The history of television is full of novelty sitcoms, like “My Mother the Car” (about a man’s dead mother who comes back as an automobile), “My Favorite Martian” (about a Martian who rooms with an Earthling), “I Dream of Jeannie” (about an astronaut who finds an attractive genie in a bottle), “Bewitched” (about a mortal who marries a witch), “The Flying Nun” (about a nun in Puerto Rico who takes to the air with her nun’s hat), “The Addams Family” (about a ghoulish group of relatives) . . . and the list goes on. But nothing says novelty like a show with chimps.
TV tried chimps on a number of occasions, including “The Hathaways” (1961), about a couple who had three chimps instead of children, and “Me and the Chimp” (1972), starring Ted Bessell. But it was “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” that used dubbed voiceovers to make it appear as if the chimps were talking. And what were they saying? Pretty much the exact same things as viewers heard (and saw) in “Get Smart,” the spy-show parody that it parodied. In fact, it was created by two of the writers from “Get Smart,” who took the Siegfried character from KAOS and turned it into the main evil-doer in “Lancelot Link.”
What made it even more interesting is that “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” wasn’t a prime-time show like all the rest. It aired on Saturday morning, that sacred time slot reserved for a captive audience of no-school children who were used to a steady diet of cartoons. And along came this spy spoof with chimpanzees, which, while live action, was totally cartoonish to fit the time slot. If there’s a wackier show that ever aired on television, I can’t think of it.
We interrupt this review for a commercial: Lance (played by a chimp named Tonga) is currently in his 40s or 50s, and a portion of all proceeds from the 3-disc Special Collectors Edition of “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” will go towards the Wildlife Waystation, where Lance resides, and help keep him alive and well. Seriously. And that’s pretty cool. “It was very exciting to find that Lance was still around after all these years and being well cared for in his retirement at the Wildlife Waystation, Allan Sandler said in a press release. “Bringing back all the memories of filming the series is a highlight for me and I am happy another generation of viewers will have the opportunity to enjoy the show.”
Lancelot Link (voiced by Dayton Allen) was a spy who worked for A.P.E. (The Agency to Prevent Evil), whose nemeses were members of the rival evil spy organization C.H.U.M.P. (The Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld’s Master Plan). Link’s partner agent was Mata Hairi (voiced by Joan Gerber), and they took their orders from Commander Darwin (also voiced by Allen).
On the C.H.U.M.P. side, the main villain was Baron von Butcher, voiced by Bernie Kopell (“The Love Boat”) and based on his character Siegfried from the “Get Smart” TV series. His chimp wore a monocle and spoke in a comically German voice. Then there was Dragon Woman and The Duchess (also voiced by Gerber), Creto and Wang Fu (Kopell again), and Ali Assa Seen and Dr. Strangemind (Allen, who played the latter not like Peter Sellers, but like Bela Lugosi, and who played the title character using a Humphrey Bogart voice).
Were the actors having fun? Absolutely. Was the audience? That’s hard to tell, since the series only lasted 17 episodes. But the format of the show was a familiar one for kids who tuned in on Saturday mornings and were used to a segmented style. In addition to the main “drama” there was a “Laugh-In” type interlude in which a chimp named Ed Simian aping Ed Sullivan and introducing The Evolution Revolution—essentially the cast of chimps dressed in hippie garb and playing instruments while bubblegum pop music played from an obvious dubbed source (Steve Hoffman, as it turns out). It was a full song stuck in the middle of the show, and the segment was so popular that a Lancelot Link album was actually released on a major record label—ABC/Dunhill, who also produced The Mamas and the Papas. Also breaking up the main narrative were “Chimpies” stunts, and the three-ring Saturday morning format was pretty standard. All the episodes were narrated by Malachi Throne, who played Al Mundy’s boss in “It Takes a Thief.”
The writing isn’t as smart as “Get Smart,” but there are still plenty of humorous moments. The action is limited, of course, by what the chimps were capable of doing, with even the dialogue dubbed on the basis of their lip movements. But it’s all played for laughs and as campy as anything that came out of the Sixties.
You can get a further sense of what this show is like from a description of the episodes:
1) “There’s No Business Like Snow Business.” While undercover as ski instructors, Lance and Mata Hairi protect the valuable Star of Karachi diamond.
2) “The Lone APE/ Missile Beach Party.” Lance spoils a chicken rustling plot and stops Baron and Dr. Strangemind from blowing up missiles.
3) “The Mysterious Motorcycle Menace / The Great Beauty Contest.” Baron’s motorcycle gang steals APE’s payroll; a Soviet beauty queen from Siberia wants to defect.
4) “CHUMP Takes a Holiday / To Tell the Truth.” Lance steals C.H.U.M.P.S.’s secret codes while they held a convention; a dentist who is working for C.H.U.M.P. is putting transmitters into the teeth of military officials.
5) “The Great Brain Drain / The Great Double Double Cross.” Dr. Strangemind creates a potion that makes the drinker—including Lance—act like a child; meanwhile, Lance and Mata are impersonated by Baron and Dragon Lady who infiltrate APE.
6) “Lance of Arabia / The Doctor Goes APE.” Lance and Mata set out to find an archaeologist who knows where CHUMP hides its gold; then they must steal back microfilm from CHUMP that contains photos of APE agents.
7) “The Surfin’ Spy/ The Missing Link.” Lance poses as a lifeguard but his cover is blown; Lance awaits his Uncle Mortimer, who seems to be missing.
8) “Bonana / the Greatest Chase in the World.” Lance and Mata go undercover at a dude ranch; the agents then go on a race around the world to catch Baron and his cohorts.
9) “The Reluctant Robot / The Royal Foil.” Dr. Strangemind creates a robot to kill Lance; Lance and Mata protect a visiting king.
10) “The Great Great Race / The Great Plane Plot.” APE challenges CHUMP to an auto race; Mata goes undercover as an airline stewardess.
11) “Landlubber Lande / The Temporary Thanksgiving Turkey Truce.” Lance goes undercover as a sailor on Dragon Lady’s boat; on Thanksgiving, Lance searches for secret microfilm.
12) “The Dreaded Hong Kong Sneeze / The Great Bank Robbery.” Baron plans to infect the world with an Asian virus; Lance decides to steal money back from bank robbers.
13) “The Sour Taste of Success / The Baron’s Birthday Ball.” Lance discovers microfilm has been hidden in a lemon; Lance unwittingly becomes part of a birthday present for the Baron.
14) “The Golden Swwword / The Chilling Chump Chase.” APE discovers that CHUMP plans to steal a sword that is an Arabian country’s symbol of authority; Lance and Mata sneak into CHUMP HQ to retrieve nuclear power pills stolen by the Baron.
15) “The Spy Who Went Out in the Cold / Too Many CHUMPs.” Lance goes undercover as a defector to CHUMP; Lance and Mata must stop a new wave of CHUMP agents being formed.
16) “The CHUMP Code Caper / Weather or Not.” CHUMP agents discover Lance and Mata transmit code messages through their rock band / Dr. Strangemind creates a weather-control machine.
17) “The Evolution Revolution / The Great Water Robbery.” CHUMP deciphers APE’s coded messages; CHUMP holds the city’s water supply hostage.
Total runtime is 415 minutes. The episodes are contained on two single-sided discs housed in separate thin keep cases and tucked into a cardboard slipcase with a third disc of bonus features.
An earlier release by a different distributor was a visual disaster, but the series was cleaned up and remastered by Film Chest, and it looks a hundred times better. All 17 episodes were transferred from the original studio ABC masters. Colors are brighter, there’s far less blurriness, and far less grain. It’s a respectable transfer that should be good enough to charm a new generation of animal-loving kids. The episodes are presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a nothing-fancy mono that at least is relatively free of distortion of any kind. It’s dubbed voiceovers, mostly, and that would come out of the center speaker anyway, so the fact that it’s mono doesn’t matter much. But it’s a serviceable mono, rather than something so sparkling that it commands your attention.
There are a lot of bonus features here—94 minutes’ worth. Producer Allan Sandler talks about the genesis of the show in an interview and what it took to pull it off, and there’s an interview with musical director Bob Emenegger as well. The third disc includes a track list of the 11 songs, in addition to a slideshow of pictures and stills provided by Sandler and Life magazine, complete Evolution Revolution vignettes and “Chimpies” from the 17 original episodes, footage of Lance and Sandler at the Wildlife Waystation in 2011, and a short documentary by Jeff Krulik and Diane Bernard that shows the pair being reunited for the first time and offers a nice overview of the series.
Movie Met also did an interview with Bernie Kopell, voice of Baron von Butcher.
So how good is it? Well, put it this way: people who like the cute things that animals do will like this show. And people who loved “Get Smart” might find it amusing to see what the creators of that show did after Maxwell Smart left the airwaves. The rest will find it reflective of Saturday morning cartoon culture in the early ‘70s. It’s amusing, certainly, and if you buy this you’re contributing to the care and maintenance of the chimpanzees at Wildlife Waystation. How that for a bottom line?