In a way that almost seems like I plan these things, this week we’re going to explore two trends I mentioned not so long ago: “Me, too!” and “More please!”
Back in the 60s, spies were the rage in both the UK and the US. Pre-eminent on TV in the US was The Man from UNCLE, with other shows like I, Spy vying for attention. Top of the pile in the UK was The Avengers, originally starring Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee, but soon dropping Hendry for a bevy of feminist action heroines including Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.
Of course, success breeds “Me, too!” and “More please!” and soon networks in both the UK and the US were looking to replicate the successes of these shows.
Cue the obvious Avengers/Cathy Gale knock-off, the judo-performing Honey West, and The Man From UNCLE spin-off The Girl From UNCLE and their relatively average 60s title sequences.
Honey West was originally a character in a series of 11 books created by a husband and wife team, fashion writer Gloria Fickling and sportswriter Forest Fickling under the pseudonym “GG Fickling”. Notable as one of the first female private detectives in fiction, she wasn’t a hard-boiled PI like VI Warshawski, but was instead a slightly bimboesque, clotheshorse, girl about town, in frequent need of aid from her partner Johnny – despite Gloria Fickling’s claim that she was a “beautiful, brainy and very much determined, sensual female”.
However, all that changed when Honey got to appear in an episode of the popular TV show, Burke’s Law– Who Killed the Jackpot. Played by Honor Blackman-alike, Anne Francis, this Honey West was a feistier creature altogether.
Honey proved popular enough in this backdoor pilot that she got her own show, Honey West. But she was again different from the books. Here, her partner was Sam, who usually stayed in the background, tried to pressure her into marrying him or just sat in their high-tech surveillance van talking to Honey via a radio hidden in her lipstick case. Because, yes, this Honey West was practically a spy, having access to all kinds of James Bond-edque gadgets, including an exploding compact, a garter-belt gas mask, and tear-gas earrings. She also sported an animal-print wardrobe and kept an exotic pet ocelot named Bruce. The one loss was the innuendos that laden the slightly racy books.
Just in case the Cathy Gale/Emma Peel similarities weren’t obvious enough at this point, for sneaking around at night and engaging in energetic fight scenes, she wore a black fabric bodystocking reminiscent of their leather outfits and drove an AC Cobra convertible similar to Peel’s Lotus Elan. Equally suspiciously, West was also a black-belt in judo.
Despite Anne Francis winning a Golden Globe for her performance, the show itself wasn’t popular to last more than a season, since it was up against the ratings blockbuster that was CBS’s Gomer Pyle. It’s also pretty clear, from the promos of the time, that the guys in charge really didn’t know how to advertise a go-getting heroine.
However, she’s continued to live on, esteemed as one of the few female action heroines of the 60s, with Reese Witherspoon at one point lined up to play her in a movie (which never materialised) and a Honey West comic book series emerging in August of this year. You can now buy the whole series on DVD and watch a little of the show on YouTube as well.
The Girl From UNCLE
James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s involvement with the original The Man From UNCLE, which saw a world-wide organisation of spies fighting dastardly threats around the world, was pretty minimal. In fact, it was largely to come up with the lead character’s name, Napoleon Solo, “Solo” being the intended original title for the series.
Nevertheless, when the producers of The Man From UNCLE wanted to have a spin-off show centered around a female UNCLE operative, they turned to Fleming’s original notes, spotted “April Dancer” – the secretary to Solo’s boss – and took it from there.
As with Honey West, the producers first came up with a backdoor pilot for The Girl From UNCLE – an episode of the main show called The Moonglow Affair. This starred a former Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley, as April Dancer, and Norman Fell as her partner Mark Slate.
Slate was 40 and too old for fieldwork, Dancer was 24 and a rookie – you can see how it was supposed to work and indeed by the end of the episode, “Mr Waverly” is telling them that he’ll see how they’ll pan out together as partners.
However, for series proper, the Southern Mobley was dropped in favour of the future Jennifer Hart, Stefanie Powers, so that Dancer could be a more fashionable, modish character whom young women would like. The older Fell was dropped so that the younger, British Noel Harrison (son of Rex) could appeal to those very same young women.
Powers, a trained dancer and actress fluent in several languages, was a good choice not just for the role, but also to catch that young, fashionable demographic:
However, the show itself proved to be a bit of a letdown. Unlike the active Honey West, Dancer was very passive: as TV Guide put it, “Unlike her fellow U.N.C.L.E. agents, the ladylike April is not required to kill the bad guys. Her feminine charms serve as the bait, while her partner Noel Harrison provides the fireworks. She does carry, however, a perfume atomizer that sprays gas, earrings and charm bracelets that explode, among other interesting gadgets.” The result was that she was often being rescued from being captured and married off to the bad guys by Harrison, which given The Avengers was on ABC at the time meant it didn’t compare well at all. It didn’t help that the plots themselves were very silly.
So after 29 episodes, despite a crossover episode or two with the mothership, The Girl From UNCLE was cancelled. Intriguingly for producers thinking about “Me, too!” and “More please!”, the death of The Girl From UNCLE was probably a contributing factor to The Man From UNCLE‘s cancellation, the whole franchise getting tarnished by the spin-off. You can’t even get The Girl from UNCLE on DVD. Let that be a lesson to you.