A Northern historical drama about animals starring Lee Ingleby. That ticks so many boxes for what I like!
Our Zoo was a six part BBC dramatisation of how Chester Zoo came to be, based on the autobiography by the founder’s daughter June Mottershead.
We begin in 1930 with the first episode The Idea, where George Mottershead (Lee Ingleby) is taking his youngest daughter June (Honor Kneafsey) to the circus. June already seems fascinated with all the animals, though a staged cowboy gunfight in the circus causes George to have a panic attack. He suffers from shell shock, which today is known as post traumatic stress disorder, after serving in the First World War.
George is working at the docks when he spots a bright green parrot and a squirrel monkey which were ordered but never collected. When this happens the animals unfortunately have to be euthanised if they can’t be sold after a while, so George buys them both to save their lives. They are kept in the Mottershead’s back yard. June likes them, particularly the monkey, who she names Mortimer. But their house is already crowded. George, his wife Lizzie (Liz White), his daughters June and Muriel (Amelia Clarkson) all live with George’s parents Albert (Peter Wight) and Lucy (Anne Reid), above their shop. George tries to sell the two animals to a circus, but instead he comes back with them and an old camel after being told by the circus owner that the camel “will be lion food soon”. Having the unusual animals is interesting for the neighbours, and people pay to come to see them, but it also causes customers to stop coming to Albert and Lucy’s shop.
While going to an army reunion, George sees Oakfield Manor, an old country estate which is now in ruins. He meets the next door neighbour, Lady Katherine Longmore (Sophia Myles). He has a dream of opening a zoo without cages, as zoos with caged animals was the norm at the time. Lady Katherine encourages him to pursue his dream, and he puts it to the family. Some are against it, understandable as it is a highly risky, it means taking out a big loan from the bank, moving away and starting afresh and they are obviously worried about George’s mental stability, but ultimately Albert decides to go for it, and sells the shop so they can buy Oakfield Manor.
The majority of the series from here on is the Mottersheads trying to get the zoo off the ground, and their struggles with the suspicious and hostile villagers of Upton. They face opposition from people who are frightened of change, and two residents in particular.
One is the Reverend Aaron Webb (Stephen Campbell Moore) who has quite a personal dislike for George, and makes it a mission throughout the series to bring him down. He sneakily goes round to the rather pompous local councilman Ronald Tipping (Jason Watkins) and to Upton residents, while not out and out threatening, he is very passive-aggressive, suggesting that things could become difficult and they could be in trouble if they don’t oppose the zoo. He even tries to ‘help’ the Mottersheads, telling them he knows of a nice cottage they could live in. It is suggested that the Reverend doesn’t like Mottersheads with their lowly social class getting ideas above their station. I wonder if he takes the third verse of the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ a verse which is usually omitted these days, as a bit of a mantra; “The rich man at his castle/the poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/and ordered their estate”.
To be fair, while a lot of his actions might sound slightly like a cartoonish supervillain on paper, he’s played in quite an understated way, and there are deeper explanations to why he is so hostile to the zoo. His late wife’s family used to own Oakfield Manor, and not only that he seems to have a bit of a crush on Lizzie, or at least he genuinely likes and admires her. He says she’s “wasted on George” and doesn’t want her being dragged down by George’s ambitions. Lizzie is actually quite understanding about it during a confrontation with the Reverend in the fifth episode In The Middle Of A Local War. She says to him he probably loved his wife very much, and grief for her may be where it’s all coming from deep down.
Another antagonist in the series is the local shopkeeper, Mrs. Camilla Radler (Hayley Carmichael). She is a bit like Meddlesome Ratbag in Viz, a vindictive, gossipy self appointed moral guardian who takes it upon herself to make other people’s lives a misery. She starts a petition against the zoo, which contains barefaced lies in it. When George asks her if she’s prepared to lie about his family to stop the zoo, she directly replies “If that’s what it takes”. Again, Mrs. Radler might seem like a cartoonish villain on paper, but most of the time she seems miserable rather than malicious per se. In the final episode the trial sees the Mottershead’s solicitor reveal to the court that Mrs. Radler’s husband was shot as a deserter during the First World War. As bad as she’d been before, revealing that seemed very cruel, especially as it seems her son Archie (Tom Hardman) never knew about it before. George himself objects to his solicitor saying it, as even if he is “officially” recognised as a war hero, George doesn’t see himself that way, thinking instead that the war was a horrible experience he was very lucky to survive and that many men braver than him died, including his own brother.
The third episode The Village Rivals shows some of the hostility the villagers of Upton have for the zoo at a town meeting. Some of it is standard NIMBY stuff, as one villager puts it “We don’t want your suburban safari!”, as well as small town bigotry about new people coming in and their “ways”, but even so some of them have legitimate concerns, such as the litter tourists will bring, or the risk of disease from the animals to livestock or even to people. But they still don’t seem willing to give the Mottersheads a chance, and it doesn’t help with Reverend Webb claiming to be impartial when he is anything but. In this episode it was very sad to see June getting bullied at school because of all this going on. A journalist comes to interview the Mottersheads about the zoo, and in his article he gives the zoo a tabloid style hatchet job, calling the animals “vermin” and “circus rejects”, which in hindsight makes it more satisfying that the camel spat on him while he was there.
Despite so much going badly for the Mottersheads, this episode ended with one of sweetest moments of the series. Well, what’s the easiest way to be adorable? PENGUINS! Lizzie’s brother Billy (Ralf Little) ends up getting some Humboldt penguins for the zoo, and as his van breaks down in the middle of the village they have to let them out and walk them all the way to Oakfield Manor. Most of the villagers seem to love seeing the penguins, and follow them up to the zoo.
They have some allies. The village doctor, Barnaby Ford (Hugh Skinner) helps treat a sick bear, and carries out a medical report on the zoo, which he finds there will be no risk of disease from there. He and his wife do sign the petition against the zoo however, after being put under pressure by Reverend Webb.
Frankie (Faye Brooks), a secretary at the council, is supportive of the zoo from the start, and even donates a python that was found abandoned on the steps of the council. She later begins go out with Billy , and turns out to be a great help to the court case by letting Billy know that the council aren’t playing fairly, as the Mottersheads letter to the council stating what they planned for the zoo was never read out at the decision of Ronald Tipping. Frankie pays a price for this sadly, as Tipping dismisses her for it.
Lady Daphne Goodwin (Ceilia Imrie) likes Mortimer, though she calls him Percy. She wants to buy him, but instead is persuaded to sponser him instead, and agrees to spread the word about the zoo to her aristocratic friends to come to a benefit fund for the zoo.
The very charming Lady Katherine is one of their strongest allies, allowing them to host the benefit at her house. In the episode In The Middle Of A Local War, after George finds out it will take nine months for the Ministry of Health to even look at their appeal against the council’s decision, Lady Katherine reveals she has a nephew who works there, and eventually George is able to meet with Sir Arthur Addison. We learn that Lady Katherine at one time had an affair with a married man, but she comes to not let this phase her when it is brought up at the hearing in The Final Decision when she is there in defence of the Mottersheads, saying that whatever her past mistakes, it doesn’t mean she isn’t a good judge of character herself. “I can’t sing or paint or cook, but I can recognise good music, good art and good food […] why not moral character too, despite allegedly having none myself, as you so chivalrously put it”.
It is implied, but never outright confirmed, that George may fancy Lady Katherine a bit, and that Lizzie is aware of it. It may be one reason why when George has missed the last train in London he chooses to sleep in the railway rather than go back to a hotel with Lady Katherine. Either way, no infidelity takes place.
You wonder how much artistic licence there is in this series, and for me it began with some of the animal antics in the second episode, Moving On. It seems doubtful all of this stuff happened, but it is still entertaining. It includes George and Billy trying to get some tame theme park black bears who have been sold to them, and who are later named Adam and Eve. The catch is they have to get them down from their cave themselves. George at first thinks they can walk them down on leads “like a couple of big dogs”, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Billy decides to lock himself in the bear’s now empty cage so he is safe from them. Eventually, the two lure the bears out of the cave tempting them with apples, fish and chips and peanut butter. In the same episode, the Mottersheads do not have an aviary yet so they have colourful birds flying around in a dedicated room in a house. This featured a memorable scene of Albert feeding pelicans a fish.
Albert likes working at the zoo, as it gives him a new purpose in life. Lucy is skeptical of the whole thing to begin with, but she comes round to it, and provides useful contributions, notably being the first person who is able to tell that Eve is expecting cubs. Lizzie, while she is very mild mannered, shows that she can be assertive and takes charge on the business side of things for the zoo.
Of all the characters though, Muriel is probably the one who changes the most as the series goes on. In the first episode Idea she comes across as a bit of a sulky teenager. In the second episode Moving On she’s a bit more amusing as she wants to befriend Lady Katherine, who has lent her a record player with jazz records. Muriel lies and says she’s about to turn 18, when really she’s about to turn 16, so Lady Katherine allows her to have some champagne, which means she comes home drunk. After initially not wanting anything to do with the zoo, Muriel becomes more enthusiastic about it and in fact takes on a lot of the manual jobs. In The Village Rivals George makes her the deputy zookeeper. Archie, the post boy and Mrs. Radler’s son, seems to have taken a shine to her, though it’s unclear if she feels the same way. To be honest, while she seems to care about him, it does look like a bit of a friendzone sort of situation. But either way, he’s very helpful to her, and to the rest of the family in the zoo. By the end of the series, Muriel has taken an even more responsible decision to go out and get a paid typing pool job so that the family at least has a wage coming in.
June serves as a narrator for the series, which is fitting as the series is based on a book she wrote about the zoo as an adult. In the series June writes a zoo newsletter on a typewriter, and draws and colours in pictures to go with it. She shares her father’s idealism and love for animals from the beginning. This is briefly shattered in The Fund Of Chester Zoo when Adam escapes and George has to go and find him. Adam takes a swipe at George. Albert explains to June that the bear was simply defending himself, but June becomes temporarily afraid of fierce animals. She is able to get over this fear by the end of the episode though to catch an escaped python. Her newsletter even comes into the plot. Muriel asks to borrow her typewriter to practice on so she can get the typing pool job, and June gives the newsletter to George to show to Sir Arthur, which he does and it seems to have a positive influence on his decision.
Some of my highlights of the series include obviously the penguin scene in episode three, but I also liked one in episode two where George and June hide a fox from the village fox hunt.
Strong-willed matriarch Lucy has some of the best lines, including saying to George when most of the family are against one of his decisions “Until such time as England ceases to be a democracy, the majority rules”. There’s also a funny bit in the fourth episode The Fund Of Chester Zoo, where the Mottersheads are holding a benefit fund in hope of astristocrats donating money. Lucy spends a lot of time perfecting her vol-au-vonts for the event, and understandably she’s a little miffed when Lady Goodwin feeds one of them to Mortimer. My favourite line of hers though was in the last episode, The Final Decision during the court hearing when June’s baby penguin is squawking. “These animals don’t give a damn about bureaucracy. They want shelter, a home, people who love them like George does. Like our whole family does”.
The final episode things look bad for the zoo, with the aviary vandalized and all the birds have flown out. A lot of things come out during the hearing, and the judge decides that it’s best to make an inspection of the zoo before deciding. We all know the outcome of course, as we know Chester Zoo exists today, but the series ends well with June writing in her newsletter that “Chester Zoo is official”, and they get a lion similar to the one on the circus poster June has.
I liked seeing Lee Ingleby and Sophia Myles acting together as it reminded me of when they were both in a 2001 TV drama adaptation of the Dickens novel Nicholas Nickleby, in which Ingleby played Smike and Myles played Kate Nickleby. It was that drama that first made me a fan of Lee Ingleby, he was excellent in it, and I highly recommend if you can catch it, it is a great adaptation.
The series reminded me somewhat of My Mad Fat Diary in that although it’s clear who you are supposed to be rooting for and who you’re supposed to be rooting against, they do a good job of showing shades of grey. As well as showing the antagonists have multiple sides to them, they’re not afraid to show their protagonists are sometimes in the wrong. George, for example, is a good man sure, but he is a bit short-tempered and while he faces disproportionate opposition just for opening the zoo, his single-mindedness about the zoo ends up causing problems for his family. That this series and My Mad Fat Diary both have this quality might be because both series were based, however loosely, on true events.
Our Zoo has been one of the best things on TV this year, very heartwarming and compelling. It looks absolutely beautiful, it has a slightly sepia tone which gives it a look similar to old photographs. The scenery looks lovely as well, particularly the village and the surrounding woodland and countryside. It has had a good response from viewers, though many felt it was scheduled at a strange time, 9pm on Wednesdays, when it might have been more suitable to be broadcast as, say, 8pm on Sundays as a family show. But either way this was great, and I’d say there’s mileage for another series if it is recommissioned.