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TELEVISION REVIEW : ‘Hannay’ Steps Up Pace for Mystery Fans

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most mystery buffs were introduced to everyman Richard Hannay by Alfred Hitchcock.

His 1935 classic, “The 39 Steps,” pushed the resourceful but confused Brit (played by Robert Donat) into a series of jams as he unwittingly became entangled in a spy ring on the eve of World War I. Hannay was such a likable hero that he inspired a couple of remakes, both by other directors and, predictably, not quite as charming.

To prove that you can’t keep a good man down, Hannay is ready for another comeback, this time on public television. A 13-part English series, titled simply “Hannay” and distributed by Thames Television International, premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Orange County’s KOCE-TV Channel 50 with the opening one-hour episode, “The Fellowship of the Black Stone.”

This introductory offering is directed by David Giles and it’s obligatory to note that he doesn’t have the finesse of Hitchcock (what did you expect?). That said, it can also be noted that the show is fun, especially for anyone who prefers a brisk pace over a lot of clue-solving in their mysteries.

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“Masterpiece Theatre” this isn’t. “Hannay” is actually more of a mildly melodramatic whodunit that seems to have been managed on a meager budget.

What enlivens the program is a straightforward storytelling that keeps everything zipping along and a sense of humor that regularly bubbles through the action. Writer Michael Robson can turn an amusingly understated English phrase or two, and that helps us, and Hannay, along the sleuthing way.

The opening scene gives the first glimpse of Hannay (Robert Powell) and his nemesis, Count von Schwabing (Gavin Richards), a villain who is likely to appear throughout the series. Schwabing, a jaw-clenched nasty, takes a shot at Hannay, then, thinking he’s dead, forces a black stone into his limp hand.

By the next passage, Hannay revives, still carrying the rock and wondering what it all means. Our boy decides to give up his mining ventures in South Africa and return to London to live the quiet life, a notion that explodes as he becomes snared in political intrigue surrounding Germany, Britain and Russia. And, of course, the black stone.

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There’s an infectious smugness about Powell’s Hannay, a fellow who knows he’s different; no one else, after all, is as cursed by such bad luck (all those fixes he stumbles into) and blessed by such cleverness (he keeps dancing out of them). He’s like a more breezy Sherlock Holmes, but without a sidekick.

Well, unless you consider Lady Anne (Dominique Barnes), the young socialite he flirts with and takes to the outskirts of danger. She’s a bit too good to be true, though.

In addition to being pretty, loyal and plucky, Lady Anne frowns on upper-class snobbery, choosing instead to devote her free time to caring for the destitute in the “most villainous part” of London.

There are other stretches in “Hannay.” Scotland Yard is certainly eager to help him, despite their suspicions that he may have committed a couple of murders. Then, there’s Hannay’s miraculous gift for untying the most sophisticated of death-knots with only seconds to spare.

Mystery lovers, who are a courageous group usually ready to overlook contrivance for the sake of adventure, probably won’t mind these details. Hannay is their kind of guy--maybe not a Poirot or a Holmes, but he’s all right.

* “Hannay,” starring Robert Powell, premieres Sunday night at 9 on KOCE-TV Channel 50 with the first episode, “The Fellowship of the Black Stone.” It continues weekly in the same time slot.


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