MASTERPIECE CLASSIC: THE 39 STEPS. 9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 12.

IF THE DEFINITION of a classic were "a piece of work that lends itself to repeated and wildly varied adaptations," then John Buchan's 1915 novel "The Thirty-Nine Steps" certainly qualifies.

A fast-paced, barely believable tale of World War I spycraft and derring-do, the thriller Buchan's said to have written while confined to his bed with an ulcer became the basis of several films - beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 version "The 39 Steps" - and one Broadway play (a comedy that closed last month) and is credited as one of the early examples of the man-on-the run genre that includes "North by Northwest" and "The Fugitive."

Not that you need to spend even a minute on Wikipedia to enjoy the latest version, adapted by Lizzy Mickery and served up Sunday by PBS' "Masterpiece Classic."

After weeks of costume dramas, from the delicious "Return to Cranford" to the oddly cast "Emma" - I love Jonny Lee Miller, too, but as Mr. Knightley? - a classic that's not quite a hundred years old may seem downright modern.

Not to mention a tad more guy-friendly.

"Imagine this: You're a young man with too much time on your hands. You've had a few adventures in your life, but right now there's nothing going on. And you're bored. Very bored," intones "Masterpiece" host Laura Linney in Sunday's opening.

She's setting up the situation of Richard Hannay ("MI-5's" Rupert Penry-Jones), who in the summer of 1914 is recently returned from Africa and who, on the eve of what will become World War I, is about to be drawn into a dark and dangerous plot.

But she might just as well be talking about a portion of the audience that breaks out in hives at the very thought of Jane Austen.

There'll be no morning calls, no tearstained letters in "The 39 Steps," a 90-minute film in which Hannay finds himself fleeing the police - who'd like to see him hanged for murder - as well as German spies who think hanging would take too much time.

There will, however, be romance, Mickery having elected to add in a resourceful suffragette named Victoria Sinclair (Lydia Leonard) to swap witticisms with the suave but generally chauvinistic Hannay.

The result: a thriller heavy on suspense and, OK, light on logic, that skips like a stone across some gorgeous Scottish scenery.

If it weren't so veddy British, it could easily be on USA.

'Ref' with references

Unless you've ignored the Winter Olympics entirely, you already know Jerry Seinfeld's new NBC show, "The Marriage Ref," is premiering Sunday after the games' closing ceremonies (10:30 p.m., Channel 10) before moving to 10 p.m. Thursdays a few days later.

NBC having elected not to send out screeners of the half-hour debut, which it's calling a preview, I've little to add, except to note that the reported inclusion of Madonna on one episode's panel makes me think Alec Baldwin's take on marriage might be worth listening to after all.

The real issue for NBC, though, isn't whether Baldwin's right in his contention that "women come and go, but a stuffed [formerly alive] dog is forever," but whether the Peacock itself will still be breathing once the skiers and skaters leave Vancouver, Jay Leno moves back to 11:35 p.m. and NBC once again has to program all of prime time.

Can Seinfeld save his old network? We'll see. *

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