The Missing Link

Logged: 01 October 2019

Back in the strike-riddled days of the early 1970s when the love generation had become considerably less loving in the light of experience, and fashion had slipped through a temporal rift into a parallel universe inhabited entirely by Afghan Hounds, the attitude television had towards animals was generally ambivalent. Animals on television were treated a lot like jobbing actors on television, which is to say as a commodity to be used without any thought to their feelings or dignity.

The 1960s Australian TV show “Skippy” featured a Kangaroo in the lead role. The production crew admitted later that Skippy’s dressing room was a sack. They knew the best way to keep the animal quiet between takes was to put it in total darkness. Effectively Skippy just shut down like a solar-powered mechanism when deprived of light. I haven’t seen any reports of the same approach being taken with actors, though it might be worth checking with the Australian networks to see if their archives reveal anything useful. The odd theatre company might be interested.

Today, while television’s attitude towards animals has transformed from ambivalent to reverent, it’s attitude towards most actors has remained anchored in contempt. For the sake of actors I hope there’s nothing significant in that. It can be a cruel and humiliating profession. Life might go easier if they would just shut up whenever someone put a sack over them. In fairness that doesn’t just apply to actors, though obviously they tend to be at the forefront because they have so much to say for themselves so often. Kidnap victims are a lonely exception to this rule. Put a sack over one of them and they’ll never give it a rest.

One of the most arresting examples of animals being treated almost as badly as actors occurred in 1971. It was in a series that strained the boundaries of good taste and just about everything else. The show was called “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp.” Lancelot Link was the logical outcome of two basic needs; the need for cheap labour on television and the need to raise a laugh. Chimps stepped into this gap. Chimps have great comic timing. It’s common to hear people saying of Chimp “antics” videos “they’re so funny.” Nobody says that about cheap actors, though it’s also rare to get videos of them anywhere with more than about a dozen hits. Most of the cheap actor videos are on memory sticks that have been sent in unsolicited hope or desperation to profoundly grasping second rate agents.

Because of their innate sense of fun, monkeys in general and Chimps in particular, were pressed into service for commercials. Advertising execs loved chimps because they were inherently comic. Well executed comedy shifts products off the supermarket shelves quickly. Lancelot Link took this process to its logical conclusion by targeting the summit. Instead of replacing one or two of the actors in a TV show with animals, it replaced all of them. It’s hard to judge whether or not anyone noticed this subtle bloodless coup. I’m not sure I did. The standard of acting on British television in 1971 was at best variable. There were times when the chimps were measurably better. Overall they were a lot funnier.

Lancelot Link was as far out on the ragged-edge as it was possible to go in the early 1970s without hallucinating. Its roots (other than those set in the fertile soil of alcohol abuse) lay in Bond films of the 1960s, and a runaway successful spoof TV spy series called “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” While films and TV during the spy craze drew their casts from conventional sources, Lancelot Link sidestepped the problem of competing for talent by drawing its cast from zoos or the central casting equivalent. There’s an element of genius to this. The acting from a chimp was never going to be nuanced or predictable, but the same (or worse) could be said of a lot of the jobbing actors of the 1960s and 70s as they bellowed their lungs out while making random expressions that were completely out of synch with what they were saying.

If cheap actors could remember a line and keep their eyes open, the general consensus of harried production crews was “that’ll do.” Affordability and sticking to the schedule was what mattered to executives in those days. Talent was something a show could do without. It’s a belief still with us today on some channels. It’s even become commonplace in Public Services. The film industry was not not immune either. Italian co-production horror films of the 1970s and 80s usually had a roomy bucket dipped deep into that ample well, as each squealing turn of the winding mechanism was testimony to.

Lancelot Link ran for only 13 episodes. Its short run was predictable. There must be massive overheads inherent in getting monkeys to behave like actors instead of getting actors to behave like monkeys. Strangely it’s a rule that doesn’t apply to a lot of large bureaucracies. There the monkey/actor ratio favours monkeys heavily, though actors still have a few roles to play. Life in large bureaucracies now is a lot like being on the Planet of the Apes.

Of course it’s in the nature of all things to change. Today with the drive towards much higher standards on the television channels where such things matter, actors have stopped behaving like monkeys. It doesn’t matter. As it clattered to the ground, the monkey baton was picked up nimbly by today’s political class. They’ve shown little inclination to drop it, or even slacken their entitled grip on the prize any time soon. If a politician makes you laugh, check to see how hairy the arms are. You might be surprised at who you’re about to vote for.