The female James Bond, Modesty Blaise began life as a newspaper strip, was spun-off into a series of novels by her creator, Peter O’Donnell, and has appeared on screen occasionally…in, unfortunately, usually lesser efforts, poorly regarded. Her radio adventures have likewise been Spartan (including a single voice reading of the Willie Garvin focused short story, “My Date With Lady Janet”). A 1978 radio serial of six half-hour episodes based on Last Day in Limbo starring Barbara Kellerman as Modesty and James Bolam as her sidekick Willie Garvin. And then in 2012 came an adaptation of the novel A Taste for Death.
Looking at the most recent first, A Taste for Death runs approximately 75 min (initially serialized in fifteen minute chapters, but the whole runs together smoothly enough). Although faithful to the source, it was a little underwhelming. How much that’s a problem with the adaptation, and how much the source novel (which I haven’t read) I’m not sure. Perhaps the biggest problem up front is that if you didn’t know it was called a Modesty Blaise adventure…you might not realize Modesty was the main character! One of the principle characters, sure — but not the “main” character. It’s hard to even judge Daphne Alexander’s performances in the role, because she is given so little to work with (and in audio, it’s important to remember even if a character’s in a scene, if she doesn’t speak…she’s not really “in” the scene) — likewise sidekick Willie Garvin. I don’t know if that’s because they thought it would be neater to play up the mystique of the lead characters by viewing them through the eyes of others, or whether turning a novel, where you could internalize the action, or follow Modesty in solo action scenes, into a radio series meant the characters were short changed. Or whether it was simply the problem with squeezing it into 75 minutes! Likewise, the plot itself just wasn’t that exciting, or offered much intrigue (the villains are simply after buried treasure…a rather mundane goal) — again, though, that might have been a problem with turning an action story into audio…there were scenes where the action/adventure stuff took place off stage and we’re just told about it. When you have a scene of Modesty discussing building a pool on her estate but only get a verbal recap of some action scene…there’s a problem! Still — it’s certainly not bad, with decent performances and a nice music score that evokes a 1970s spy movie, and you certainly get a better feel for the character from this than some of the movies. But it just feels a bit lacklustre.
Much, MUCH more effective is the 1978 Last Day in Limbo — and a shame that it currently seems to have fallen out of circulation (I heard a rather scratchy bootlegged version, but you can look around for it on the internet). Totalling app. 3 hrs. which means it can take its time, letting the story unfold, the characters and their motives develop, and it can indulge more in dramatizing the action scenes and creating suspense. And there’s no doubt Modesty and Willie are the principal characters, at the centre of most of the scenes. And though it’s something where the audience knows what’s going on long before the heroes (as we keep cutting to the bad guys) it actually works to create suspense, as we watch the heroes slowly piece it together, making deductions that we know are closer to the truth than they can imagine, etc. — contrasted with the villains only gradually waking up to the danger they face having landing on Modesty’s radar! The score is mainly used just to bridge the scenes, but like with A Taste for Death, is evocative (including a few bits that sound a lot like something borrowed from the 1960s TV series The Prisoner…perhaps deliberate since the plot involves a colony of kidnapped people!)
Funnily, though Last Day in Limbo was recorded years before A Taste for Death (and by completely different creative teams), in terms of the character’s chronology, it takes place after, with supporting characters in Last Day in Limbo having first appeared in A Taste for Death. It’s not necessary to following either story, but is kind of neat if you end up hearing them, as I did, A Taste for Death first and then Last Day in Limbo. Of the two, Last Day in Limbo is the superior, both in terms of simply being a suspense-adventure story, and in terms of capturing the quirky relationship of the lead characters…and certainly shows that done right, Modesty Blaise can make a credible leap to audio. Though A Taste for Death certainly isn’t terrible.