The Lady Vanishes: Tom Hughes on remaking Hitchcock

"If you're making a like-for-like replica of a classic, you can't ever do it as well." The BBC1 production is a psychological thriller, not a comedy romp, says its star


Most of us are familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes – the comic thriller that set the British director up for the celebrated Hollywood career that gave us Psycho and Vertigo. This Sunday the BBC broadcasts its own version of the 1938 classic, starring Keeley Hawes, Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes. But unlike its predecessor, this new adaptation of the well-known tale is more a psychological exploration than a humorous adventure.


Following young socialite Iris Carr’s solo trip back to England after holidaying in the Balkans, the narrative picks up pace when her new acquaintance Miss Froy disappears from their train carriage without a trace. Baffled by her fellow passengers’ denial of her existence, Iris sets out on a mission with the help of dashing Englishman Max Hare to locate Miss Froy amid increasing accusations of her own delirium. caught up with actor Tom Hughes – who plays Max – to hear all about feminism, filming in Budapest, and the perils of remaking Hitchcock.

Describe your character Max in three words…

Unkempt, cheeky and sensitive.

What first attracted you to The Lady Vanishes?

For me it was the script and the part. I just found Max so fascinating because he feels so much like a modern man. Often in period pieces it’s more about the etiquette of the time than it is the psychology of the character but what I loved about Max is that he feels far more like a young guy from the 60s, if not the modern day. 

In what way…?

There’s a cheekiness and a front-footed playfulness to him. Also, he’s not a kid who was born into the establishment. He is Oxford-educated but he worked to get there. You have to be a chameleon – it’s instinct, feeling and freedom. I think those are quite modern tendencies and he definitely embodies them. 

Max falls for young socialite Iris Carr after meeting her on a train from the Balkans – what about her catches his eye?

She’s quite feisty and that’s always attractive. And I think Max likes the challenge. With Iris he sees his match and I don’t think he often does because he’s not a man from the world he now operates in. He always feels like he has a secret and is therefore able to outwit people – he can wriggle away if needs be. But with Iris he sees someone who also has a secret, a kindred spirit. And also, he probably knows deep down that he’ll never get the bettering of her – she’ll always be one step ahead of him and for a guy who’s always looking for the next thrill at every turn that’s quite exciting. She’s almost like an addiction and I think he loves her by the end. 

Why do you think she refuses to give up on her quest to find Miss Froy?

She’s never had a purpose in her life – one of the reasons she travels home alone is to find something to be passionate about because she’s had what people perceive as an idyllic lifestyle where all the danger and excitement has been taken away. With Miss Froy she sees an injustice and an opportunity to be the one to make amends for it and through that she feels like she’s alive for the first time in twenty-odd years. It’s a selfless act although at the same time it’s for quite self-centered reasons but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. 

Do you reckon people would have treated Iris the same way if the story had taken place in the present day?

I hope not. I’m a strong feminist and I find the whole dismissal of her need as a youthful woman so alien to how I think. I haven’t seen the Hitchcock original but I know there’s a lot of humour in it – ours is more of a psychological thriller. It’s necessary to make this about Iris’s psychological journey and none of it’s frivolous. Her intincts and feelings are accurate – it’s not just a whim or delirium – and the lack of humour allows you to see it from her point of view. It makes it about human psychology and that’s far more interesting for a modern day audience. If it was just a romp it wouldn’t sit comfortably with me.

Surely watching the Hitchcock original was necessary research for your role?

Our director Diarmuid isn’t a particularly huge fan of that film so he wanted to make sure we had our own identity. It did feel a little bit like we were taking a stab in the dark because I could have delivered exactly Michael Redgrave’s performance or a million miles away and I wouldn’t have known. I would hate to copy. You’ve got to try and make it on your own terms and if I just tried to copy Michael I don’t think I’d come anywhere close!

What do you think makes Hitchcock so special?

He took risks – I think that’s what it is. He wasn’t necessarily everyone’s taste when he first came out but he pushed filmmaking down a route it had never really gone before and set a precedent that people were influenced by and are still influenced by today. 

Any nerves remaking one of his classics?

I wouldn’t say I was nervous – I was curious to see if we could do it justice. But there aren’t two guys standing around talking about cricket so it always felt to me like another narrative. Tonally it’s quite different which gives it a bit of breathing space. If you’re making a like-for-like replica of something that was a classic then it’s a bit like music – you can’t really ever do it as well. 

You’re quite a music fan, aren’t you? Did you have a soundtrack to Max?

It was a Best of Motown album so Marvin Gaye and quite a lot of Diana Ross. That’s not necessarily what I’d usually listen to but I find myself constantly coming back to that. Also, I’d just seen Jersey Boys so it started moving into rock ‘n’ roll too. There was quite a lot of Elvis. 

You were filming on a reconstructed train in Budapest…

Yes, we had a mock-up of a 1930s train but they decided the mechanism to make it move wasn’t a necessity in the budget so we all had to just act being on a train. There’s multiple scenes where you’ll see Tuppence and I swaying in completely opposite directions!

We’ll look out for those… You played conflicted villain Julian in Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge earlier this year but in The Lady Vanishes you’re more of a knight in shining armour – which do you prefer?

I don’t really have a preference. I like to feel that I’m constantly moving and excited and both those parts did that. For me it’s about psychology and why they’re doing what they’re doing. What Julian does is horrific and there’s no defending his actions but within him there’s actually a really beautiful young boy who’s been completely lost in the world he’s grown up in and it’s damaged him. His over-dependency on his younger sister for love and his need for love means he lives in this extremity that he’s not always in control of. He’s an amazingly well-crafted character. I was desperate to get that part because you don’t often get them in your twenties. Max isn’t your typical period leading man either. I look for characters who have some kind of dichotomy or conflict. With Max he’s so affably charming and witty but there’s a nervous fear that this whole world could be taken away from him. He feels like an outsider.


The Lady Vanishes is on Sunday at 8:30pm on BBC1