Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Late, Great Peter O'Donnell

Peter O'Donnell, creator of the comic strip Modesty Blaise and novelist, passed on 3 May at the age of 90. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease for many years and had recently had a stroke.

Peter O'Donnell was born in Lewisham, London on 11 April, 1920. His father, Bernard O'Donnell was  crime reporter and author. It was not unusual for young Peter to and his brother to wake up of a morning to find his father having a criminal over for breakfast. As a teenager he drew his own comic strips. He left school in the late 1930's and began his career as a professional writer at the age of 16.

During World War II he served in the British Army in the Royal Signals deployed in Persia. His unit was later assigned to Syria where he took part in the British 8th Army's campaign against Rommell. He later served in Italy and still later Greece.

Following the war Peter O'Donnell began to write comic strips for such newspapers as The Daily Mirror and The Daily Sketch. From 1953 to 1966 he was one of the writers on the British science fiction comic strip Garth (created by Steve Dowling, not Mr. O'Donnell as reported elsewhere). It was in 1954 that he created the comic strip Romeo Brown, about a private eye and ladies man, for The Daily Mirror. He wrote the strip until 1962. It was also in 1954 that Mr. O'Donnell created the comic strip Tug Transom, about a captain of a merchant ship. He wrote the strip until 1966. He also wrote the comic strip adaptation of Ian Fleming's Dr. No, which ran from 23 May, 1960 to 1 October, 1960.

It was in 1962 that the editor in charge of comic strips at The Daily Express, Bill Aitken, called Peter O' Donnell and asked him if he would create and write a comic strip for his newspaper. Mr. O'Donnell asked him what kind of comic strip he wanted and Mr. Aitken replied that he could write the kind of comic strip he wanted to. At the same time that Mr. O'Donnell had been writing about such strong, male heroes as Garth, Tug Transom, and Romeo Brown, he had also been doing work for women's magazines. He also remembered an encounter he had with a remarkable young woman when he had been serving in the Middle East during World War II. Mr. O'Donnell had then given thought to the idea of a woman who could do the same sort of heroics as these male characters. At the same time in the wake of  TV shows such as Danger Man and The Avengers and the movie Dr. No. Mr. O'Donnell then created Modesty Blaise, a young woman with a criminal background who would become involved in all sorts of intrigue. Her sidekick was Willie Garvin, her right hand man and confidant.

Unfortunately, after Peter O'Donnell had created Modesty Blaise, the whole project was cancelled. It would never appear in The Daily Express. Bill Aitken then offered the comic strip to The London Evening Standard. Fortunately, The London Evening Standard decided to publish the comic strip. It debuted on 13 May, 1963. Modesty Blaise was an immediate hit, so much so that it was not long after its debut that British Lion Films announced they would make a Modesty Blaise  movie written by Sidney Gilliat (who had written such screenplays as Hitchock's The Lady Vanishes). The movie never materialised. It was in 1966 that a very loose adaptation of Modesty Blaise, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Monica Vitti as Modesty and Terence Stamp as Willie was released. Even though Peter O'Donnell wrote a scenario for the film, the movie ultimately used none of it and actually owed very little to the strip.

Peter O'Donnell was use the scenario he had written for the movie as the basis for the first novel featuring the comic strip's characters, entitled Modesty Blaise. In all he would write eleven Modesty Blaise novels, the last being Dead Man's Handle, published in 1985. He also wrote several short stories featuring Modesty Blaise, which would be collected in two anthologies: Pieces of Modesty (1972) and Cobra Trap (1992). Mr. O'Donnell would start writing Gothic romance novels and adventure novels set in the Victorian Era using the pen name Madeline Brent. The first , Tregaron's Daughter, was published in 1971. The last, Golden Urchin, was published in 1986. In all, Mr. O'Donnell would write nine books as Brent.

In 1982 a pilot for a proposed Modesty Blaise TV series was made. The action was moved from London to Hollywood, while Blaise and Willie were made Americans. Ann Turkel played Modesty Blaise and Lewis Van Burgen as Willie. It was on 11 May, 2001 (Mr. O'Donnell's birthday) that Modesty Blaise ended its long run as Peter O'Donnell elected to retire. As the comic strip was still popular, many newspapers elected to reprint the comic strip. Regardless, Mr.O'Donnell asked that no one write sequels to Modesty Blaise. 

This did not mean that there would not be another film based on the comic strip. In 2002 Miramax produced a film based on Modesty Blaise, primarily to continue holding the film rights. The film, entitled My Name is Modesty, chronicled Modesty Blaise''s early years and starred Alexandria Staden as Modesty. Curiously, Willie Garvin does not appear, making it the only story about Modesty Blaise in any medium not to feature Willie. My Name is Modesty was never released to theatre, but was released to DVD in Europe in 2003 and in North America in 2004. Quentin Tarantino has expressed interest in a Modesty Blaise move and at one point Neil Gaiman was even set to adapt the 1967 Modesty Blaise novel I, Lucifer. Sadly, nothing ever came of it.

Very prolific, Peter O'Donnell also wrote six episodes of the TV series Take a Pair of Private Eyes in 1966, as well as the screen play for The Vengeance of She (1968).

I rather suspect that Peter O'Donnell was always been rather under appreciated by many during his lifetime. I do not think he was ever given credit for creating one of the most iconic characters of post-war Britain, Modesty Blaise. It is true that Mrs. Cathy Gale of The Avengers pre-dates Modesty, but she was among the earliest strong female heroes to appear in any medium. She has inspired many imitators over the years, and has had considerable influence on every female superspy to appear ever since.

It must be pointed out that while Mr. O'Donnell received few kudos for the Modesty Blaise novels, they are among the best pulp fiction and spy novels written in the late 20th Century. There are others of more fame than myself who agree with me on this. Novelist and critic Kingsley Amis actually sent Mr. O'Donnell a handwritten note thanking him for the Modesty Blaise novels. Quentin Tarantino has consistently expressed his admiration for the novels. Beyond the novels, it must be noted that the comic strip was among the best written adventure strips of all time. Indeed, between the storylines included in the comic strip and stories in comic books and the graphic novel published for DC Comics, there would be 99 Modesty Blaise storylines in all. In the end I think Peter O'Donnell will be remembered as more than the creator of  Modesty Blaise. I think he will be remembered as one of the best comic strip writers and best pulp writers of all time.

1 comment:

KC said...

I didn't realize O'Donnell had passed--thanks for posting this. I read the first Modesty Blaise novel, and I liked it a lot, much more than the Bond novels. I don't know why I never got around to reading more! I wish they would have made a decent Blaise movie in the 60's, because I believe she would have fit best in that time period (lots of cheeky spy flicks/shows then). As much as I love Vitti,Bogarde and Stamp, the Losey movie was more about the 60's than Modesty Blaise. I actually can't believe a decent flick hasn't been made about Modesty; I think film would be a great medium for her!