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Keira Knightly; Empathy; Sloths

Modesty Blaise – A Taste for Death

Friday 14 December 2012, 11:47

Stef Penney Stef Penney Dramatist

Editor's Note: Hear Modesty Blaise - A Taste For Death in the 15 Minute Drama slot on Radio 4 from Monday 17 December to Friday 21 December at 10.45am.


Forget James Bond and Skyfall… here comes Modesty Blaise!

Modesty Blaise Modesty Blaise (© 2012 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication. Published in the UK by Titan Books)

You may (poor thing) never have heard of Modesty Blaise. You may recognize the name and be vaguely aware of her as the scantily-clad, drop-kicking heroine of a 60s comic strip. Or you may be one of the secret legion of fans who collect every novel and strip, original artwork and rare editions. 

She is gorgeous, lethal and fun.

She speaks five languages. She can kill you with one blow (if you deserve it), or crawl for miles on her elbows and toes (try it). She has great taste in clothes and impeccable manners, but has no nationality and no family (and therefore never has to go home for Christmas).

She is the undisputed queen of action.

When Radio 4 took up my suggestion to adapt one of the novels for radio, I thought, firstly, hurray; and then, secondly, that it would be easy (it couldn’t be harder than Moby Dick – my previous radio outing – could it?).

I was wrong.

The first problem was to choose one from the series of eleven. 

Initially I suggested the first novel – Modesty Blaise (1965). It seemed to make sense. Obviously, it starts the series, introduces the characters beautifully and, just maybe, we’d get to do more…  

But then I wondered – what if we only get to make one? In which case it had to be my favourite: A Taste for Death.

The fourth Modesty novel, A Taste for Death, published in 1969, has a twisting plot with lots of exotic locations, marvelously sympathetic returning characters, relishable villains and a particularly satisfying ending. So far so good.

Then, Peter O’Donnell’s novels are packed with tightly-woven plot and suave, witty dialogue – what could be easier for the radio dramatist? What’s more, O’Donnell is one of those authors whose books are fantastic company – funny, clever and, on occasion, brilliantly daft.

But, I began to realize, there was far too much plot to fit into five 15-minute episodes; likewise the sheer number of characters, lightning changes of continent and the amount of back-story and research that O’Donnell imperceptibly weaves into his fiction.

When you trim plot and lose characters – as you do for the sake of radio clarity - you have to simplify the dialogue. You realize – sadly – that you won’t have time for that entertaining digression about cigars, or clothes, or the best ways to cheat at poker.

And then there’s all the action. As befits a series born in comics, Modesty and her right-hand man Willie Garvin are masters of esoteric combat and unusual weaponry. They rarely stoop to anything as mundane as a gunfight.

O’Donnell is wonderful at describing skilful, complex battles which in reality would be over in the blink of an eye.

So how to do that in radio…? Well, you’ll have to listen and see how we got around that one. 

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She's glamorous, intelligent, rich and very, very cool. Meet Modesty Blaise.

James Bond is more popular than ever, and the films have changed with the times – different actors play the roles, wear different suits, drive different cars and deploy the latest technology.

By contrast, A Taste for Death is firmly set in the 1960s and that is very much part of the pleasure – Modesty wears the fashions of the time and uses shortwave radio. She drives a classic car (a 1950s Jensen Interceptor) and listens to Thelonius Monk. 

And, in any case, when the chips are down and you are held captive by sadistic criminals on a remote archaeological site in the Sahara, no technology is going to find the buried treasure or overcome the villains who have stripped you of all your gear. 

Only Modesty and Willie’s unique ingenuity and will power can do that. And only their sense of humour and irreverence can make the whole thing so much fun.

If one person stumbles across this adaptation and goes out to buy one of the books for the first time, I will be happy. If a few people do, I will be ecstatic. 

Bond has held his macho sway for far too long. Time for him to stand down – long live Modesty Blaise!

 

 

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