A week ago we said goodbye to the Mottershead family (above) in Our Zoo, but not permanently I hope. I’m sure that no-one had thought about how Chester Zoo came into being, or if they had, that it would make one of the most endearing and compelling pieces of drama for many years, but that is what it has proved to be. Whoever commissioned this needs a massive pat on the back, because it has been a joy from start to finish, from the opening scene of George Mottershead and young June going to the circus right though to the closing shot (above) of the awestruck, smiling faces of June and George looking into the van containing a roaring big cat (the reflection of the animal can just be seen in the van’s window). Obviously Chester Zoo is successful and still thrives today, so the “will they succeed” storyline was never in any doubt, So it was down to the writer and actors to make the audience identify with the Mottersheads and make them believe that it was indeed a wonderful but virtually impossible dream. The cast playing the Mottersheads have been exemplary. Lee Ingleby as George, Liz White as his wife Lizzie, Anne Reid as his mother Lucy, Peter Wight as father Albert, Amelia Clarkson as teenage daughter Muriel “Mew”, and Ralf Little as Lizzie’s brother. Special mention to young actress Honor Kneafsey as June, George and Lizzie’s youngest daughter, who narrates some of the story and on whose book the drama is based. Honor was totally believable and put in a winning performance as the little girl who loved animals and whose enthusiasm and love for her Dad drove him on.
Praise to the actors playing the “villains of the piece”. Heroes can only be such, if they have great adversaries to deal with and Stephen Campbell-Moore was superb as the manipulative Reverend. Hayley Carmichael as Camilla Radler the shopkeeper as his “accomplice” and Jason Watkins as the councillor doing everything in his power to stop the Mottersheads get their zoo.
The supportive good guys, Sophia Myles as Lady Katherine, the posh lady with dubious moral character according to the councillor. Tom Hardman as the shopkeeper’s son, Archie, postman and who is sweet on the teenage Muriel “Mew” Mottershead. Faye Brooks as Frankie, secretary to Jason Watkins but secretly dating Billy. The young village doctor, Doctor Ford, played by Hugh Skinner, who was a good man who treated the Mottersheads’ black bears when they were sick but was manipulated by the Reverend to sign the petition against the Mottersheads, because of his “position in the community”.
Celia Imrie had a guest turn as Lady Goodwin who was taken with Mortimer the monkey who reminded her of her late husband (!) and wanted to buy Mortimer. Mortimer belonged to George’s youngest daughter June, so this wasn’t going to happen, but George hit on the idea of sponsoring an animal which allowed Lady Goodwin to visit Mortimer when she pleased.
As to which of these characters (other than the Mottersheads themselves) really existed or whether they a dramatic representation of the general opposition the family faced doesn’t matter. It all worked very well.
Something which rarely gets mentioned is music and opening titles. Like everything else in this production, first class. Nick Green’s lovely theme full of innocence and beauty played over the opening titles of pictures of June with the animals. The score was beautifully nuanced, adding to the drama but never overpowering it.
Also, please can the sound mixers in this programme hold a masterclass to other drama producers because there wasn’t one moment of “what did they say?” in this whole series.
Also, to everyone behind the scenes, be it costume, set design and of course the animal handlers who must have had one heck of a job, thanks.
Mortimer (monkey), Sydney (camel), Adam and Eve, Gilbert and Sulliivan (the bears) and the rest of the animals, you were great!
This programme just has to get a second series, because as George himself would say, “put some beauty in the world”.
This aired on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC1.
It is a drama based on the true story of George Mottershead, an ex-serviceman and Lancashire grocer who founded what would become Chester Zoo.
From the opening titles, I was hooked. It showed black and white photos (which then bled into colour) of a little girl playing with various animals.
A trip to the docks in search of papaya, his brother in law had told him about, proved pivotal for George. On noticing a kangaroo being led into the quarantine area, he followed the animal and soon found out that some animals were were put down if no-one came for them. George returned home with a parrot and a monkey. The animals were a bit hit only with his young daughter June. The rest of the family thought he’d taken leave of his senses, and he was told to get rid of the monkey. A visit to the circus to supposedly give them the monkey, resulted in George returning with the monkey and a camel! This did not go down well with the family. This was a working class family in Lancashire. They did not have exotic creatures in their home! George was undeterred though, because he wasn’t just saving those animals, he was saving himself. He suffered trauma from the war and had had spinal injuries. His brother had died in the war, a fact which his mother often reminded him of. A visit to an ex-serviceman reunion just reminded George of the horrors of war, and his need ‘to bring beauty into the world’.
So, what was George going to do? Well, we know, he was going to start a zoo! But how was a Lancashire lad with little money, going to achieve such a task? As his wife said, ‘people like us don’t do this’.
So, this is a ‘succeeds against the odds’ story, those odds being financial, class and family barriers. Watching and knowing that George will achieve his dream is very uplifting. 5 more episodes of more animal magic to come!
The cast of this is excellent. Lee Ingleby as dreamer George, Liz White as his caring wife Lizzie, Anne Reid as his no-nonsense mother, Peter Wight as his concerned Dad, Amelia Clarkson as his indifferent teenage daughter, Ralf Little as his ne’er-do-well brother-in-law, and a star turn by young actress Honor Kneafsey as the animal loving June. We also get Sophia Miles perfectly cast as posh Lady Katherine who takes a shine to George and looks set to help him in the class war.
I am inclined to agree with those people saying this is more a Sunday night drama, rather than a Wednesday night one. I can see why the BBC thought to put it on after the juggernaut that is Bake Off, but a post watershed slot is not needed. This is definitely more an 8pm Sunday show. Start the week with a smile on your face!