Our Zoo, BBC One, TV review: A heart-warming period drama

But did the camels enjoy making it?

Will Dean
Thursday 04 September 2014 08:41
Going wild: Lee Ingleby and Liz White in ‘Our Zoo’
Going wild: Lee Ingleby and Liz White in ‘Our Zoo’

You wait a few decades for the heart-warming story of family dragged out of the other side of adversity through the purchase of a zoo and...

Actually Our Zoo (BBC1) differs in many respects from Benjamin Mee's 2008 book, We Bought a Zoo (later the Matt Damon movie), in that its protaganist begins a zoo from scratch (literally, his first purchase is a monkey) and it's in the 1930s.

But there are similarities. George Mottershead, a wounded First World War veteran, is portrayed here as dealing with post-traumatic stress. Aided by his parents, who sold their shop to raise money, he bought Oakfield Manor, which would become Chester Zoo. Mee was a freelance journalist who bought the ailing Dartmoor Zoo with help of his mother, lost his wife soon after and finally found happiness among the Siberian tigers and white-naped cranes.

We didn't get quite that far in the story last night with Our Zoo. We met Mottershead, played with a charming wide-eyedness by Lee Ingleby (Inspector George Gently, Early Doors), watching ill-treated animals at a travelling circus. Moved by the sight of the lions behind bars, the next time Mottershead was at the docks, collecting imported fruit for his family grocers, he also managed to end up with a Colombian squirrel monkey and an Australian parrot which have been ditched in quarantine. (More than one usually caught down the docks in the 1930s – it was chiefly venereal disease, if the books are accurate.)

Anyway, George returned home to the shop with his parrot and his monkey and as one might expect, his parents – Peter Wight and the brilliant Anne Reid go mad. And madder still when Mottershead returned from the circus to which he was going to give said monkey and parrot and instead returned with both – and a camel.

When a trip to a veterans' evening with his wideboy brother-in-law Billy saw George find an abandoned manor house that's up for auction the plan for a zoo formed.

I think with a degree of historical hindsight – for example the fact that I visited Chester Zoo in the late Eighties – you can probably guess that over the course of these six episodes (and perhaps beyond), George's endeavour and determination will be repaid with an all-shreiking, all-roaring success of a zoo. In fact, even if Chester Zoo was a historical footnote, you'd still probably draw the same conclusion. It was almost beyond obvious when Mottershead was outbid at the auction that his father would chip in with the cash, but that wasn't enough to stop this viewer getting a bit misty-eyed. And while Our Zoo had all the period sentimentality you'd perhaps expect – and it certainly felt more Sunday Night than Wednesday Night to this seasonsed All Creatures Great and Small watcher – it was still enjoyable.

However, there's something troubling at the heart of Our Zoo. Mottershead is an idealist who didn't want to see animals behind bars, to be as wild as possible – the zoo was his reaction to that. But – as the Daily Mail has gleefully pointed out this week – to make a programme like this you need animals that are, essentially, not wild, lest they bite Ralf Little's arm off.

None of the animals were harmed here and Our Zoo was made with the consultation of the RSPCA and had a vet on set. But, as reported, the firm used for the filming, Amazing Animals, provided four white lion cubs to a Japanese circus. Which someone undermines the show's central tenet. But no creatures, no show, I suppose. If only there were some Hollywood truism about that...

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