Modesty Blaise: Pilot (1979)

Release Year: (1979 or 1982)
Country: United States
Director: Reza Badiyl
Starring: Anne Turkel, Lewis Van Bergen, Keene Curtis, Sarah Rush, Professor Toru Tanaka
Music: Kevin Knelman
Based on characters created by Peter O’Donnell

Most visitors to this site probably have an image in their mind of what Modesty Blaise looks like. For some, it may come from the illustrated book covers (American ones by famed illustrator Robert McGuiness), others may recall the long running comic strip that appeared in newspapers all around the world (I think I started reading around the Romero era). There may even be one or two of you who plump for Monica Vitti in Joseph Losey’s 1966 film adaptation, or Alexandra Staden from the recent ‘beginnings’ flick, My Name is Modesty. But whatever the image is that you have locked away in your head, it will, most likely, never prepare you for this small screen incarnation of the popular character.

This production was actually the pilot episode for a proposed television series featuring Anne Turkel as the ubiquitous Modesty Blaise. While Turkel is a very glamorous woman — whoa, actually let me stop there — I am not going to blame Turkel for the way Modesty looks. There are wardrobe, makeup and hairdressers to blame for all that. This pilot episode was made — well I don’t know — some sources say 1979, and IMDb says 1982. On style I’d guess the earlier date, but sure, I could be wrong. But at the risk of being lazy, and to help me convey a mental picture of what this series is like, the epitome of feminine beauty (at least on TV) when this pilot was made, could be summed up in two words — ‘Charlie’s Angels’.

This Modesty seems to be aimed at the ‘Jiggle TV’ crowd. Turkel is saddled with some big hair, is overly made-up, and the fashions – especially a hot-pink t-shirt she chooses to wear later in the mission, are in a word, ‘tacky’.

Now having said all that, I now have to repeat the process for Willie Garvin, played by Lewis Van Bergen. Rather than rattling through the same long-winded diatribe again, let me simply say that it looks like the Bee Gee’s hair stylist has got hold of poor Willie. This episode must have cost the producers a small fortune in hair mousse.

Okay, so the episode doesn’t meet my preconceived ideas about Modesty and Willie. But what if I stripped away the window dressing and simply judged the characters by their actions and their rapport? Does this episode, hidden beneath its glossy teased exterior, have the true essence of a Modesty Blaise adventure? Well, let’s take a look.

The episode starts with a slick title sequence. A gentle, flamenco guitar flavoured jazz flits over some stylised spy / crime imagery — loading guns and that sort of thing. Then it explodes into sax driven seventies disco rock with a shrill vocal, that tries hard to evoke the magic of Dame Shirley Bassey. Sadly it falls way short.

As the episode proper starts, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin are attending an exclusive art exhibition. They are about to leave when, across the lobby from them, the elevator doors open, and a young women rushes partially out of the door and screams. She is quickly grabbed from behind and dragged back in. The doors close. Of course, Modesty and Willie have to act. The elevator is heading down, so Willie rushes to the stairs and starts scrambling down. Meanwhile Modesty waits for the next lift.

On the ground level, the lift door opens and the kidnapped woman is escorted out with two burly goons at her side. By this time Willie has made it to the ground level and has exited the stairwell. He sees the girl being shunted through the crowd, and he rushes over and immediately sets about bringing the burly goons down with some rather unconvincing karate moves.

While Willie takes on the goons one by one, the frightened woman runs back in the opposite direction. The second goon is on her tail. Naturally, as the show is called ‘Modesty Blaise’ and not ‘Willie Garvin & his cute sidekick’, our heroine must get involved in the action.

Now let me explain something here. All this action is taking place in a crowded foyer with an audience of wealthy black-tie types standing by and just watching. When Modesty enters the fray, visually she seems no different from the other patrons at the exhibition centre. Now if I was a big burly goon (don’t say it!) and chasing somebody through a demure black-tie event and a scrawny little princess-type leaped into the way, I wouldn’t be too perturbed. I know that fans of Modesty Blaise know that she can more than take care of herself, but this goon isn’t to know that. He should simply just try to brush her aside. Instead he breaks off his pursuit of the woman and chooses to engage in a fight with Modesty on a set of stairs. He pulls a knife and charges at her. She performs some particularly unconvincing martial-arts moves (every bit as unconvincing as Willie’s) and knocks the big lug down. Modesty then grabs the young girl and spirits her to safety.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what this is all about. It appears that the target of the kidnapping, Emma Woodhouse (Sarah Rush) is a computer genius. In conjunction with two other computer wizards, she has invented the ‘MTX Cryptographic Computer ©’. But, as so often happens when exciting new technological devices are created, the inventors get bumped off. The two other men who worked on the MTX project have both met with mysterious accidents. Now it appears that Emma, who is the only one left who can operate the MTX, is wanted by some very shady villains.

Actually the villains aren’t very shady or threatening at all. In fact they’re laughable. After what was a rather straight opening, the episode veers towards high-camp. If it wasn’t for the presence of professional wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka as one of the henchmen, the whole episode would have nose-dived into bad pantomime. He adds a modicum of physical menace.

During the episode there is a strange little sequence where Modesty meets Gerald Tarrant for the first time. Readers of the books and comics will be well aware of Sir Gerald. Of course, his character is similar here – he is the director of the Special intelligence Bureau. But as we first met him, he is bald — in fact he remains bald, that doesn’t change — and he sits stroking a white Persian cat. I am puzzled why the script writers (or whoever though to include this sequence) felt the need to allude to Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond series — that is unless they thought that they were appealing to the same market? Maybe it was a red-herring to make us suspect that Tarrant was a villain. I don’t know. I simply thought it was clumsy and unnecessary.

That brings us to the cast. I know Anne Turkel can act. She is in the cast of the pilot episode for the Matt Helm television series starring Tony Franciosa, and she does an admirable job. But I guess, it is quite a bit different playing a scared, wide eyed damsel in distress, to playing a sexy, confident and charismatic character like Modesty Blaise. On the whole she does a decent enough job. If the series was allowed to continue, I think she may have grown into the role, but of course, we will never know. But she is, as I have mentioned, saddled with the trappings of the day. Looking back now — almost thirty years, Turkel and the production just seems lame and, well let’s be honest, laughable. It may be a cruel judgment in 2010, but there was a reason that this series wasn’t picked up, and that is, it just didn’t quite work. On top of that now, all these years later, the only people who would seek this show out are extreme Modesty Blaise fans (or spy geeks like me) — and we’re a pretty tough crowd to play to.

Then we have Lewis Van Bergin, who is terribly miscast as Willie Garvin. His acting is amateurish at best, and he really comes from the ‘scratch your ass and mumble’ school of acting. Van Bergin would later star in the short-lived series, Sable, based on the comic by Mike Grell. Grell is no stranger to the fans of the comic book incarnation of James Bond, having done Permission to Die and the illustrated adaptation of Licence to Kill. But Van Bergin’s Willie (that’s a trifle clumsy on my behalf) is not the man he should be. He appears to have a better rapport with his co-star than his leading lady.

Earlier I asked, did this episode contain the essence of a Modesty Blaise adventure. I hate to be a fence sitter, but there is just enough to offer hope – but not enough to give the show the big thumbs up, The writers were obviously familiar with the source material (which I applaud), and they also realised that they were writing in a different medium and for a different market. You can’t really blame them for that. When it comes to dealing with Modesty and Willie’s backstories, it is quite accurate, but that isn’t enough. At best, it now serves as a curio for Blaise fans, and with each passing year, it is going to seem more out of tune with the times and the (most importantly) the character. At the end of the day, it is what it is, a piece of lightweight ‘Jiggle TV’. Maybe not the dog to be kicked, as some would have it, but by no stretch of the imagination is this a long-lost gem.

Thanks to MB

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