The 39 Steps

Six Minutes to Midnight


Now TV

Eddie Izzard is well known these days for running marathons, so it’s perhaps appropriate that she spends much of this film’s screen time sprinting headlong across the countryside with vengeful Nazis in hot pursuit. Six Minutes to Midnight is an old-school espionage potboiler, very much in the tradition of The 39 Steps, where stiff-upper-lipped Brits take on Hitler’s double agents in plucky and indomitable style. Co-written by Izzard, the tale is set in the exotic location of Bexhill-on-Sea and is loosely based around a true story.

Izzard stars as Thomas Miller, applying for the role of English teacher at a boarding school for German girls on the eve of the Second World War. The twenty girls in residence – who seem to spend much of their time working on their deportment – are presided over by headmistress, Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), and by the sole other teacher, Ilse (Carla Juri), who seems thoroughly charming. Miss Rocholl is doubtful about Miller’s abilities, but she’s in an awkward position, as the former English teacher has recently gone missing under mysterious circumstances, so she agrees to a trial period.

It’s not long before Miller has his German pupils merrily singing It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, which is an unusual approach to English, to say the very least – and it comes as no great surprise to discover that Miller isn’t really an English teacher at all…

As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that hardly anybody here is quite who they appear to be. Is Charlie (Jim Broadbent) really a happy-go-lucky bus driver? Is Captain Drey (James D’Arcy) actually a British secret agent or something decidedly more sinister? And what is the significance of the film’s title?

To be fair, Six Minutes to Midnight makes a decent fist at generating a little mystery, but never really gets up a proper head of steam when it comes to the action sequences – and whenever the story stalls, it’s treated as a cue for Eddie to start running again. Poor Judi Dench has little to do but utter some of the lamest lines in history, as events spiral towards an underwhelming climax.

This is decent enough, but nowhere near as gripping as it needs to be.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps 2016 tour - Olivia Greene as Pamela & Richard Ede as Hannay (c) Dan Tsantilis


Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

Poor Richard Hannay – framed for the murder of a mysterious young woman  he’s only recently met, he’s had to go on the run to a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands in order to prove his innocence. But danger lies in wait for him at every step…

Hannay is of course the great British hero of The 39 Steps. John Buchan’s classic novel was first published in 1915 and famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. This touring production, originally adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2006 comes direct from the West End and it’s easy to see the qualities that have pulled in packed audiences ever since. With a cast of just four actors, this is played primarily for laughs and conducted at breakneck pace with plenty of lightning-fast costume changes and a repeated motif of effects that go slightly wrong. It’s clear too that this is much more Hitchcock’s version of the story than Buchan’s – film fans will spot plenty of references to Hitch’s best known movies thrown into the mix. (In a shadow puppet sequence depicting a chase across the hills, keep an eye out for one particularly recognisable silhouette.)

Richard Ede makes an appealing pipe-smoking, Harris tweed-wearing  hero, while his three fellow actors virtually run themselves into the ground providing a whole wealth of supporting characters for him to interact with. In the cavernous setting of the Lyric theatre, it was sometimes a struggle to make out every line of dialogue (I would have loved to see this in the more intimate setting of the studio theatre, but you can’t fault the producers for wanting to pitch this to the biggest possible audiences) and there’s no doubting the consummate professionalism on show here, nor the wit of Barlow’s script. It’s probably also true to say that when this production first aired many of the staging techniques on show would have seemed ground-breaking – now, they are part of the everyday language of contemporary theatre.

That said, this offers a fun and entertaining night out for lovers of adventure and comedy alike. It’s on untilSaturday 25th June.

4 stars

Philip Caveney