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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear