Ahead of the fourth version of The 39 Steps, Aidan Smith hits the road in hot pursuit of its latest star Rupert Penry-Jones, who tells him why there's plenty of life left in John Buchan's classic thriller

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ON THE esplanade of Stirling Castle, to my left is the statue of Robert the Bruce, proud of jaw, who is gazing out over modern Scotland – the rumbustious Raploch estate, the Grangemouth spew and a busload of tourists streaming towards the gift shop. To my right is Rupert Penry-Jones, equally proud of jaw, who's trying very hard to evoke a bygone Scotland, a land of heroic deeds and heroic tweeds.

He's got the tweeds: the three-piece suit in heathery green looks the perfect fit for a man of action, circa 1914, and he'll be hoping it blends in well with the surrounding countryside later when he's strafed by a bi-plane. But there's something about Penry-Jones, star of the BBC's remake of The 39 Steps, which jars with the period being evoked. He's too dashed pretty.

This is what I'm thinking as I watch him fiddle with a hi-tech mobile phone between takes before he turns to his stand-in, who lacks Penry-Jones's blond streaks so is having his hair dyed. "Not bad," says the leading man, a former model. "You should think about getting it properly lightened."

What would John Buchan, creator of this adventure classic, make of such male preening? And why is Penry-Jones carrying a phone in his breast pocket when a sturdy cigarette case is all that's required to protect the heart from a foe's bullet? But, of course, the cameras aren't running and I haven't seen RPJ impersonate Richard Hannay yet.

And then I do. Technicians hustle stray sightseers in incongruous Gore-Tex out of shot for a strident cry of "Action!" Penry-Jones sprints across the cobbles, tweeds flapping, to be confronted by two boot-faced squaddies, bayonets at the ready, and the order: "You're that murderer Hannay – hands above your head!" In his best-known role, the contemporary spy drama Spooks, Penry-Jones regularly saved the world. Can he do it without recourse to radio buttonholes and other gadgetry? Oh yes. He evades the squaddies, and The 39 Steps continues spiffingly on its journey to a fourth screen incarnation.

First there was Robert Donat in the Alfred Hitchcock version, then Kenneth More and Robert Powell. Can Hannay still thrill, post-James Bond and Jason Bourne, to say nothing of Spooks' Adam Carter? Director James Hawes says the set-up – war imminent, German secret agents round every corner, a languid, bored but ultimately decisive hero – may be old, but it is far from dated. "Without Hannay there would have been no Bond," he insists. Of course, any director would jump at the chance to pay homage to Hitchcock, and Hawes is very excited about the prospect of a shot involving a hand on a train-carriage door, and a sinister signet ring.

I don't get to speak to Penry-Jones today as it's his 38th birthday and he probably doesn't want to spend his scant free time risking having to re-answer the three questions which still follow him around: those involving his modelling days, his fling with Kylie Minogue, and the time he appeared on stage with an erection. This means another trip to another location, Glasgow's City Chambers, where I watch him, in a dinner-suit, saunter up a marble staircase. He has to do this several times, which irritates him. It irritates me because he tilts his head to flex his neck muscles and men of action, circa 1915, simply wouldn't indulge in such fussiness; they would endure the pain. Everyone on set is grumpy and then I remember that Buchan wrote The 39 Steps – his "shocker" – while suffering from a duodenal ulcer so he must have been pretty grouchy as well.

But Penry-Jones, when I finally get him alone, is charm personified. Of the modelling, he says: "The boys used to angle mirrors underneath the clothes-rail to watch the girls getting changed. I didn't stand a chance with any of them." But of Kylie, and those nights sharing a jet ski en route to their hip-hop version of The Tempest in the Caribbean, he will only say: "It was so long ago." Penry-Jones is married to the actress Dervla Kirwan, most famous for Ballykissangel, and they have two children.

We talk about Hannay, and his suitability for the role. "I've read the book. He's an iconic character, and they don't make heroes like him any more," he says. Penry-Jones grew up in theatres so the melodramatic flourish became an everyday expression. "I love the period, the clothes, the language. My favourite line is probably: 'That impossible filly will only break your heart.'" Is he intimidated by the previous films? "No, they're all dreadful. Well, the Hitchcock is rather wonderful, but of its time. Robert Donat was superb and I don't think I've matched him but our ending's better – better even than the book."

There's a certainty, even an arrogance, to Penry-Jones which is impressive and enhances his credentials for playing our man. At school, he was chucked out of an exam for snoring – then asked to leave drama college for being disruptive. He enjoyed some playboy years and wasn't looking to get married until falling for Kirwan. Like Hannay, who was forever getting into scrapes, Penry-Jones has led a charmed life. He thanks his parents for their love, and their indulgence.

His father, Peter Penry-Jones, starred in Colditz, also part filmed at Stirling Castle; his mother, Angela Thorne, was Marjory Frobisher in To The Manor Born. He says: "I always felt I belonged in the acting world, though I've made my mother stop telling the story of me as a boy, head to toe in red, announcing: 'I could look at myself all day.' My father was in Robin Hood on TV and I got his bow and arrow, but it was the theatre which was really magical to me. When my parents were appearing in the West End, I'd go there after school, do my homework in a dressing-room, pass props from the wings, then fall asleep in a corner and be carried home. In the 1970s, actors did the job for love."

Like Hannay, an expat Scot fed up with "cliquey, class-ridden" England at the outset, Penry-Jones has a low boredom threshold, which perhaps explains why, during a play's longueurs, he once allowed himself to get aroused. For The 39 Steps, he's done as many of his own stunts as "nannyish" BBC regulations will allow. Indeed, he said yes to it on condition the plane chase happened.

"I don't apologise for this: I became an actor to get off with girls," he says. "Obviously, now that I'm married with kids, they're off the agenda. So acting has to be about the roles, which isn't as much fun, but I've got used to exciting parts and I need to be having fun to do the job well. Daniel Day-Lewis is probably our greatest actor but I don't think he has much fun. The words of one of my old drama tutors have stuck with me: acting is just a big toybox. I've been lucky enough to continue with the make-believe – crawling through deserts, outrunning planes on Scottish moors – past the age of eight."

Penry-Jones says that in reflective moments he'll confide in Kirwan: "I've been a lucky b*****d – when's the bubble going to burst?" But I rather think his actor-as-dilettante routine is just another performance and, when the situation demands, he delivers, just like Richard Hannay.

He does, after all, seem suited to the role, though there's an area in which I'm not best qualified and so I consult female members of the crew. Lynn Horsford, the producer, says: "Rupert's got that timeless quality – and he's absolutely gorgeous." And Lizzie Mickery, who like all the screenwriters before her has provided Hannay with some love interest, adds: "I wouldn't mind getting stuck in a lonely glen with him."

Itching for more action, our hero is checking the next day's schedule when filming moves to Culross: "The landlady brings food – Hannay and Victoria rub mustard on each other." He laughs. "There's nothing else for it – we're going to have to make that scene as erotic as possible."

The 39 Steps, BBC1, Sunday, December 28, 8pm

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