or less defined the genre in the first place: Richard Hannay. Based in part on Edmund Ironside, an Edinburgh-born spy during the Second Boer War, Hannay appeared in no fewer than seven books by John Buchan, the best known of which is The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Set in 1914, it sees ex-soldier and engineer Hannay visited in his London flat by a man called Scudder, a freelance spy, who reveals that there’s a German plot to assassinate the Greek premier during a forthcoming visit to London. When Scudder is murdered, the finger points at Hannay who not only has to evade the authorities and the German spy ring that killed Scudder, he also to save the Greek premier and expose the ring.
Buchan’s ‘shocker’ was an instant, astonishing hit, and proved so enticing that Alfred Hitchcock adapted it in 1935 with Robert Donat as Hannay.
But that was far from the last time the book was adapted. As well as numerous radio adaptations, including one with Orson Welles, a 1959 film directed by Ralph Thomas saw Kenneth More become Hannay.
More recently, Rupert Penry-Jones became Hannay for a 2008 BBC TV adaptation.
And even now, a comedic version of the book is a West End staple.
However, the best known adaptation of the story is the 1978 movie directed by Don Sharp and starring Robert Powell…
…that’s famous for out-doing Hitchcock with this scene on Big Ben.
So well regarded was this version that over a decade later, ITV asked Robert Powell if he’d reprise the role for a TV series called, naturally enough, Hannay. Here are the rather engaging, patriotic, not-at-all symbolic titles.
Set before the events of The Thirty Nine Steps, the show itself largely ignored most of the books in favour of an almost Platonic ideal of Hannay as a sort of amateur James Bond of his day that sees him involved in a series of daring-do tales of spying and/or adventure, often involving the dastardly Hun, particularly the villainous Count von Schwabing (Gavin Richards from Allo Allo).
However, the show, produced by Bergerac’s Robert Banks Stewart, wasn’t afraid to explore other adventure tropes, including East End crime gangs threatening a music hall and even a treasure hunt for South African diamonds. Hannay remains the personification of the Edwardian bachelor-adventurer throughout, falling for beautiful women he shouldn’t fall for, and helping the needy, vulnerable and working class, sometimes with the assistance of some posh muscle – his rugby club.
Was he still Scottish? More or less. There are frequent references to his growing up in Scotland and being Scottish, but Hannay himself frequently points out that he’s barely been to the country and that he’s far more African than he is Scottish. Nevertheless, within the first episode, he’s soon back in Scotland.
As well as its frequent hat-tips to Buchan’s books, Hannay wasn’t afraid of poaching story ideas from other genres – without credit – with one episode based on Dornford Yates’ The Brother of Daphne, another based on Leslie Charteris’s Saint story The Umblemished Bootlegger.
With Powell as the lead, it naturally attracted stars of the day, including Charles Gray, Geraldine Alexander, Iain Cuthbertson, Edward de Souza and Anthony Valentine:
However, after two series of 13 episodes, the show ended. Perhaps it didn’t take itself seriously enough, perhaps it tried too hard to emulate a notional style of Buchan that descended into pastiche. Nevertheless, it quite rightly cemented Robert Powell’s position in history as the Richard Hannay. If you’re lucky, you still might be able to get in on DVD.