Sunday Watch: The Singing Detective – e06 – Who Done It

What I’m about to say will surprise a lot of people, and maybe disappoint some, but the longer The Singing Detective went on, the less impressed I became about it and the less I liked it. Undoubtedly, the performances are universally excellent, the production crisp and the landmark status is inarguable and deserved. But thirty-six years later, the impact is greatly diminished. It was ground-breaking, but that ground is, in 2021, a ploughed, tilled and levelled field across which the world and his dog wander at will. The Singing Detective suffers from its followers and imitators. It is harder to see it through the trees.

And a surprising number of things in the final episode have now become trite, not least the title. Two moments in particular had me close to wincing at their obviousness. But to put these in context, let’s first establish where we are as the final episode starts. Philip E Marlow, writer of detective stories and all-round objectionable human being, full of poison, hatred and contempt for everyone, is in a hospital ward suffering from a body-crippling attack of psoriatic arthritis. Confined to his bed, his thoughts wander and the boundaries between what is real and what is fantasy are first blurred, then erased.

In Marlow’s head, he mixes recollections of his childhood in the Forest of Dean (that are so different and removed from 1986 as to appear a gross exaggeration of accents, dialect, assumptions and complacencies as to seem much, much further back in time that they can be, which is just over forty years) with a jaundiced and slanted re-working of his most successful and only available novel, ‘The Singing Detective’.

Young Philip is the son of a stolid, inimaginative and limited but thoroughly decent Forest of Dean miner and an attractive, sensitive, more refined, London-born mother, a fish out of water, who briefly cheats on her husband witnessed by Philip in the forest, before leaving him for her family in London. Philip has, for no explored reason, ‘done his Number Twos’ on the desk of his vicious harridan of a schoolteacher and passed the blame off onto Mark Binney, son of the man who shagged his mother.

The book features Marlow as a slow-drawling private eye, all cliches and Chandlerisms that, with respect, come not within a light year of the real Philip Marlowe (note the ‘e’), hired by a Mark Binney to investigate two mysterious men who are following him. Binney appears to be some form of Agent, initially, on the trail of a communist ring, but the further the story goes, the more he becomes an unpleasant man with a twisted attitude to sex that seems characteristic of the entire book, and thus of Marlow the writer itself.

And there’s a third strand, outside of the minutiae of Marlow’s condition and treatments, including counselling, which is his manufacture of another fantasy, this involving his ex-wife Nicola, who he has driven away with his hatefulness. Marlow invents a fantasy in which Nicola is ripping him off, with her boyfriend Mark Finney (note the ‘f’, not the ‘b’) over a very valuable screenplay, once written, of ‘The Singing Detective’.

So this is where we are when we start the final episode, when we approach resolution and redemption for our poor, twisted man in the centre of the shot. And the steps fall into place, one after another, to enable him to walk out of there, on his own two feet, in trenchcoat and wide-brimmed hat, leaning on Nicola, headed for a future with her.

My problem is that they come too fast, too simply. Marlow completes his account of his lie about young Mark, of how the whole class suddenly claimed they’d seen him shit on the desk until the poor kid came to believe it himself, how he was viciously beaten by the teacher and, later, wound up in a mental institution. It brings him to tears of entirely justifiable self-hatred which promptly prompts Dr Gibbon to get him to stand up, on his own.

Philip’s father waits for him to come home from London, all on his own. His mother is dead, drowning herself in the river from Hammersmith Bridge. They walk home through the forest. Philip holds his Dad’s hand for a bit but, when his Dad confesses to loving Philip the boy shushes him, someone might overhear. He runs off, climbs a tree, refuses to come when his Dad calls and calls. I always loathed that part, but I would, wouldn’t I, given my history? Up his tree, Philip fiercely whispers to himself that (he) mustn’t love anyone mustn’t show it, cos they die, must lock himself up, push them away, deny them…

I mean, my goodness, how horrifically simplistic. A man’s life reduced to one moment like that. It’s not worthy of Dennis Potter, but it’s of a piece with the rest of the fall-out. Even as it’s semi-contradicted by the scene where, stock still, bent by everything, Mr Marlow roars his grief in one, deep-throated scream, leading Philip to run up and take his hand.

In the present, Marlow’s bitter fantasy about Nicola and Finney reaches a tragic point. The pajama-ed Marlow eavesdrops on their fatal quarrel: Finney sells the screenplay though you can see how dubious he is at the prospect of having to do a re-write, but worst of all, he sells out Nicola. She wanted the part, that was what it was all about for her, not the money. Being passed over destroys her, exacerbated by Finney’s suggestion she might be a teeny bit too old for the role. The outcome is blood, all over Nicola and her black slip, from the hole in Finney’s neck made by the kitchen knife she’s stuck in him.

There’s a parallel in the detective story: Binney dead, assailant unknown, ignored, as has been so much of the story, the logic, the clues absent from a detective story with no story. Death by stabbing, a kitchen knife, in the neck.

But the present requires purging. Marlow is well enough to write, physically write, painfully, a pen taped to his clenched, claw-like right hand. He’s up late, writing, everyone else asleep, when a policeman arrives to complete the story, with faux sympathy and gleeful expression: Finney dead, Nicola confessed, Nicola dead, broke away from her escort, flung herself from Hammersmith Bridge. Marlow wants awake, he has shocked himself with the end his imaginings have created for his ex-wife who, underneath all the abuse and filth he’s flung at her, he still secretly loves. His improving physical and mental state is clearing out his poison. Again, a bit simple.

That’s two down. The third scenario is the most fantastic in any sense of the world. The two mysterious men arrive to find Binney dead. They have no idea what to do. They don’t know why they’ve done anything, they don’t even know who they are. They’re Chandler’s go-to move, whenever the story seems to sag have a man come through the door, carrying a gun. (They also make me uncomfortably aware that, entirely unconsciously, I lifted them for my novel Even in Peoria) In short, they become aware that they’re minor characters in a story, padding, completely unimportant. And they want more.

So, instead of hunting Marlow the Detective, they hunt Marlow the Writer, arriving in the Ward, pushing Nurse Mills aside, torturing him, as the ward becomes warehouse-like, at night. Enter Marlow the Detective, walking slowly. Its a shoot-out, a pointless shoot-out, without rhyme or reason other than that all detective stories end with a shoot-out, and Potter is still playing affectionately with cliches. Bullets fly back and forth. They create carnage in the ward, going about its normal business unaware. Drips and bottles, windows and glasses, smashed and shattered. Mr Hall is shot, Reginald and Staff Nurse White, old Noddy. Marlow the Detective has two bullets left. He kills the little man. The big man hasn’t got a gun, he’s cowering, pleading for his life, Marlow the Writer’s pleading for it too, it’s murder, cold-blooded murder. But the detective sees it as not murder but pruning. Only one of them will walk out. He shoots, a bullet through the head, instant death. But, and this is equally as pat as the other conclusions Potter has drawn, Marlow has shot Marlow. Of course he has.

Thus, with one Marlow dead, the other Marlow walks out, with Nicola. We follow them, for once without the imaginatively deployed music – did you ever think ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ could sound so sinister? – along a corridor to its end when they open a door and escape, no more to be seen, a happy ending, world without end.

And once more at the top of his tree, among the thick, dark-green leaves blowing, young Philip turns to us and tells us, ‘When I grow up, I be going to be… a detective!’

And there lies my case. Objectively, I recognise The Singing Detective for the masterpiece it is, subjectively I an unthrilled. Dennis Piotter built a complex castle, a veritable Gormenghast of possibility and intrigue, but the answers ended up being too simple, too linear, too obvious to support that weight. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Edge of Darkness: e02 – Into the Shadows

We’re still stumbling into the dark, but the second episode is classic thriller series construction: the lone hero, keeping it all inside makes his first contact with the flambuoyant maverick and the outside edges of the picture are revealed and it’s not a pretty one.

I’m going to be honest and say immediately that I have a serious problem with several characters in this story. Not Ronnie Craven, and certainly not with the ghost of his daughter, still accompanying him at significant moments. Bob Peck is one of the most self-composed characters there has ever been on TV, and even when he is mystified at what the series is growing into, and becoming very much aware that this has dimensions he has never even dreamt of, Craven is a still point, completely focussed.

But we are delving deeply into the secret world, and what’s more the secret world of the dangerous Eighties, when Nuclear War was expected, when dirtiness and a callous regard for we mere people was never far below any surface you touched, when the rightwards swing of politics was gathering momentum and the infamous Spycatcher, evidence of the ferociously Right Wing hardline of the Intelligence services, was waiting to be exposed.

Christ, I hate those bastards! The ones who think that any move towards treating ordinary people decently and fairly, and as human beings, is Communism of the deepest red. And they’re all over Edge of Darkness. Pendleton introduces Craven to his partner, Henry Harcourt (Ian MacNeice), who’s even more smug and intolerable than Pendleton – these boys always act so superior, as if their depths of knowledge create an inbuilt sneer openly directed at everyone for being so much more ignorant than them.
To them, anyone who shows the slightest shade of liberal opinion is a terrorist and a subversive.

The same goes for their ally, Darius Jedburgh, Joe Don Baker unleashed to be as Ugly American as he possibly can, the walking anti-Commie, the Better Dead than Red that instinctively makes me want to turn Communist myself. Baker is unrestrained. he’s more human than Pendleton and Harcourt, redeemed by his openness and general lack of the snidery that runs through Harcourt especially, but both of them, like Blackpool through a stick of rock.

At least the Snide Boys aren’t being presented as anything other as enemies, though of what stripe we’re yet to see, but in his own way, the I-am-right-and-nothing-else-is way, Jedburgh, though a potential ally to Craven, is the same under the skin, and I so do hate these figures.

As for the burgeoning plot, the Police are still treating Emma’s death as an accident, and they think they’ve identified the man responsible, seeking revenge on Ronnie for being put away ten years ago. The episode starts with a powerful scene, men in a room, silent, thoughtful, concentrating utterly on the tape of Ronnie’s interview, as he tries to be as precise as he can as to the events of Emma’s death. From there we go to the unsalubrious lodgings of Terry ‘Tel’ Shields (a young, pre-Blackadder Tim McInnerny), a scruffy, nervous, defensive activist, contemptuous of the Police and Craven, but nevertheless signalling silently that he’s an informer.

This was Emma’s lover. Ronnie’s somewhat incredulous, and he’s certainly contemptuous of Emma’s ghost’s protestations that she loved him – there’s another of those disturbing moments when he repeats Terry’s claim that the relationship was physical in disgusted tones and Emma’s ghost claims he’s just jealous – but he has a point. It’s not just that Terry’s an informer, without even the weaselly courage of his supposedly deep Socialist belief, but that he lives in the middle of a world of surveillance. Every word, every gasp, every grunt, every bedspring squeaked has been listened to. Emma’s sex-life has been without privacy, and what’s more Ronnie realises she will have known this.

But as we move forward, the parameters begin to be established. The name Northmoor surfaces, a secret, private, extremely dangerous nuclear reprocessing plant. Radioactive materials leaked into a Yorkshire reservoir that had to be closed. An enquiry headed by a scientist who dies in a motorway traffic accident. Jedburgh’s file that makes it plain that GAIA sent a team to invade Northmoor, headed by Emma, that was contaminated – deliberately? – whilst in there, and of whom all six have either died or disappeared. And the line that states it is impossible to believe Ronnie didn’t know all about it, and why didn’t he stop his daughter?

This is already a very dirty story, on more levels than we could have imagined last week. It will go deeper.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist: Part 3


Enric Badia Romero –

“The Greenwood Maid” (1975/76) –

“Take Me To Your Leader” (1974).

19: Story name: Willie the Djinn – 1970 ** Artist: Romero.
Location: A ‘great casino north of Beirut’ – the fictional Gulf State Sheikdom of Shibarahn – the Plain of Mahr, Khiba Ridge, in the Valley of Dheral – Sheik’s palace and harem – outlying mountains and desert.
Villains: Colonel George (English mercenary) and Prince Zuhir, Sheik’s brother.
Body count: 13+
Modesty’s lover
: none.
Willie’s lover: none (although the ‘Dollyrockers’ are tempting!)
Other characters: Sheik Kadhim al-Masfah of Shibarahn; Jassim (his vizier); 6-year-old daughter Kerima; Prince Zuhir (the Sheik’s brother); Abdul bin Kaleff (leader of the mountain tribes); Bessie (leader of the six-strong ‘Dollyrockers’ Dance Group); Deirdre (the most vocal other ‘Dollyrocker’).
Nudity rating: MB in mini-dress, all six ‘Dollyrockers’ in mini-dresses; MB in undies; MB & ‘Dollyrockers’ bathing nude, and later in skimpy harem outfits. Kerima briefly undressing and nude.
Who kills who? : Aircraft pilot and three others die in crash. Colonel George’s mercenaries massacre Sheik’s bodyguards and surviving crew. Unknown number of besieging soldiers shot (mostly by MB). MB kills Colonel George, using a spanner as a kongo. WG kills Zuhir with a knife.
: Political thriller/rescue caper, set in a small, oil-rich (fictional) Middle East Arab country. MB and WG, together with all-female dance group, ‘The Dollyrockers’ (whose manager had just done a runner), are invited to the Middle East country of Shibarahn (a small Arab state in the Persian Gulf), by Sheik Kadhim al-Masfah, another old friend of MB’s. However, unbeknown to him, his brother, Prince Zuhir – in cohorts with the mercenary Colonel George – plans to blow up the royal plane as it enters Shibarahn air-space. The bomb is hidden in a pocket radio, discovered by WG, and thrown out seconds before it explodes. The plane still crashes, and the surviving crew are then all killed by Colonel George’s men, but MB and the ‘Dollyrockers’ are taken prisoner, while George disobeys Zuhir’s instructions and has the Sheik taken to the small, isolated Fort Khala instead, as an “insurance policy” in cast Zuhir tries to betray him. Meantime, WG and the Sheik’s vizier, Jassim, escape unnoticed. MB and the six girls, led by Bessie, are taken to be part of Zuhir’s harem. WG, when he sneaks into the palace, is mistaken for a good demon (a djinn) by Kerima, the Sheik’s precocious 6 year old daughter. WG raids the armoury and supplies MB and the girls with Sten guns, but Colonel George besieges them in the harem. After giving the girls a quick crash-course in firearms, WG takes the vintage Rolls Royce Silver Ghost to get reinforcements from the Sheik’s oldest friend Abdul Bin Kaleff, together with Jassim and Kerima. MB and the girls hold out, and MB is able to sow seeds of discontent by shouting to Zuhir that his brother is still alive. Eventually WG returns with Bin Kaleff, and MB goes after George, writing him off. Zuhir attempts to use Kerima as hostage to escape, but WG knifes him.
Critical comments: The really dreadful name of the ‘Dollyrockers’ dance group rather dates this, although the idea of a group of women fighting against the villains is used again in the 1988 Romero-illustrated story “Milord”, and previously a reverse theme of a gang of women being the villains in the Colvin-illustrated “The Lady Killers” (1980/81). All of the ‘Dollyrockers’ are depicted as size 8/10 and originally wearing mini-dresses, as is MB in the early panels. While a competent artist (and especially drawing the female figure) Enric Badia Romero has limitations, not least in that his faces often lack subtlety of expression and sometimes started to look alike, as exampled here where the Sheik’s young 6 year old daughter, Kerima, bears considerable resemblance to 10 year old Samantha Brown, who we will get to meet much later in “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88). And indeed, Romero seemed to have a size problem when drawing children. In the bedroom scene where she first meets WG, Kerima varies in height, and even appearance, inconsistently from panel to panel. Otherwise – story plot apart – certainly in the busy opening strips, Romero is here perhaps at his best, and later with his drawings of the vintage motor cars. But he already shows his flaws in some of the action panels and his depiction of the architecture of the ‘summer palace’ – would there have been a ‘winter palace’ in the Persian Gulf?
This, then, was the first full story illustrated by Romero, and he now quickly adapted to his own, more characteristic style, rather than attempting to copy Holdaway (even if that were possible). In his introduction to the Titan Books reprint, Peter O’Donnell says that he generally worked his scripts about ten weeks ahead of actual publication, but that the Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour had thought his original next intended story to be too complicated for Spanish-speaking Romero’s first strip, and suggested O’Donnell write something more simple. Perhaps this is why, overall, this is not one of his better stories. The two villains are suitably bloodthirsty, if rather two-dimensional, and the setting – indeed, the actual general portrayal – of the Arab country is something of a silly, simplistic caricature, a typical Westerners’ vision of backward, Arab culture – the harem; guards in baggy Turkish-style pantaloons wielding scimitars; fez hats; belief in magical demons; romantic, but basically rather savage, desert Arabs living in tents. Over the comic strip series Peter O’Donnell created a number of fictional countries, most notably in South America. Here is one of his two Middle East imaginary countries, the other being the Sheikdom of Malaurak. We are lead to believe that Sheik Kadhim al-Masfah’s only design on MB is apparently for her to play the boardgame backgammon for either high money stakes, or (at her suggestion) matchsticks. He and his rather hapless, craven Vizier Jassim, would appear again in the equally awfully titled “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976, by Romero). The Sheik is hopeless at gambling, and (from WG) we learnt that MB had already taken “ten grand” from him playing “Chemmy” – Chermin de fer, the quicker version of the card game baccarat, and another couple of thousand already at backgammon. Hence, why in the opening panels of the story, at the crowded Lebanese casino, MB is trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid being seen.

20: Story name: The Green-Eyed Monster – 1970/71 **
Location: Guadalajara, “the playground of Mexico” – the (fictional) South American Republic of Cuarembo – Gil de Serra’s house – the capital (seemingly of the same name – the President’s palace – 100 miles up the Rio Quiano, the rebel’s jungle hideout.
Villain: Gomez, rebel leader.
Other characters: Tarrant; Gil de Serra; Diana Millard, daughter of British envoy Sir Norman Millard; President Luis Machabo (former police chief).
Body count
: Between 5 and 8 – all Gomez men.
Modesty’s lover: Gil de Serra (race horse breeder and explorer).
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude and in robe; later bathing and topless; split skirt; bra and panties (jumping on top of kidnapper’s car). Diana in ragged dress, showing her legs.
Who kills who? : MB and WG kill several of Gomez’s underlings. However, rather than kill Gomez, MB humiliates him by cutting off his beard, his macho symbol.
Summary/theme: Kidnap, hostage and rescue caper, set in South American jungle.
Spoilt and jealous Diana is a former girlfriend of MB lover, Gil de Serra, but she soon falls foul of MB, who tosses her into a swimming pool. MB meets the reformist President Machabo, who she knew back in the Network days as a incorruptible cop, then chief of police. A group of thuggish ‘rebels’ kidnap Diana, despite MB’s attempt to intervene, and announce they will hold her hostage for three days in exchange for the release of twenty of their comrades. When the President refuses to comply, MB and WG, together with Gil, go into the jungle to rescue her. Gil & WB kill a huge 30ft anaconda snake about to attack Diane, and they flee with the rebels close on their heels. Diane is still a pain the neck, but WG plays with sympathy. Finally they eliminate some of the rebel sentries and take the rest captive. Rather than kill Gomez, MB humiliates him by cutting his much-prized macho beard. Briefly Diane actually acknowledges MB helped save her life, but soon reverts to character, whereupon, in the last strip, WG throws her into the swimming pool instead – to the amusement of her father!
Critical comment: Again we have a fictitious South American country, and not very intelligent rebels and/or bandits. We also have some quite explicit scenes of MB and her latest lover Gil together, while also being given examples of WG’s jungle expertise, apparently from his days in the French Foreign Legion. We have perhaps our first example of Romero’s curious architectural mismatch, with the president’s South American palace looking more Central European/German castle than Spanish colonist. In his introduction to the Titan Books collection which included this story, Peter O’Donnell remarked how the mass introduction of the mobile phone had made life harder for the writer of thrillers or adventures, and characters being lost or out of reach. Here we see MB and WB communicating by KW200A radios installed in their respective motor vehicles, a feature that continues throughout this period of the stories. MB is driving a Triumph open-top sports car, and WG the Ford Mustang, two-door convertible (manufactured from 1965 onward). Again we have a rather tight time-scale between the story-time and MB still running the Network of four years. In addition to the potential woman-eating snake, we have a river full of ravenous piranhas, to say nothing of the insects! The ‘green-eyed monster’ is, of course, Diane’s jealousy for MB. Casually, whilst visiting a church near the presidential palace, WG compares the interior to St. John’s Cathedral, Valletta, Malta, but we have to wait until 1975 before we see MB’s adventures on that island, which was apparently became a favourite holiday home for Peter O’Donnell also.
Finally, this story raises some typical O’Donnell dilemmas and moral issues. In a fractious, Third World country, the ‘honest cop’ having replaced the previous corrupt regime, points out that, of course, there are ‘political prisoners’, unlike (he implies) in England. But equally, when Diane is kidnapped as a hostage to be killed unless he release those prisoners, the president resists both the pleas of British envoy (Diane’s father) and Sir Gerald of the Foreign Office, and refuses to give into their threats. He argues – as MB was often to do so in similar situations – that by conceding to such terrorist hostage threats, one only increases the likelihood of still further terrorism and demands. Better the hostage (or hostages) die. In this instance, he has MB on hand to help save the day. But it’s an argument we were to see again, and in particular much later in the 1988/89 story “Live Bait”, again illustrated by Romero.

21: Story name: Death of a Jester, 1971 **
Location: Saint-Maur Castle, somewhere in Cornwall – “Treadmill” WG pub – MB’s London penthouse – Tarrant’s office.
Villain: Colonel John (Johnny) Vandeleur Saint-Maur, 9th Earl, ex-Commandos.
Other characters: Hippies Betsy and Sam; Tarrant; Tarrant’s agent Roger Clay.
Body count
: 3+
Modesty’s lover: Shares bed with Johnny Saint-Maur.
Willie’s lover: none (though tempted by handmaiden Meg).
Nudity rating: MB nude, in bed, in bath, getting dressed, in bra and pants.
Who kills who? : Saint-Maur kills Roger Clay with lance. WG kills Gibbo, one of Saint-Maur’s men. Saint-Maur killed by lion.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. Alerted by a young hippie couple, WG investigates the grounds of Johnny Saint-Maur’s castle to find the dead body of a man dressed as a jester being eaten by lions. It transpires he was Roger Clay, one of Tarrant’s agents, investigating the theft of an experimental torpedo from a nearby research establishment. Saint-Maur is a former British Army Colonel who served in Korea, but later became wild and anti-authority. When he inherited his family estate he created his own medieval feudal fantasy world of knights, jousting, feasting, even hunts and bear-baiting. It was an armoured knight on horseback (Saint-Maur) who killed Clay. MB and WG get themselves invited to one of his expensive, fee-paying weekends, dressing up in period costume. They soon conclude Saint-Maur is mad, but his men are utterly loyal to him. On the second night MB sleeps with Saint-Maur, but later when she and WG are investigating the castle dungeons and the cavern below (finding the stolen torpedo in doing so), they are taken captive – Saint-Maur having seen through their deception. They escape, evade or overcome his men, and are able to radio Tarrant to bring in commandos through an old tin-mine tunnel. Saint-Maur himself is killed by one of his wild lions.
Critical comments: Artistically, this is the first of a number of rather ‘Hollywood movie’-style English medieval castles as depicted by Spanish-based artist Romero. The castle, supposedly (according to WG) built at the time of King John, has fancy turrets and a drawbridge, but the interior seems rather like Doctor Who’s Tardis, just too big with courtyard and grand entrance for when MB and WG arrive by Rolls, and for jousting – to say nothing of the cavern apparently underground! Given the ease the hippie couple, then WG, are able to get into the grounds, one also has to question whether Saint-Maur really could have had wild lions roaming loose, or conducted bear-baiting (isn’t that illegal in the UK?), without some local authority licence or inspection!
The Saint-Maur character rather bizarrely appears as a villain again in the 1987 novel The Night of Morningstar, as ‘Ronald, Major the Earl St. Maur’, a much more sinister fanatic bent on starting World War III. In the novel, he gets killed by WG, leaving an oversexed widow, Victoria, Countess St. Maur. It was one of the oddities of O’Donnell that often used the same names in or between the comic strip and novels. The Bone brothers in “The Girl in the Iron Mask” (1991) and a criminal couple named Bone in “Idaho George” (1978) are another example.

22: Story name: The Stone-Age Caper – 1971 ***
Location: Australia: Bondi Beach – outback “Andamooka”
Villains: Mr Wu Smith; Damion; Korzon
Other characters: David Collins, Aussie zoologist; July Welsh; Jacko, Aborigine ex-Network member
Body count: 2 (+1 pre-story)
Modesty’s lover: David (Davey) Collins (Australian zoologist).
Willie’s lover: none (WG loses out on July to David Collins!)
Nudity rating: MB bra, undies. Judy also bra and pants, goes topless for ‘the nailer’. Aborigine woman topless nude. MB and Judy full frontal nude whilst disguised as native Aborigines.
Who kills who? : Damion did a ‘con job’ on Judy’s husband, who kills himself. WG and Jacko cause Damion and Korzon’s aircraft to crash, using multiple boomerangs.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. MB is on holiday at Bondi Beach, Sydney, with Aussie David Collins. Mr Wu Smith, a Chinese from Macao, is planning a nickel fraud, but MB assures him she isn’t interested. Meantime WG is looking for black opals in the outback with Mabel the camel, only to find Aussie girl Judy Welsh left to die by her wrecked jeep. With the usual coincidence Wu Smith’s underling, Damion, was responsible for her husband’s death and she had set out to expose his criminality by taking employment (under her maiden name) as a secretary at the fake mine-works where they plan a scam to inflate nickel prices. When her cover is blown they leave her to die. WG calls backup and MB flies to him, together with Collins, whose sarcasm at first Judy doesn’t like. There follows a confrontation with the gang, which goes wrong (in part thanks to Collins screwing up) and MB, Collins and Judy are captured. WG however meets an Aborigine tribe on walkabout, led by ex-Network buddy Jacko. Given the sheer size of the Australian outback, another, rather farfetched, coincidence! MB and companions manage to escape (Collins redeeming himself in the process), hiding first with the tribe, where Judy and MB go ‘native’ and nude. Eventually they force a showdown in the ghost town using boomerangs, and even driving a jeep against one of the buildings (a trick WG used again later in the story “The Wild Boar” (1985, by Colvin)). Damion and Korzon take the aeroplane, intending to retaliate using explosives, but WG and Jacko hurl lots of boomerangs in their flight-path, causing them to stall and crash, killing them both. The story ends with Judy and Collins romancing, much to WG’s disappointment.
Critical comment: This story was notable for actually showing MB’s nipples for the first time, if still a rather shady half-length, full-frontal nude (“baring her bosom to the Evening Standard readers” was how Peter O’Donnell put it later), whilst pretending to a native aborigine, covered with grease and charcoal The strip was number 2596. In 1971 this was ‘horror, shock!’, and editor Charles Wintour was displeased – at first! The strip cartoon editor “got a rocket”, but nothing was said to Peter. Instead there was a lot of “glee and amusement”, and several newspapers and magazines ran short news items about it, and one Sunday broadsheet even printed the picture. Until then a topless MB had been viewed from behind or arms strategically placed. Now it seems “much a-do about nothing” – The Sun newspaper had already begun printing full-page, topless models posing as ‘Page 3 Girls’ irregularly, and within the decade Romero was drawing “Axa”, his blonde from a future, devastated Earth, who but rarely wore clothes, and often went completely nude. This story also sees the first comic strip example of MB’s tactic to create a momentary, vital, several second, distraction known as “the nailer” – to go topless. In this instance (although we still only see her from the back) it is Judy, not MB, who flashes her boobs at the baddies. In fact this idea (suggested by WG) was first introduced in the novel Modesty Blaise (1965), and again in Sabre Tooth (1966), but not then used again. When MB finally uses it herself in the comic strip, in “The Reluctant Chaperon” (1975), against two mafia hoods, she remarked the time-lag of shock seemed to be less now, and blamed there being too many porno magazines! However, it must to be said that what is considered ‘politically correct’ has also changed, and in 2020 a reprint of this story drew wrath and complaints, forcing the strip to be pulled, because several characters use the word “Abo” about the native Aborigines. Again, in the period and context, that was considered everyday Aussie slang, and – a point to note – Jacko uses it himself when he advices the disguised MB to sit, as she doesn’t “walk like an Abo girl”. One thing Peter O’Donnell wasn’t was racist. Indeed, it is obvious he had both a fascination and understanding of the native Australian culture – which featured several times in the comic strip, and in his last ‘Madeleine Brent’ novel, The Golden Urchin, a tour de force where he has the heroine as a young white girl brought up by an Aborigine tribe, written in the first person, and her gradual transformation from seeing the world through Aborigine eyes to that of a white person’s world. Jacko appears in several more comic strip stories, both by Romero, “Highland Witch” (1974) and “Walkabout” (this being also set in Australia, 1990). It is perhaps noteworthy that, although he is ex-Network, he calls MB “Miss Blaise”, not “Mam’selle”.
The villainous Chinese Mr Wu Smith, first introduced here, continued to make further appearances, and progressively each time of an even more directly deadly nature. He appears in both strips and novels: “Fiona” (1990); “The Astro” (1994/95), and “The Special Orders” (1996), and I, Lucifer (1967) and The Silver Mistress. He is the owner of the New Provident and Commercial Bank, sponsoring criminal activities in Asia and the Far East. David Collins has much the same humour and character as MB’s later friend/lovers Gordon Ritchie (“Highland Witch”, 1974), and Stephen Collier, who had first appeared in the novel I, Lucifer (1974), but only in the strip stories, with “Lady in the Dark” (1989) and “Durango” (1996). Again we note Romero’s apparently failure to depict children – his young Aborigine look grotesque! Yet again O’Donnell at this period liked his villains to often have names beginning with the letter ‘K’. We have had Kaverin, (Kossuth), Korzan, Kazin, Kata, and now Korzon.

23: Story name: The Puppet Master – 1971 ***
Location: Positano, Italy – Carpi (Mahmond’s villa, and the Mount Solaro chairlift) – (more briefly) Marseilles – Istanbul – Athens (the Acropolis).
Villains: Mahmoud (ex-vice gang boss); Dr Hans Baun; Selina, Murad, Cossa. Varchi (gang members).
Other characters: Tarrant; Maude Tiller (Tarrant agent) ; Vinezzi (Interpol police officer); Fermi (Mafia boss); Quinet (ex-Network, Marseilles gang boss).
Body count: 2
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none, although Maude does start to emerge as his love interest!
Nudity rating: MB in a open-sided dress; both MB and Maude wear short skirts.
Who kills who? : The gang deliberately murder the jeweller Octavian Jassy. Mahmoud kills Baun in anger. WG gets a grazed forehead, MB having been ‘programmed’ to think him her enemy.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. “Five years” previously MB had put vice trade gang boss Mahmoud out of circulation by having him kidnapped and shipped to an Arab country as a slave himself. Now he is back, seeking vengeance. He has MB kidnapped, faking her apparent ‘death’ when her Jensen car crashes into the sea near Positano. Eccentric, pipe-smoking, German Dr Baun then uses hypno-narcosis to plant false memories convincing her she is a long-term, but minor, member of Mahmoud’s gang, and that WG is her hated enemy, someone who MB must ultimately kill. At the same time they are setting MB up to be framed for a jewellery hoist and murder. While MB struggles with her lingering doubts as to her apparent status, WG (unlike Tarrant and others) refuses to accept she is dead. Together with Maude Tiller, one of Tarrant’s female agents who has been assigned to him to “watch and learn”, WG checks out the European underworld until intercepted by Selina, Mahmoud’s girlfriend, who sets WG up to encounter MB at the Carpi Mount Solaro chairlift. The plan fails – just – when WG calls out “Princess” at the moment MB shoots. Between them MB, WG and Maude neutralise the gang, but evil-tempered Mahmoud kills Dr Baun, still blaming everyone else for his failure, but not before Baun makes a deathbed confession, thereby clearing MB.
Critical Comments: Once again the “five years” time-scale of MB still running the Network is increasingly out of sync, especially with Baun saying MB would have been age 20 at that time – she was already 26 or 27 when we first met her in 1963. This story sees the introduction of blonde Maude Tiller, another of Tarrant’s female agents, a sort of replacement for Jeannie Challon, who appeared briefly, and died prematurely, in “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964). Maude would continue to feature in a number of the comic strip stories illustrated by Romero and Colvin. Here also we begin an on-going theme, to be next seen in “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973), of her and WG hoping to have a naughty time together, only to be foiled by unforeseen events each time. Initially, in this story Romero’s depiction of Maude is quite good, with a distinctive hair-style, although in his original pencil sketch (reproduced in the Titan Books edition) her face was actually better than that of the final story image. Unfortunately, in the later stories, she became more an identikit of all of Romero’s ‘Axa’-like blondes. In my opinion, Colvin’s version of her, in “Garvin’s Travels” (1981) and again in “The Double Agent” (1986), are still the best, when she really acquired a characteristic look. The Italian policeman Vinezzi appears again in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83, drawn by Colvin), when MB “calls in the Mount Solaro debt”, and again in “The Last Aristocrat” (1999/2000, by Romero), but in both these later stories he has apparently became head of Italian intelligence. Fair enough; he got promoted. Colvin did at least portray him much as Romero originally draw him in this story (although again, as with Maude Tiller, Colvin’s version is better), but in the much later Romero illustrated story Vinezzi has morphed into a much younger, totally different-looking man! Come on, Romero! As a middle-aged, balding, dark-haired gentlemen, he was your creation in the first place! On the various times when there are flashbacks to MB’s Network days; some definitely work better than others. Here – and again as Mahmoud and Baun go over the details of their plan for MB – it seems rather ‘wordy’ and laboured, breaking the flow of the story. The basic plot has echoes of “The Hell-Makers” (1969, Holdaway), but this time it is MB’s mind being manipulated, rather than WG’s. O’Donnell admitted this was a theme he found fascinating.
Apparently this story was prompted by O’Donnell visiting Capri in 1971 with his wife, and thinking how the up and down chairs of the chairlift passing close to each other “offered a splendid arena for freestyle combat” (quote from Peter O’Donnell’s introduction to the Titan Books edition). It ascends from Anacapri (the principle urban centre, 902ft above sea level) to Mount Solaro, the highest point on the island at 1,932ft. It was built and opened in 1952 by Italian engineer Francesco Ulliscia, and underwent renovation and upgrading in 1998/99. There are 156 chairs, and the journey takes 13 minutes. It is currently maintained by Sacuif Engineering, and the seasonal return fare is 9 or 12 euros. From here there can been enjoyed an “unparalleled view across the island to the sea”. Capri is located within the Bay of Naples. The distance to Naples is 34 kilometres (21 miles).

24: Story name: With Love From Rufus – 1972 **
Location: MB’s London penthouse – Hyde Park – out and about in London – Thames Estuary WW2 sea-forts.
Villain: Mr Preston, gang of six, one named Knuckles Bodie.
Other characters: Scotland Yard Inspector Brook; his nephew Rufus; Rufus’s girlfriend Josie Carter; Weng.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Unnamed blonde female artist in Paris.
Nudity rating: MB in bra and pants, getting changed; fishnet tights in action against the attacking hoodlums (see below).
Who kills who?
: WG kills Mr Preston. MB suffers an elbow wound.
: Crime caper. MB’s safe in her London penthouse is broken into during the night and a bunch of roses and a note With love from Rufus left there. With WG ‘distracted’ in Paris, MB has a dinner date with Scotland Yard Inspector Brook, who tells her there have been four, very professional, jewel robberies from safes, still unsolved. He then introduces his 20 year-old nephew Rufus, whom Brook thinks a “half-wit”, but who is a big MB fan, collecting news cuttings and studying her Network exploits. MB realises Rufus is the jewel thief and the writer of the with love message. Shortly afterwards, in the car park, she and Rufus are attacked by three hoodlums, one MB recognises as Knuckles Bodie. At her penthouse Rufus confesses to be the safe-breaker; WG is impressed, but also amused by his clumsy attempts to flirt with MB. MB later meets Rufus’s girlfriend Josie Carter – they are a night club music duet.
However, soon after this Rufus disappears, and three men take Josie away also. WG figures Rufus’s inexperienced enquiries into the criminal underworld might have attracted the attention of a fence known as Mr Preston. He and MB track Preston and his gang (with Rufus and Josie) to a cluster of old WW2 forts in the Thames Estuary. In the ensuring showdown they put all six hoodlums out of action and WG tricks Preston into the open. Preston makes a hostile move and WG knifes him. MB uses Preston’s death to show Rufus a life of crime is dangerous and rather sordid. Afterwards they return the stolen jewels to Brook with their usual vague explanation of how they ‘found’ it. MB gets another bunch of roses, but With love from Rufus & Josie.
Critical comments: We are told MB’s Network career was only “five years previous”, so again chronologically this story should be about 1966-67 at the latest. Increasingly the time-frame is starting to become rather silly. At the time of the fracas in the car park, MB says her car is a Jensen – the same as in the previous story “The Puppet Master” (also 1972), but that was written off, pushed over a cliff in Italy! A replacement, maybe? Perhaps MB had it well insured! Romero’s view of a “quiet London square” from the surrounding rooftops looks like a bad stage-set, the chimney-tops are all wrong! In his initial meeting with MB, Rufus is perhaps a bit like O’Donnell’s earlier comic strip character, Romeo Brown. Only much later in the series do we eventually discover Rufus’s surname – Marsh. Rufus dresses very much in the 1970s mode – double-breasted, Regency-style jacket, large patterned flowery bow-tie, flared trousers, long, rather shaggy, hair. In the fight-scene with Preston’s three thugs (actually out to grab Rufus), MB wears a long Velcro skirt over fishnet tights, black panties on top, a lacy floral blouse and fur tunic. Later, at her penthouse, we see her in bra, tights and panties, getting changed into slacks and a broad, dress-like top.
While the plot is a bit light-weight, there are some funny humorous bits, especially early on. Such as when WG phones MB from Paris to say he’s going to be delayed. The conversation goes: MB: “Is she nice?” WG: “She’s a cracker. She wants to paint my ’ead.” MB: “Sounds kinky. What colour?” WG: “No, she’s an artist. She says I ’ave an interesting ’ead.” WG was supposed to meet Inspector Brook, and asks her to make an excuse. MB says: “I’ll make it something plausible, like you’re in Paris with a bird.” In fact she tells Brook, [Willie] “picked up something [in Paris] that’s keeping him in bed for a day or two.” Later, after WG gets to meet lovelorn Rufus at MB’s penthouse, she says she’s not into “baby-snatching” (Rufus is 20) and that it’s “calf-love”. As Rufus leaves (after a clumpy lunge to kiss MB), WG says sarcastically, “Exit Casanova.” MB’s reply is, “Stop laughing or I just might kill you.”
In the story the World War II forts in the Thames Estuary are “three miles off Cressland Point”. However, in appearance they resemble Shivering Sands Fort off Herne Bay, Kent, originally several towers, but one collapsed in 1963. They were used by pirate radio stations between 1964-67. Most of the sea forts were constructed in 1942.

25: Story name: The Bluebeard Affair – 1972 ***
Location: Villa Beaumaris, Provence coast – Cannes, south of France – somewhere near Toulon.
Villains: Baron Felix Rath, his daughters Hortense and Celeste.
Other characters: Rene Vaubois; Rene’s niece Nicole; Chloe the circus elephant.
Body count: 7 (plus two previous wives bumped off earlier).
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Rosa (circus trapeze artist).
Nudity rating: MB in bra and pants swimming underwater.
Who kills who? : MB kills one guard, WG kills three guards. MG kills Baron Rath. Chloe the elephant kills ‘ugly’ daughters Hortense and Celeste. MB is wounded in the arm during her rapier fight with Rath.
: Routine crime caper. MB is in Cannes, living on a rented yacht for a month, when French Intelligence chief Rene Vaubois asks her help in a unofficial family matter concerning his 30-year-old, wealthy, but mouse-like, niece Nicole. Three years previous she had married ‘Baron’ Rath, but he had been married three times before – with two (rather ugly) daughters, Hortense and Celeste, from his first, but the next two – one Austrian, one Italian, both rather timid and wealthy – have both died of ‘accidents’. Rath, who purchased his title from a penniless Hungarian, is already planning a drowning accident for Nicole, ably assisted by his hideous daughters. MB uses Rath’s love of épée (duelling with rapiers) to make him think she is also timid and wealthy – so, potentially wife No. 5. Meantime, she visits WG, who is working at a circus just along the coast near Toulon. WG has a problem with trapeze artist Rosa, who insists WG must marry her now he has “dishonoured” her, otherwise she will get her three brothers (the Turkish Aziz “bruzzers” as she calls them) to “chop him up”! MB is amused. However, whilst reconnoitring the villa, WG is caught and the sisters try to drown him at sea, just as MB and Rene are also checking out the villa. MB strips to bra and pants, puts on an aqualung and rescues him. Back at the circus WG asks the manager, Georgi Gogol, to borrow Chloe, one of the elephants, while MB ‘trains’ with the Aziz brothers to help get her over the villa wall. WG and Chloe break in the metal gates to the boathouse and, between them, he and MB eliminate the guards. MB fences with Rath, eventually killing him. The two sisters flee and one tries to shoot Chloe, who tramples them both to death. At the very end MB reveals to WG that Rosa is not the sister to the Aziz brothers, and she was trying to con him into marriage.
Critical Comments: Rene Vaubois, head of French Intelligence (Tarrant’s opposite number) had previously appeared in “The Magnified Man” (1967, drawn by Holdaway), and was to appear again in “The Wild Boar” (1985, drawn by Colvin), and “Our Friend Maude” (1992, Romero again), as well as a cross-over character in many of the novels, he first appeared in the novel Modesty Blaise (1965). At one point in this story MB arranges a secretive rendezvous with Rene, who is floating on a sunbed off the beach of Cannes – did Peter O’Donnell have Hitchcock’s movie To Catch a Thief in mind? On a negative side, Romero’s background depiction of Cannes from the sea is rather unrealistic – and reminiscent of his ‘science fiction’-like skyscraper cities (in “Death Trap”, 1978, for instance). Peter O’Donnell had assumed most people would understand the title, referring to the story of the serial uxoricide (wife-killer) of legend, only to discover a lot of people had no knowledge of the story! WG makes the connection. This story also introduces WG’s connection to Georgi Gogol’s circus, which (until then unbeknown to MB) he was 51% part-owner. Gogol’s Circus would appear again in “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1977); “Death Trap” (1978); “The Return of the Mammoth” (1984, drawn by Colvin, which also again featured Chloe the elephant); “Fiona” (1990, by Romero); and finally “The Zombie” (2001, again with Chloe). O’Donnell also introduces the amusing sub-plot involving Willie’s love-life, with MB teasing him. Twice, however, in the circus scenes featuring MB and WG, Romero depicts on-going, staged outdoor circus performances (strips 2876 and 2924) either in the back- or fore-ground. These actually look too theatrical and rather silly!

26: Story name: The Gallows Bird – 1973 ***
Location: “The Treadmill” (WG pub) – Memphis (briefly) – New Orleans, USA – waterfront wharves – police headquarters – hotel in the French Quarter – General Laporte’s house, ‘Little Big Horn’, in the Garden Quarter – derelict house on the outskirts of the city – General’s houseboat The Custer.
Villains: General Laporte and his younger wife Blanche; gang member Querol.
Other characters: Police Lieutenant Charlie Walsh; Police Captain Burt; Steve Taylor (FBI agent); Sarah Verne (Paul Verne’s widow).
Body count: 7
Modesty’s lover: John Dall (before story); Steve Taylor.
Willie’s lover: Maisie (in the uncensored version, at “The Treadmill”); Blanche tries to seduce him.
Nudity rating: WG in bed with Maisie (he still wore pyjama bottoms, however); MB depicted sleeping nude; Blanche shown in short negligee when trying to seduce WG.
Who kills who? : Laporte’s gang hang the diver Paul Verne, and previously another man who supplied explosives. WG and MB kill two henchman after they try to hang MB. MB kills Querol. WG kills Laporte. Blanche falls from yacht rigging and hangs herself.
Summary/theme: Ransom crime caper. MB is sailing down the Mississippi with Texan millionaire lover John Dall when he is called away on business. At 2 am UK time, she phones WG in England to join her on Dall’s Moonraker motor-yacht. They reach New Orleans three days before the Mardi Gras. The first night, in the docks, they stumble on a gang of men in the processing of hunting and hanging a quarry. The dead man is Paul Verne, a scuba diver. At the police station they met FBI agent Steve Taylor, MB’s lover from “Uncle Happy” (1965. Illustrated by Holdaway). Taylor reveals a blackmail attempt to exhort $2 million or they will blow-up the levees and flood the city, with devastating consequences. MB and WG visit Verne’s widow only to be meet General Laporte and his much younger wife Blanche, who we already know had ordered (and secretly watched) Verne’s murder. WG links Verne, as a diver, to bombs planted underwater on the levees and they start to suspect Laporte and Blanche. Invited to the General’s house, ‘Little Big Horn’, Blanche unsuccessfully tries to seduce WG. Having grown suspicious, the General and Blanche capture MB and arrange a hanging on a makeshift gallows. Unbeknown to them WG has found his way underneath and catches MB as she falls. Blanche likes hanging people in revenge for her murderous father being himself convicted and condemned to death by hanging 20 years previous. MB and WG take on the remainder of the gang on the General’s boat the “Custer”, killing the General, while Blanche falls and hangs herself on a rope ladder. MB and WG leave Steve to clean things up.
Critical Comment: The opening strips of WG at “The Treadmill” have him in bed with his latest girlfriend, Maisie. In some versions of the strip, she was censored out and the dialogue changed. Again in the uncensored Maisie version WG pretends the caller is US President Nixon. Later when Blanche tried to seduce WG she is wearing a quite revealing negligee; this too is heavily censored. Blanche is the crazy one, indulged by her much older husband, with her obsession with hanging. When planning MB’s hanging, they calculated her weight at 130 lbs, so 7ft drop to break her neck. The Home Office ‘Table of Drops’ said about 7ft 8ins. Apparently the last legal hanging in Louisiana was in 1941, after which the electric chair was used until 1991. Capital punishment is now by lethal injection, but no one has been executed since about 2010. Blanche says her ‘pappy’ was hanged “years back”, so over thirty years previous. The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, is the city’s oldest neighbourhood, dating from 1718. It is defined by the Mississippi on one side, Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and Rampart Street. The population in 2010 was 3,813, and the number of households 2,635. The Garden District (11th Ward) is defined by St. Charles Avenue (north), 1st Street (east), Magazine Street (south) and Toledano Street (west). It was developed between 1832 and 1900 and contains some of the best historic mansions in the southern United States. The population in 2010 was 1,926 with 1,023 households. [Source: Wikipedia.] It’s elevation is 3ft., so we presume the General and Blanche weren’t concerned their own house would be flooded also. Much later, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina succeeded in flooding New Orleans in real life, whereas O’Donnell’s villains failed in fiction. 1,833 people lost their lives, and damage was estimated at $125 billion.

27: Story name: The Wicked Gnomes – 1973 **
Location: London (MB swimming in the Serpentine) – Cornwall; local town of ‘Lepstow’ – local inn – the Boote brother’s house – mine workings.
Villains: Brothers Herbert and Stanley Boote; Mr Carter of Salamander Four.
Other characters: Maude Tiller; Tarrant; Jack Frazer (background); the Rev. Harold Bryant (Maude’s uncle); Weng; Pauline Brown (condemned Soviet spy);
Body count: 3
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: More frustrated attempts with Maude.
Nudity rating: MB in panties, getting changed; in tutu skirt as ‘fairy’ in children Magic Grotto.
Who kills who? : Salamander Four agent Mr Carter kills the two Boote brothers. Maude kills Mr Carter.
: Espionage caper. Maude Tiller has helped catch traitor/spy Pauline Brown, who is condemned to 15 years in prison. A foreign embassy is prepared to pay Salamander Four to free her. Their plan is to kidnap Maude and force the British government to do an exchange. Meantime Maude is about to spend a night with WG at a Cornish pub/hotel together, when Maude sees her uncle, the Rev. Harold Byrant, the local vicar of Lepstow. WG discovers the room is bugged and finds and ties up the two men responsible, who are, in fact, Tarrant’s agents keeping tabs on Maude. In the meantime Maude is kidnapped by the Boote brothers, contract killers Herbert and Stanley – one thin and tall, one short and fat. The British government refuse the exchange, forcing MB to execute a brilliantly audacious plan to spring Pauline Brown from prison and negotiate direct with Maude’s captors. Pauline Brown thinks MB and Weng are communist agents. MB and WG are subsequently instructed to seek temporary employment with the Rev. Byrant at the Lepstow fairy grotto, to find the Boote brothers there, posing as gnomes. Suspecting a double-cross, the Boote brothers have put Maude in a disused tin-mine which floods at hightide. However, while MB and WG are rescuing Maude, the Boote brothers blow-up the mine shaft. WG is able to escape along the tunnel to the sea in a wooden barrel, returning with scuba gear. In the final showdown at the rendezvous place, Carter kills the Boote brothers, Maude kills Carter, MB and WG take out Carter’s two henchmen. Later, with Maude hoping to still have a holiday with WG, but he has got chickenpox from one of the children in the grotto. Maude is not amused!
Critical comments: Another example of WG as a mimic, impersonating the voice of the Home Secretary early in the prison bust caper. We see MB’s Rolls Royce, but Romero depicts WG driving his black London taxi cab with a lot of smoke or exhaust fumes coming out the back – not good, Willie! Something wrong with your exhaust. The police would stop you! The Boote brothers cottage “along the coast from Lepstow” has certain architectural similarities to the villa in Capri features in “The Puppet Master”, and again in at least two other such exterior views of houses depicted later in the stories. Romero obviously only had one house style! Peter O’Donnell’s description of the Boote brothers to Romero was imagine Laurel and Hardy, turned evil. This was first introduction in the comic strip stories of Salamander Four – a sort of James Bond SPECTRE-like criminal organization, and who were to appear again in “The Green Cobra” (1979), “Plato’s Republic” (drawn by Colvin), and “The Lady in the Dark” (1990). They also appeared in some of the novels/short stories, where O’Donnell killed off the top leadership in “Old Alex” (Cobra Trap, 1996).
This is a middling sort of story, saved by several examples of ingenuity – in the clever originality of MB’s prison coup, and WG improvising to escape the flooded mine. But the overall premise that the British government would surrender a criminal for one of their intelligence agents is questionable – even by certain members within Salamander Four. The comic villains are more silly and grotesque than wicked, rather reminiscent of Friar Tuck, who we meet later in “The Greenwood Maid” (1975/76).

28: Story name: The Iron God – 1974 **
Location: Jungles of Papua New Guinea.
Villain: O’Mara (Macao ex-vice ring boss, murderer escaping Australian justice)
Other characters: Nauga, native Papua nurse.
Body count: 16 at least, including four of Nauga’s companions killed prior to her appearance; Ten heads from tribe’s latest raid; the tribe chief. Only one (O’Mara) is killed in the story itself.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Sue (airhostess); Molly, Joyce, Laura (fellow airhostesses and previous girlfriends); hint of WG perhaps having a subsequent, post-story relationship with Nauga.
Nudity rating: WG’s latest girlfriend Sue in bikini; Nauga initially topless in just skimpy loincloth; several native women topless; MB in shorts.
Who kills who? : Nauga cuts rope, causing the iron safe to crush O’Mara. O’Mara recounts how he earlier killed the tribe chief. MB is nicked in the arm with paralysis poison.
Summary/theme: Survival/crime caper. WG is in Port Moresby, New Guinea, with the latest of a long line of (apparently) air hostess girlfriends, when MB joins him. Later, flying on a photographic survey in a single-engine aeroplane over the wild highlands of the interior, they have a fuel problem and are forced to land in the jungle. Out of radio contact with Port Moresby, one wheel strut needs repairing, but on the second day they rescue a young native woman, Nauga, from three head-hunters. She is a nurse and the only survivor of a medical team – mission doctor, two assistants, a white nurse – killed by the local tribes. A larger party of heavily armed natives arrive, and despite attempts to pacify or intimidate them with talk of the “powerful magic of the white faces” (with WG doing a fire-eating/breathing act), they are taken back to the tribe’s village. There they meet O-Ma-La, their all-powerful white god, who MB and WG recognise as an bearded Irishman named O’Mara, former vice ring boss, and who is wanted for murder back in Australia. Having fled to New Guinea a year previously, O’Mara had killed the tribe’s chief and encouraged them to dominate neighbouring tribes, capturing their women, and taking heads. In fact, he is delighted to see them, wishing to exploit their criminal skills. Until he arrived the tribe had worshipped the Iron God, actually a massive Japanese safe looted from Port Moresby at the end of World War II, the aeroplane having crashed soon afterwards. The tribe had cleared away the wreckage and the place was now sacred, marked with human skulls. Both O’Mara and MB and WG know the story; the safe contained half a million pounds of industrial diamonds. But first WG is forced to fight one of the tribesman who wanted to take Nauga. WG then stalls for time, saying the safe is badly damaged and the only way to open it without a thermal lance is to use intense fire, quickly followed by water to “disintegrate” the internal bolts. O’Mara falls for this and instructs the tribe to built a hoist of timber struts and thick rope, using fear and his persona to overcome their reluctance at this apparent sacrilege of the Iron God. WG then fakes his accidental death (supposedly eaten by a crocodile) to sneak away to the aeroplane and use the radio (and a small transmitter hidden in the rope hauling the safe) to seem like the voice of the Iron God. Nauga had already taught him what to say in the local language. However, O’Mara challenges MB to single combat, as to who is the more powerful god – him or the Iron God. Just when MB looks like winning, he cuts her arm with his knife, the blade of which was soaked in a mild, but effective, paralysing toxin. However, as he is about to kill her, the raised safe crashes down on top of him. Nauga tells the tribesmen the Iron God has spoken – MB is the Iron God’s ‘spirit woman’. In fact Nauga had cut the rope, holding the safe up. As MB and WG fly Nauga out, they make plans to return with equipment to open the safe and donate the money to building a hospital.
Critical comment: WG gives authentic example of Pidgin English, which Peter O’Donnell had researched. WG also demonstrates fire-eating skills, explaining he “had a girlfriend in the circus who was a fire-eater”. There is also a casual mention of a thermal lance to open the ‘Iron God’ safe – which O’Donnell used several times before, as in “The Red Gryphon” (1969). Romero manages to illustrate the New Guinean tribal people quite well, but thankfully there are no hideous children!
The escaped criminal setting himself up as a charismatic leader to a group of followers is used again, if in a slightly different context, in “Durango” (1997).
Coincidences comes particularly thick and fast in this story – they and Nauga crossing paths; they crossing paths with O’Mara, who they knew; him conveniently needing their expertise to open the safe; even him standing in the wrong place under the safe.
In October 2003 the South China Morning Post reported the discovery of 10 tonnes of gold bullion in rotting wooden crates (worth millions of dollars), hidden by the retreating Japanese forces in the dense mountainous jungles of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, about 850 km from Port Moresby.

Danger Man: s02 e13 – No Marks for Servility

This week’s Danger Man episode was a mostly plain thriller story, notable for the element of comedy that subtly underpinned John Drake’s latest assignment  –  under his own name – as a very efficient,imperturbable and self-effacing butler to a man you seriously had to be self-effacing about, and the equally subtle air of romance, with Drake having not one but two attractive young women paying attention to him, but also showings signs, at a social distance, of being attracted to one of them himself. Lawdy mama, won’t they think of the children?

The episode began in Athens, at the rented home of international financier Grigori Benares (Howard Marion Crawford, who’s already appeared in ‘Yesterday’s Enemies’, on honeymoon with his young English bride Helen (Suzan Farmer), who has no-one else in the world, has no experience of this lifestyle and who thinks of herself as a lucky nobody. They’re visited by Greek Minister Mr Avraam, who gets into an argument with Benares and ‘kills himself’ later that night. The Benares shoot off to Rome.

Meanwhile, at World Travel, Admiral Hobbs explains to Drake that this sort of thing follows Benares around. As do substantial loans to foreign gvernments, intended to better the lot of the peasants (a-ha! A Socialist notion! Premature Wokeism) but which gets creamed off into the pockets of rich Government figures and international financiers (seriously, this is 1964 speaking directly to us in Britain 2021). Benares is renting a Villa in Rome from friends of Hobbs, who are persuaded to replace their tried and tested butler, Hesketh, for a complete novice (but a fast learner) – Drake.

Benares doesn’t like Drake or trust him from the start. Later, it’s put over that Benares could detect, from the first, the absence of essential component of Drake’s imposture, that he is a servant but that he has no servility. I can see that in Benares, who is exactly the kind of person who would see servility as his due, because a servant is a servant, and thus of no human concern, an attitude emphasised by the fact that Helen, unused to servants, automatically treats Drake as a person, and a human being. She cannot get the hang of calling him Drake, it always has to be Mr Drake, and he in his turn is supportive towards her and even gallant to the extent his position permits. Especially after he and we discover from offstage that Benares is in the habit of beating his wife.

The financier – who has a touch of the Robert Maxwells about him – has another scam going, based on a substantial loan from a big bank represented by Mr Armstrong (Mervyn Johns), who is in Rome with his daughter Judy (Francesca Annis, looking even more lovely than in her ‘earlier’ appearance in ‘That’s Two of Us Sorry’). Helen and Judy are getting on like a house on fire. Benares and Armstrong aren’t, because Armstrong is recommending refusing the loans until some genuine proposals to improve the lot of the poor are put in place.

The outcome of that is that, under the pretence of the two girls meeting up for an afternoon’s shopping, Helen is put off and Judy kidnapped. Nor does Drake have a free hand to act in the best interests of everybody since Armstrong won’t let Judy be put at any risk, and the Police are prepared to play the old meddling-in-things-that-are-not-your-business card, and put Drake in gaol, after a couple of stomach punches, to keep him quiet.

Fortunately, Drake knows how to ride a couple of stomach punches, and how to conduct a single-handed rescue – not entirely single-handed because the spirited Judy plays a calm and quick-0witted role once she’s released.

And that’s it for Benares, and sadly for Helen’s life of luxury. There’s signs she may fall on her feet: the friendship with Judy was real enouh that the Armstrong’s will take her back with them to London, from which we infer they’ll help her establish herself. The lovely helen still sees it as going back to being a nobody, but this is where Drake and McGoohan surprise us, with a meaningful look and a quiet assurance that she’ll always be a significant person to him. Which prompts a soft goodbye from Helen to… John..

My, oh my.

It’s the closest we get and it’s very much of the in-another-world style of romance. The ships have already passed in the night and all that are visible are their stern lights, their hulls an empty shadow. Forget the action, forget the tension, this is the core of this episode, We’ll remember this long time.

More Crap Journalism

In the Guardian today, author Namina Forna wrote about discovering fantasy through The Lord of the Rings and subsequently how disappointed and cut-off she felt on watching the film Trilogy and discovering that it featured no black or African characters. Maybe it’s just the fact that this is appearing in the Guardian, who have to find some means of denigrating any work of creativity that doesn’t conform to Twenty-First Century identity politics and sectionalism, but the piece comes over to me as critical of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for failing to be more multi-cultural. I don’t think that’s meant to be Forna’s angle but under a sub-heading of ‘As a Black Lord of the Rings fan, I felt left out of fantasy worlds. So I created my own’ the slant is plain to see.

My first response was, what do you expect? This is a book written between 1936 and 1951 by a middle-aged Midlands white male who was a Professor of Ancient Languages at Oxford University and whose lifelong creative impulse stemmed from wishing to give Britain the kind of myth-cycle enjoyed by the Norse and the Greek. Is that a multi-cultural theme. It’s rather me, as a white European male, feeling excluded from the Afro-centric myths of Sierra Leone that she’s used to underpin her own fantasy fiction.

I wish her luck with her work. The thing about fantasy nurtured by myth is that it plays upon people’s unconscious attachment to those myth, upon the sense of resonance with things buried deep in our sub-consciousnesses. I would not expect Forna’s myths to necessarily resonate with me as I haveno cultural connection to the mythology of Sierra Leone or any other part of Africa. That she found resonance in Lord of the Rings probably indicates a broader mind than mine (I hope it doesn’t indicate that ashe may have been subjected, in the worse sense of the word, to European Cultural Colonial dominion).

But the Guardian‘s seeming incapbility to distinguish between then and now pisses me off more and more each week.

The Infinite Jukebox: Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of a Bay’

Some songs create their own space and time around them, inspired by but detached from the circumstances in which they are created. Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, with its overt political foresight, it’s understanding that things just could not carry on that way any longer is one, and Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of a Bay’, recorded when accident was so soon to rob him of the chance to make more music, is another.
Neither man outlived by much the song that would render them immortal. Both would die violent deaths, as did many men of their colour in those times, and each are remembered for songs that looked far beyond those lives, Cooke regarding a future that would follow him, Redding a past that had brought him to a point of stillness from which he could reflect.
‘Dock of a Bay’ was different from anything else Redding recorded. Redding was a soul man, with an incredible voice and energy, but for this valedictory song he turns all of that off. The beat, the rhythm, the horns his audience expected are all missing. Instead, there are sound effects, the sound of a shore, gulls, the sea, over a quiet, reflective pulse that owes more to San Francisco psychedelia than deep south soul.
Though Redding identifies his setting as the dock of a bay, watching the tide roll away, watching the boats head out into an ocean whose shores cannot be seen, though he identifies himself as having travelled from his origins, his home in Georgia, travelled 2,000 miles, he has nowhere ele to go.
Yes, he’s journeyed, but this journey has taken him nowhere. The land he has travelled has changed, exactly as Sam Cooke said would be coming, but it doesn’t seem to have taken him any further. He has travelled in body, but wherever he has gone, he feels the same, and what is around him feels the same.
A few years on from Cooke, Redding sings, like a man in mortal pain, ‘Looks like nothing’s gonna change’. Everything still remains the same. People demand things of him, but he cannot do what they ask, for he has ten times the demand, and all want something different and he cannot pull himself in so many directions at once so his only option is to remain the same.
In America, the lost and the lonely and the helpless have always gone west, and have always ended up in California, where there is nowhere further to go. This is where Otis Redding has arrived. In front of him, others are leaving. He can see them, but in the meantime he’s resting his bones, full of a loneliness that won’t leave him alone. He’s hollow. he’ll just go (on) sitting on the dock of a bay, wasting time.
Listen, not to the words but to the voice. All the things Redding was – the deep soul man, the performer, the fighter, the lover, the dynamite – are absent. Whisper it lightly but this is almost Redding the hippy, borrowing some of the trappings of the white music in this year when things are astir among them. In their Revolution there has to be a place for Otis Redding and his folk. In this space of time, to rest, to kick back and think about who he is now, and what he will do with his music to further those ends, Redding’s voice is weary, alone. It is almost as if he has a premonition.
On a shore overlooking the Pacific, whistling for his own, quiet amusement, the song fades out. But that whistling is also a moment of resignation, a replacement for further words reflecting his thoughts, out here, questioning where and why he is and having no answers.
Sam Cooke was killed by a motel owner’s bullet in debatable circumstances. Otis Redding died in a plane crash three days after recording this song, without ever finishing it to his satisfaction. What we have is what was finished off by his co-writer Steve Cropper, the guitarist for Booker T and The MGs.
What either man would have made of a longer time in which to grow is unknowable. Cooke was spooked by his vision of the future and only ever sung his song once after recording it. I do not know if Redding ever had the time to sing his masterpiece for the audience he wanted to hear it. I believe, I wish, I hope, that he would have come back stronger, raging with the defiance that was required of the era.
The dock was never really going to be his home, if time had but given him the time. We listen to him, moving away from us into a temporary peace, a moment he had earned for himself, wondering, as we all did in that year of 1967, what future we would create, when we were ready. I cannot believe that with Otis Redding in it it wouldn’t have been better.

Sunday Watch: The Singing Detective e05 – Pitter Patter

The classic series structure is fifty-fifty. The first half for raising all the questions, the second half for filling in the answers. Though Michael Gambon’s psoriatic make-up is diminishing each week, indicating that he is on the road to recovery physically, it isn’t being paralleled in any way by his mental recovery and the episodes grow thicker and denser as the series goes on.

I haven’t liked the episodes in the ‘answer-half’, neither last week”s nor today’s, anything like so much as the ‘question-half’. There are specific issues: David Ryall’s Mr Hall rises to new heights of sheer spite, nastiness, hypocrisy and faux-superiority and it’s a terrific performance but it’s so terrific that you can only wish to be as far away from him as is possible, whilst I neither like nor respect the new sub-plot of Nicola’s supposed attempt to steal Marlow’s screenplay which, coming in the contemporary and therefore suposedly objective part of the story, is both sordidly trite and unnecessarily meodramatic. It just doesn’t have the weight to sustain the load it’s being asked to bear.

‘Pitter Patter’ is where everything starts to break down, where the barriers between the disparate strands become porous. Nicola and Mark Finney speak the dialogue written for them by Marlow, complete with punctuation. Finney hears Marlow’s voice as he and Nicola plot, the knock on his door in 1985 is from 1944, his bare stair wall transmutes into Mark Binney’s painting of the bare-breasted woman, and the two Mysterious Men, the long-coated, snap-brimmed men, are unmoored. They shoot at Marlow the Singing Detective in the dancehall, study him at visiting time on the ward, they run and they run and they run into the Forest of Dean as Philip’s Dad calls for him whilst Philip’s up a tree, hiding. Everybody’s looking for him.

Indeed they are. Dr gibbon conducts one of those counselling sessions where Marlow fences with him at every turn, determined that he won’t be helped. They play word association, where woman leads to fuck and fuck leads to dirt and dirt leads to death. It’s that same old thing about sex, for marlow and for Dennis Potter, who put it into other character’s words: we see Marlow shagging a prostitute, Kate McKenzie who was the Russian hostess, Anna, only he’s fully-clothed, shirt buttoned up to neck and down to wrists, lumping off her as soon as he’s come, jumping out of bed for a cigarette, insulting her for what she does, words twisted out of his reaction to Nicola.

And young Philip, laying the blame on young Mark binney, because his Dad were laying on a top of our Mum, provoking her into admitting Our Dad’s not coming or them, not ever, and he runs away,pounding with rigid determination, running through the Ward.

No, it’s all falling in on itself, and you wonder why Marlow’s skin is becoming so much clearer when his mind is disintegrating and even he thinks he’s paranoid, because body and mind are not in sync and his re-writing of his detective story is coming no neaer to solving his problems, its only revealing more.

As well as Mr Hall, and the screenplay, I’m taking exception, gross exception, to the attitude to sex. It’s not just the overt disgust at its very existence but its reflection onto the female characters. Nurse Mills is pretty, so she’s nice, Staff Nurse white isn’t so she’s a pain in the arse, the Night Nurse is black, fat and sleeps at her job so she’s a cow and a hypocrite (the only black characters in the whole series are feckless at best). Nicola’s got a husky voice so she’s a slut, the achoolteacher is a frustrated old spoinster and a monster, Mrs Marlow is pretty and the life Mr Marlow has given her, all unaware that any other kind of life can exist, is crushing her – You Always Hurt The One You Love – but she’s an adultress and she’s bound to die, Anna is a whore. I don’t like this side of The Singing Detective. And I’m liking it even less as I go along.

But then it’s the last part next week.

Edge of Darkness: e01 – Compassionate Leave

I’ve known for a long time now what TV series I wanted to go onto after Lou Grant – another multi-season affair but not something that will commit me for more than two years. That, however, can go on hold for a short time. The idea behind my current Sunday Watch series, like the Film series that went before it, was that there would be something different more or less every week. It would therefore have made sense to start watching The Singing Detective in this slot, but I didn’t think of that in time. But with socrates7’s enthusiastic embrace of the idea of my commenting on Edge of Darkness as inspiration, here we go.

Edge of Darkness was made by the BBC in 1985, written by Troy Kennedy Martin, a veteran writer from the Z-Cars days, and starring Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker, not to mention the lovely Joanne Whalley in a small but crucial role. I didn’t watch it when it was broadcast, I don’t know why, but I remember the acclaim it received. I didn’t get to watch it for the first time until the last decade, so this is only my second time around.

It felt somehow old-fashioned when I did get to see it, as well it might for something now thirty-five years old. Watching the opening episode made me feel old, in a way that Lou Grant, despite being further back than Edge of Darkness never did. The reason is obvious: Lou Grant dealt with issues that affected its country and Edge of Darkness, despite the universal story it will expand into, is steeped in the affairs of my country, in an era I experienced at first hand, an era that did much to sharpen my own political viewpoints. There is television footage of Margaret Thatcher being interviewed about Britain’s nuclear deterrent late in the episode which brought a lot back.

As an opening episode, ‘Compassionate Leave’ followed a fairly conventional structure, leavening it initially by a compelling if stoic performance by Peck – an unknown up to this point – as Detective Inspector Ronald Craven, and then stirring into the brew some odd and unexpected elements that to this point, hint at the shapeless outline of something deeper.

We start with what seems like a red herring, something for Craven to be doing as the story waits to start. Craven, a Yorkshireman in a Northern constabulary that’s played as being not-Yorkshire but which still feels like it’s set in Leeds, is investigating ballot-rigging in a Union election. That solidly roots the series in a distant time. Ronnie’s under open pressure, by the successful Union Secretary James Godbolt (Jack Watson) and the more silent complaisance of his Superintendant, Ross (John Woodvine) to hold off for two weeks during Conference in Blackpool, so as not to set off (more) political grief. This is a land, and a time, of Industrial Strife

Ronnie assents, silently. A man of few words is our Ronnie, and the vast masjority of them quiet, slow but decisive. Peck uses the minimum dialogue to establish Ronnie Craven as, on the surface, colourless but, not very far below, rock-solid, determined and also very right.

Ronnie has a daughter at College, Emma (Whalley). She’s a activist, attached to left wing and ecological causes. There’s great enthusiasm, passion, an urge to make the future better in Emma and her contemporaries: oh jesus, this is like time travel! It’s pissing it down, to use Ronnie’s words, and it is, and it’s night, and dark, and half the time you can’t see properly, and sometimes the dialogue’s mixed lower than Eric Clapton’s guitar soundtrack, which is entirely deliberate because when Ronnie picks her up, gets her home, has ratatouille ready, some rain-slick, hooded and bearded bastard brandishing a shotgun and screaming something about bloody murdering bastards steps out in front of them and points. Emma rushes in front of her Dad. He lets flies. She is literally blown off her feet and dies more or less instantly.

A police procedural. The death of a young woman. Probably an intended revenge killing, meant for Ronnie. Ronnie silent, in shock, determined that he’s alright, he’s not affected, that he’s fully functioning over the death of his only child, his only family, his wife dead ten years, of cancer, within a year of moving onto this patch. Officially, Ronnie has nothing to do with this investigation. He’s sent on two week’s compassionate leave. But he’s all right. He’s a Yorkshireman.

But that’s not all it is. We started in the dark, with uniformed men patrolling chain-metal fences, with a train moving at night, carrying odd-shaped sealed containers, so we know there’s something in the background. There’s a man named Pendleton (Charles Kay) who’s in London, calling the Chief Constable on his direct line to talk about the unintended murder of a 21 year old College student. There’s a tall, burly American in a stetson hat, giving his name as Darius Jedburgh (Baker) back from Texas and bringing Pendleton aerial shots of something called Northmoor.

And there’s a disquieting scene where the still damp Ronnie wanders round Emma’s bedroom, half sinking into the suddenly-terminated life his daughter had that was her as Emma not her as daughter, and half searching the place like any trained Policeman. He looks at old toys, clothes, wallposters. What we were back then. In a bedside cabinet drawer he finds a pink boxfile with only the word GAIA written on it. Inside there are papers, and a map he doesn’t look at. Ronnie finds a vibrator, a plain, basic white one. Then, disturbing it is, and this was Peck’s spur of the moment improvisation, he kisses it. His daughter’s vibrator. We are in the land of the seriously weird here.

Then he finds a gun. A black, metal gun (sorry, I don’t know gun species). His daughter had a gun. Ronnie sinks back on the bed, brain whirring, a gun in one hand, a tattered but loved teddy bear in the other. Strange scenes.

There was one other thing in the boxfile that I didn’t mention just now. It was something black, shaped like a mobile phone that was bulky even for the times. Though I’m not sure how clearly we were expected to recognise it then, I knew it as a Geiger Counter. After he’s formally identified his daughter’s body at the morgue, and raised his voice for the only, startling time to stop them covering her face, it’s not until he goes home again that Ronnie uses the Geiger Counter. It crackles over the things in the boxfile. It’s louder over the gun. And it goes positively electro over the lock of Emma’s hair Ronnie has kept.

Ronnie’s going to spend his leave in London, where the Met put him up in a decent hotel. London’s where the killers will have come from. He gets a call from Pendleton to meet in the car park. They’ll use Pendleton’s car because Ronnie’s is bugged. Is Pendleton 6 (MI6)? No, but he’s part of a unit attached to the Prime Minister and they’re going to the BBC, where she was just seen being interviewed. Pendleton casually describes Emma as a terrorist (that part at least has not dated). He suggests that it was not Ronnie but Emma who was the target.

And he leaves Ronnie to walk back when the PM’s route to Downing Street is varied. Or is that the real reason? He’s left Ronnie near a railway line. under the bridge a train emerges, a goods train, carrying oddly-shaped sealed containers.

Professionally, an object lesson in writing an opening episode to get you hooked, suggesting but not defining possibilities. What those possibilities are, we shall soon get to see. I should have watched this in 1985.

*Guest Post* – Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist: Part 2


11: Story name: The Magnified Man – 1967 *****
Location: France: Tarn region (Occitanie department) – MB villa “on Basque coast” – St. Jean de Luz (border with Spain) – ‘Gueule du Loup’, mountainous region.
Villain: Herr Bilke.
Body Count: 5
Modesty’s lover: none
Willie’s lover
: Denise Rouelle (after story end)
Other characters: Tarrant; Denise Rouelle (Deuxieme Bureau agent); René Vaubois (DB Chief); Bilke’s gang members, notably Gridoux and Jules.
Nudity rating: MB in robe; flashing her legs whilst riding the bull, or fighting.
Who kills who? : Jules kills a French Sûreté agent by dropping boulder onto his car. MB and WG kill the two of Bilke’s gang, Andre and Jacques, who had tried to kill Denise Rouelle. MB kills another of Herr Bilke’s gang, Gridoux, by hurling him over a cliff. WG’s grenade kills Jules. MB suffers a cut on her cheek from a rock splinter.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. Tarrant is visiting MB and WG at her villa at St. Jean de Luz when WG sees an old girlfriend Denise (who is a Deuxieme Bureau agent) and inadvertently blows her cover. Very soon the mob she is embedded with take their revenge, stabbing her, but she survives thanks to MB and WG intervening. However, before she slips into unconsciousness, she says to tell Vaubois what sounded like “Girl due”. MB realises she was actually speaking French, not English, the location known as ‘Gueule du Loup’ – a narrow pass known as the Wolf’s Jaw. What follows is an ingeniously worked out gold bullion train heist, in isolated mountains using the ‘magnified man’, a metal exo-skeleton, a device that was actually being developed in the 1960s (notably by the US military), but apparently – like the thermal lance – little later came of it.
Critical comment: This story first introduces the French intelligence chief René Vaubois in the comic strips, where he later featured in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972, drawn by Romero), “The Wild Boar” (1985, drawn by Colvin), and “Our Friend Maude” (1992, drawn by Romero again). He also featured in several of the novels, first mentioned in the novel Modesty Blaise, where, strangely his first name is given as Léon. Soon after, he appeared in Sabre-Tooth (1966) as René, followed by I, Lucifer (1967). In “The Wild Boar” we discover he is married. At one point, we see MB taking part at the local course des vaches bull ring, where man and bull compete, the bull more often the victor. Herr Bilke communicates with his gang by apparently working as a waiter at their hotel. A thread throughout the story is the ball game of pelota, played with a long basket (O’Donnell calls it a cesta, Wikipedia says chistera) on one hand. Jules (“thick as a plank”, WG recollected) was a one-time champion, later “in Corbeau’s mob”. The game has its origins in the Basques region, north-east Spain, south-west France, from the 18th century, evolving into its modern form in the 19th century. Trapped in the gang’s cave hideaway, WG uses Jules’s cesta to toss one of the grenades. While the rest of the gang duck, Jules is killed and Bilke cuts his losses and tries to escape. Vaubois’s operation headquarters was at Vienne, near Lyon, over 90 minutes away. Early in the story Tarrant and Vaubois have a telephone discussion concerning Denise’s predicament in cryptic terms of patient and doctor.
Denise being exposed and being knifed is similar to the fate of MB’s friend (and Tarrant agent) Jeannie Challon in “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964/65), but Denise is luckier, MB and WG intercept her would-be killers in time, and Vaubois and Tarrant summon an ambulance, and she is rushed to hospital. In the last panels a crestfallen WG brings flowers, and Denise says she will ‘punish’ him as soon as she is better!

12: Story name: The Jericho Caper – 1967/68 ****
Location: ‘Luquerres’, small fishing village on the “Pacific coast of Central America” – Calia, capital of the ‘Republic of Desperados’ – London, Victoria Street/Bayswater Road.
Villain: Sabo de Mar (bandit, and self-declared ‘president’)
Body Count: 13
Modesty’s lover: Torres (blind artist and sculptor).
Willie’s lover: none.
Other characters: Tarrant; Father Ramon (RC priest); Rosa (village girl); Finn (Irishman, formerly from the Network); Chuck (aircraft survey pilot from Chequida.)
Nudity rating: MB swimming nude in pool.
Who kills who?
: The Sabo bandits kill one of the villagers. WG and MB killed four more bandits who are besieging Finn and his companions at a mine. MB and WG decimate Sabo’s ragbag henchmen. Torres shoots Sabo’s second-in-command. MB throws Sabo to his death over a parapet.
: Rescue caper. MB has driven in a jeep down the USA, only to stay over in the village of Luquerres “when the road ran out”. She is living with the blind, former painter, Torres (who is making a nude clay sculpture of her), when bandits arrive, take three young girls (killing Jose, Rosa’s father) and head back to Calia, the ‘Republic of Desperados’, a self-governing, if rather lawless, territory originally founded by escaped convicts. The previous president, Lafayette, has been killed and Sabo de Mar has elected himself as the new president. MB and Torres volunteer to accompany the village priest, Father Ramon, who thinks he can negotiate with Sabo. Torres lost his sight ten years earlier fighting in the revolution; now he is a self-confessed cheerful, if cynical, pacifist. MB has alerted WG by radio and he flies to join her. Together they eventually team up with the Irishman Finn (formerly from the Network) to defeat the bandits, using the ‘Jericho scam’, a strategy of firepower and false rumours. In the subsequent shoot out at an old Aztec fort, Torres suffers a bullet grazing his forehead and has his sight restored.
Critical comment: In several of the novels (Dragon’s Claw, for instance) and in “Milord” (1988), clerics, or pseudo-clerics, are the baddies, but in this story, and “Black Queen’s Pawn” , we have a well-meaning, sympathetic Roman Catholic priest. A variation on this story (girls kidnapped by bandits) is used several times, the short story “A Better Day to Die” (in Pieces of Modesty, 1972), and again in the comic strip story “Milord”. Finn the Irishman is another character with a distinctive way of talking. Again, a pity O’Donnell never used him again. Instead he is elected Calia’s new president.
MB and WG communicate by Sked “mobile licensed radio”, on 20-metre band, 14-1-0-3 megs, WG’s call sign being G3QRM, MB’s G3QRO/CZ1. This also features in a number of the novels (with the same call signs).
Another often ‘busy’, heavily detailed, artwork from Holdaway, although sadly the quality of the Titan Books reproduction is not always very good.

13: Story name: Bad Suki – 1968 ***
: West End, gambling clubs – MB’s penthouse – ‘Cloud Nine’ hippie club – Scotland Yard – Pimlico, lodging house – Hyde Park (‘love-in’) – ‘Treadmill’ pub – Shorne Bay, somewhere on the south Cornish coast – the ‘Grey House’.
Villain: Miss Gertrude Porter, aka ‘Good Gertie’, aka ‘Suki’.
Other characters: Amanda Jones (hippie drug-taker); Weng; Inspector Brook (Drugs Squad, Scotland Yard); Detective Sergeant Dawson; Gertie’s gang – Mr Lefty, Mr Chalky, Slasher.
Body count: 4
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in mini-skirts; in bra.
Who kills who? : MB and WG ‘sign off’ Gertie and her gang. Both police sergeant Dawson and Amanda are beaten up as ‘bad suki’. A local Cornish police sergeant is shot and wounded. MB and WG are nearly suffocated.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. WG is ‘playing for pocket money’ at a number of West End gambling clubs after midnight, when he takes the fall for a young hippie girl high on the drug LSD, who thinks she can fly. He brings her unconscious to MB’s penthouse apartment, but the following morning she is less than grateful, not least because her marijuana reefers have gone down the toilet, and her clothes washed. She phones her hippie boyfriend to pick her up. Her name is Amanda Jones, and the only clue to where she might have got the LSD is a card for the ‘Cloud 9 Club’. MB and WG investigate, where they meet spinster, seemingly religious do-gooder, Gertrude Porter, giving away copies of her booklet of Shining Thoughts. When questioning the barman about Amanda, WG is warned off with the strange, but somehow threatening, advice that such questions were ‘bad suki’. Not long after they rescue a man (who was trailing them) from being beaten up, and who transpires to be a police detective sergeant. They take him to Scotland Yard where they meet Inspector Brook, who remembers them from the Network days. Brook gives them Amanda’s address, but she too has been beaten up, muttering ‘bad suki’. After a futile afternoon at a Hyde Park ‘love in’, WB and WG finally decide to enlist Gertrude to be their eyes and ears for the drug scene, and very soon she gives them a date, time and place, in Cornwall, where a drug shipment is arriving. Only one boat fits the time-frame and they investigate in scuba gear to discover the gang are using a floating capsule to hide the drugs (heroin) from the customs inspection. But they have been set-up. Gertrude is ‘Suki’, the gang leader, and orders her underlings to seal MB and WG in the capsule and sink it. A hidden cutting device in WG’s ring enable them to escape, only for Brook and the local police to intervene. The gang escape and MB is forced to ‘chill’ Brook (pretending he slipped and hit his head), whilst she and WG eliminate the entire gang, then load their bodies onto a boat, which “catches fire” and explodes out at sea.
Critical comments: Initially this was my least favourite of the Holdaway period stories, although the artwork is good throughout, especially faces. In retrospect, this was probably unfair. It is a routine, workable caper, if with MB and WG initially becoming involved more by accident. However, again we are reminded of MB’s special hatred (obviously shared by Peter O’Donnell) of the drug trade. It is also a story where MB and WG are completely taken in by the innocent-seeming Gertrude, and walking right into what nearly proved to be a deadly trap. It is perhaps this, coupled with the fate of the rather hapless Amanda, and the shooting of an unarmed policemen, that prompted our heroes to take such a ruthless vigilante stand against all the gang members, and even disposing of their bodies afterwards. This story also sees the first appearance of Inspector Brook (‘Brookie’) of Scotland Yard, here as of the ‘Drug Squad’, and formerly seconded with Interpol, which is where he had previous had dealings with MB during her Network days. We are told she helped in the break-up of the ‘Groppi mob’ drug gang, and Brook speculated she ‘rubbed out’ (e.g., killed) at least three big-time drug peddlers. Brook’s next appearance was in “Take-Over” (1969/70), where again our heroes (this time by encouraging others to actually do the deed) eliminate the baddies, and have the evidence spirited away, only leaving Brook assurances “they would never appear again”. Quite how Brook is able to justify closing down two on-going criminal cases to his supervisors, is never explained. Both MB and WG appear to be a bit old for the hippie scene, but Holdaway seemed to have had fun depicting her in full ‘flower-power’ mode. The ‘hippie’/flower power scene dates it to the later half of the 1960s, when hippiedom was starting to going sour with the active use (encouraged by various ‘enlightened’ intellectuals) of drugs. Again we have a fleeting reference to Interpol, and more insight to un-chronicled events from the Network days.
Peter O’Donnell claimed he got the name ‘bad Suki’ from hearing woman chastising her pet dog! Along with “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976/77, by Romero), I rate this as one of his less successful story titles.

14: Story name: The Galley Slaves – 1968 ****
Location: South Pacific Ocean – island 50 miles S.E. of Tahiti – Papeete, Tahiti.
Villain: Lim.
Body Count: 7
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: WG reminisces about Maureen, a rowing champion with a big chest.
Other characters: Freddie Lampson; Tarrant; Frank Hoyland (CIA); Eddie Grant (American movie director, Spectacular Films Inc.).
Nudity rating: MB in bra and pants, or in skimpy shorts.
Who kills who? : Between them MB and WG kill several of Lim’s underlings. Eddie Grant shoots Lim. MB suffers a minor graze to her side, climbing in and out of the trireme.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. Bored with life on friend Freddie’s luxury yacht with his snobby, small-minded guests, MB and WG swim to the nearest tropical island for a ‘Robinson Crusoe’-like test of survival, only to stumble onto a movie production about ancient Rome (“Empire of the Eagle”), being made by American director Eddie Grant. First coincidence: Eddie is friends with FBI agent Steve Taylor. Second coincidence: Tarrant is on Tahiti as link man between the America CIA and the French authorities. The ‘Macguffin’ is a prototype American atomic powered mini submarine drone – quite ingenious for the time – which has been stolen on its first sea trials. Third coincidence: the perpetrator is Lim, a fellow criminal who once (six years before) had teamed up with the Network, and who had saved MB’s life. MB suggests simply paying $3 million as ransom, but when she and WG make contact with Lim, they realise he has changed, “gone bad” as WG puts it, and intends to extract payment from the Americans while still selling the telemetry device to the Cubans for the same price! When MB refuses to join him, his thugs attempt to kill them, only for WG to threaten them with a jar of sulphuric acid, and MB to pin Lim down under his desk. He still tricks them, however, directly them to a fake mock-up. In consequence both Hoyland and Tarrant blame MB for fouling thing up, much to WG’s annoyance. After some thought MB realises Lim intends to use the movie-makers’ replicated ancient Roman/Classical era trireme to make his escape undetected from the patrolling US Navy destroyers, but with the film crew and actors – together with MB and WG, following Lim still outsmarting them – chained to the oars as man-power. However, MB and WG lead the fight to escape and, at night and in the middle of the ocean, there follows a deadly fight to turn the tables. The story ends with MB and WG playing at turtle-racing, as if without a care in the world.
Critical comments: American FBI operative Frank Hoyland appears again in the strip story “The Hell Makers” (1969). Freddie appears one more time, if briefly, at the end of the next story, “The Red Gryphon” (1968/69). Eddie Grant appears again in “The Junk Men” (1977), but subsequently drawn by Romero and not really looking anything like he does here, as illustrated by Holdaway.
This story again refutes the lazy assertion that MB is just a “female James Bond”. She is not. MB has a moral code and sense of obligation; whereas, Bond, in both books and the movies, is simply a murderous thug, with no moral stature or remorse.
That Lim had once saved her life was her justification for not “taking him out” after realising he had “gone bad”, despite that it put her life, and that of others, in jeopardy, and that he had double-crossed both her and the Americans – much to Hoyland’s annoyance. Again, while MB was able to guess Lim’s ultimate scheme of using the trireme, Lim had still anticipated her reaction, taking her and WG prisoners. But it is typical of O’Donnell’s mastery of story-telling with a difference, that it is Eddie Grant, not MB or WG, to gets to kill Lim. In this story we get a demonstration of another WG’s many talents, this time the ability to mimic voices, which we see working to similar good effect again in “The Lady Killers” (1980/81, Colvin).
Eddie Grant says the cost of constructing a full-size, working replica of a trireme is half a million dollars. Prior to observing the film unit on the other side of the island, MB and WG spent five days playing ‘castaways’ building a raft (which never gets finished), and feasting on turtle meat, turtle eggs, coconuts and fish.
The islands of Tahiti are part of the Windward group of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

15: Story name: The Red Gryphon – 1968/69 *****
Location: Venice – the city itself – Grand Canal, side canals – Parini’s restaurant – Palazzo Belari on one of the small, off-lying islands – Convent Santa Maria – Rome.
Villain: Venetian aristocrat Count Alborini; henchmen Luigi and Matteo.
Body Count: 4
Modesty’s lover: Max Aquino; possibly the unnamed Italian millionaire (after the story end).
Willie’s lover
: none.
Other characters: Francesca and Angelo (street urchins); Freddie Lampson.
Nudity rating: MB in robe, panties, bra. MB, fighting Alborini’s thugs in the deserted warehouse (where they are about to kill Francesca and Angelo), takes off her skirt (held by Velcro-fastening), in just a tight top, bare feet and black panties. Holdaway depicts her here as rather large-breasted in that cardigan-like top – perhaps she wasn’t wearing a bra?
Who kills who? : Alborini has MB’s lover Max drowned. Alborini accidentally kills Matteo when attacked by MB. Willie kills Luigi. WG is shot and badly wounded in the shoulder. MB kills Alborini by throwing him down his own Venetian ancestral palazzo murder hole.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. MB’s latest lover Max Aquino is a young Italian architect who is renovating a Venetian palazzo, set on its own private island, for a Rome-based Italian millionaire client. When the previous owner, Count Alborini, discovers there is a lost fortune in jewels hidden in the base of the ‘Red Gryphon’ statue positioned up on the palazzo roof, he has Max drowned. MB and WG plot revenge but their plans almost go wrong. The final – rather cinematic – showdown takes place at night in the empty palazzo, MB still with her wrists shackled. In a sub-plot MB meets, and later protects, two young orphaned children, whose casual theft of Max’s briefcase first alerts Alborini to what he claims is his family fortune. In fact they belonged to the cousin of Alborini’s grandfather, who was murdered by his uncle, Alborini’s great-grandfather, so as to get possession of the estate. Alboirni himself was “born two centuries too late” (in Max’s words) and had “a touch of the Borgias” about him, as MB remarked.
Critical comments: Key to the story is MB making friends with the two orphaned street urchins – who she obviously feels some affiliation with – having rescued the boy, Angelo, from being caught by a policeman. When taken into care, they run away again as the convent orphanage insist on separating them. We never discover if they are brother and sister, or just close companions. Both, we would guess, are aged about twelve. Again Holdaway’s art captures Venice, as well as the various characters, although his depiction of Court Alborini’s ball is incredibly detailed – too much so, perhaps, for its reduction to newspaper comic strip size and reproduction. Given that neither he nor O’Donnell probably thought of the MB stories as more than a daily strip, to be read and thrown away, such attention to detail rose above the call of duty, and was – sadly – never attained by his successor artists. At times – and not just in this story, but throughout – his illustrations have almost a cinematic quality, especially in views with nameless, but detailed, individuals in the foreground, such as in restaurant scenes.
Freddie (together with his luxury yacht) had already appeared briefly in the previous strip story “The Galley Slaves” (1968). He was docked at Rimini but was summoned by MB to rendezvous off Malamocco, one of the entrances to the Venetian lagoon. Once more, this story illustrates MB’s personal moral code, and how ruthless she could be when her friends have been injured or killed. Max is one of the more good-humoured and funny of her boyfriends, only to end up dead, a fate shared by several other of MB’s lovers in the novels, who also get killed. In the comic strip, the only other boyfriend to be killed is in “Death Trap” (1977/78, illustrated by Romero).
MB’s elegy for Max is “He worked hard, played hard, hurt nobody, he clowned a little, laughed easily, and ready enjoyed being alive. I’m not going to let Alborini put him down like a dog and get away with it.”
This story also introduces the concept of the Thermic lance that O’Donnell was to use in a number of his MB stories, comic strip and novels, with WG pretending to be ‘Mr Shaw’, originally employed by Max – a deception that Alborini quickly see through, having asked a journalist in Rome he knows about MB and WG. In retrospect, one can only wonder if the ‘Roman journalist’ might have been one Guido Biganzoli, who was later to first feature in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83, illustrated by Colvin). Once again we have a revolver fitted with a silencer. Also, this is the first example of MB’s fighting technique using an easily detachable Velcro skirt.

16: Story name: The Hell-Makers – 1969 *****
Location: New York – somewhere in Montana, USA – ‘Glory Heights’, Crazy Mountains, Montana.
Villains: Miriam Stone; Alex Kazin (ex-Soviet KGB agent).
Body Count
: 9
Modesty’s lover: (offers dinner date to unnamed CIA agent).
Willie’s lover: (MB mentions a “red-head in Springfield”).
Other characters: Frank Hoyland (CIA); Tarrant; Monson (CIA stunt driver); Gus Fletcher (WW2 ex-GI sniper, now recluse); several unnamed CIA operatives.
Nudity rating: MB in short robe; later in bra.
Who kills who? : Modesty unintentionally kills Miriam. She and Gus take out all of Kazin’s gang. Kazin and the already dead pilot are in the crashed helicopter which falls off the mountainside.
: Espionage caper. WG is driving back across the USA, via Idaho and Montana, having visited John Dall in “Sun Valley”. MB, meanwhile is in New York with Hoyland and Tarrant, where she briefly meets Alex Kazin, ex-KGB officer who defected to the West five years previous. Her immediate instinct is “don’t trust him.” Unbeknown to her, Kazin has already arranged to have WG waylaid and kidnapped, using his sidekick, super-methodical Miriam Stone, as lure. Miriam then visits MB at her hotel room and reveals, via a film recording, that they have fed powerful LSD to WG, which will eventually kill him unless MB helps them to blacklist some top key American scientists, whose crucial research work the Soviets wish to curtail. MB kills Miriam in anger (she has a cyanide capsule in her tooth), and then has to quickly set up a cover story for Miriam’s death, if she has any hope of discovering where WG is being held. Hurriedly Hoyland arranges for Miriam’s body to be removed (in a laundry basket) to a nearby hospital, while MB, wearing Miriam’s coat, hood, and spectacles, is supposedly knocked down by a car in the street outside the hotel. Using their system of hand and body signals, WG, before he was too far gone with the LSD drug, was able to name where he was being held – an isolated folly in the Crazy Mountains. MB goes solo to investigate and, together with the help of grumpy, hermit-like, ex-WW2 GI Gus Fletcher, and his two tamed eagles (Solomon and Sheba), they are able to scale Glory Heights and eliminate Kazin and his gang. WG is still suffering the LSD hallucinations, and MB has to use extreme measures to free his mind of the effect of the drugs.
Critical comments: CIA operative Hoyland also appeared in earlier strip story “The Galley Slaves”. This story again emphasises the solid, unbreakable bond existing between MB and WG. It also underlines MB’s ability to quickly think her way out of difficult situations, rather than just gung-ho, brute force, in how she uses Miriam’s death to her own advantage. The Crazy Mountains really do exist in Montana, stretching for 40 miles between the Musselskell and Yellowstone Rivers, and the name may have originated with the native Crow Indians. However, we must assume the 800ft solitary outcrop of ‘Glory Heights’, with its wind-polished upper sides, is purely from O’Donnell’s imagination. A point of interest is that Hoyland offers the use of a desert vehicle for MB to reach Glory Heights peak. Oddly enough it is right-hand drive, rather than US left-hand drive. One possible explanation: it is a Land Rover. MB is able to pacify a female-hostile Gus by naming his WW2 campaign metals and identifying him as an infantryman, sniper, probably with General Patton’s Third Army. Gus uses a Winchester rifle – still with deadly effect.
Perhaps of all the many characters O’Donnell created in the comic strip series, Gus Fletcher has to be one of the best and most enjoyable, in particular the banter between him and MB. Taciturn and eccentric, nevertheless he emerges as being completely believable. O’Donnell apparently considered using Gus Fletcher again, but unfortunately he never did. I would rate this the best of MB’s USA adventures, followed by “Yellowstone Booty” (1978/79, by John Burns) and “Uncle Happy” (1965, Holdaway). This features an early mention (although not personal appearance) of Texan millionaire, and MB lover, John Dall, in the comic strips. He does not appear in the comic strip until “Yellowstone Booty”, drawn by Burns, and thereafter only as illustrated by Romero.
In these early Holdaway-illustrated stories – amongst the best of the entire series – it’s rather intriguing that O’Donnell seemed to like (mostly the villains) with names being with ‘K’ – so Kaverin, Kossuth, Korzan, Kazin, Korzon and Kato.

17: Story name: Take Over – 1969/70 ****
Location: ‘Sondracast’ Film Studios, “twenty miles from London” – location in London – Thames riverside pub/restaurant (“The Trafalgar”, Greenwich) – MB’s penthouse apartment – the Ritz – MB’s bank – MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – somewhere on the Yorkshire Moors
Villains: Mafia, “the Chairman”; John Strickland (aka ‘The College Boy’, a thug).
Body Count: 14+
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Other Characters: Weng; Inspector Brook (Scotland Yard); Mr Carter (bank security guard, ex-army type); Mrs Carter; Duffy (UK gangster, Brighton mob);
Nudity rating: Willie stripped off.
Who kills who? : Thugs shoot Mr Carter during foiled bank raid. Two British gang members are hanged by the Mafia as an example to the others. Modesty shoots dead the Mafia ‘Chairman’. All of the Mafia gang are killed by the British criminal gangs, with a loss of two of their own number. MB gets a beating from Strickland.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. The more ruthless American Mafia are making a take-over of the British underworld gangs, executing anyone who objects. They are operating from a film studio somewhere west of London. Despite Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard appealing for her help, MB is indifferent at first until the middle-aged ex-squaddie bank guard is shot dead during an armed robbery, witnessed by her and foiled, as the gang try to escape, by WG. Previous there had been an element of humour, WG inviting MB out to lunch at the Ritz, but (neither the Rolls nor the Jensen being available) WG is driving a vehicle pick-up truck. With no clues to go by, MB pretends to know where a big money stash is hidden from a past robbery, but the Mafia finish up taking both her and WG prisoners, planning to execute them by electric chair as a deterrent to the British gang leaders. With a bare minimum of resources, they attempt to turn the tables, WG blowing the studio fuses, plunging the studio into dark. In the confusion MB shoots dead the mafia leader (named only as ‘the Chairman’), and they successfully turn the British hoods against their new American bosses. In the subsequent shoot-out the British gang leaders emerged victorious, with only two of their own dead. MB then recommends they flee quick, but dump the dead bodies out at sea by helicopter. The police, lead by Inspector Book, arrive too late, having been alerted by a balloon message our two heroes had previously sent from their prison cell. In the final panel WG remarks the studio name is an anagram of ‘Costa Nostra’.
Critical comments: This is MB’s first story encounter with the America Mafia, although a Mafia takeover theme is used again, in Malta (“The Reluctant Chaperon”, 1976), and then in Australia, in “Walkabout” (1990/91). Inspector Brook (‘Brookie’) had first appeared in “Bad Suki” (1968), and continued to appear in later stories, “Love From Rufus” (1972) and “Idaho George” (1978, both by Romero), and “Death in Slow Motion” (1983), “Sweet Caroline” (1983/84, both by Colvin) and “The Grim Joker” (1993/94), “Ripper Jax” (1995), and “The Murder Frame” (1997, Romero again). The actual location of the film studio is said to be “20 miles west of London”, but WG says “the new studios near Twickenham”. It is apparently on the Thames, but surrounded by other buildings. There is a ‘Twickenham Studios’, established 1913, actually at St. Margarets, between Twickenham and Isleworth, but perhaps a better possible location (and more about the right distance) is at, or near, Shepperton or Hampton. The Thames riverside pub/restaurant, where MB meets Brook, is identifiable as “The Trafalgar” at Greenwich, just down from the old Royal Naval College.
The identity and significant of the silent female secretary, taking notes at the Mafia top brass meetings is never revealed. Perhaps she was one of the late Gabriel’s ‘superior secretaries’? Holdaway is at his peak, in meticulous detail, in capturing the faces of the various characters – the Mafia hoods, the Britain underworld criminals, ex-soldier-cum-bank guard Mr Carter, even the working-class family in whose garden in Fulham the balloon and its message for Brook happen to fall. My usual minor criticism about check jackets, however, the pattern being the same size whether viewed close-up or more distant (one of MB’s captors and the gangster Duffy). Again we see MB’s Wiltshire cottage, which remains consistent. Having been worked over by Strickland, MB’s bruises are notable, but not quite as gross as Romero would later depict her facial injuries. One small slip, however. At the beginning of the studio battle scene the Mafia Chairman calls out to an underling to get lamps from the vehicle “boot” – as an American he would had said “trunk”.
Finally, this is another good example that MB and WG are not infallible, that even the cleverest plans can – and often do – go wrong. At least one of the Mafia members sees through MB’s fake story of the hidden £750,000 loot, and they find themselves completely outsmarted. This story follows directly on from WG’s misadventures in the USA in the previous story. Unfortunately this is the last instance of such story continuity.

18: Story name: The War-Lords of Phoenix – 1970 ** Artists: Holdaway & Romero
Location: Japan – Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido Island – Tokyo – small island of Kiba, Pacific coast (WW2 underground aircraft factory converted) – Castle Shojiro.
Villains: Kato and Funiya Shojiro (twins).
Body count: 11+
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Japanese girl Tamako (works as masseuse.)
Other characters: Kazumi (master of martial arts); Kimi (his granddaughter); Asada (her fiancé); Umino and Obata (Phoenix underlings); Yukio (Phoenix operative).
Nudity rating: MB nude in bath and later completely nude in shower; also in bra and shorts, showing a lot of leg. WG’s Japanese girlfriend Tamako in bra and briefs.
Who kills who? : Asada unsuccessfully attempted to kill his fiancée. In uncharacteristic anger, Kazumi kills Asada, his granddaughter’s fiancé. Phoenix operative, Obata, is beheaded for failing to successfully secure MB. Another Phoenix assassin Yukio dies from cyanide capsule. MB and WG eliminate a number of Phoenix warriors, both in test training and in their final show-down. Defeated (as they see it) by a woman, Kato and Shojiro ritually kill each other.
: Megalomaniac caper. MB and WG are visiting Japan and the 70-year-old martial arts master Kazumi in Sapporo. Tragedy strikes when his eldest granddaughter Kimi is nearly killed by her fiancé after she accidentally found a badge in his possession with a phoenix symbol. In Tokyo the special police suspect the secretive Phoenix society is already responsible for three mysterious killings. Unbeknown to our heroes, they have been selected to be kidnapped by the Phoenix, whose leaders, the so-called ‘War Lords’ (the two wealthy Japanese businessmen Shijiro twins, Kato and Funiya) wish to use their combat skill to train their recruits. Having been taken captive (by the use of bogus policemen), MB and WG are taken to the twins’ secret underground stronghold beneath the island of Kiba, converted from an old WW2 aircraft factory. The twins (with a tendency to talk as if one person) reveal their long-term plan to use their secret Samurai-style army to take over Japan in the aftermath of (as they predict it) the forthcoming World War III, and eventually, perhaps a generation later, restore order to the rest of the world. Key to the Phoenix Society are loyalty, obedience and secrecy, hence why Asada had to kill Kimi. Failure, as MB and WG have already seen, is a capital offence. First, however, they are forced to undergo a series of deadly combat situations. WG’s Japanese girlfriend Tamako is being held hostage in the brother’s family castle to ensure compliance. In their subsequent training sessions with the Phoenix operatives, both demonstrate the need for unconventional thinking, ‘outside the box’, as we would say now. The twins are impressed, but when they send one of MB’s pupils on his first mission to kill Kazumi, she has hidden a message in the hollow tube-like handle of her kongo, revealing the location of the secret base. Police rescue Tamako, while assault troops storm the island. Meantime, MB and WG gain the initiative at first by telling their Phoenix pupils this is a training exercise, before blowing up the armoury (together with the Phoenix men inside). Defeated, the twins kill each other, Samurai-style.
Critical comments: This was one of the few MB comic strip stories (as opposed to some of the novels) that might have been in the ‘typical’ civilisation-threatening Ian Fleming ‘megalomaniac’ mode of story villain, and which our heroes are forced to act somewhat in akin to James Bond, in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation. One of the virtues of the MB comic strip stories is that the villains are – for the most part – small fry, big only within the confines of the criminal or espionage world. Even here, the Japanese twins are depending on the possibility of a Third World War, rather than anything proactive in trying to seize control of Japan. We see another example of mad or evil twin businessmen with the English Bone brothers in the later story “The Girl in the Iron Mask” (1991, Romero). They also talk as one, and conduct their business interests by telephone whilst at the same time planning their evil deeds. MB’s favourite personal defensive/offensive hand-weapon, the kongo – also known in Japanese martial arts as the vajra or yawara stick – has a special significance in this story, Kazumi recognising it as the weapon being used in the failed Phoenix assassination attempt, and finding the detailed message (written very small) hidden in the hollow handle.
Tragically Jim Holdaway died mid-way through illustrating this story (aged 43), and the Spanish/Catalonian artist Enrique Badio Romero (based in Barcelona) was hurriedly commissioned to take over (from strip number 2099), although seemingly adopting Holdaway’s style at first. Hereafter he continued illustrating the comic strip until 1978, very quickly developing his own, quite distinctive, style. He was then called back into service following the retirement of Neville Colvin in 1986, and continued as the artist until the last strip in 2001. Although he is now often accredited as the Modesty Blaise artist, we contest that. Longevity isn’t everything. We feel the biggest drawback to Romero was that he was not British, nor had he lived in, or had any personal knowledge of, England; unlike Holdaway, or even New Zealand-born Colvin. Indeed, he apparently (certainly at that time) did not even speak English, as all communications had to be translated (by a Spanish lady, Elena Garcia). This lack of knowledge often resulted in quite ridiculous images, many of which we will examine below. We also believe that, in time, this lack of personal knowledge or research was to have a negative effect on the stories themselves. The ultra-realism of Holdaway’s artistic style had helped make the characters and stories more credible, no matter the crazy villains, plots or coincidences. I would also suggest that Holdaway, who already had a personal as well as professional relationship with O’Donnell, may have perhaps helped in story plot suggestions. Given that MB was as much Holdaway’s creation as O’Donnell’s, I would be surprised if the two didn’t discuss ideas, or improvements. It certainly seems that many of the Romero period stories were inferior in plotting or ingenuity to the Holdaway era, and – personal opinion as this may be – the Colvin period stories were again of a more superior, enjoyable quality, before dropping off away with the second Romero period. Holdaway’s untimely death, so young, was a tragedy, comparable to that of Frank Bellamy, who was at the time of his death was illustrating the “Garth” comic strip. Bellamy would have been a magnificent alternative artist to the first Romero period – what kind of Modesty Blaise would he have illustrated one can, sadly, only speculate, just as we can only lament the irreplaceable loss, thereafter, of Holdaway’s artistic genius in the subsequent stories from 1970 onward.

Before we continued with the first Romero period of artwork, let us briefly examine two short additional Holdaway-illustrated MB stories, numbered in the Titan Books collection as story 8A and story 14A, respectively dated 1966 and 1968.
8A: Story name: In The Beginning – 1966.
: Short MB backstory in twelve strips. Sometime during World War II, the young girl who was later to be named Modesty Blaise, escapes under the barbed wire of a German refugee camp in Greece. Her mother is dead, her mind a blank. She has no memory of her real name. She is a skinny, dark-haired child. She makes her way south through Turkey and into Persia (Iran), working, begging or stealing to survive, often moving with nomadic tribes from place to place. In a displaced persons’ camp, she defends and protects an old man, Lob, a university professor originally from Budapest. It is he who gives her the name Modesty (with a certain irony) and she names herself Blaise, after Merlin’s tutor in the stories of King Arthur. He helps educate her. She even steals books to help him. Over the next four years they moved through the Middle East, eventually to North Africa, heading to Tangier. Lob dies, however, and she buries him in the desert. She is about sixteen. Three months later she is working in a casino owned by a small-time crime gang boss Henri Louche. Two years later he is killed in a gang battle and she took over his operation, moulding it into the Network, with branches almost worldwide. By twenty she was wealthy and successful, but she never dealt with drugs or vice, and, indeed, sometimes took terminal action against crime rivals who did. In Saigon she sees WG, in a Thai-style boxing ring, He was “gutter-bred with a mind clouded by unreasoning hatred.” Despite that, she saw his potential, and soon after she bought him out of jail. In gratitude he called her ‘princess’, and very soon puts his intelligence and criminal skills to become her right-hand man. Finally, ambition seemingly fulfilled, MB retired, spit the Network amongst her section chiefs, and she and WG moved to England, he buying the “Treadmill” pub by the River Thames, MB her London penthouse. The strip ends with the appearance in their life of Sir Gerald Tarrant.
Critical comments: In the above story, when MB meets Lob at a displaced persons camp in Persia, she is aged about twelve, and depicted as such. More detail about these early years is given in the novel the Xanadu Talisman and more briefly in the short story “The Dark Angels”, from Cobra Trap. In the latter story, MB says she was age seven or eight (not twelve), and implies that Lob was only the name she knew him by, and he was Jewish, and from Budapest.
In 2002 Peter O’Donnell wrote an article (later reproduced in Titan Books), “Girl Walking”, about his encounter with the young girl who eventually became the inspiration for Modesty, whilst serving as a NCO in a British Army radio detachment in northern Iran (Persia) in 1942. She was described as a young girl in a sun-bleached shirt that reached to her knees, carrying a bundle on her head, wrapped in a blanket. She had black hair, but did not appear to be an Arab. He speculated she might have been one of the many refugees from the Balkans who were fleeing the German advance into Russia, trickling down between the Black Sea and the Caspian. In his article he remarks, if she had survived, she would be 70 now (e.g, in 2002), so we estimate her age then to be 10, hence she was born about 1932. He further remarked that the character ‘Lob’ to his imaginary fictional Modesty was a “Jewish professor from Bucharest in his mid-fifties”, so from Romania, whereas perhaps Modesty was from Hungary.
However, this confusion between Bucharest and Budapest may have been a mis-memory on Peter O’Donnell’s part, so many years later. Lob is said to have spoken five languages and had died when she was seventeen. In the original comic strip story (see above, “La Machine”, 1963), we are told MB is “about 26” with “Eurasian features”, so this would have her born in 1937, five years later than her real “girl walking”. This would have moved her time as a displaced person into the post-war world, being twelve in 1949, and Lob dying in 1954. The first MB novel, Modesty Blaise, with its much less dramatic and satisfying first meeting between MB and Sir Gerald and Fraser, is also much less informative, merely saying British Intelligence believed she “came from a D.P. camp in the Middle East”, and there being no way to check her exact age, but again estimating she is about 26. This backstory remains the basis of MB throughout both comic strip and novels, but, alas, as we advanced from the 1960s into the 70s, 80s and 90s, without MB apparently getting any older, it became more difficult to reconcile to its original time and place. Again, what a pity O’Donnell didn’t let MB age gratefully into her thirties and kept the stories still within a 1963 to (say) late-1970s/early 80s time-frame.
The only flashback to the young MB and Lob in the comic strip, comes very late in the series, in 1997/98, “Tribute of the Pharoah”, illustrated by Romero. His Lob is perhaps not quite as Jim Holdaway had depicted him, although still bald on top and with long, straggly hair, but the young MB reminds us too much of Samantha Brown, the young 10 year old who first appeared in 1987, in the story “Samantha and the Cherub”. We quickly learn this ‘flashback’ is actually just a dream-cum-nightmare about when they had once stayed overnight at an ancient Egyptian tomb in Sudan. This story – which also features WG’s orphanage childhood memories – belongs to the final phase of the MB comic strip cycle; darker, more strained, without the humour or ingenuity of the earlier stories. However, at one point in her recollection, MB remarks that Lob was then aged 65 (with heart problems), and “today he would have been eighty-one.” – so the incident she recollects was 16 year earlier. Given her age as being 17 when Lob died, as they trekked across North Africa, one might assume she to have still been at least 14 or 15 when they were in Sudan – if so, in the actual real-time story she was age as between 30 and 32, a progress on her usual, almost permanent age of between 26 and 28 throughout all this time! However, Romero depicts MB as quite young, perhaps 10 or 12, but this again doesn’t seem to fit with what else we know of the backstory, nor Lob’s increasing ‘dicky’ health situation.

14A: Story name: The Killing Ground – 1968 ***
Location: Unnamed, uninhabited Scottish island.
Villain: Bellman.
Other characters: Charlie Brightstar (Choctaw Indian); Opperman (big game hunter); Dempster (American professional mercenary); Unnamed trawler captain; Weng.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Unnamed girl, picked up after watching a title fight.
Nudity rating: MB in cut-away skirt.
Who kills who? : Bellman dies of heart failure.
: Revenge caper. MB and WG regain consciousness in the cabin of a trawler ship at sea off an uninhibited island on the west coast of Scotland. They discover they have been taken captive by orders of Bellman, a former drug racketeer they had put out of business during the Network period. Now, after five years working in the Peruvian mines, he is aged almost beyond recognition, and determined on extracting revenge. They are put on the island, armed only with a Colt revolver, knife, and with a water canteen, to be hunted by the three bounty hunters, paid £3,000 each, with £2,000 per kill. They quickly realise the water is salted, the gun barrel blocked so it would explode, and the knife handle contains a miniature radio transmitter for detection. WG is able to take out Opperman and Dempster, but Brightstar nearly gets the better of MB. Leaving the three men marooned on the island, they return to the ship to find Bellman has died, thinking the hunt was successful. They radio for Weng and Dave Claythorp to come collect them by helicopter.
Critical comments: Midway through “The Galley Slaves” there was an industrial strike that prevented the London Evening Standard for being published for 6 weeks. But the Scottish syndicated newspapers continued publication. So as to prevent the two getting out of step, Peter O’Donnell was commissioned to write a one-off shorter story of just 36 strips (about one-third the normal comic strip story length), which only appeared in Scotland. Much later, he took this story and re-wrote it into a full-length novella entitled “Bellman”, which was published in the collection of short stories Cobra Trap. The written version features aspects of WG’s early days in the Network, as well as the origins of their conflict with Bellman, and much of the first half of the story details the MB and WG operation against him. MB holds him indirectly responsible for the death of her North African manservant Moulay’s daughter Lisette. It is now six years since they put Bellman away. Of the bounty hunters, only Charlie Brightstar retains his name. The mercenary (now South African rather than American) is renamed Van Rutte, and the big-game hunter is named as Paul Crichton (“from Kenya”), who is now elevated to being one of MB’s casual lovers, visiting her at her Wiltshire cottage. WG’s girl-bait is named as Sandra Thorne, who Bellman has adopted, and who naively thinks of him as a kindly ‘uncle’ almost, ignorant that he was a drug gang boss. The ship’s captain is Ricco Burrera, and the ship is the Ambato. After Crichton hits MB on the ship, WG takes his revenge later, remarking afterwards he “might need a bit of dentistry sometime.” In addition to several individuals from the Network, this story also includes Tarrant, who never figured in the original comic strip. Otherwise, the ending is much the same.

Danger Man: s02 e12 – The Battle of the Cameras

The latest Danger Man episode had a cold open that promised an entirely different episode from the one we subsequently enjoyed. It came in two parts, each with their element of low comedy: an attractive woman, playing the part of a clumsy tea-lady at a French Atomic Establishment steals a Tres Secret document by spilling the tea tray over two scientists’ desk and walking off with the document in the confusion, and Admiral Hobbs summons an agent, played by the rotund and bumptious Patrick Newell, to head off the the Cote d’Azur to assist Drake, who’s very carefully laying a trap for the woman’s boss, Mr A J A Kent, an expert in selling secrets.

And the comedy continues at first in the portrayal by Patrick MacGoohan of one ‘Peter Simons’, a seemingly rich, idle playboy, smoking cigars non-stop, drinking, gambling and womanising. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, with John Drake’s native intelligence allowed, at the proper moment, to emerge from behind the clear facade that is Simons, but never until the very end in front of his chosen prey, Martine (Dawn Addams, looking charming and acting like a French cliche).

Martine was a clumsy tea lady. She’s Drake’s avenue of approach to Kent (Niall McGinnis, contrasting the melodrama of a leather mask worn across the right side of his face, almost entirely covering the effects of an acid attack that he ascribes to an old war wound, with an underplayed calmness). ‘Peter Simons’ – Martine doesn’t think he is a Peter, she sees him, and calls him, more as a John… – has the formula for F6, a new rocket fuel, that he’s out to sell to Kent, who is remarkably cautious. The whole episode is a fencing match in which Drake is not only ahead of Kent but makes it plain to the man that he is ahead of him.

The only weakness in the episode is Patrick MacGoohan. Peter Simons suggests the role Drake is playing: there’s a woman staying in the Villa adjoining his who sunbathes continually, usually in very short shorts, very short skirts and a length of leg unknown to television in 1964, and Simons constantly watches her. He’s flirtatious with Martine, as per his role, but despite several opportunities of a kind that a Simons would certainly take advantage of, his flirtatiousness remains entirely verbal. No kissing, a minimum of touch and, when Martine takes him back to her apartment and immediately ‘slips into something more comfortable’ but sadly not diaphonous, all he does is switch brandies so she gets the drugged one.

All this because MacGoohan had strong moral principles about the portrayal of ‘immorality’ on TV (and a couple of actresses who worked with him reported that he had issues about anything that brought him too close to them physically). He doesn’t do what a Simons would do because MacGoohan won’t, and can’t.

At least Dawn Addams gets a fair crack of the whip. After his build up in the open, Patrick Newell gets only two brief scenes, though the second of these is crucial in betraying Drake to Kent. in expecting a comedic performance, I was forward-projecting out of my knowlede of Newell’s most famous role, as Steed and Tara King’s chief, ‘Mother’ in the last series of The Avengers, and Newell did certainly play himself up appropriately at the start, only to be lost in the shuffle thereafter.

The plot itself is not much more than a par spy story: John Drake breaks spy ring. But it’s the performance of the three principals, plus Frederick Bartman as Kent’s judo-expert underling, with a haircut that’s just crying out to have a duffel coat attached to it,to distinguish it. That and Patrick MacGoohan coming the closest to dallying with a woman as I suppose we’ll ever get to see him.