Johnny Morris, who spoke for the animals, dies at 82

JOHNNY MORRIS, presenter of television's Animal Magic programme, died last night at the age of 82.

After more than a decade of retirement, Morris was on the verge of a comeback when he fell ill in March. Two days after ITV announced that he would be co-presenting the series Wild Things, Morris collapsed at his home in Hungerford, Berkshire. The children's star, who was rarely afraid of voicing scathing opinions about modern children's programmes, had declared himself "delighted" at the chance to get back in front of the cameras.

"I always knew it would all come round again. It has," he said at the time. But filming for the new series had to be postponed when Morris, a diabetic, was admitted to Swindon's Princess Margaret Hospital for tests. He never fully recovered and had been in a nursing home up to his death.

Last night he was fondly remembered as a children's broadcaster from a different, more gentle age, a favourite uncle whose gift for narration had delighted youngsters for decades. The naturalist Terry Nutkins, who worked with Morris on Animal Magic, and remained a close friend, said last night: "He was, for want of a better word, a magic person. He was very sensitive, he watched people very carefully and that was why he became so successful with the animals, because he watched people and he related people to animals and animals to people. He will be a great loss."

Fellow presenter Desmond Morris added: "He had warmth which got across to children, and he used a technique which was rather like Disney in seeming to make animals talk." Peter Salmon, the BBC1 controller, described him as a "pioneer" who created a "style all of his own".

Animal Magic ran for 21 years and the BBC's decision to end it in 1983, when it still had seven million viewers, was like a "thunderbolt" to Morris. His fame revolved around his animal voices but his talents stretched much further, into music and story-telling.

He kept working right until the end, but his later years were occasionally blighted by bitterness at the broadcasting world he believed had passed him by.

A family wrangle over money and the loss of his devoted wife Eileen 10 years ago, after 45 years of marriage, had also brought extra sadness to his later years.

Born Ernest John Morris on 20 June 1916, in Newport, south Wales, he came from a family of story-tellers and, being the youngest of three, he found that if he wanted to be heard, laughter was a way of capturing an audience. He soon became involved with the local repertory company. "I was not so much stage-struck as wanting to show off," he said later.

At 17 he left Newport and headed for London but his first efforts ended in failure and he settled for a job as a Wiltshire farm manager, where he remained for 13 years. During these Second World War years he met Eileen, an elegant couture model, who was separated from her husband, and had been evacuated with her two small children to the country.

He wooed her with a string of onions, the only present he could find in those austere times, declaring himself entranced by her easy laugh. They remained devoted until her death in 1989 and, at her own request, he buried her beneath the shrubbery of their country barn.

Morris's first break came in 1946 when BBC Bristol asked him to use his talent for mimicry for funny stories at the end of news bulletins. During his career he entranced children in a variety of children's programmes but it was for Animal Magic that he will be best remembered. It was Morris's idea to present the programme as a zoo-keeper, complete with peaked cap. He used his gift to speak for zoo animals, finding an uncannily suitable voice for every beast from a llama to a chameleon. He was appointed OBE in 1983.

In his later years he became an outspoken critic of the new BBC regime, which he called "bonkers". Similarly, he hardly needed prodding into scathing dismissals of many other modern animal programmes.

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