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TV Interview

Rupert Penry-Jones ('The 39 Steps')

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Rupert Penry-Jones ('The 39 Steps')
After bowing out of Spooks in a blaze of glory earlier this year, Rupert Penry-Jones is back on form for a one-off action drama this Christmas. The 39 Steps is a new adaptation of John Buchan's 1915 novel about a man on the run from German spies in the build-up to World War One. We caught up with Penry-Jones to find out more about his latest turn as an all-action hero.

What's the story of The 39 Steps?
"It's set just before the First World War. A guy is being blamed for a murder he didn't commit and he's also being chased by the Germans, who think he has the details of their plans to invade Britain. From the minute it starts it's basically one long chase movie. It's one of the best times I've had on a job in a long while."

You play our hero, Richard Hannay. How would you describe him?
"He's a man who comes back from working as an engineer in Africa to London. He doesn't really like what's going on in London - he finds it boring and stale - so he plans on going back to Africa, then suddenly he finds himself in this situation. He's a charming, self-sufficient man who can take care of himself and do it with a smile on his face. He's a very endearing character."

As you said, this is very much an action-packed drama. How hands-on were you with doing the stunts?
"I like to do as many of them as possible, but for insurance reasons I'm not allowed to do everything. One of the best bits about doing shows like this is to hang off the buildings, be chased by planes and all that kind of stuff. If you don't do it, you're really missing out on some of the most fun aspects of the job."

It must have been exhausting, though.
"It was, but I'm used to it. Spooks put me in great training. I spent an awful lot of time running around London [for that], so I was okay."

Had you read John Buchan's book or seen any of the previous film adaptations?
"Yes, I read the book and saw all the other versions of the film before starting. [This version] is pretty faithful to the book. We set it pre-First World War, which is the original period of the book, whereas Hitchcock set it pre-Second World War for his version. The style of the piece is gorgeous."

What would you say are the main differences from the previous versions?
"One of the things people remember from the film is when Hannay and his love interest are handcuffed together at the end. She's taking her tights off and he's running his hands down her leg. It's a wonderful sexually-charged moment but for copyright reasons, we're not allowed to copy any of the things that were in the film but weren't in the book, so we've had to come up with our own ingenious ways of getting around it. For example with that moment, we've been burnt in an explosion so we're rubbing English mustard into each other's wounds. Which is quite erotic."

Hannay goes on to appear in a number of other Buchan novels. Have you discussed reprising the role?
"Yes, they're talking about it. I suppose it depends on how well this one goes down. I don't know if they'll redo the books or make up their own stories with the character, but I don't know. They'd like to do more if they can. I definitely would."

You left Spooks this year in a very explosive storyline. Were you happy with the way your character left the show?
"Yes. Every regular who leaves Spooks wants to be killed off, really, and that's what I asked them to do. They did - and in quite a spectacular way, I thought. It was a great way to leave the show."

Do you think it's a definitive end for the character?
"People keep asking me if I'm going to come back. I can't see how somebody could come back from an explosion like that, but you never know. If I need to come back to the show and they'd have me, I'm sure they'd find a way of making it work. But I'd have thought I'm pretty much fried to a crisp."

What else have you been working on since Spooks?
"I've just finished a thing called Whitechapel, which is a three-part drama for ITV airing in February. It's about a serial killer who's copycatting all the Jack The Ripper murders and I'm playing the policeman trying to catch him. It's quite great, because you get the whole background of Jack The Ripper without us having to dress up in top hat and tails. So it's a modern take on the Jack The Ripper story, but it's incredibly engrossing. We use all the history of Jack The Ripper to try to find the killer."

Finally, what are your Christmas plans?
"I'm having a very quiet Christmas with my family, sitting around a fire. Watching telly. That's my plan, we're not doing anything extravagant. We've been abroad the last few years at Christmas and we're really looking forward to being at home for Christmas this year, just the four of us."

The 39 Steps airs Sunday, December 28 at 8pm on BBC One.

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