Honey West: The Complete Series

It's breathtaking to see a woman so insouciant and self-defensive, even today.

Honey West

Distributor: Vci Entertainment
Cast: Anne Francis, John Ericson, Irene Hervey
Network: ABC
First date: 1965
US Release Date: 2008-09-02
Last date: 1966

Honey West (Anne Francis) is a lithe, blonde and fabulous dame with a beauty mark at the corner of her mouth and a derringer in her hand. When not driving around Los Angeles in her sporty little white roadster, she slinks about in a variety of designer clothes (courtesy of Nolan Miller), often with cat-motif furs. She might don a simple catsuit for climbing ropes or dropping through skylights.

She runs a private detective agency, formerly her late father's, and behind her office she lives in a swanky pad so modern it doesn't even have doorknobs, only sliding panels. She has enough cash to supply herself with a battery of James-Bondian gadgets, from two-way radios in her lipsticks, compacts, and sunglasses to teargas earrings and any number of little cameras, which are monitored from her van for H.W. Bolt & Co. TV Repair. These cameras are the type that exist only in shows like this, that manage to follow people around the room and even cut to new angles.

Living in the pad is her Aunt Meg (Irene Hervey), a middle-aged woman who's game for anything and seems always to be on the town. There's also a pet ocelot named Bruce (played by himself), who is transparently a symbol for Honey herself. He's a kind of totem or anima, if not what novelist Philip Pullman would call a daemon. Aunt Meg and Bruce only show up in about half the episodes.

There's also a pet partner named Sam Bolt (John Ericson), of the loud voice and tight trousers, who usually monitors things from the van, argues with Honey as if he thinks she's daffy, and now and then punches somebody out. Honey and Sam go out to dinner and stuff, but it's pretty clear they're not an item. Unlike Remington Steele or Moonlighting, where a woman owned the agency and had a male partner, any sexual tension between these two bits of eye candy is kept ambiguous, which is refreshing. Honey seems to spend a lot of evenings cuddling Bruce.

Here's a typical episode. Some bit of violence catches our attention in the pre-credits sequence, leading to brassy music by Joseph Mullendore for the snazzy credits: a portfolio of photos of Honey and Sam posing for action, and multiple headshots of Honey reflected in a honey comb. Then comes the plot in which she investigates something for some people and finds out some bad guys are smuggling or stealing something, or whatever, but she dispatches all comers by disarming them with karate or judo chops, flipping them head over heels, and giving them one final chop at the back of the neck. She and Sam stroll nonchalantly away with a quip while everyone else lies about unconscious or restrained.

Honey does this judo act once or twice an episode, and frankly it's what the whole show is for. On series about male heroes, the fights are endless filler that bring the proceedings to a halt, but the pleasure of watching Honey flip various dudes never wears thin.

Honey West was introduced on an episode of Burke's Law, another private eye show. She was spun off into her own one-season wonder of 1965-66 from executive producer Aaron Spelling and producer Richard Newton. The plots are really nothing, but they have two virtues. The first is the visual spectacle of Honey taking care of herself with often minimal or no help from Sam, though he proves handy often enough.

The second is that since they're only half an hour, they get in and get out without a lot of wasted time on chases and false escapes and delayed rescues. In fact, she and Sam so handily dispatch anyone who gets the drop of them, you begin to feel sorry for any poor bastard who tries to menace them with firearms and say "Not so fast" or "Get over there". They're down before they know what hits them. One exception is an extended fight between Honey and bad guy Kevin McCarthy (best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers), since it turns out he knows martial arts, too.

Honey West is noteworthy as the first show to star a female private detective, although not technically the first crime show to star a woman. (There's the unfortunately obscure Decoy with Beverly Garland as an undercover cop, and an even more fascinatingly obscure crime show, The Gallery of Mme. Lui-Tsong with Anna May Wong, but she seems to have been an amateur sleuth.) It's breathtaking to see a woman so insouciant and self-defensive, even today. American viewers hadn't seen such a thing yet, since the Honor Blackman episodes of The Avengers never showed in the US and the Diana Rigg episodes were yet to begin airing in March 1966. Granted, Rigg's Emma Peel proved even sleeker and more casually terrifying than Francis' Honey West (Peel would slam car trunks on guys' heads), but Honey was far from a slouch.

The IMDB entry for the series claims without source that Spelling was influenced by having seen The Avengers in England, and that he even wanted Blackman to play Honey. However, it also claims the show was cancelled despite good ratings because ABC didn't want two series about lethal women, when the truth is that this series was back-flipped in the ratings by Gomer Pyle.

The show's wacky, winking sense of humor isn't a sign that Honey herself shouldn't be taken seriously so much as a symptom of American TV in the 1960s, the most surreal decade in prime time history. The lightness of Burke's Law and similarly "stylish" shows was leading to the full-blown campy larks of which such male-heroics as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman would prove capable.

Honey was on that all-in-fun bandwagon, and the producers clearly made a decision at mid-season to go for broke, because the latter half of the season throws away any pretense of realism for increasingly whimsical characters and bizarre situations. This becomes official as of "It's Earlier Than You Think", which begins with Abraham Lincoln crashing out a window, jumping onto a horse, and racing through downtown Los Angeles to drop dead in Honey's office muttering something about Ford's Theatre. The plot's McGuffin is a device that can prematurely age people and things, as invented by two guys who spend part of the episode in kilts.

Another cute episode in "The Perfect Un-Crime", in which mousy accountant Byron Foulger hires Honey and Sam to return the money he's embezzled from his company. As his face twists with shame, he confesses that he's discovered he's honest. "There, there, it could happen to anyone," Honey reassures him.

The stupidest episode involves Gypsies and a gorilla. As for other bits of wackiness, there's the guy who thinks he's Robin Hood, and did we mention the robot? Oh yeah, don't forget the show where Francis does double duty as a criminal lookalike named Pandora. These ridiculous shows are more interesting than the more or less straightforward ones. One episode finishes the plot early and goes a nightclub to introduce a new dance called the Honey West Walk (it had a shorter life than the Batusi, which is a shame). Another episode, in which she goes undercover as a movie stuntwoman, pauses for a lengthy surreal dream in which she imagines herself a silent film star.

Aside from Francis, what do women contribute to the show? Well, the primary writers are the married team of Gwen Bagni & Paul Dubov, who get credit for developing the series from novels by another couple, Skip & Gloria Fickling. Lila Garrett co-wrote one episode about a pop artist who literally paints a soup can (instead of a canvas).

Other writers include Tony Barrett, Ken Kolb, William Bast, Marc Brandel, and George Clayton Johnson, with three episodes by Richard Levinson & William Link. They wrote the final episode, "An Eerie, Airy, Thing", which we can now recognize as the type of elaborate alibi they would specialize in when creating Columbo and Murder She Wrote. It's one of Honey's few murder plots and perhaps her most "serious" episode.

Exactly one episode is directed by a woman, but what a woman: Ida Lupino, basically Hollywood's only regular female director of this era and prolific in TV. Other directors include Paul Wendkos, James Goldstone, Walter Grauman, Tom Gries, Sidney Miller, James H. Brown, Murray Golden, and John Florea, but nobody injects what you'd call visual style into the proceedings. A signature trick used in most episodes is to cut from one scene to another in the middle of dialogue that begins in one scene and finishes in the next, often giving a different meaning to the line. It's whadaya-call sophisticated.

Any significant female guests? Little Maureen McCormick (future Marcia Brady) plays a brat being shuttled from one divorced parent to the other and whose luggage gets mixed up with smugglers. Ellen Corby (future Grandma Walton) plays a sweet old bunco artist who does tumbles and trampoline flips and describes herself as "queen of the serials" (which would be a reference to Pearl White). British character actress Eleanor Audley plays a dowager whose jewels are stolen by Robin Hood (Edd Byrnes). Mimsy Farmer is threatened in an episode about a fake mystic (Nehemiah Persoff) who tries to make his predictions come true. There are a few episodes where the main villain is a woman, and she gets flipped and chopped, too.

Other very familiar character faces include Ray Danton, Lloyd Bochner, Henry Jones, Leon Askin, James Best, Michael J. Pollard, Bobby Sherman (briefly a teen idol), Everett Sloane, J. Pat O'Malley, Percy Helton, Cesare Danova, Bert Parks (as himself), Wayne Rogers, Joe Don Baker, Marjorie Bennett, Howard McNear, John McGiver, Richard Kiel, Marvin Kaplan, Severn Darden, Dick Clark, Phil Ober, Nancy Kovack, James B. Sikking, Len Lesser, David Opatoshu, Dennis Patrick, Charles Lane, Woodrow Parfrey, Sarah Selby, Henry Beckman, Leonid Kinskey, Michael Pate, Henry Brandon, John Hoyt and Anthony Eisley.

Ken Lynch (as Lt. Barney or Lt. Keller or Lt. Wyman), Bill Quinn (Lt. Curtis) and Peter Leeds (Lt. Sherman) make a handful of appearances as dyspeptic police liaisons, although it's not always clear if they're playing the same character they did before, nor is the one they call Lt. Barney always listed in the credits by that name, and it clearly doesn't matter. Dan Gazzaniga must have been a regular stuntman on the show, because he shows up in several episodes as various goons who literally flip for Honey.

These 30 episodes are digitally restored to sharp, sparkling shape, and so are the many period commercials included as a bonus. Like the series, they're in black and white, even when advertising other shows that were in color, like The FBI (with Robert Duvall blowing up a gas truck). Most of these products are for brands we still have, such as Crest, Sucrets, Chiffon and Chanel No. 5, not to mention cigarettes like Pall Mall and Lucky Strike. Is this a reassuring continuity? Note that women who sell Tide look like frowzy moms with glasses, but not the women who sell Maybelline. None of this seems to have changed.

We see women worry about their beauty (hair spray, skin cream) and men about theirs (after shave, razors). We see cigars hawked by George Burns and Edie Adams. We also see public service announcements (write to this address for info on what the United Nations does for you). We see Honey herself telling viewers about the exciting ABC line-up, reminding us that her show in on after The Addams Family on Friday nights. She looks thrilled, addressing viewers in Dallas on what is obviously a long day of locally targeted spots.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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