Peter O’Donnell has one regret as he reaches his 88th birthday on 11 April – not knowing what happened to the young girl refugee who inspired his greatest creation, Modesty Blaise, Garth Gibbs writes.
He first saw the girl in 1942 when he was a young sergeant in the British army, in charge of a mobile-radio detachment in the north of what was then Persia, up near the Caucasus Mountains. It was a brief meeting, but the effect was stunning and led to the birth of the comic-strip heroine who still thrills readers around the world.
He recalls: ‘There were many refugees around at the time, trying to evade the German army. One evening, we were camped by a stream, eating a stew, when this child appeared. She was alone. She was barefoot and she wore a rag of a dress. All her belongings were tied up in a blanket on her head. She sat down at a distance and I told one of the guys to take a mess tin full of stew to her and a mug of tea. And when she got up, I put a couple of tins of food near her, so she could get them without coming too close to us.”
O’Donnell says the girl, who was about 12, had obviously been on her own for some time. ‘She washed the utensils in the stream and then made a gesture at the tins of food which said: ‘Are these for me?’ We nodded ‘yes’.
‘She stood there for a few seconds and then she gave us a smile, and you could have lit up a small village with that smile. And then she walked off. She walked like a little princess. I’ll never forget that child. I hope she’s alive today.”
Memories of the girl haunted O’Donnell when he returned to London after the war.
His father had been a crime reporter and it was taken for granted that he, too, would one day work on a newspaper.
‘I rented an office in Fleet Street and went freelance. For the next 16 years I wrote for a wide range of magazines. Among the comics were Sun (not the newspaper), Comet, Swift, Film Fun and Comic Cuts. I also wrote for women’s magazines and, increasingly, strips for national newspapers including Garth, and Romeo Brown for The Daily Mirror, and Tug Transom for the Daily Sketch.
‘Then, in 1962, I had a call from the strip editor of Express Newspapers, Bill Aitken, who wanted me to write a strip. I asked what sort of strip and he said: ‘I want the strip you want to write.'”
O’Donnell thought it was time someone came up with a female who could do all the things the males had been doing: ‘So I went back to 1942… “.
Modesty Blaise was born.
‘The strip was an immediate success and, to my great delight, was syndicated to 42 countries,’he says. ‘It also led to a series of 13 novels that I greatly enjoyed writing, and a movie that I didn’t enjoy at all.
‘The film was a well-deserved failure,’he concludes. ‘I don’t really want to see somebody else’s concept of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin put on screen. They’ve been my friends for more than 45 years now and I like them the way they are.”