The Lady Vanishes BBC1, with Tuppence Middleton, Tom Hughes PREVIEW

Iris Carr (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON), Max (TOM HUGHES) in The Lady Vanishes, BBC
Going loco? Iris (Tuppence Middleton) and Max (Tom Hughes). Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★½

BBC1: Sunday, 17 March, 8.30pm

Story: Wealthy young socialite Iris Carr breaks off from a holiday with friends in the Balkans and decides to return home on her own. Having collapsed with what appears to be sunstroke at a train station, she is then befriended and helped by kindly governess Miss Froy. However, when Miss Froy disappears from their carriage, all the other passengers insist there was no Miss Froy on the train and that Iris must have imagined her…

Does anyone read Ethel Lina White’s crime novels these days? She was popular during the 1930s, and three of her books were made into films, two largely forgotten (The Spiral Staircase, 1975, and The Unseen, 1945), while the third, The Wheel Spins, became Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).

The tale of jolly spiffing Brits abroad in a Croatia full of shifty foreigners where a young socialite gets caught up in a dastardly plot is terribly, terribly old-fashioned, but the project clearly has two big pluses for BBC bosses. It’s a period piece and TV adores period dramas (Father Brown, Marple, Downton Abbey etc). And it’s got shades of Hitchcock, with the Master of Suspense being everywhere just now, from tales of his lustful abuse (BBC2s The Girl) to the making of Psycho (Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock).

Miss Froy (SELINA CADELL), Iris Carr (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON) in The Lady Vanishes, BBC
The mysterious Miss Froy and Iris

Tuppence Middleton as Iris
This new version is not a remake of the film, of course, which would be suicidal, particularly as the original – clunky as it may be – is still cited by authorities such as critic Philip French as a favourite comic thriller.

Newcomer Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes step into the shoes of Margaret Lockwood and a bow-tied Michael Redgrave in a return to original novel, which drops Hitchcock’s light-hearted comic touch and the espionage angle, for an attempt to recapture something of the book’s nightmarish premise of a young woman whose sanity is called into question.

Middleton shows some star quality as the spoilt, headstrong socialite Iris Carr, who decides to return home to Blighty after getting sick of her frivolous set of chums while on holiday. She has what seems to be an attack of sunstroke while waiting for the train to Trieste.

Laura Parmiter (KEELEY HAWES) in the BBC's The Lady Vanishes
Laid back, but does ‘Mrs Todhunter’ have something to hide?

Miss Froy – a figment of Iris’s imagination?
An English governess befriends and helps Iris on the train, but Iris is still too nauseous to pay much attention to Miss Froy (Selina Cadell). So when Miss Froy tells Iris that she thought she had seen the brother of her employer the baroness – a sighting that might puncture his alibi for murder – Iris hardly takes the news in.

On waking from a nap, however, Iris is alarmed to discover that Miss Froy has vanished from her carriage, and the train’s other occupants, including the baroness and a creepy doctor, all claim there was never a Miss Froy on the train. It was all in Iris’s imagination.

A professor from England and his student, a dashing Tom Hughes, assist Iris by using their knowledge of the local language to quiz the travellers, but they too find Iris’s story hard to credit.

Hitchcock cameo

The Doctor (JESPER CHRISTENSEN) in the BBC's The Lady Vanishes
What’s up, doc? He suggests Iris be put in a hospital

Director Diarmuid Lawrence films this story of paranoia with flair, his camera roving round the train, and he apparently makes a Hitchcockian cameo appearance as ‘disapproving man’. The cast is also pitch perfect, with Keeley Hawes and Julian Rhind-Tutt playing an adulterous couple, and Gemma Jones and Stephanie Cole a disapproving and prim pair of snooty sisters on holiday.

Alex Jennings good as the exasperated professor, and Benedikte Hansen (who fans of Borgen will know) is a fine villain as the sinister Baroness.

Remaking well-like classic films usually results in a train wreck of a drama, failing miserably to capture any of the original’s magic, but this new Lady Vanishes is atmospheric, pretty enjoyable and succeeds on its own merits.

Cast: Tuppence Middleton Iris Carr, Benedikte Hansen The Baroness, Selina Cadell Miss Froy, Tom Hughes Max Hare, Alex Jennings The Professor, Julian Rhind-Tutt Mr Todhunter/Sir Peveril, Keeley Hawes Mrs Todhunter/Laura Parmiter, Pip Torrens Reverend Kenneth Barnes, Sandy McDade Mrs Barnes, Gemma Jones Rose Flood-Porter, Stephanie Cole Evelyn Flood-Porter, Jesper Christensen The Doctor

Read on:

BBC clips and interviews from The Lady Vanishes

Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes on YouTube

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Coming soon – The Lady Vanishes BBC1, The Americans ITV

Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes in The Lady Vanishes
Strangers on a train – Iris and Max. Pic: BBC

• Here’s Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes from the soon-to-be broadcast BBC1 remake of The Lady Vanishes, a cheeky reboot of the Alfred Hitchcock classic from 1938. This 90-minute thriller has a sparkling cast including Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes), Gemma Jones (Spooks), Selina Cadell (Doc Martin), Stephanie Cole (Corrie) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (The Hour), and is likely to be shown in March, having originally been slated for Christmas.

Like Hitchcock’s film, this is based on the novel The Wheel Spins by British writer Ethel Lina White. Middleton plays Iris, the young socialite who, in 1931, is on holiday in the Balkans when she encounters Miss Froy on a train. Miss Froy tells her she is desperate to get home. After Iris wakes from a sleep, she finds Miss Froy has disappeared and her fellow passengers deny the old lady ever existed.

The new adaptation is by Fiona Seres, who also wrote The Silence. BBC drama boss Kate Harwood says, ‘Fiona’s adaptation of The Wheel Spins deftly weaves together the intriguing stories of a psychologically complex group of characters – with the mysterious disappearance of Miss Froy on a packed train – played out against the tense backdrop of the Balkans in the 1930s. I am delighted with the incredible cast and crew we have assembled for the project. The Lady Vanishes will be a thrilling treat for BBC One audiences.’

Also appearing alongside young stars Tuppence Middleton, recently seen in Spies of Warsaw, and Tom Hughes (Cemetery Junction), will be Danish actors Benedikte Hansen (Borgen) and Jesper Christensen (Melancholia).

Hitchcock’s film was a delightful mix of wit and intrigue, and helped to build his reputation to the point that Hollywood would come calling. Will 2013’s version be as entertaining – or will it quickly disappear like the now forgotten 1979 remake starring Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd?

• Meanwhile, ITV has signed new US series The Americans, starring Golden Globe winner Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (The Scapegoat, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), another Brit headlining an American series. Where Homeland is about Islamist terrorists infiltrating the US, The Americans harks back to Soviet spying Stateside, as KGB agents played by Rhys and Russell undergo an arranged marriage and pose as an American couple in 1980s Washington. They even have two children who know nothing of their parents’ alter egos. And, wouldn’t you know it, their next door neighbour turns out to be an FBI counter-intelligence agent.

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