Billy Bragg hasn’t got the greatest singing voice ever, though his roughness sometimes is the best accompaniment to the songs he writes, as songs like ‘St Swithin’s Day’ and ‘Between the Wars’ amply demonstrate. I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with Bragg’s music, the sparseness of which is inherently lacking, though his gift for lyrics, for pinpointing the actuality of the real life we live, and how we handle things outside the romanticism of song, is sometimes almost too much to bear. His metaphors can be murder in the sharpness with which they slip between your ribs and scratch your heart. The one album of Bragg’s that I still own, and which is completely satisfying on a musical level is 1991’s Don’t Try This At Home, an album of differing musical styles and the most completely brilliant of Bragg’s songs, including some very judiciously chosen covers. But, impressed as I am by several of the more political songs, I usually come back to Bragg’s love songs, and on this album that means the penultimate track, ‘Wish You Were Her’. The title’s an obvious play on the holiday postcard cliche, Wish You Were Here. Bragg turns it into a devastating lament for a lost lover by the simple removal of one letter. There’s a girl, he croons, using the upper register of his voice to produce the smoothest singing of which he is capable, sleeping in my bed. Ahh, young love, but the love is not for her. Bragg’s awake as she sleeps, lying there, singing unwritten songs in his head. For all this girl is is bittersweet company, and he’s confided to her the worst thing he could, that someone else means more to him than she ever could, no matter how often they share their bodies and anything else they have in common. He’s cheated on her even as they’ve made love, for all he wanted was a brief distraction from the memory of the one who really means love to him, but he’s not managed that for, as she places her feet against him to warm them up, his crucial thought is, wish you were her. Who this real love is is never made clear, except in one respect: Bragg wanted to marry her. He describes this desire as the worse kept secret of his life. Everyone knows he loved her, that she meant everything to him. Even the woman now sleeping in his bed because, lost in his thoughts, he’s called her by his love’s name. Why things have gone wrong, we never learn. We infer from Bragg’s soul deep regret, his sense of an unbearable loss made all the more clear by the brevity and distance of the words he’s using, that it was simple: he loved her but she didn’t love him. She never will love him. So this girl beside him was meant to be a consolation, but she isn’t a consolation after all. Sex with her was meaningless, a physical pleasure, if that. Good for her, enough so that she sleeps peacefully, though she will have had a rude awakening with his calling her by the other woman’s name. All he can do now is to ask her, embarrassedly, how she likes the cup of tea he’s going to make her. But he can’t escape the pulsebeat of his thoughts. Wish you were her. My voice was never up to much and it’s cracked and broken now beyond any ability to carry a tune, except when I use the upper register. That’s what Bragg does here, to hold the tune together, to allow us to focus on the words, upon the soft, slow, delicate music. It enables me to sing along with this song, in private. I sink into Bragg’s regrets, though I’ve never experienced this particular sorrow. But I don’t need to. Billy Bragg has caught the lightning in a bottle for me and holds it up to be seen in all its dim and unhappy light. All in that one phrase, that bent cliche that takes us to somewhere completely different, something we do not want to share. Wish you were her. But you’re not, and none of them ever will be.
I’ve said before, though in the context of longer series, that sometimes your response to a particular episode is coloured by the contents of your own head and what is (or isn’t) going through it at any given time.
I didn’t much enjoy the fourth episode of The Singing Detective and I’m not sure how much of that response was down to the contents of the story and how much was me. A lot was due to the episode’s emphasis on religion, in terms of blindness, ignorance and its use to terrorise, which is always a thorny topic for me. And a lot was due to Marlow’s ongoing anger and paranoia, introducing a third element to the story, this time set in the supposedly objective present, that stands on shifting ground. The story of the Singing Detective, with its this-time tedious Chandlerisms, Marlow’s own memories of his childhood and the traumas that help make him what he is now (forever coloured by our intrinsic interest in just how much of which come from Dennis Potter’s own childhood): these are part of the fabric of the story but we up till now have been able to rely on what is going on in the ward being real.
After a couple of episodes hanging around the fringe, Janet Suzman comes out in front as Marlow’s ex-wife Nicola. Though he’s not as awful as he was last issue, her presence rouses Marlow to a deeply disgusting, vile harangue, shot through with the element of disgust with sex and sexuality commented upon last week by Dr Gibbon. Marlow thinks she’s there for an ulterior purpose. She’s certainly putting herself over as having the best of intentions: delivering news of an option being sought on ‘The Singing Detective’ novel, money for Marlow to support himself again, not that great, $2,000.00. She wants him to work, to use his mind, to not be so infernally negative. But Marlow is negative, 101% so. He’s suspicious of her, driven to the vicious, and as soon as she walks away, accompanied by his demands that she come back to subject herself to yet more abuse, he concocts a plot by which the fantasty that she’s trying to rip him off is expanded upon.
Yes, Nicola is working with a ‘friend’ that she lies down in bed with. They’ve intercepted the offer, they’ve got the screenplay Marlow wrote years before, left in a shoebox, they plan to put her friend forward as Marlow to take the money, and it’s not $2,000.00, it’s half a million. The friend is, naturally, Patrick Mallahide. His name here is Mark Finney: that’s Finney with an ‘F’, not Binney with a ‘B’, just one letter different, almost the same. Is this real or is it fantasy? I favour the latter: Finney gets too paranoid over something unreal. The screenplay is years ago but Marlow’s changed so much from the book and all the new details – the home, where the dead girl is found in the river, Binney with a ‘B’ – point to him.
I’m sorry, but that was the point I found the series’ credibility wavering upon, the everything is a cynical mystery aspect.
As for the rest, we had a small amount of the plot, which doesn’t strike me as sufficient for a detective story but then I’m reading a lot of Donald Westlake right now, meaning the two mysterious men have followed Marlow to the dance hall and plan to shoot him. Marlow the Detective mimes to ‘Accentuate the Positive’, a deliberately ironic choice but not a subtle one, which merges with the truly offensive invasion of the Ward on a peaceful Sunday morning by a group of Evangelical Christians, led by one of the smug young doctors. It’s a sharp-eared portrayal of that brand of Christianity that knows itself to be right in all respects and disagreement to be the product of mere ignorance: who could possibly not understand once it is explained to them in clear language. They’re an eruption, a boil needing lancing but, to a ward of trapped patients, inescapable. Their slide into Bing Crosby is equally ironic but on a more subtle level.
But in its way even more horrific is the application of religion in the past, Marlow’s past. We’re back in the classroom, with the schoolmistress, Janet Henfrey, putting on a performance of such horror and self-righteousness, weaonising religion to add yet another layer of tyrrany over a class of helpless boys and girls that we instinctively shift away from God in the way that Christians expect us to do from the Devil.
Yesterday, after school, some boy, some filthy, disgusting animal of a boy, for she cannot imagine this could be done by a girl, sneaked back into school and left something on the desk, her desk, right in the centre. Where it cannot but be seen. What it is we are neither told nor shown but it’s obviously a turd. The schoolmistress is outraged and, when no-one will own up to it, she has the entire class pray, with their hands together and their eyes shut tight, to almighty and all-seeing God, to step away from his infinity of essential labours and concerns, to put all that aside and peer into the soul of the culprit. This is the Fear of God, the angry, hating, relished heart of religion: thou hast offended God who is a vengeful God and thou shalt suffer, poured at obscene length over the heads of a class of children who know no better and will not learn of better from a schoolmistress like this.
Young Philip – and we know intuitively that it was him – cracks and starts to sniffle. The schoolmistress makes him stand at the front, head down, staring at it. All day. She’s got it wrong. She believes Philip when he says ‘baint him, but she knows – Knows with the certainty God gives her in his infinite wisdom – that he knows who did do it. He will stand there all day, unmoving, staring at that turd and if he doesn’t tell, he will be beaten more severely than any boy in the time of that school.
Ten minutes from the bell, ten minutes from his beating, Philip starts to snivel.In a turn of phoney sympathy, the schoolmistress coaxes an accusation out of him. The fat kid, the one Philip hates, the kid with the look of a bully-in-training, albeit an ineffectual one. Please, Miss, it were Mark Binney.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, but all endings are arrivals at places we want to reach.
Lou Grant‘s final episode was a low-key affair, of multiple stories, a warp and weft seeing the series into oblivion. If it centred upon anyone, it centred upon Charlie Hume, the LA Tribune’s Managing editor, as the episode title indicated, and it left behind a mystery never to be solved.
Oddly enough, Lou himself barely featured. He’s having physical therapy from last week’s shooting, but that’s practically all of his role this week, that and to refuse to let Billie Newman be considered for the Sacramento Bureau, now there’s a vacancy: Ted’s in with a good chance of a manager’s job there, and they have a shot at a life that’s spent mostly together. Billie thinks it’s Charlie who’s stymied her – their – ambition and gives him a hard time, threatening to leave the paper to follow this up.
Charlie’s getting it in the neck from all sides. Rossi and Abby are considering moving in together. Charlie allows them to partner on an assignment that proves they can maybe live together but not collaborate, and ends up having to effectively order Rossi to make things up between them.
Art Donovan’s been seeing an air stewardess for several months. They’re both happy with what they’ve got, but suddenly she’s ducking him, and Art is convinced she’s pregnant. he wants children, he wants marriage, but the actual truth is she was pregnant… and is no longer. The A-word is not to be mentioned, and her calmness, plus her refusal to let him have any say in the decision, almost certainly destroys the relationship.
Young Lance is going off half-cocked about a story concerning military weapons buried in the desert, seeing it as bigger than it is, until Animal gets him to see sense. Along the way, he blows a date with Charlie’s new secretary, who prefers to ask Lou out instead.
The biggest aspect of the story is the tale of Charlie firing two inadequate reporter, one for persistent alcoholism, the other for accepting payment from a subject to write a white-washed profile. Both go over his head to Mrs Pynchon who reinstates them, until Charlie loses his temper over the second-guessing of his role, and they’re finally out. Everything’s back to normal, everyone’s gone home,Charlie’s going home but Donovan needs to talk to him, so they go into Charlie’s office and whilst a slow, bluesy, downtempo version of the theme plays, the camera retreats along a night-time City Room, until they’re gone in the background, and it’s done. Not with a bang, nor yet an actual whimper, but the end of another day.
Originally, Lou Grant ran on Saturday nights on ITV, at 9.00pm, filling in the slot before Match of the Day quite seamlessly. I believe it was dropped after, probably, season 3 over here: it had not been on for some time when I read about its cancellation, on supposedly political grounds, in 1982. I have a very vivid memory that is nevertheless clearly a phony one, about some kind of feature on the end of the series, of a scene where Edward Asner and one other member of the cast were looking at an empty City Room, its people gne, its computers removed, the paper having gone bust. It would have made for a clear ending. So where does that memory come from? I’ll never know.
Instead, it’s the steady state ending. They all wake up tomorrow and come in to work. We just don’t join them any more. Given the nature of the series, it’s probably the most workable ending. Edward Asner is still with us, as are Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey and Daryl Anderson.
There’ll be something else in this slot next Thursday afternoon. I’m not likely to be watching anything quite this long again any time soon. Though the series lost itsway over the last two seasons, when it was good it was very very good, and it’s for that that the past two years plus have been worth it.
CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 1 (1963-1986).
Introduction Peter O’Donnell’s “Modesty Blaise” comic strip ran for 38 years, from May 13th 1963 to April 11th 2001. Impressive as that is, it was not the longest running strip authored by one person – Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” ran from 1950 to 2000, but in the UK, Frank Dickens (1831-2016) managed to pip O’Donnell at the post with his cartoony (James Thurber-like) “Bristow” strip, running (also in the Evening Standard) for 41 years, from 1962 to 2003. Elsewhere we have already essayed the five artists who illustrated “Modesty Blaise” in that period, but here my intention is to summarize the 95-plus stories, list the principle characters, and offer commentary and criticism. Sadly newspaper comic strips are (with a few exceptions still lingering on, or re-prints) now almost an extinct species. Don Freeman’s “Buck Ryan” (a British version of the edgy, cynical American gumshoe), drawn by Jack Monk, ran from 1937 to 1962 in the Daily Mirror, and for much of that time, up until 1960, featured a blonde sidekick, Zola, who – in the usual comic strip tradition – was sometimes the ‘damsel in distress’ to be rescued, but was also surprisingly competent in her own right, quite capable to kick ass, as we would say now. Other comic strips from that ‘golden age’ from the 1940s to the 70s and early 1980s, included “Garth” (at one time co-authored by Peter O’Donnell), from 1943 to 1997 in the Daily Mirror; “Jeff Hawke”, from 1966 to 1974 in the Daily Express, illustrated by Sydney Jordan, and at one time co-written with Willie Patterson; Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” from 1958 to 1983, again in the Express; “Jane” from 1932 to 1959 in the Mirror; “Romeo Brown” from 1954 to 1962, again in the Mirror, originally, up until 1957 drawn and written by Alfred Mazure, then scripted by Peter O’Donnell and drawn by Jim Holdaway; while “The Seekers”, initially written by Les Lilley, later Philip Douglas, drawn by John M. Burns, ran from 1966 to 1971 in the Daily Sketch – but was something of a Modesty Blaise rip-off, without achieving the same popularity or lasting power, although – like “Modesty Blaise” – it was popular in Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries. Before we look at the genesis of “Modesty Blaise”, first a quick history of The Standard or Evening Standard, aka London Evening Standard – it underwent various name changes over the years. It was originally founded back in 1827 as the Standard, and first evolved into its better-known title of the Evening Standard in 1859. By 1915 it was owned by Sir Edward Hulton (1869-1925), whose son, Sir Edward George Warris Hulton, founded Hulton Press, which published (amongst other things) The Eagle boys’ comic, and was later acquired by Odhams in 1959. In 1923 the Evening Standard was acquired, together with the Express newspapers, by Max Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964), and it was this period, under the formidable editor Charles Wintour (1917-1999, editor of the Standard from 1959), that saw the ‘birth’ and flowering of Modesty Blaise. Indeed, Wikipedia remarks that the popularity of Modesty Blaise “bolstered” the Evening Standard’s sales “throughout the 1970s”. 1980 saw the merger of the Standard with its London rival the Evening News, and it became the New Standard in 1985, although the title by-line “incorporating the Evening News” survived from 1988 until 2009. The closing years of the 20th century saw major changes and upheavals in the UK London-based newspaper industry, including the severance of the Express and Standard, each going their own separate way under new ownership. Long after the demise of Modesty, in 2009, the Evening Standard was acquired by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev. Peter O’Donnell was already well established as a comic strip script-writer, when he was commissioned by the Daily Express to create a new action/adventure strip featuring an “heroic character”. Significantly, he wished to have a strong female heroine rather than the usual macho hero, but it took six months before he had fully evolved the character and her back-story, famously inspired by a brief, chance encounter, in 1942, in British-controlled war-time Iran with a young, but very self-possessed, refugee girl. With a slight change of dates and location, this became the template for the young Modesty, as subsequently chronicled in the short, twelve strip, Jim Holdaway illustrated story, “In The Beginning” (1966). However, when he outlined his ideas, the Express editors got sniffy about – not only a female heroine who slept in the nude – but whose back history was that of a former crime boss, if now ‘reformed’. It was, they said, not suitable for a “family newspaper” – the Express at the time was already running the thuggish, womanizing “James Bond” original novels in comic strip – if a rather sanitized version, of course! Charles Wintour, at the sister paper, the Evening Standard, had no such qualms, and so the Express‘s loss was the Standard’s gain. Again, if we ignore the fantastic DC/Marvel ‘superheroines’ like Wonder Woman or Sue Storm Richards (the Invisible Woman), there were a few earlier examples of ordinary, crime or espionage-fighting heroines, either predating or contemporary. From Norman Pett and Michael Hubbard’s “Jane” (best remembered for her frequent ‘wardrobe malfunctions’); to the American “Lady Luck” (aka Brenda Banks, in a ridiculous green outfit and transparent veil), created by Will Eisner, from 1940 to 1946; and “Black Cat”, the alter ego of Hollywood starlet Linda Turner, from 1941 to 1961, by Al Gabriele. They were, however, silly, simplistic and rather two-dimensional. Modesty Blaise is in a completely different league – multi-talented and multi-lingual, top sharp-shooter and skilled in martial arts, complex, intelligent, sophisticated, yet still capable of self-sufficiency and surviving in a wilderness environment. In the later words of Mike Paterson (in one of the Titan Books series introductions) she was an, “Exotic, dusky (foreign), slim but tall brunette depicted in stark black lines and imbued with a genuine sex appeal that manages to avoid sleaze.” She also managed to combined a glamorous wardrobe, expensive cars, and jet-set glamour with karate kicks, danger and global adventure. More important, she was a strong, steely woman, successfully operating in a dangerous, unforgiving, man’s world, yet never sacrificing her own femininity. While she had echoes in quasi-fictional female warriors like the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, or real historical personages such as the Roman-era Queen Boadicea; the 10th century Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia; the 11th century Matilda, countess of Tuscany, or Jeanne de Montfort in the 14th century¸ she still predated her better-known ‘sisters’ – the 1964 film version of Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel character Pussy Galore; Diana Rigg’s depiction of Emma Peel in the British TV series The Avengers (1965-1969). Indeed, some might argue that her feminist ‘children’ are Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992 onward), Warrior Princess Xena (1995-1999) and Sydney Bristow, from the 2001-2006 espionage series Alias. This – and more – are, therefore, Modesty’s legacy, but Peter O’Donnell was a pioneer of sorts, and, even within the limits of comic strip, Modesty’s character had amazing depth and credibility. She was, as we argue again below, never simply “a female James Bond”. The comic strip ran from number 1 to 10,183, although during that time there also appeared ‘A’ strips, because the Standard was not always published on Saturdays. For character check listing in the novels/short stories, I have consulted The Complete Modesty Blaise Dossier ‘Concordance Guide’, compiled by Jim Pattison, who resides in Canada. Website: www.sympathico.ca/jim.pattison/modesty
Jim Holdaway – “La Machine” (1963)
– “The Head Girls” (1966)
1: Story name: La Machine – 1963 : artist: Jim Holdaway **** Location: London (MB penthouse apartment “opposite Hyde Park”, actually in the Bayswater Road, on the north side) – the “Treadmill pub, near Maidenhead” – Paris, France (‘Le Gant Rouge’, club frequented by “the elite of the Paris underworld”) – Peyrins area, village of ‘Tarlier’ – the ‘La Retroite’ monastery. Villains: Colonel Raut, ex-Foreign Legion & O.A.S. (pretending to be Father Marasin, a cleric formerly from Algeria, who Raut had murdered); two underlings, Castelle (another fake cleric); and Lagronne (local baker). Body count: 3 Modesty’s lover: Carter D. Sanford the Third (briefly) Willie’s lover: Pernod Mimi (Montmartre, Paris). Other characters: Sir Gerald Tarrant (head of a Foreign Office intelligence department); Jack Fraser (Tarrant’s assistant, former field agent); Frank Brett (NATO intelligence); Nimeau, his French ‘opposite number’; J.M. Rouvet, Parisian solicitor and area manager for La Machine, in the ‘Rue Perrion’; Jules (waiter at the ‘Le Gant Rouge’); two nameless La Machine assassins and three gang members. Nudity rating: MB getting changed, back view, sleeping nude. Who kills who? : WG kills Castelle and Lagronne. MB kills Raut with a hidden WG-designed pen-gun. MB suffers cigarette burns whilst being tortured by Castelle. Summary/theme: Straightforward crime caper. MB is an World War II orphan who spent much of her childhood in refugee or internment camps in the Balkans and the Near East. She later wandered throughout North Africa before working in a casino in Tangiers. At age 18, with the death of the local crime boss, she took over his criminal organization and moulded it into the Network, specialising in theft, heists, acquiring and selling secrets or valuables, etc., but never drugs or vice. By her mid-20s, having accumulated her fortune, MB retired, wound down the Network amongst her section leaders, and moved to Britain, where she purchased a penthouse on the Bayswater Road, opposite Hyde Park, London. Cockney lad WG was her most loyal lieutenant in the Network, and he buys “The Treadmill”, a riverside public house on the Thames “near Maidenhead”. Knowing she is now bored with a dull, unexciting life of luxury and enduring dreary hangers-on, MB & WG are encouraged to come out of retirement by Sir Gerald Tarrant to take on a ruthless European assassination mob run by French ex-Foreign Legion types. Together MB and WG set up a ‘falling-out scam’, so MB can ‘employ’ La Machine to assassinate a troublesome WG for the fee of £30,000. Following their failure to kill WG, La Machine operatives take MB captive and deliver her over to the leader Raut at the La Machine headquarters/hideaway located in an isolated rural monastery in the French countryside. WG intervenes as they are torturing her, killing Raut’s two underlings. MB uses an ingenious ‘pen-gun’ (designed by WG, and concealed under her bandaged hand), to kill Raut. Critical comment: In addition to MB and WG, straight off we are also introduced to the two other characters who continue to feature throughout both comic strip and novels: British Intelligence chief Sir Gerald Tarrant and his assistant John (Jack) Fraser. We are given our first glimpse of MB and WG’s language skills, in that both speak fluent French. Later they often communicate between themselves in Arabic or Cantonese Chinese. Despite her known criminal record, MB deliberately kept clear of falling foul of British law, already planning to retire in the UK. Tarrant briefly revealed her marriage of convenience (and subsequent divorce) to an alcoholic Englishman (named in the comic strip as James Turner, died Singapore 1961), had no legality, as he was already married – before deliberately destroying the evidence of his previous marriage! This – actually quite important – issue is never raised again, but, in retrospect, seems rather weak. Would marriage to a British national automatically confer citizenship on the foreign spouse in the 1950s or 60s? That was certainly not the case in later decades, and even more so if she later divorced him. Maybe a bit of bribery going on here, as this obviously all happened abroad, hence through British embassies or consulates? On the other hand, given MB’s dubious past, one might have thought any application for British citizenship would likely be refused by the Home Office – a department that Tarrant was not responsible to, and one would assume might not have influence over. This is, therefore, an apparent weakness in the plot that was never really resolved with much satisfaction, and subsequently appears to be ignored. Moreover, it gets only a brief mention in the novels (which doesn’t even name the husband), where Tarrant does not indulge in any such melodrama. But MB’s continued status in the UK (as a hitherto stateless person with no proof of birth), hinges on this – is she actually eligible to be a British citizen or not? When writing the original (and subsequently unused) 1965 Modesty Blaise film script, O’Donnell had a completely different introductory scenario between MB and Tarrant, and one which, by comparison, is both rather inferior and disappointing to that of the 1963 strip. But this was subsequently incorporated into the first MB novel (1966), titled (like the awful movie O’Donnell later disowned) simply Modesty Blaise. This, unfortunately, opened up the divergence between comic strip and novels, which, thereafter, often seem to operate in two parallel universes, although with crossovers, notably (although not always) from novel to comic strip. MB and WG set up a confrontation at ‘Le Gant Rouge’, here described as a Paris night-club frequented by the criminal fraternity. In the 1965 novel Modesty Blaise the same name is used for Pacco’s club in Cannes. In the comic strip story “Our Friend Maude” (1992), WG and ex-Network courier Claudine go to ‘Le Gant Noir”, again in Paris, frequented by the underworld patrons. Could the name have changed? Originally the former Eagle comic artist Frank Hampson (who created “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future”) was commissioned by the Evening Standard to illustrate, but O’Donnell was (rightly) not impressed by his rather bland depiction of MB, and insisted on Jim Holdaway instead. The rest is history. While many regard Enric Badia Romero as the ultimate illustrator of MB, with 57 out of the total 95 stories, I would contest that it was Jim Holdaway who set the ‘look’ of the characters and much of their environment for the next 38 years. Unlike in the awful 1966 Modesty Blaise movie (where MB was blonde and WG had dark hair), or, indeed, as with many other long-running comic strip characters, the basic physical appearance of the original key characters remained, with just minor modifications, depending on the particular style of the various artists. These we will subsequently remark upon below, which each new artist. As I have argued elsewhere, of the five artists who illustrated the Modesty Blaise comic strip from 1963 to 2001, Jim Holdaway was, without any doubt, the best. His was the most realistic depiction, while his attention to detail was second to none. Sadly, the quality of the newspaper source material available for the Titan Books reprints (which remains our principle source for the comic strip series) was not always that good, and we presume the original artwork has mostly been lost or in the hands of private collections, hence unavailable. As part of my argument that Holdaway, not Romero, is the true Modesty Blaise artist, it should be pointed out that MB, WG, Tarrant, Fraser, Weng and Inspector Brook were all originally Holdaway creations (and which Romero, Burns and Colvin all adhered to), while the internal appearance of MB’s London penthouse apartment “overlooking Hyde Park” (only later, in the novels, are we told in the Bayswater Road), and WG’s Thames riverside pub ‘The Treadmill’, also remained consistent and recognisable throughout the Romero strips, although his depiction of MB’s cottage became unrecognisable to the original Holdaway or Burns versions. The main living area of the penthouse has a mock stone wall, with low tables and at least three sofas, plus several free-standing armchairs. Concerning MB’s “cottage in Wiltshire”, however, this later underwent a number of metamorphoses – Burns’ version (which personally I like the best) did at least bear some resemblance to the original Holdaway version, but Pat Wright’s depiction more resembled a shack, while Romero’s various versions over the years were all completely different, each bearing no resemblance to the Holdaway original, and – as with much of his attempts to illustrate places, especially in Britain – rather unconvincing. While both Romero and Colvin both subsequently ‘created’ several other semi-regular characters – Maude Tiller; circus owner Georgi Gogol (Romero); the Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his girlfriend Aniela; and Russian Army Colonel Greb (Colvin) – I would again contest that Colvin’s versions were the superior to that of Romero. Equally, Holdaway and O’Donnell were old friends, who had worked together on previous O’Donnell comic strip stories, and knew each other socially – something that was always missing with Romero, based as he was in Barcelona and not speaking English. It is interesting that O’Donnell also obviously had a personal relationship with Neville Colvin, a New Zealander who lived in Britain, and – in my opinion – the greater majority of the best comic strip stories are those of the Holdaway/Colvin period. Was it just the quality of the artwork itself, or was there perhaps a greater input by the artist to O’Donnell as author, which perhaps helped with the story? Certainly, I would argue that these early stories are amongst the best, both for the clever complexity of the stories themselves, and the art. In this first story, Holdaway’s ability to create vivid, varied faces is never more apparent than in the gallery of nameless underworld characters depicted in strips 45 through 50. O’Donnell himself said the time between the initial suggestion of a series featuring a strong female character heroine and the actual appearance was about six months, and one striking thing about MB is just how consistent and thought-out the character was right from this first story, and for the next 38 years. Both she and WG appear almost fully-formed in their basic backstory, personality and moral compass. Of critical note: in this first story MB makes a point of remarking on the scar on the back of WG’s right hand. WG remarks that it was “in Shirref” that ‘Osmani’ was trying to make him talk, when MB showed up and broke his neck. However, in the 1965 novel Modesty Blaise, it is described as being ‘S’-shaped and was done by rival North African gang boss Suleiman, but again MB, in revenge, later broke his neck. So already two quite different stories! WG himself mentions it to Tarrant in the novel Sabre-Tooth. Seen here in the comic strip, he also wears a ring on the little finger on that hand. When Romero took over as artist the ring disappeared, never to reappear (or be explained), while the scar too became invisible. References to the OAS and war of independence in Algeria firmly place this story in the early 1960s. I always thought the village gendarme looked a bit like General de Gaulle! MB leaves a note in the safe of Rouvet, one of La Machine minions. When she puts it into the safe it is quite a big sheet of paper. When Rouvet takes it out the following morning it has shrunk to about a quarter of the size! Given her lifestyle – the cars (Rolls, Jensen, etc.,), the various houses dotted about Europe or North Africa that she has, her seemingly endless bank account – her estimated fortune of half a million still sounds a bit on the low side, even for 1963! Maybe Fraser’s dossier wasn’t that up to date after all. Certainly the number of attempts on her life seem (in retrospect) to be a underestimate. Finally, the bad guys taking over a monastery, but this time actually holding the monks hostage, is used again in “Plato’s Republic” (1985, drawn by Neville Colvin), and “The Hanging Judge” (1998, by Romero). Here the monks are unaware of the cuckoos in the nest. A monastery takeover (by arch-villain Gabriel) also figured in the first novel, Modesty Blaise. It was obviously a favourite O’Donnell theme. Here we also see an early example of MB’s ability to mentally control her physical body, with the self-induced sleep when the monastery bells are being rung, intended by her captors as the first step in her torture.
2: Story name: The Long Lever – 1963/64 ***** Location: Rio de Janeiro – Rand’s Club, Pall Mall – MB’s London penthouse apartment – the luxury motor yacht Flamenco somewhere in the South Atlantic – an unnamed island in the South Atlantic. Villains: Raphael De Sã (Brazilian millionaire); Kaverin (Hungarian agent). Body count: 1 Modesty’s lover: none Willie’s lover: none Other characters: Tarrant; Fraser; Dr Alexius Kossuth (Hungarian-born scientist) Nudity rating: MB in a bra, getting dressed. Who kills who? : [off camera, so to speak] Kaverin shoots Kossuth dead rather than letting the Americans get him back. Summary/theme: Espionage caper, but one where MB’s long distant past comes back to haunt her and influence her decisions, when she is asked by Tarrant to discover where a kidnapped, Hungarian-born scientist is being held. This involves MB and WG pretending to be a castaway married couple (Bill and Molly Cheyney), whose round-the-world sailing yacht has sunk mid-ocean. Doctor Kossuth is a 44 year old Hungarian-born scientist, specialising in laser technology (then still in its infancy), who, in 1941, had spent time in an internment camp at Kalyros in Greece, before eventually living in America, following the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He disappears under the nose of four CIA agents whilst attending a science conference in Rio de Janeiro. The Americans suspect millionaire playboy De Sã, who is friendly with a known Hungarian operative named Kaverin, but cannot intervene without proof. Although MB and WG’s cover is soon blown, they are still able to run the yacht aground and escape with Kossuth, who – far from being kidnapped – had gone willingly, working in the engine room. However, when MB learns that his daughter is being held in Hungary – and having been briefly at Kalyros herself as a 6 year old (“that hell hole!”) she knocks out WG and lets Kossuth go. In the end no one wins; Kossuth is shot dead by Kaverin, rather than the Americans get him back. Critical comment: So early on in the series, this is one of the most interesting and thoughtful of MB stories, and one that distinguishes it from the usual, James Bond-type of espionage caper. Indeed, MB is sometimes described as “the female James Bond”, but generally by people who have presumably never read either. What makes this story outstanding is the unusual twist at the end (it was apparently a favourite of former James Bond actor, Piers Brosnan), being the complete opposite of the routine stereotype story plots where the hero/heroine always emerges in triumph. We glimpse more of MB’s back story and moral compass, as well as the character study of Kossuth and the villains. Again this story is firmly fixed in the time period: the past history of Kossuth – MB as a young child in World War II – set within less than 10 years of the failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule. Many plot summaries, including that by O’Donnell himself, written 30 years later, incorrect say Kossuth is ‘Russian’. In fact, as the story (and, indeed, his name) make clear, he is Hungarian, having only finally fled his native country and moved to the USA after 1956. The amoral villain has a large luxury ocean-going vessel of the type we later see featured in a number of MB stories, both comic strip and in the short stories. Again we have Holdaway’s incredibly detailed penmanship in depicting characters – the CIA agents; the clientele and wine waiter at the gentleman’s club – and the Pall Mall interior and exterior views. Much later in the series, in “The Aristo” (1994/95), MB and WG finished up adrift in a dingy in the ocean for real, after their private aeroplane is sabotaged. We see MB engraving previous stones in her penthouse ‘workshop’ and WG getting away with asking for ‘a rough red vin ordinaire’ in a posh restaurant!
3: Story name: The Gabriel Set-Up – 1964 ***** Location: Winnipeg area, Canada/US border – MB’s ‘country cottage’ (although not stated here, but we later know to be in Wiltshire) – MB’s London penthouse – Ladies Annex, Rand’s Club – Tremont, Ontario (Hotel Luminor) – Phoenix Sanatorium – ‘Lakeside’, large secluded mansion. Villain: Gabriel (first name seemingly never stated in either comic strip or novels); Gabriel’s top men include Leri (Istanbul); Ricco (personal assistant); Premm; Frevier; Norstene. Body count: 8 Modesty’s lover: Andy, surname unknown, engineer (MB jokes about him “building bridges in Bongoland or wherever”). Willie’s lover: Marjorie Lanier, daughter of Charles Lanier, timber millionaire. Other Characters: Tarrant; Jack Fraser; Sam Barth (Canadian Intelligence); Eddie Varley, head of the Phoenix Sanatorium; Dr Reeve, one of the staff in charge of ‘Cloud Nine’, the technique to extract information by hypnosis; Nudity rating: MB in a bra. Who kills who? : WG kills all eight of Gabriel’s hoods, but ends up badly wounded in the arm and leg. Summary/theme: Espionage/crime caper. Shadowy arch-criminal Gabriel is using the Phoenix Sanatorium (on the Canadian side of the USA border), and the technique of hypnotherapy to extract information which can be used for industrial or government espionage, or blackmail. The action is mostly set on the Canadian side of the US border. MB at first goes undercover under the name of ‘Jane Lester’, while WG has his own local incentive/distraction in the shape of his latest girlfriend, spoilt little rich girl Marjorie, who is getting too serious for his liking. With Gabriel aware of her true identity, we get a hint of an earlier brush between MB (from her Network period) and Gabriel, over a gold shipment in Beirut. Having obtained evidence of Gabriel’s operation (which WG takes with him), MB manages to evade Gabriel’s hoods by escaping over the border into the USA, but WG is tricked into believing she is dead, and goes on a berserk ‘do or die’ revenge mission of Gabriel’s mansion at ‘Lakeside’, using a ‘borrowed’ truck to smash his way in. He collapses from loss of blood as Gabriel – sole survivor – escapes, moments before MB and Sam arrive with the police. Critical comment: MB was to have many villains to confront over the next 38 years of the comic strips, some quite stupid, others equally vicious, even to the extent of being quite nasty, but Gabriel perhaps figures as her most notorious and distinctive – the nearest equivalent to Ian Fleming’s Ernst Starvo Blofeld. Gabriel was even more shadowy, but a ruthless master criminal with a perchance for extremely over-ingenious schemes. As such, he had great potential, but, in the comic strip, he featured again only in the strip story “The Head Girls” (1966), although in both stories he escapes at the end – thus living to fight another day! By the time of his second (and last) comic strip appearance, he had already made his debut as the principal villain in the original novel Modesty Blaise (1965), where – yet again – he escapes at the end. He then appeared again in the novel A Taste for Death (1969), set supposedly two years later than the earlier novel, but – while still ruthless and rather evil – he was by then a much-reduced figure, already semi-subordinate to the ape-like professional killer Simon Delicta, and both, in turn, employed by the wealthy entrepreneur and charity patron, Sir Howard Presteign, a sort of early echo of banker and charity patron Sir Angus McBeal, who featured in the comic strip “Green Cobra” (1979). However, Peter O’Donnell then had Gabriel killed him off – quite casually, towards the end of A Taste for Death, by Delicta in a sort of ‘tidy-up’ operation, thus depriving either MB or WG from settling past scores. Afterwards – perhaps mindful of the movie version of James Bond’s Blofeld character – O’Donnell said he did not want the typical long-running saga of the repetitious villain. Despite this, O’Donnell later (in both comic strip and novels) came to frequently have MB battling against the sinister, SPECTRE-like Salamander Four, as well as the Chinese/Macau banker, Mr Wu Smith. The distinctive Holdaway image of Gabriel – high forehead, profile, thick joined eyebrows, walking with a limp, using a stick, white gloves – became the accepted one, even when, on occasion, drawn by other artists, like John Burns or the Dick Giordano DC Comics version of Modesty Blaise. This early story again emphasises the unshakable ‘til death do us part’ bond between WG and MB. Holdaway excels at his meticulously detailed depiction of exteriors and interiors – not just MB’s penthouse and cottage, or Tarrant’s office, but the Phoenix clinic, hotel rooms, communal area, Gabriel’s mansion – lights on walls, ornaments, drinks trays, patterned carpets, cushions, etc. Points of interest: WG at one point refers to himself as from Stepney, East London. Leri remarks MB “retired over a year ago”, which was perhaps too short a time-frame. MB and her latest boyfriend Andy the engineer go riding “over the Downs” to Wychdale Beacon from her country cottage, which we know to be in Wiltshire. This is Holdaway’s first depiction of what is described as a “restored cottage…standing solitary amid woodland”. It would appear to be single storey with more rooms under the roof, a covered patio at the rear, where horses graze, and two exterior tall chimneys, with surrounding outbuildings, possibly stables. The interior has a beamed ceiling and a large brick fireplace. The furniture is simple, country-style. In the first story MB used the Mab Brevete automatic, this time she is using the Colt .32 revolver. It’s also noteworthy in all these early 1960s stories the consumption of cigarettes! Charles Lanier later features in “Uncle Happy”.
4: Story name: Mr Sun – 1964 **** Location: WG’s pub ‘The Treadmill’ – Hong Kong (Blue Lotus Hotel, Mr Sun’s house at Big Wave Bay – 3 kilometre long bay, Tai Long Wan, in Chinese, east of Sai Kung) – Saigon (South Vietnam), and Vietnam battlefront in the north – Min Lau jungle garrison. Villain: Mr Sun, Hong Kong based Chinese master criminal and drug dealer; his underling Yen Shan. Body count: 25+ (mostly in the battlefield part of the story). Modesty’s lover: none Willie’s lover: none Other Characters: Weng (Modesty’s then 18 year old Vietnamese ward); Sammy Chan (fellow student at HK University); Tarrant; Inspector Daunton (Hong Kong police); Inspector Thui, Vietnam police; unnamed Chinese bomb expert; Dho Li (Weng’s sister, age 20); Tex Naylor (US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, from Texas); Colonel Deong of the Viet-Cong: May Ho, Mr Sun’s housekeeper. Nudity rating: MB in bra; glimpsed bathing in tent. Who kills who? : WG kills one of Mr Sun’s henchman. WG and MB fighting the Viet Cong close-to. MB tosses Mr Sun over a balcony to his death. Weng kills his sister (who is secret Vietcong spy) before she can kill MB. Summary/theme: Crime and rescue caper. MB is informed that her Vietnamese ward, orphan Weng, has gone missing from university in Hong Kong. Unbeknown to her, he has discovered his sister is alive (he thought her dead eight year previous, like the rest of his family), and this puts a burden of honour on him as the lone family male, even though she is older, to find her. This required money to get to Vietnam, but again his personal sense of honour forbid him to ask MB for money, given all that she done for him, hence, in foolish desperation, he offered himself to Mr Sun, not knowing Mr Sun had his own honour to restore from a previous unfortunate encounter with MB. Weng is now, in effect, a hostage, who Mr Sun can use against his old adversary, MB. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, MB is thereby blackmailed by Mr Sun into carrying heroin to Saigon, South Vietnam, but swiftly sets up a devious ‘scam’ to turn the tables. As the Hong Kong police close in, Mr Sun flees by helicopter, eventually to North Vietnam. In the second half of the story, having learnt Weng’s sister, Dho Li, is serving in the South Vietnamese military women’s regiments, they search for her in the carnage and battlefields of the Vietnam War, but again things, and people’s motives, are not always what they seem. Critical comment: This story emphasises Chinese sense of honour and family and moral loyalties, as well as MB’s total hatred of the drug trade. It also introduces another permanent series character in both the strips and novels, that of loyal (if snobbish) houseboy Weng. Here he is age 18, and his family were killed “in Indo-China” six years before. MB found him starving in Saigon and arranged for him to attend mission school, then university in Hong Kong. After this introduction, he is rarely in the action himself, but he operated as a sort of one-man backup team, coordinating between MB and/or WG and other characters. It is interesting that his nationality and background is not again referred to in the comic strip, although often he and MB communicate in Cantonese Chinese, and at least one occasion in the novels – Dead Man’s Handle – he masquerades as a member of the Chinese Triad, their equivalent of the mafia. In both comic strip and novels he is content to be MB’s ‘houseboy’ (often his radio handle), rather choose any other career path. In the novels it is revealed that Weng was three years at Hong Kong University, and that he became a skilled bridge player, frequenting one of London’s top clubs, thereby making £7,000 a year extra and tax free. In the novel Dead Man’s Handle, Weng exacts certain information from an individual who had previous reneged on an agreement with MB, and he had confiscated the money exchanged, whereupon MB instructed him to put it in his “piggy bank”! MB’s involvement with the American forces in the Vietnam War, which lasted from about 1963 until the fall of Saigon in 1975), again dates the story to its time period, as does Hong Kong still being under British control, with British senior police officers. Although Peter O’Donnell’s later communist regime villains were mostly thoroughly unlikeable, rather in the James Bond story mode (more so than, say, that of Len Deighton), here MB offers a certain balance concerning the apparent treachery of Weng’s sister of fighting for the Viet Cong, remarking that “She didn’t see it that way.” There are several very clever aspects to this, quite complicated, story, from the Chinese policeman using a gastroscope to probe the booby-trapped suitcase of heroin, to MB disguised as a Hong Kong ‘yum-yum girl’ (prostitute) as her only means to get contact with the HK police without Mr Sun’s numerous spies knowing. In her showdown with Mr Sun’s Vietnamese underlings she uses the kongo stick and pepper, while WG pitches in, dressed as a US Army Sergeant. US Federal Narcotics agent Tex Naylor recollects MB helping him break up the ”Koja brothers dope ring” in Istanbul, obviously from her Network days. There is no previous mention of this elsewhere, not even in the novels. Again Jim Holdaway excels with his images of faces – Mr Sun and Yen Shan in particular – as well as the Chinese interiors and small details in the first meeting between MB and Mr Sun – him engaged in Chinese ink and water-based painting as he taunts and attempts to corrupt MB. Also briefly outstanding is his vivid images of Saigon, then still the capital of South Vietnam. There is a very lengthy battlefield sequence before the final denouement. Inspector Daunton of the Hong Kong police appeared briefly again in “The Aristo” (1994, by Romero), but again unrecognisable, just another non-descript blonde or fair-haired man, and younger!
5: Story name: The Mind of Mrs Drake – 1964/65 ***** Location: London (MB’s penthouse apartment) – Mrs Drake’s house – Korzan’s London flat (‘Margrave House’) – and a travelling foreign circus somewhere in Kent. Villain: V. N. Korzan (osteopath and Iron Curtain operative, recruiting traitors). Body count: 8 Modesty’s lover: none Willie’s lover: none Other Characters: Tarrant; Jack Fraser; Weng; Jeannie Challon, one of Tarrant’s agents; Commander Roger Challon (Jeannie’s father, ex-RN intelligence); Mrs Rebecca Drake; Mr Pender (civil servant passing secrets); Mr Haley (a bookseller also with psychic powers), Nudity rating: Both MB and Jeannie in undies and nude taking a bath. Who kills who? : Korzan kills the civil servant traitor Pender on the train from Waterloo. MB and WG take out two of Korzan’s underlings, Gordon and Felix, who have just killed Jeannie Challon. Jennie’s blind father, Roger Challon, kills Korzan. An unarmed police officer is shot and wounded by the Korzan gang. Summary/theme: Espionage caper. A similar theme to that of “The Gabriel Set-Up”, but this time a middle-aged lady psychometrist is being used by ruthless foreign agents to extract information from government employees. When Pender, one such civil servant ‘source’, writes a confession of his treason, he is quickly killed off (neck broken and thrown off a train), as is the young blonde secret service agent Jeannie (and already a good friend of MB), who Tarrant has planted as one of Mrs Drake’s clients pretending to be a Foreign Office cipher-clerk. She is shot, dying in MB’s arms. MB and WG swiftly extract revenge for her death with the two killers, MB angrily ignoring Tarrant’s protests. Subsequently Korzan’s gang, and the (by now) unwilling Mrs Drake, are using a foreign circus as cover to hopefully get out of the country. Again, rather against Tarrant’s orders (who is himself working with the – unarmed – local police force) MB and WG take the initiative, hunting the gang down with the aid of Jeannie’s blind, ex-naval intelligence office father. Critical comments: This story emphases MB and WG’s loyalty to friends, even to the extent of seeking retribution. Two themes which reoccur: firstly, the – in other ways ultra-sensitive – blind person. We would see this again later, in the character Dinah Pilgrim in the 1969 novel A Taste for Death, after which she featured (as Dinah Collier, married to MB ex-boyfriend Steve Collier) in both subsequent novels and short stories. Only much later, in 1990, did she finally appear in the comic strip, as Dinah Collier in “The Lady in the Dark” (1989/90), again using her super-sensitivity as a plot ‘McGuffin’. The second frequent theme in the comic strips, first seen here, is that of the circus, one of which reappears next in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1973), and off and on throughout the rest of the comic strip series, right up until its final appearance in the last story “The Zombie” (2000/01). While MB gets angry at Jeannie’s death, her father reminds her Tarrant will see the death of an agent as unfortunate, but unavoidable. A longer-term, blonde replacement for Jeannie appears in the story “The Puppet Master” (1971), in the character of Maude Tiller. The meek and mild psychic bookseller Mr Haley made an unexpected return in two much later stories “A Present for the Princess” (1992), and “Ripper Jax” (1995), the latter where MB had to rescue his 18 year old, rather ungrateful daughter, sadly one O’Donnell’s rare, less likeable non-villain female characters.
6: Story name: Uncle Happy – 1965 ***** Location: San Diego and Las Vegas, USA – ‘Harmony Island’ off the California coast. Villains: Walter Dee (‘Uncle Happy’) & wife Lucy Dee. Body count: Estimated 15+ Modesty’s lover: Steve Taylor (FBI agent) Willie’s lover: none Other Characters: Steve Taylor; Brad (lawyer, Dee’s no. 2); Eddie (the sharpshooter); Marjorie Lanier’s father, millionaire timber merchant Charles Lanier. Nudity rating: MB in a swimsuit, getting dressed, undies. Who kills who? : Dee’s ‘executioner’ Eddie killed Marjorie ‘off-stage’ so to speak. MB kills Eddie, Walter’s chief killer, in a shoot-out. MB and WG take out quite a few of Walter’s hoods. Cornered and facing defeat, Walter shoots Lucy, then himself. Summary/theme: Crime caper. MB is in San Diego, snorkel fishing, when she encounters Steve Taylor, who claims to be a freelance diver and photographer. They spend several days together before moving to Las Vegas. After an impulsive (and successful) night at playing roulette, MB notices Steve is attracting the attention of Walter Dee and his wife Lucy, wealthy philanthropist (known as ‘Uncle Happy’) who owns a small island off the Californian coast, half of which a holiday camp for orphans or deprived children. Later that night three thugs try to take Steve out, and MB intervenes. Although puzzled by her combat ability, Steve refuses to confide who he really is, and both are justly suspicious of the other, and split up, MB staying, Steve leaving. WG joins her, having been asked by Marjorie Lanier’s father to investigate her apparent death by drowning. She had been staying on Walter Dee’s Harmony Island. When MB contacts Steve he reveals he is an FBI agent and has also checked her and WG out – notably the Gabriel affair. Dee, he reveals, is running a huge vice racket. Their joint investigation of the island goes wrong and all are taken prisoner. Steve fakes drowning during the fight with WG (as ‘entertainment’ for Lucy), while soon Lucy suggests a gun dual MB and Eddie, but instead MB shoots dead Eddie, Dee’s top gun-slinger and executioner. It was he who killed Marjorie, after she found out too much. Dee has them locked up again while he takes a riding crop to Lucy as ‘punishment’. However, MB and WG escape and hole up at the end of island, taking out six or seven of Dee’s men in the process. As Steve and the police appear and close in, Dee shoots Lucy, then himself. WG tells Marjorie’s father the story. Meantime MB and Steve enjoy the rest of their vacation. Critical comments: This is the first appearance in the strips of MB’s lover, American FBI agent Steve Taylor, who later appears in “The Gallows Bird”, “Dossier on Pluto” (but by then, we are told, no longer in the FBI), and finally “Children of Lucifer” in 1999, when he is a FBI agent again! For WG there is also retribution, in that his former lover Marjorie Lanier, who appeared in “The Gabriel Set-Up” has been murdered by the Uncle Happy gang. This story emphasises MB’s other hatred for the vice trade. Using a fight to the ‘death’ (in this instance, between WG and Steve Taylor) as a means to escape by being thrown off a cliff into the sea, is used again in the novel I, Lucifer, but this time between MB and WG. Walter and Lucy have a rather sadomasochistic relationship; he using a riding crop on her, then going all “lovey-dovey” afterwards. There was an alternative illustrated version of this story by Al Williamson, although trying to find copies on the internet isn’t easy, which is a pity. In retrospect Titan ought to have ran both versions to compare. One artistic criticism is the pattern on Walter Dee’s shirt remains the same size, whether seen at a distance or close up! Holdaway or the newspaper printers obviously used a set pattern block. We see this again in a number of subsequent stories.
7: Story name: Top Traitor – 1965/66 ***** Location: MB’s penthouse apartment, London – ‘New Sphere Theatre’ – Whitehall – MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – ‘Castle Storgen’, Austria (perhaps near the then Yugoslav border “Savinsken Alps”, or Savinska). Villain: Graf von Schuyler, an independent operator selling secrets to the Eastern Bloc. Body count: 1 Modesty’s lover: MB offers a “weekend in Paris” to Michael York (WG’s actor friend). Willie’s lover: WG reminisces “girl in Rio”, and the “girl who was weight-lifter” Other characters: Jack Fraser; Tarrant; Richard Sefton (‘section head’, British intelligence); Ranshow (another section head); Weldemar Perovic (villager of von Schuyler’s private estate; husband of Ilse and father of Trudi); Michael York; various communist ‘Iron Curtain countries’ representatives – Szigeti; Rykov; Ferdie Karanja; Madame Chei. Nudity rating: MB in short house-robe, and bath-towel; MB (pretending to be Weldemar Perovic’s niece “from the Tyrol”) in bath to ‘seduce’ one of the baddie henchman; MB changing clothes, bra and panties. Who kills who? : MB sends von Schuyler flying off his horse into a rock. MB gets wounded in the side. Summary/theme: Espionage caper. Tarrant has been kidnapped, but it is made to look as if he is a communist double agent who has defected (like Philby, etc.). Secretly Fraser asks MB and WG to investigate, and who then use a wonderful gem of a ‘scam’ (if rather illegal) to reveal the real double agent, one of the two section heads, Ranshaw. Having, in effect, cleared Tarrant’s name, the action then moves to a sort of isolated ‘Ruritania’-like Central European village and castle estate, with Tarrant being offered ‘for sale’ to various unsavoury communist bloc representatives. We can only presume the native language is German, which both MB and WG speak well enough, especially as, in order to gain access to the castle, MB is pretending to be a local peasant girl. Von Schuyler has an almost medieval feudal lord control over the village and its inhabitants, even to the extent of sleeping with the young local girls. As WG escapes by car with Tarrant, von Schuyler sets out to hunt MB down on horseback, armed with a lance-like boar-spear. She is wounded in the side, but von Schuyler ends up dead. Critical comments: Tarrant being kidnapped and held prisoner is used again in the novel The Silver Mistress (1973), while in “The Green Cobra” (1979) this theme is again used, but this time it is Jack Fraser who is kidnapped and being brainwashed into becoming a double agent. In another, later, story “The Wild Boar” (1985, art by Colvin) it is Tarrant’s French counterpart, René Vaubois, who is kidnapped and marked out as a defector. We get another glimpse of MB’s country cottage, which we learn is “three miles from the village of Benildon, in Wiltshire”. In a night-time view it has a street-light immediately outside, and a driveway at the front, big enough for several cars. A modern, open-plan, staircase goes to rooms upstairs, presumably under the roof; at least two “bare rooms” with boarded windows. Holdaway’s central European castle is more believable than the castles yet to come, as subsequently illustrated by Romero. MB’s plan to uncover the department’s real spy is a masterpiece of ingenuity, illegality and theatre, and yet another example of just how original and subtle her schemes are, way superior to many other fictional heroes. Likewise, their penetration of von Schuyler’s castle, to discover where Tarrant is held, and rescue him. Several of these early, 1960s period, MB comic strip and the Pieces of Modesty short stories, are dated now by references to pre-1971 decimal UK currency, still in pounds, shillings and pence. So the sandwiches and tea Mike Yorke shares with MB come to “seven and six pence”, and elsewhere MB once offered to work for Tarrant for “ten shillings a day”. We again get a glimpse of MB’s Wiltshire cottage exterior, but only by night. We also glimpse behind Jack Fraser’s bumbling desk-bound bureaucrat persona, to that of the professional field-agent for 15 years, prior to being Tarrant’s assistant for 5 years. Jack Fraser later featured in the above mentioned “Green Cobra” story (1979, art by John Burns), and “Fraser’s Story” (1997, art by Romero). In the list of traitors such as Philby, Fraser also includes “Dalby, he was a department head”. Although I’ve not seen anything in interviews or articles to say so, I feel certain that O’Donnell was a fan of the early Len Deighton. Dalby was the “department head” of W.O.O.C. (P), in Deighton’s first spy novel The Ipcress File (1962). I think that was O’Donnell’s little joke! We know that O’Donnell thought of Michael Caine (who played the anti-hero spy in the 1965 movie) as a good likeness for WG. Early on, there is also an example WG’s love of ‘presents’ for MB – from the USA a gold-plated antique 1870 Derringer .47 Williamson hand-gun. We also get a casual mention of Tarrant’s apparent intelligence department rival, Boulter, whose name also occurs in both comic strip and the novels, Modesty Blaise, I Lucifer, and The Xanadu Talisman. He was head of Military Intelligence, under the Foreign Office. Holdaway’s art remains outstanding – in all those small interior details, in his gripping depiction of the action scenes, and especially in faces, including that of MB herself.
8: Story name: The Vikings – 1966 **** Location: Somewhere in Denmark – Lake Mälar, Sweden – Sogne Fjord, Norway – Bergen – Near Lavik. Villain: Captain Magnus. Body Count: 1 Modesty’s lover: none. Willie’s lover: none. Other characters: Olaf Nilsen; Albert Nilsen (Olaf’s father; a Norwegian tycoon); Margrete Nilsen (Olaf’s wife), and her father; Krolli and Raoul, from the Network. Nudity rating: none Who kills who? : WG kills Magnus in an axe-fight. MB is badly wounded in the leg, and nearly bleeds to death. Summary/theme: Crime caper. A sea-borne hit-and-run gang of pirates are operated in Northern Europe (Deauville, France; Spain; now Denmark), led by a half-crazy Norwegian, Captain Magnus, who wants to recreate the Viking tradition. They are operating from a cargo ship, the Draken, so almost inevitably will eventually get tracked and caught. However, MB discovers one of Magnus’s gang is a ex-Network member named Olaf, now age 23, who even then was foolish and impetuous, fouling up a diamond heist in Morocco three years previous. Olaf’s father – who is a rather arrogant, sniff-necked Norwegian tycoon – blames her for his son’s failings and career of criminality. Olaf’s gang-ho stupidity left him with a gammy leg and a pension, but, upon returning to Norway, he married Margrete, who Nilsen senior calls a “peasant girl”, and has – until now – refusing to meet or communicate with. MB meets her without Olaf knowing, and is able to overcome her hostility, as she – like Nilsen – thinks it is MB who has encouraged Olaf back into crime. When MB tries to force Magnus to let Olaf go, Olaf’s wife is taken as hostage, forcing our heroes to set to rescue her from the gang’s secret cave hideout. Together with a remorseful Olaf, MB and WG penetrate the caves, neutralising Magnus’s so-called ‘Vikings’ as they go. However a stray gun-shot leaves MB badly wounded in the leg, and it is down to WG to fight Magnus “to the death”, with Viking axes. Nilsen has a helicopter on stand-by with a surgeon, which earns WG’s gratitude. At the end of the story the situation between Nilsen and Olaf and his wife is only partly resolved, although not without hope. Critical comment: The ‘posh-party’ robbery raid idea is used again in the MB short story “A Perfect Day to Break Your Neck” (Pieces of Modesty, 1972). In the Network flashback, we meet two of MB’s underlings, Raoul and the Greek Krolli – the latter would feature in a number of Network recollections, in both comic strip and the novels, as well as play an important role in the story “Plato’s Republic” (1979, art by Colvin, although looking rather different to this Holdaway image.) The incident with Olaf in Morocco (a diamond hijack from a rival gang under the leadership of Krim) was “three years ago”, and at that time Krolli had been with MB for “four years”. After retirement, Krolli set up a legitimate business exporting olive oil. This is one instance where MB’s injuries were actually life-threatening. In her first meeting with Magnus, MB enters a male-only seamen’s bar and proves herself by a duel with staffs whilst ‘riding the barrel’ against the current ‘champion’, Karl. Magnus, when he sees her, is impressed and compares her to a “Viking Queen”, apart from her black hair! Meantime, and more discreetly, WG makes a bet against Karl of a “hundred to twenty kroner” – a nice little earner! MB threatens to inform Interpol of Magnus’s piracy unless he lets Olaf go. We will encounter Interpol again, in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72). Its full name is the International Criminal Police Organization, founded in 1923, headquarters in Lyon, France, and, contrary to popular myth, it is not an enforcement agency with the power of arrest or field agents, but actually an inter-governmental organization connecting and coordinating the police forces of different countries, with (currently) 194 member states. MB should have been threatening him with the Norwegian police. This is MB operating on a small scale, against an opponent more crazy when wicked or criminal, a man born out of his time, thinking he is a reincarnation of some old-time Viking raider. There is the usual complexity and human interest, as well as the final, no-holds-barred showdown, in this story, which, at first, I admit I underrated. Holdaway’s art, as ever, brilliantly depicted faces and places with great realism, but, alas, the Titan Books reproduction of the strip is not of the best quantity – a problem that occurs more than this once in the early stories. What a pity they did not have access to the original Holdaway drawings.
9: Story name: The Head Girls – 1966 **** Location: Isle of Coirath, Hebrides (beach; rocket research station) – MB’s London penthouse apartment – Rand’s Club, Pall Mall – Ministry of Defence, Whitehall – Sharon Dale’s “East Coast cottage” locality – Hampstead area – Fleet River tunnel – Wapping police station. Villain: Gabriel Body Count: 7 Modesty’s lover: none Willie’s lover: none Other Characters: Henry; Southern (both Gabriel underlings); Carson Bell; Tarrant; Sharon Dale (Carson’s secretary); Barbara Marsh (MoD minister’s secretary); Mrs Felsted, principal of ‘Superior Secretaries’ at Hampstead; Benson (Tarrant man). Nudity rating: MB and WG in swimwear; MB nude in bed; MB (initially chained up) stripped to just bra and pants, and WG in underpants. Who kills who? : Two of Gabriel’s underlings, following their capture by MB and WG, poisoned by Sharon Dale to silence them. Two of the female secretary spies, again on Gabriel’s orders, Sharon when she got greedy, the other, Barbara Marsh, deemed expendable. Carson Bell the inventor, killed by Henry. Gabriel shoots Southern before fleeing. MB fights with, and stabs, Henry. Summary/theme: Espionage/crime caper. Convalescing after her leg injury from “The Vikings” (these early strips had one story actually following on each other), MB and WG stumble on two apparent industrial espionage spies near a secret UK research facility in the Hebrides. When the captive spies are themselves murdered under the nose of security, MB and WG start to suspect a bigger game is being played for a multi-million dollar industrial ceramic formula known only to inventor Carson Bell, who they had previously met back in their Network days. When Bell too is murdered and copies of the formula at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall apparently destroyed, they suspect the involvement of the ‘perfect secretaries’, used as ‘fifth columnists’ in government departments. Hoping to retrieve the only copy of the formula, they find themselves trapped and destined to drown in the storm-drain of the Fleet River under Hampstead, while the house above – Gabriel’s school for secretaries – despite being surrounded by police, is about to be blown sky-high. Gabriel’s devious plans for revenge (and his own escape) go awry when the water level rises from heavy rain, enabling our heroes to turn the tables. MB even retrieves the microfilm of the formula from Gabriel’s walking-stick, at the bottom of the storm-drain. Critical comments: Gabriel had previously appeared in the strip story “The Gabriel Set-Up”, as well as in two novels, the first being Modesty Blaise (1966). Yet again, the end of the story, he escapes, in a sealed floating capsule out along the underground Fleet River into the Thames, although just how he subsequently hoped to be rescued was left open to question. He had already shot Southern, and was probably planning to abandon the murderous, and not very intelligent, Harry. This, however, was his last appearance in the strip comics. In the novels, Gabriel’s sidekick is Scotsman McWhirter, a methodical, note-taking accountant. Eventually, now a somewhat diminished villain, Gabriel is just another henchman to an equally ruthless master-criminal, and both are killed off – almost casually – near the end of the novel A Taste For Death (1969). The stories so far seem to form a continuation – “Mr Sun” has WG still recovery mode from his injuries in “The Gabriel Set-Up”, and here the beginning of “The Head Girls” has MB, at least a month on, recovering from her leg injuries in “The Vikings”. Alas, this story continuity did not last, and certainly not beyond the Holdaway period. We learn that inventor Carson Bell had already had a previous contact with MB from her Network days when they stole his alloy formula, only to sell it back to him for £50,000. He held no grudge, and, indeed, used her estimate of £1,000,000 at 20% as a negotiating figure with the MoD, who, in turn, hoped to lease his ceramic lining formula to the Americans. We see MB’s Rolls Royce, while WG, at one point ‘borrows’ her Daimler, although does he already have the keys, or knows how to ‘hot-wire’ the ignition? Teasingly, the reader does not actually see the identity of Gabriel until over half-way through the story. With the ‘Superior Secretaries’ branch at Hampstead shut down (Gabriel’s dim-witted killer Henry having killed Barbara Marsh, Gabriel himself shooting Southern) they plan to redeploy at their “Hamburg branch”. There is an amusing interlude where WG is with Tarrant at Rand’s Club and play two, rather snobbish, members at bridge, WG cleaning them out and splitting the takings with Tarrant, “enough to buy you a new car” he says. Again, however, Holdaway’s depiction of one of the hapless bridge player’s check jacket, the pattern is the same, whether close-to or distant! Otherwise, Holdaway’s artwork continued to be outstanding, and, in addition to MB in a one-piece swimsuit at the story’s opening strips, strips 1084 to 1121 feature her clad in only bra and panties, chained up, swimming, fighting Henry, rescuing WG. In this story Peter O’Donnell blows up a chunk of the Ministry of Defence Building in Whitehall (actually Horse Guards Avenue); not something that would go unnoticed, or be hushed up, one would think, with a ‘D’ notice (used at that time to shut down news reports). In the final strips WG objects to having a stomach pump used on him, MB telling him not to be a “baby”.
10: Story name: The Black Pearl – 1966/67 *** Location: North Bengal, the village of ‘Dhira’ – London, MB’s penthouse apartment – North Bengal into Tibet, the village of Tahiksen. Villain: Chinese General Li Body Count: 16 Modesty’s lover: none Willie’s lover: none Other characters: Mark Scobie (old friend of MB’s); Lal (Holy man); Djut (Tibetan Khamba warrior); Shuen (Tibetan girl freedom fighter, and Mark’s love interest, the only survivor of Da-Rang’s group). Nudity rating: none Who kills who? : MB kills rogue Network operative Vauden (in flashback). MB wounded in side by Vauden. Eight Tibetan freedom fighters (Khambas) executed. Three Chinese soldiers killed by WG and Tibetans, their jeep set alight after. More Chinese soldiers. Summary/theme: Undercover caper in Chinese occupied Tibet. A busy, complicated story that also introduces a more mystical – at times supernatural – element, in particular involving the concept of karma, ordained fate and reincarnation on the wheel of life. While entertaining Mark Scobie in London, an old friend of MB’s and WG’s who is currently seconded to the Nepalese army, MB receives a mysterious ‘summons’ with the disappearance of the green beetle in a piece of amber. Four years earlier, then still running the Network, she had been badly wounded in the side whilst hunting down her Calcutta operative who had gone rogue and was running his own private vice trade. She was healed – mysteriously – by a Buddhist holy man Lal, who gave her the amber with its green beetle within. She was told that when the beetle disappeared, it was his summons for her. When she and WG reach India she discovers that her mission is to go to Chinese-occupied Tibet, find the ‘Black Pearl’ and bring it out of the country. On the way she, WG and Mark meet the Tibetan Khambas, guerrilla fighters, and she has to prove herself as a superior woman (“a warrior princess”) to lead them. This she does by successfully fighting three of their strongest men simultaneously. Eventually the Black Pearl is revealed to be a bear, supposedly the reincarnation of the Lama’s sister, but which only obeys, or responds to, WG. Meantime, the Chinese General Li, known as ‘The Butcher’, also knew of their mission (but – like them – was obvious unaware of the Pearl’s real nature), and wished to use the Black Pearl to set up a puppet Lama. Having rescued Mark’s Tibetan girlfriend (the sole survivor of another party of freedom fighters), they are able to seize a Chinese helicopter and fly the Black Pearl to India. Later WG uses a trick to ensure Mark and the Tibetan girl Shuen remain together in Napel. Critical comment: This story sees an amazing selection of Asian, Chinese and Tibetan faces vividly depicted by Jim Holdaway, and especially the oriental beauty of the Tibetan girl Shuen, but sadly reproduction of the cramped newspaper comic strip black and white format rather reduced the quality of the original artwork. However, this story does signal the beginning of Peter O’Donnell’s fascination with non-Western cultures and ideology, bordering on the occult or mystical. The Buddhist holy man befriended by MB would feature in several later stories, notably in “Kali’s Disciples” (1985), where he is named Sivaji, who briefly appeared again in “Death Symbol” (1999). Here, too, we get to see WG’s skill and empathy with animals, as he ‘tames’ and befriends the bear to obey and follow only him. At one point the bear actually saves WG’s life, or at least being shot at close range, by hitting the Chinese soldier with one mighty paw Again, we have a rather tight time-frame, MB saying she hunted down the rogue Network operative Vauden “four years ago”, but, if so, why was she alone, without WG? How soon after did she dissolve the Network and retire? Vauden was a section head in Calcutta, but side-lining in the buying and procuring of village girls to sell to brothels, something MB hated and forbid. Despite being badly wounded in the side during their brief shootout, the Buddhist holy man has miraculously cured her, without even leaving a scar. When it ‘disappears’, she and WG later speculate that the green beetle in the amber maybe just have been an illusion. During the 1940s and early 50s, the nomadic Khambas, from the region of Kham (now Quinghai), were in conflict with the Tibetan government in Lhasa, and only later in the late-1950s seemingly they rose in revolt against the Chinese. Already, even by the late-1960s, when this story was written, Tibet was firmly under the control of the Chinese, and with little hope of assistance from the outside world. More bizarrely, from the point of view of any kind of continuity, Peter O’Donnell decided to return MB and WG to Tibet and a reunion with the Khambas leader Djut, in the story “Death Symbol” (1999, drawn by Romero), so over 30 years later, yet not only has no one aged, but we are told only two years have passed. Ten years we might have believed (although MB would still be in her later thirties), but two years makes no sense. Although this latter story still has supernatural elements, the basic plot could have been set anywhere from elsewhere in Asia to South America. The story, too, is dark and, in places, rather brutal, belonging very much to the final phase of the MB comic strip cycle, while Romero’s artwork is adequate but routine, even a bit repetitious. “The Black Pearl” had been both original and funny at times. By contrast, the second outing to Tibet seemed quite pointless and strained.
‘A Man To Be Trusted’ has a high reputation amongst Danger Man fans, if the reviews on imdb are anything to go by, but I found the story somewhat shapeless, full of conflicting details and, in its ending, left somewhat in the air.
The story is relatively plain. On an unnamed Caribbean island, two men have been killed, tortured and their throats cut,a year apart. Both are M9 agents. John Drake, under the operational guise of Scotland Yard Detective Inspector John Grant, flies out to uncover not merely who has killed them, but what they have told. There are two other M9 agents on the island, the ageing Dorset (Ralph Michael), running an export business,not to mention a considerably younger and seemingly promiscuous wife (Wanda Ventham), and Teniente Mora, Chief of Security and nephew to the Colonel who runs the island’s Government, played in a very vivid fashion by Harvey Ashby.
Now Ashby gives it all he’s got, smooth, self-satisfied, playful, talkative, dictatorial, mercurial, teasing about the knowledge he’s under suspicion. It’s a performance that teeters on being Over The Top, but that destabilises the episode. I found Mora confusing and off-putting. He’s clearly being set-up to be the unreliable one who, in the end, is shown to be reliable, the Man To Be Trusted, but he’s so clearly established as being Untrustworthy that the revelation he’s on our side cannot dispel the atmosphere Ashby creates: he’s proved himself but the Jury are muttering among themselves and three month old babies till regard him with suspicion.
The same goes for the rest of the cast. Stella Dorset’s best friends are the two widows, Louise Bancroft (Eunice Gayson) and Lorna Corlander (Patricia Donohoe). Stories overlap, conversation is brittle, Mora claims all three women had/have lovers and you get the impression off him that he knows for certain because it’s him. Nothing is certain, everyone is lying continually, no-one can e trusted, not even after Dorset is exposed as a gun-runner, working with Papa Camille (Christopher Carlos), who is a Voodoo historian and proselytiser, and the agent on the other side.
Now Carlos, even though he’s the ultimate baddie, is impressive. His first appearance, as historian, as he expounds upon Voodoo’s history and beats the tom-tom drum, is more atmospheric and powerful than anything else in the episode, and genuinely impresses as a fanatic. You can believe him to be wholly evil, which he is.
Though MacGoohan is, as always, at the centre of every scene, he plays a curiously negligible role in the episode. He’s openly suspicious with Mora, who refuses to establish himself as trustworthy, he’s dictatorial towards Dorset, ordering him to get rid of his wife’s flashy sports car, and to expose his status as an M9 agent to her, and he has to offer himself up as a target to get to the bottom of things, but he’s curiously unimpressive throughout. Though I am in a distinct minority in thinking that way.
So. My first disappointment. I could also have done with seeing a bit more of the three female red herrings, none of whom seemed bothered about their husbands, and especialy of Wanda Ventham, who would go on to guest star in one of the shakier episodes of The Prisoner but we constantly remember that that’s not a motif of Danger Man. Things will get better.
In the beginning there was ‘Leader of the Pack’ and in the end there was ‘Leader of the Pack’. The Shangri-Las had also had a UK Top Twenty hit with ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ in the Sixties, but as far as Radio 1 was concerned, it might never have existed when it came to playing Golden Oldies. And that was before ‘Leader of the Pack’ was re-released to go top 10 again, not just in 1972 but again in 1975. So hearing other songs by The Shangri-Las was a long way far from easy, and discovering if they had anything more to them than that one damned melodramatic street opera of a death disc pretty hopeless unless you were willing to take a flier on an actual album, and I don’t remember seeing any Shangri-Las’ albums until CDs had been invented. Which makes ‘Past, Present and Future’ even more than the curiosity that it is. The song isn’t even a song, in the sense that there is no singing, that all the lyrics are spoken, in a hushed, subdued, almost trance-like state by Mary Weiss, with the twins, Margie and Mary Ann Ganser doing no more than speak, in ‘chorus’, the words of the title as they break the song into three parts. The first time I heard ‘Past, Present and Future’, I was struck by how strange it was, how cold and austere. Part of this was that the music is simply a playing of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a piano melody of calmness and composure that I may or may not have heard by then but which registered instantly as a thing apart from pop music. The rest of it was the speaking voice, and more than that the words that Shadow Morton came up with. There’s a distance that’s all but a gulf between Mary Weiss and those who listen in on what are almost thoughts, spontaneously recalled. First, there’s the Past, a Past that we understand is gone, as if it had been a million years ago. The distance between Mary as she reminisces in the most minimal detail – silent joys, broken toys, laughing girls, teasing boys – is something on the edge of memory for her. Was she in love, she asks herself, and qualifies her answer to herself by saying she called it love, she thought it was love, but she can only drift away from the specific. There were moments when… but that memory is something she cannot go to now, and all she can do is to repeat herself, well, there were moments when. She will never speak of it in more detail. Present, the Gansers announce. Mary has a boy asking her out on a date, repeating his questions with her answers. Go out with you? Why not. Do I like to dance? Of course. Take a walk along the beach tonight? I’d love to. But there is a warning for this hopeful suitor that makes the song change in an instant, that drags him and us and her into the Twilight Zone, leaving us wondering just what we are dealing with. Don’t try to touch me, Mary Weiss says, and in her voice we can hear the sheets of glass between her and this boy. Don’t try to touch me. Because that will never happen again, and by the end of that sentence each word is being spoken separately. And to complete this strange transition, she then speaks, in an ordinary voice, as if what she has said was said by someone other than her, shall we dance? and for ten seconds an orchestra sweeps and flourishes into a waltz that is beyond any expectation. Whatever has happened, we are not in any kind of world we recognise now. But there is still the future to come. Tomorrow? That’s a long way off. Maybe someday she’ll have somebody’s hand, maybe someone, and the additional word somewhere is our indication that to her this is an impossibility. For a moment, she goes back into the past, into childhood, nursery rhymes when everything was safe. A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket. Packed up and on her way and gonna fall in love. But that was then and it’s not then any more. At the moment, it doesn’t look good. At the moment, it will never happen again. And then, in the softest but most icily chilling voice ever to be heard on a single, Mary Weiss says, simply, I don’t think it will ever happen again, the last words of that sentence spoken separately. ‘Past, Present and Future’ is a frightening song. It’s about death, but whereas ‘Leader of the Pack’ was about the death of the body, ‘Past, Present and Future’ is about the death of the soul, and about being alive afterwards to cease to feel it. It’s been suggested that the song is about the aftermath of a rape, though Mary Weiss denied it, fervently, saying only that it’s about teenage intensity. I see no reason to challenge her statement, but the song fits that other interpretation as closely as a spandex leotard, and whether Mary Weiss’s distance is due to an assault as fatal to her as actual death or else a dispirited reaction to a failed relationship is immaterial. ‘Past, Present and Future’ is one of the coldest things I have ever heard, the coldest and most hopeless. When she says it will never happen again, there is nothing in Mary Weiss’ voice to leave you with the illusion that love will ever again come into her life. Everything is over before it has begun. And that’s sad.
I found myself oddly disengaged during the third episode of The Singing Detective, due to a number of factors, not all of them having to do with the episode itself. The largest part of it was Potter’s decision to drastically slow the episode down, concentrate upon long-running, slow-moving scenes,most of which took place only in Marlow’s head, leaving Michael Gambon, whose psoriatic make-up is gradually being de-intensified, with little to do except look like he was miles away from here.
Which he was, miles and years. Neither Marlow’s story in the present nor that of the Singing Detective received the same amount of screentime nor the same concentration of effort. In the fictional past of Marlow and Binney and the dead girl in the war, a dirty yet trite little story is unfolding: Binney is a Black Marketeer, working with the Germans. A beautiful blonde Russian spy singing ‘Lili Marlene’ is watching him: she’s a Dirty Red and they’re trying to prevent the Atom Bomb. But ‘Lili’ gets shot by the two trench-coated men, shot and killed, and Singing Marlow swears to get the men behind this.
Apart from the lovely recreation of the perio, and of course Gambon and Mallahide’s performances, i found little in that story, on its surface level, to hold me, except for the fact that ‘Lili’, once we saw her close up, was also being played by Alison Steadman, a connection we could see coming from the other side of the street. But the Chandleresque Detective Story isn’t there on its own merits, but as a complex reflector of Present Marlow’s increasingly deep recollection of the past that has shaped him, him and his psoriatic arthritis.
Save it a moment longer. Janet Suzman may be being billed as the second star but she’s still hanging around the edges, waiting to be called into play. There’s a second session with Dr Gibbon, he prowling around behind Marlow, who can’t turn his head to see him, until the annoyance Gibbon is causing him makes him swivel: the note of genuine surprise and delight in Gambon’s voice at this discovery, and the prospects it opens up is the highlight of the episode. And the suggestion that Marlow may be using his condition, his chronic condition, as a crutch, an excuse, a cave in the roicks wjhere other things can’t get at him.
There’s another greasing session with pretty Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley is genuinely lovely) and a litany of boring things to try to prevent ejaculation, failed again. She’s growing less tolerant of him, I’m glad to see.
In between, there’s a disturbing scene with the new patient in the bed on Marlow’s right, the bed where Ali died of a heart attack in episode 1. The new guy, a querulous, ignorant old bugger, wants to bum a fag off Marlow but doesn’t seem to get it that Marlow can’t get out of bed: Marlow’s restrictions are just another thing set to expressly try him. Fags won’t hurt him, they’ll clear his chest, get rid of these chest pins and the ones in his left arm. He starts reminiscing about the War, entering Hamburg, about how you could have a German girl for just two fags: up with her dress, down with her knickers. He’s laughing, making obscene gestures, thinking what fun it was for all and sundry, except for the frightened German girls, a point that Marlow makes clear to him as his heart bursts and he gasps and too late before Marlow calls for a nurse.
But the most of it is inside Marlow’s head, in the memories of war-time, 1945, non-linear, distorted y his childish perceptions and the hallucinations that Present Marlow interpolates seamlessly. Mrs Marlow has left her husband, gone back to her family with Philip. In a carriage full of solidiers, inyterested in her legs and her bright red lipstick, she begins to cry, and Philip’s own memories, fresh from recalling his termagant school-teacher instructing her class on celebrating the imminent end of the War, supplies the encounter with Raymond in the Forest, Raymond shagging his Mum, and when she starts to regret her actions, seducing her into tears. What he be doin’ with our Mam? It be all my fault.
And to remind us that there is more yet to come, three times a short scene of a railway tunnelmouth, a train’ lights showing, Alison Steadman’s panicked cries of ‘Philip!’ and at the end the boy running through Underground corridors and jumping on a Tube train. Alone. Running away.
But The Singing Detective is aout the consequences of running away…
One final note, trivial but irritating, as to a substantial (seemingly) continuity error. The steam train that took Mrs Marlow and Philip away was featured extensively. in close-ups of the train, the engine was pulling it. In longshots, country shots, the engine had tuned round and was pushing the train. Was this some subtle psychological clue that I’m too stupid to decipher? Or was it a mistake? It didn’t make getting into the compromised reality of the episode any easier, either way.
There’s a tired old cliche about life in the old dog yet, but tired as it is it was the first thing that came tomind about the penultimate episode of Lou Grant. The show’s been on a deteriorating spiral for weeks on end, which shows in the standard of stories, with cancellation now 47 minutes away, but it raised its head this week, looked us defiantly in the way and said Remember Us This Way, which I’m very glad to do.
‘Victims’ started out in an unpromising manner, deadline approaching on the City Desk, Lou and Rossi arguing about whether a story’s ready yet, a party of journalim students being shown around and Charlie handing over his ticket for LA vs Boston to Lou. Then it jumped into deep water.
Lou is mugged in the parking lot, two guys in ski-masks, his watch and wallet stolen. Then he’s shot in the stomach. Paramedics called, two cops attend. Then they get a call to a nearby liquor store, robbery in progess, two guys in ski-masks. The patrolmen get over there. The robbers come out and the cops have the drop on them. They shout freeze, one guy ignores it, fires at the cops. Officer Vinny DeMayo fires back, twice. The guy looks surprised, a wonderful expression, as if it’s unbelievable that someone he shoots at might shoot at him, them falls on his face, dead.
There was very little crossoveer between the two stories, althiough they were clearly linked. Rossi tried to interview DeMayo (Steve Marachuk) but was rebuffed first only to be let in later, by which time DeMayo and his story had gone much further on, but that was it. The episode moved back and forth between Lou in hospital, the shot requiring an operation which revealed more extensive damage than first believed, and through a long, slow, carefully observed recuperation, until he was ready to return.
Apart from the joke of everybody buying him the new Halberstam book (David Halberstam, a highly regarded writer of high journalism books, I once read his The Best and the Brightest, a study of how the finest minds in the Kennedy Administration nevertheless managed to get America involved in Vietnam), Lou’s recovery arc, and how much had been taken out of him, was taken seriously, and ended with him close enough to recovery to be ready to come back. It also showed how wall the Trib could manage without him, not that they wanted to, with Donovan as acting Editor and Billie as his Assistant.
But Lou’s story was the easy half of the episode, which was not to demean it. Vinny DeMayo’s story was something different. We saw the shooting, we knew his conduct was correct, that the shooting was wholly justified, indeed unimpeachable. And we saw the pressure that started to weigh on him from the moment he got back. The paperwork, the exhaustive questioning by Homicide,the attempts by his Sergeant, Stapler (Barry Primus) and Captain, Shackley (Bruce Kirby) to take a break, get his head together, understand his experience, and DeMayo’s automatic cop resistance to anything considered as weakness, he felt fine, he did nothing wrong, he can carry on.
Of course you can’t. DeMayo found out that, no matter how ‘right’ it was, killing someone sticks to you. you can’t just wash your hands of it and act like everything’ normal. And it’s not just the external pressure, the lawsuit by the dead robber’s widow for $2,000,000, the removal from patrol to administration (‘a new challenge’). It’s what’s inside your own head, it’s who’s inside your own head, it’s the way you get to feel that noboy around you, no matter how much they love you or you love them, understands what it’s like. And they can’t understand what it’s like: nobody can,unless they’ve killed someone.
Marachuk was immense, a brilliant performance as DeMayo deteriorated, mentally. In the end, finally talking about it, finally explaining himself – as much to himself as to Rossi – started to lance the poison of keeping it all in, being the strong, tough, brave, righteous cop. DeMayo sought help from Stapler, admitted he was thinking aout eating his gun. It was a start.
Whether he’d make it, you didn’t know. The episode was tough-minded eough to leave it at that. You knew Lou’s arc would end in recovery (though I do wonder if this episode might have fed into a non-existant Sixth Season), but you didn’t know about DeMayo. It was much better that way.
There is very little information, even on the internet, about Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, and I have many questions, without answers.
When Oxus in Summer was published in 1939, the girls were still girls; eighteen and nineteen and authors of three novels. But the Second World War was a great intrusion on people’s lives, in all manner of ways, and the widest and most impossible game of ‘What-If?’ is to be played with the lives of millions. Did the girls plan to write together again? Would there have been a fourth Persia book? Was it ever intended that Maurice’s true life (and name?) should be disclosed?
What is clear is that the girls, when they were no longer girls but women – twenty six, twenty seven – teamed up one final time in 1947 to publish a fourth and last book together, which they dedicated to Arthur Ransome. Crowns was not a Persia book, and it did not feature any of the Hunterlys, Clevertons or Maurice. Once again it was a children’s book, once again it combined reality and fantasy, but in a different manner to before, and it was an altogether stranger, more serious and less concrete a book than any they had written before.
Like Oxus in Summer, the book comes in three Acts, but this time the reality and the fantasy are deliberately severed. The four children on whom Crowns centres, Charlotte Roper, Andrew Gunn, Rob and Eliza Jardine, do not superimpose their fantasies upon real ground but invent a country that they go to and leave behind and which does not intrude in any way upon the London and Surrey of their real lives.
Part 1 introduces the four children, who are all cousins, in their real world, London in an unidentified year. A great deal is to be left unidentified, most of all the ages of the four children. Whitlock and Hull split this section up into eight consecutive days, from Wednesday December 19th to Wednesday December 26th. The sequence begins with Charlotte’s last day at School, and ends midway through Grandma’s traditional Boxing Day party.
The ladies switch viewpoints back and forth through the four protagonists, allowing us to observe them both internally and externally. Charlotte, the most competitive and forthright of the quartet, has a younger sister, Mary, who goes to the same school, and an even younger brother, Stephen, who still needs a high chair at meals. They live with their mother, but under the eye of Nanny: their father is in the City and rarely seen.
Andrew is not an only child but may as well be. He has an elder sister, Diana, who is more or less an adult, and lives with his mother, who indulges him. His parents are separated – or worse – and the rest of the family hold it against her, especially as Charles is the blood relation. Like the Ropers, Andrew lives in London.
Rob and Eliza live in Surrey, with their parents who own a farm. They have an older, probably adult brother, who we are led to infer has fought in the war and returned (yes, but which War?), and a younger sister, Paula, who will go to Grandma’s party with them.
We see Rob leave school at the end of his term, a school he shares with Andrew, but we do not see Eliza leave hers. She is waiting at home for her brother to return. There is a kind of special relationship between the pair, even if it is more on the girl’s side than the boy’s: are they twins? There is nothing to define this pair either way. But in trying to determine what age feels right for these four characters, the impression I get is that they are all of an age – which could be anything between 10 and 14 – meaning Rob and Eliza would have to be twins: fraternal, rather than identical.
This section is both a mosaic and a kaleidoscope, letting us see the four children in their home environments (which feel more like the 1930s than the era of the book itself), their plans and purposes and wishes and desires, as the days pass quickly by, chock-full of detail, to Xmas and beyond it to the annual party, that not everyone wants to attend but are not yet old enough to evade.
And it’s there, in the final section, that the body of the book, which occupies Part 2, is set up. Among the Xmas games being played by and between the children at the party is Sardines. I don’t know if this game is still played in the Twenty-First Century: it required big old houses with many rooms and many nooks and crannies.
One child is chosen to hide, in this instance Charlotte, who climbs to an attic known only to a handful of her cousins, primarily Andrew, with whom she has some kind of affinity, improbable as it seems. The big difference between Sardines and Hide and Seek is that when a seeker finds the hider, they don’t race them home but instead stay and cram in with them. Everyone who finds them crams in alongside, until the hiding place is filled with a crush of bodies: heh, heh.
Andrew finds Charlotte. Not long after, they are joined by Rob and Eliza. Having created a private hidey-hole, the children cover up the access to the attic so that they can stay there and talk alone. Each imagines themselves as Kings or Queens, able to do what they want, whenever they want to…
Part 2 is the result of that discussion. There is a land, without a name, a medieval land of castles and woods and villages, and peasants, knights and courtiers, ruled by two Kings and two Queens. The Kings and Queens are children, Rob, Charlotte, Andrew and Eliza. I put them in that order because that is the order of their importance to and role in their kingdom. They are beloved rulers, benevolent monarchs, obeyed immediately without question. And each are inadequate to the task they have granted themselves, because none of them understand that it is a task.
The role each cousin selects for themselves is a vast expansion of the characters we’ve already seen in them. Though Rob is clearly the High King, the only one whose thoughts and occupations are carried out with the good of the people in mind, nevertheless his actions are in the spirit of vainglory, at base. Rob delights in power, in ordering and structuring. He’s demotic in the sense that he is forever interested in skills and trades, a have-a-go King who mucks in alongside those who labour under his directions, putting him head and shoulders above his co-monarchs, but the urge to command, to direct, to tell everyone what to do, is a very dangerous one.
Being very far from a Monarchist, I wonder if Mesdames Hull and Whitlock are themselves making a case for Monarchy as an inherently empty and childish concept.
This possibility is more than justified by the other three Crowns.
Charlotte, the tomboy who hates being told what to do, lives a life in search of novelty. She has no interest in anything Rob does to rule the land. If it doesn’t involve an element of danger, the chance to energetically prove herself to be faster, stronger, better than everyone around her, she calls it dull. Routine and responsibility are intolerable things. On a ‘diplomatic’ mission to a distant and suspicious baron, she demands things from him, sees only the lands beyond that she can be the first to explore, more-or-less coerces her five favourite huntsmen to follow her, leading to the death of four of them, one after turning traitor in the hope of living after Charlotte’s absurdly wilful pressing on, and returns from an impossible situation without explaining.
Andrew doesn’t fit in. He may be the most intelligent of the four – he’s the only one to pick up on an intended rebellion and seizure of power – but he doesn’t fit in, because he doesn’t want to fit in. He wants to be alone, to see no-one, to be a hermit. He runs off in the middle of a banquet, sets himself up by his own romantic ideals of hermitage and living as one with the country, without ever grasping that he has very little of the knowledge required to successfully live in the wild, and still less of the physical skills required to carry that out. He comes near to killing himself, and for a long time before this is regarded as being Mad, which on the level of his ignorance of his ignorance, he certainly is.
And Eliza. Eliza is nothing. She is passivity personified, and obliviousness to her surroundings. All she cares about is prettiness: pretty and increasingly fantastic clothes and jewels for her person, beautiful things to surround her. She has neither interest in nor the slightest of aptitudes for rule, or the welfare of anyone but her cousins and a few, favoured pages and handmaidens.
So this is the fantasy of these four cousins, the spell of rule that attracts them. It’s a very long way from the Swallows and Amazons, the Hunterlys and Maurice gilding the surroundings they move amongst with a layer of purely private fantasy to enhance the fun of games, but this fantasy is far more revelatory, and far more dangerous. In a way, it’s the anti-Ransome, and indeed the ladies’ mentor would himself write only one more Swallows and Amazons book after Hull and Whitlock published Crowns, and that a book plotted for him by a friend.
Part 2 ends with the rebellion averted and the Kings and Queens back where they began, no lessons learned, no progress made. And then we return to the real world that, for all the ways it frustrates this quartet of children by refusing to grant them all the things they want, is far warmer and far more important than their naïve, inexperienced fantasy.
Part 3 is Boxing Day evening. The game of Sardines was, effectively, been spoiled for everyone else because the cousins hid themselves away too much. The party is breaking up, everyone goes home by their own ways. Charlotte rankles at being put to bed, but of course she will, tonight and every night that she cannot do everything she wants to do immediately she wants to. All of them go to sleep. The ladies end the book with a line that ended their careers as writers: “None of them heard the whisper at midnight, when, whisking into gutters and hedge-bottoms, settling on lamp-posts and branches, very softly the snow came down.”
This is a very well-written book. Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock might no longer have been children but they had a very good memory of what it felt like, and an extremely good eye for detail that they could place with almost forensic precision, building breathless whirls of details that created scenes before you in a jumble of imagery
What stopped them from continuing their career, I don’t know, though though it doesn’t seem that it was household chores and tending to babies. Whatever it was was a crying shame: Crowns evidences that the ladies had even greater potential in them than the now distant Far-Distant Oxus had suggested, and I for one could have stood a series of Persian books nearer in length to Swallows and Amazons than what we got, though at some point they would have had to explain the bloody mystery about Maurice.
Pamela Whitlock married John Bell in 1954. She and her husband were lifelong friends of Arthur Ransome and John Bell was one of his literary executors. She died in 1982, surviving her mentor by fifteen years. I cannot find further information on Katharine Hull’s life, only on her background. She was the younger of the two girls, and died younger, in 1977. If only.
‘Colony Three’ is probably the most famous episode of Danger Man, and certainly the one I was most aware of before re-watching. This was not some freak aspect of memory preserved from my childhood but rather the one-off repeat of this episode that I videoed in the Eighties. And this episode was repeated, asa one-off, because everybody credits it as a direct inspiration for The Prisoner.
The episode builds up carefully, slowly and mysteriously to its point. Robert Fuller, a Citizens Advice Bureau clerk, is being followed by John Drake. He packs a hold-all, stuffs it in fact, before receiving his passport and airline tickets from Drake. The next thing we see is Fuller being interrogated by M9, under the watchful eye of Drake and the Admiral (Peter Madden), claiming not to know why he’s been hired to work overseas. Behind the Iron Curtain. In Russia.
Drake becomes Fuller. Inside Russia he boards a train, finds two compatriots also en route to his destination. Randall (an excellent, overbearing and bolshie performance by Glyn Owen) is a wartime explosives expert now working as an electrician, on his way to an important role). Janet Wells (Catharine Woodville, Patrick MacNee’s wife) is a Librarian, who’s been invited over by her former colleague Alan Bayliss: Janet is ‘very fond’ of Alan.
No-one will tell the three travellers where they are going. They travel for hours and hours, overnight. and when they arrive, in the middle of nowhere (literally) the first thing they see is the utterly surreal appearance of a double-decker London bus.
Fuller, Randall and Janet have been brought to Colony Three or, to give it it’s in-house name, Hamden New Town. It is a complete construct – and still constructing – of an English town, a modern, everyday English town. And it is, quite openly, a school for spies. Agents in training, who have mastered perfect English (except for the one with a distinct accent, who is there to look clumsy and awkward and remind us that all this isRussian, the great Cold War enemy) come here for a three year graduate course not only in the mechanics of espionage but, Colony Three’s primary purpose, to learn how to be English.
They talk English, they act English, they live English. And real Englishmen and women, some of then Party members and fellow-travellers, some innocents like Janet, are brought here to live among them, to teach, to be role models, to be studied. The village is isolated. It has all facilities within it. and it cannot be left. Alan Bayliss attempted it Richardson (Peter Arne) shows Janet his grave, she to be his replacement as librarian, before the Director, Mr Donovan (Niall McGinnis) calmly explains what Hamden New Town is (it was also Hilltops Shopping Centre at Hatfield).
Though the two concepts are different, you can see why ‘Colony Three’ is acclaimed as a progenitor of The Prisoner, but let’s leave that for the moment. Drake’s there to find out what’s going on, and get out (and back) alive. From the start, he arouses suspicion. Richardson is suspicious of Fuller’s inquistiveness. Randall dislikes Fuller’s meekness, his sucking-up to Management, his withheldness, not tomention the fact that Randall is an ‘independently’ minded troublemaker, looking for arguments in empty rooms. Nevertheless Drake, using a superb gadget, a typewriter wired to include a camera, gets photos of about two-thirds of the ‘students before his position gets too tenuous and he radios (using an electric shaver as a long-distance transmitter) to be got out.
The mere fact that Fuller is being summoned away from Colony Three, the only person ever to leave, arouses yet more of Donovan and Richardson’s suspicions, and the latter is sent to accompany Fuller on his journey, or rather ti dispose of him en route. But Drake is prepared, and it is Richardson who fall from the train. The pitures get back to London, where they will be used to identify the spies who will henceforth arrive.
What of Janet Wells in all of this? She’s a pretty woman, and one who has been tricked into coming here. She’s a victim,nothing but, and she’s a passive figure throughout. Randall is protective of her but it’s a protectiveness that consists of taking over her life and not letting her speak or do anything. It seems like hers is a wasted role but she’s there for a reason. As ‘Fuller’ leaves she comes to say goodbye, gives him an unexpected hug and slips a letter into his jacker for him to post. Of course Richardson has seen it. Drake makes no attempt to conceal it. It’s an appeal to Janet’s mother to get her out of this trap, but Richardson tears it up and Drake lets him, sacrificing Janet for the greater good of his mission. It’s a reminder of what espionage is really about.
And that point is emphasised at the very end. Drake,his conscience troubles, as if there’s nothing M9 can do abut the girl. The Admiral says they can do nothing: ‘(they’ve) never even heard of her’.
As an episode in isolation, ‘Colony Three’ is brilliantly cold and sinister. It shows a slight change to the introduction in that instead of opening on an extreme close-up of Macgoohan’s face, we start with a negative image of him, full-length, moving towards the camera and dissolving into the face-shot. And after nine episodes of digital clarity and sharpness, this has been taken from an older, darker print that, whilst not being blurred, is not of the same technical standard.
So is ‘Colony Three’ the inspiration for MacGoohan’s later and more famous vehicle? I’d have to disagree with the word ‘inspiration’. It’s true to say that the parallels are almost uncanny, and clearly this episode has astrong influence, but that’s where I think it belongs, as an influence. There are so many competing stories as to how and why The Prisoner came about, but at the heart of it, it’s almost accidental. Macgoohan wlks off Danger Man. It’s new script editor, facing being out of a job, comes upwith the idea of an Agent resigning and being kidnapped, thinking of Inverair Lodge in war-time. The idea chimes with MacGoohan, who takes it over. If George Markstein hadn’t been appointed script editor, would the spark of creation been inspired?
What I think ‘Colony Three’ foreshadows is the environment of The Village, the isolation, the closedoffness. I thinkwhat constitues The Prisoner came from other elements – MacGoohan’s ‘resignation’ from being Drake is fundamental – and I don’t think that in 1964, the episode was thought of as a pointer for a very different kind of series.
But stand in the centre of Hamden New Town, and look back to the world you came from and can never return to. The view is exactly the same from here.