Reviewed: The Lady Vanishes by BBC1

Technical Hitch.

The Lady Vanishes
BBC1

One gathers that The Lady Vanishes had been gathering dust at the back of the BBC drama cupboard for quite a while until its screening this month – it was originally supposed to be shown last Christmas – and now I’ve watched it, I can see why. They might have got away with it on Boxing Day afternoon, when its audience would have been fat and farty and more than usually easily pleased. But on a cold and clear-eyed Sunday night in March? Not on your life.

I bet plenty of those who started watching it soon flipped over to ITV’s much-hyped film about the Queen – a documentary that revealed, among other things, that the royal household subscribes to Majesty magazine. (The more I think about this, the more it seems like one of the best facts ever; slip off her crown and isn’t HM basically Alan Titchmarsh – with longer vowels?) If I hadn’t been reviewing this, I would have done exactly the same.

A remake must have seemed like a great idea at the time. You can very well imagine the innocent enthusiasm at the commissioning meeting. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, which was based on the novel The Wheel Spinsby Ethel Lina White, is a marvellous confection, all camp thrills and derring-do. No one who has seen it ever forgets the cricket-obsessed young men, Charters and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), who are rushing back to England from the Balkans in order to see the Test match. Except . . . yes, the people who made this version – it was written by Fiona Seres and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence – did forget them. Or at any rate, they left them out. Why? I’m damned if know.

All I can tell you is that this was a bizarrely pared down version of The Lady Vanishes, its silliest corners ruthlessly eliminated in favour of its central plot. Which would be fine if its plot – a seemingly daffy woman called Miss Froy is taken hostage on a steam train by villains unknown –wasn’t so silly in itself. Throw too much weight on it, as Seres did, and all you will hear is the loud creaking it makes as it turns. (Had she gone back to the novel? I’m not sure; I haven’t read it. But if she had, it was naughty to bait the viewer with Hitchcock’s superior title.)

But perhaps we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the plot and the various tedious ways it had been modified. That could take some time. The performances were universally lovely, which made it seem all the sadder that the writing was so dull and the mechanics so laboured. Gathered on our trans-European express to Trieste and beyond were some fine actors, hamming it up with great verve, gusto and, well, brio.

Keeley Hawes was fabulous as the cynical Laura Parminter, the ennui wafting from her in great, powerful waves (I almost fancied I could smell it, rising noxiously above the Fracas or the Jicky). Alex Jennings played a character called the Professor and he was predictably lovable; his quizzical, period face might have been made for horn-rimmed spectacles. Gemma Jones and Stephanie Cole put in expert turns as bitchy spinster sisters, Evelyn and Rose Flood-Porter, who fell on every morsel of gossip as if on a bridge roll. Selina Cadell was Miss Froy, her eyes like marbles about to roll from her head. Pip Torrens was the Reverend Kenneth Barnes and he – Torrens, I mean – is never anything less than hilarious, always looking as if he has just swallowed a frog.

In the lead role as the beautiful Iris Carr – it’s the spoiled but plucky Iris who notices Miss Froy no longer appears to be on the train –was Tuppence Middleton. She had an awful lot to do, for all the reasons I’ve already explained, so it was hardly her fault if she sometimes seemed weary both of her role and of Max (Tom Hughes), the hungry-looking young man who kept thrusting his cheekbones at her whenever they were alone in her compartment. She has, as they say, a long career ahead of her – and with a name like Tuppence, I’d be willing to bet good money (ha ha) that she will soon be a big star.

Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes in "The Lady Vanishes". Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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The Polish Christmas advert that trumped John Lewis melts hearts in regretful Brexit Britain

An advert that encourages us to hope for “more” in our relationship with our European neighbours.

John Lewis had a trampolining dog, H&M had Wes Anderson, Sainsbury’s had a singing James Corden. But for all their big-budget sheen and tie-in products, none have mustered as much genuine emotion as this commercial for a Polish auction site, Allegro. Starring an elderly Polish man learning English for the first time, the video has rocked up almost 7 million views since it went online at the end of last month.

We watch Robert labelling all his household possessions (including his dog), reading his vocabulary book and listening to CDs in all manner of locations (his desk, the bus, even the bath) in his attempt to learn English. Why? Well, as the advert reveals in its final moments, it’s all for love: Robert can’t wait to speak English to his granddaughter (and daughter-in-law) when he visits them in the UK this Christmas.

The advert is like a mix of Edeker’s 2015 Christmas advert, and John Lewis’s “Man on the Moon” and “The Long Wait” films – with a dash of Love, Actually (language barriers and doorstep reunions) – so it ticks all the boxes of a Christmas hit. Lonely old person? Check. An agonising wait? Check. Cute pet, adorable tiny child, airport scene? Check, check, check. All topped off with some tear-filled hugs? Checkmate.

It’s funny too: many commenters thought the final twist might be Robert using some of his less child-appropriate vocabulary (“I’m going to fucking kill you!”) when meeting his granddaughter for the first time.

But there’s also a subtly anti-Brexit message here, as love trumps borders. A spokesperson for Allegro told Buzzfeed, “Many Polish people share the same experience” as this “grandfather who overcomes obstacles to reunite with his loved ones living abroad.”

“Nearly one million Poles have decided to leave the country in search for a job, mainly heading for the United Kingdom. Despite the relatively close distance between the countries, family ties tend to weaken. Therefore, Christmas for many is a difficult time in which we yearn for more.”

An advert that encourages us to hope for “more” in our relationship with our European neighbours? Wouldn’t that be the greatest gift of all? Well, much better than a trampoline, anyway. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.