Obituary: Johnny Morris

Tim Bullamore,Desmond Hawkins
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:09

JOHNNY MORRIS put the magic into Animal Magic. In the course of the BBC television programme's 21-year run, the stout and lovable zookeeper was aided, abetted, assisted and obstructed by a circus of creatures great and small. In later years Morris also became popular as a narrator and raconteur, appearing in children's concerts around the country, often in works he had co-written.

Given the unpredictable nature of the animal kingdom, spontaneity was Animal Magic's watchword. The gentleness of Morris's conversations with animals - and the replies he spoke on their behalf - belonged to a charming, but now vanished, era of television. When the BBC came to drop the programme in 1984 Morris was typically laid back. He simply said: "I owe the BBC everything." He added that he found pre-recorded editions "tedious" compared with the live shows of the programme's first 17 years.

Johnny Morris's father was a civil servant working for the Post Office who, at the time of his son's birth, was fighting in the First World War. Morris was given violin lessons. The rest of the family also had their respective instruments and at home would join forces: "People used to stop outside our front-room window and gaze at us butchering the music," he said.

As a child Morris had a vivid imagination: human characteristics were applied to everyday objects such as cocoa tins and wheat sacks. It was a thorough training ground for his future anthropomorphisms. Describing his origins, Morris said, "As a child I wanted to be an actor, but looking as I looked, with a big nose, it was quite out of the question and I resigned myself to a normal, ordinary life as a solicitor's clerk."

He soon tired of the routine and left his home town of Newport for the capital, where he worked as a salesman and later as a timekeeper on a building site in Hallam Street, a stone's throw from BBC Broadcasting House.

In 1939 Morris had been on the verge of accepting a post teaching English in Germany when a chance meeting with a farm-owning stockbroker took him instead to Wiltshire and safely away from almost certain internment. Morris was appointed farm manager and so began the love affair with animals and the countryside which in later life oozed from his television appearances and writings.

The arrival in their midst of a stranger who drove a German Opel car caused some disquiet in the surrounding Wiltshire villages and Morris soon found himself under house arrest on suspicion of spying for the Germans. It was well into the Second World War before he was allowed to join the Home Guard, where he was appointed lance-corporal of a platoon made up of farm workers.

The acting bug reappeared when Morris met a BBC producer, Desmond Hawkins, who was to become a lifelong friend. His first broadcast - on April Fool's Day 1946 - was as part of a light-hearted revue that included a concerto for typewriter and orchestra. By all accounts it was a disaster with several participants missing their cues during the live broadcast.

In a world of post-war shortages, Morris courted his wife-to-be, Eileen, with strings of much-sought-after onions and the couple were married in May 1948. He continued working on the farm, fitting in occasional days at the BBC in Bristol with his duties tilling the land and tending the animals. Spare time in Bristol was occupied by singing lessons with Glyn Eastman.

In 1951, shortly after bravely leaping into the freelance world, Morris discovered work was thin on the ground and took almost anything that was offered. Hawkins gave him a role in a radio dramatisation of Far from the Madding Crowd. He had very little to say, but was required to sneeze on cue.

Unable to take anything too seriously for very long, Morris pioneered quirky and unusual features including a broadcast, later repeated for television, while diving on the sea-bed. A weekly programme called Pass the Salt was broadcast after Morris had tried his hand at a new job for a few days. Bricklaying, litter-picking and fare-collecting on a ferry boat were all investigated. In another ground-breaking radio series of the early 1950s, Morris spent three weeks walking from Manchester to Torquay filing a five-minute report every teatime.

Gradually Morris was raising public awareness of nature, wildlife and the environment, but he was doing so in a entertaining rather than a dogmatic way. A television film shot in the Scilly Isles with his producer Tony Soper showed how a cormorant could be rehabilitated after an oil spill. He recalled: "We were just beginning to realise the horrors of oil pollution at sea. The sea-birds were suffering and dying. It was not to be an investigative film. Tony wanted a film that we would enjoy making and that the viewing public would enjoy watching."

Before long Morris was asked by Freda Lingstrom, the inventor of The Flowerpot Men and head of children's television at the BBC, to become the Hot Chestnut Man (1953-61). Morris wrote his own stories and, standing at a chestnut barrow, recounted them each week to a television camera. His experience in Pass the Salt proved invaluable as he regaled his juvenile audience with tales of pavement artists, stop-and-go men, taxidermists and window cleaners. All had their peculiarities. As he later said: "Life is much more interesting if it is peppered with people and animals that have got something `up' with them."

Travelling full circle, Morris's farm knowledge was called into use when the BBC acquired a Canadian series in the early 1960s, Tales of the Riverbank, which featured stories of a hamster, a rat, a guinea-pig and other small animals living by a river. The corporation felt the Canadian soundtrack should be dubbed into an accent more comprehensible in the Old World - and who better than Morris to do the job: "I just said what I thought a rat would say and what I thought a hamster would say."

Then came Animal Magic. The brainchild of Pat Beech, a former news editor of the BBC in Bristol, the programme began in 1962, in the golden era of television, when viewing was a shared experience. Based at the BBC's Natural History Unit, barely a stone's throw from Bristol Zoo, Johnny Morris had the role of zookeeper and each week effortlessly blended entertainment with education. Across the land, wide-eyed children watched in awe as he chattered with the monkeys, fed the sea lions, and filed the elephants' toenails. As undaunted as he was uninsured, Morris ventured into the lion's den, the bear's pit and the tiger's cave. Together with his production team, Morris travelled to zoos and gardens across Europe.

Needless to say there were many hilarious occasions such as the day he tried to wash the elephants at Bristol Zoo with a hose. Instead, the pair of proboscideans grabbed the pipe and proceeded to dowse both Morris and his crowd of onlookers. But, as Morris wrote in his autobiography There's Lovely (1989): "Not a single complaint was entered and there were no claims for damages."

In 1959 he had met the trombonist Sidney Sager and the two had performed children's classics such as Peter and the Wolf and Tubby the Tuba before jointly writing Delilah the Sensitive Cow. In the 1970s and 1980s he teamed up with David Haslam, a flautist with the Northern Sinfonia, and together they created Juanita the Spanish Lobster, M4 - the story of a motorway, and worst of all, Cooey Louis, the tale of a homing pigeon.

Morris continued working all his life and last appeared on television at Christmas 1998 in a silent role playing the zookeeper in a Channel 4 film called The Magic Keeper. When details of a new television series for ITV, Wild Thing, were announced in March this year, he denied it was a comeback: "I don't know what it means to be retired."

He missed the innocence and the pioneering nature of post-war broadcasting: "My sort of stuff is dead and buried," he said. "Many mothers who were children when I was presenting come up to me and ask why they don't get more of my sort of programme, which was non-violent, amusing, informative and gentle."

Tim Bullamore

Johnny Morris was truly an original, a one-off, writes Desmond Hawkins. He became a star in the world of entertainment and yet he never quite belonged to that world.

When I first met him, in 1945, Johnny was working as the bailiff of a large farm in Wiltshire owned by the art collector Jimmy Bomford. It was Johnny's infectious humour which bridged the gap between the intellectual Bohemianism of the Bomford household and the raucous bonhomie of the Aldbourne pubs. He had an unforced relish for all the life around him, developing it into his own vein of a droll satire.

When I moved to Bristol to become a BBC Features producer, I urged him to come and try his hand at broadcasting, with the hope that his highly individual quality might come through the impersonal coldness of a radio studio. He quickly saw how well this medium, which relied so greatly on the word, on verbal images, could profit from his gifts as a mimic, a master of language, and a vocal inventor of his own sound effects. An appreciative critic described him as the quintessence of the art of radio.

After we had worked together for 10 years in radio, the new challenge of television had to be met. In Animal Magic Johnny revived the special link he had had with the children's audience in The Hot Chestnut Man. In Johnny's Jaunts, with his producer Brian Patten as his unseen travelling companion, he took his quirky, low-key, shrewdly listening style of observation to a world-wide display of human behaviour that might often have seemed commonplace without the touch of genius that Johnny brought to it.

Here, as in everything he did, the personal stamp of his creative nature was unmistakeable.

Ernest John Morris, entertainer and broadcaster: born Newport, Monmouthshire 20 June 1916; OBE 1984; married 1948 Eileen Monroe (died 1989; two stepsons); died Hungerford, Berkshire 6 May 1999.

Desmond Hawkins died 6 May 1999

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