The Thirty-Nine Steps


This week, we are sad to say goodbye to Judith Luna, the Senior Commissioning Editor of the Oxford World’s Classics series. To make the pain more bearable, we designed two cakes in the shape of Oxford World’s Classics jacket covers.

The messages on both cakes are not very subtle and demonstrate how sad we are that she is leaving after thirty-nine years working at OUP.

Images by Kirsty Doole for Oxford University Press.

Self-initiated book cover design.

The Thirty-Nine Steps
John Buchan, 1915

I’d seen posters for the play adaptation of this story around London, but it wasn’t until I was at the Southbank book market a few months ago that I found that it was originally written as a book in 1915. The cover had been designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith as part of an adventure-themed series, each with their own style of illustration on the covers but tied together by the spine design and minimal use of colour.

The story itself was fantastic, and seems to be a much more mission-focussed tale than how it’s been adapted for the screen and stage, which involve a love interest for the main character, Richard Hannay. He meets several allies and foes on his getaway through the Scottish moors, and something that’s mentioned a few times is an enemy monoplane, which almost becomes a character in it’s own right. The plane was a constant reminder that Hannay’s pursuers were never far behind him, and Buchan added a vulture-like quality to it in the way he described it circling above him, with Richard being a helpless piece of prey exposed in the wide open fields. The plane instilled as much fear as the leader of the enemy, and it didn’t even have a face.

It’s for that reason that I wanted to portray the pilot of the plane on the cover, thus giving a visual identity to the only ‘character’ in the story that didn’t have one. I had a lot of fun looking through photograph archives online of military pilots from the WWI era, and finding design/typography reference from propaganda posters belonging to the same period, specifically the well-known Lord Kitchener poster.


Secrets of The 39 Steps: Part 3

“The whole experience is also delivered using location as our storytelling canvas – the only thing that remains from the book is the text that’s written in it. And when you come down to it, it’s the words and the story they tell that we all really love…

Our lead environment artist, Paul Scott Canavan, took up the challenge with great gusto, taking text-descriptions straight from the book and transforming them into cinematic masterpieces. This storyboarding was developed alongside the text – making sure we never had too many words over-relying on just one shot, and that the framing worked to emphasise the emotional resonance of the text that would be displayed on the screen.”

Full Story

Sunday Spectacular: The Thirty Nine Steps

Tonight at 8pm, U.S. Pacific Time, it’s the Studio One presentation of The Thirty Nine Steps, starring Glenn Ford.

“Tonight we present you with a tall and shamelessly exciting story by that wizard among authors of mystery adventure, the late John Buchan. With The Thirty Nine Steps we offer you spies and secrets and high doings in England and Scotland…” ~Fletcher Markel, director of Studio One (in one of his signature introductions).

The story takes place just before Britain enters Word War I. A private citizen (Glen Ford) gets drawn in to an international plot in a involving secret codes, spies and murder. It was published in 1915, first as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine, and later that year in book form.

This Studio One broadcast is from March, 1948, also featuring Everett Sloane, Mercedes McCambridge and Kathleen Cordell.

Other radio adaptations: 1939 (The Mercury Theatre on the Air) and 1952, (Suspense). And there are three movies based on this story: 1935 (Alfred Hitchcock), 1959 and 1978.

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