Sept / Oct 2014 BBC1 written by Matt Charman, 2 episodes co-written with Adam Kemp/ directed by Andy de Emmony (3 eps), Robert McKillop (2 eps), Saul Metzstein / starring Lee Ingleby, Liz White, Anne Reid, Sophia Myles, Stephen Campbell Moore, Peter Wight, Ralf Little, Honor Kneafsey, Amelia Clarkson
There’s a quiet revolution going on in television that the BBC in particular seems to have grasped. As other channels chase the increasingly elusive young audience many of whom baulk at anything lasting longer than 10 minutes or prefer the brilliant but tense American dramas the majority of schedule tv watchers nowadays are a bit older and want something less stressful but still interesting. This used to mean Sunday evening series that lacked a certain something to really convince as drama; they were essentially soft soaps. Now there is a group of programmes that may seem disparate but which appeal to people who feel that interesting tv is not always about blood, swearing and mould breaking; sometimes it’s about a good story well told. Signifiers of this trend include the year’s biggest `reality` show The Great British Bake Off (over 12 million viewers for its final!) the successful drama Last Tango in Halfax and now Our Zoo. Unexpectedly given its more modest pre promotion this six part drama based on a true story is a gem of a programme.
It’s 1930 in Chester and shopkeeper George Mottershead is still traumatised by his wartime experiences and seeking something new. He opts to sell the shop and move his family to the impressive Oakfield Manor a large house set in grounds near the small village of Upton. His aim is to start a zoo featuring animals in more natural surroundings than confined cages. However as he starts to build his collection he comes into conflict both with some of his family and the villagers who are none too pleased at the prospect of lions roaming the streets. The series charts these early days as George tastes success but is constantly undermined by Upton’s population stirred into action by the rather devious vicar who has a personal connection to the house. At first you do wonder how the writers can possibly mine six hours of drama from this scenario; by part 6 you’re wishing they’d done it in 10 parts. The series is so rich with characters, with the small dramas of family life as well as wider issues of change and progress that there is plenty of material.
Naturally it’s beautifully filmed but what impresses is the way the direction does not let the animals steal the show as you might expect. After establishing the wonder of the species that George brings to Oakfield including a couple of bears, a cheeky monkey, an aviary full of exotic birds and rather brilliantly a pelican which seems to wander round the house, the narrative focusses on the human dilemmas. The one exception, and the reason why it works so well, is a sequence in which the villagers are beguiled by a group of penguins waddling through the streets. This is extended more than most of the animal scenes because it is quite simply the loveliest thing you’ll see on telly this year.
However you don’t assemble a cast this good just to be lovely and each of the leads give a performance to match anything they’ve done. As the displaced family matriarch Lucy Anne Reid is terrific; if she doesn’t get a BAFA nod for this role then there is no justice. Her character is as uprooted as the animals that come to Oakfield and in the first couple of episodes she is thunderous in her opposition to the whole thing. Yet she slowly accepts the practicalities of the situation and when she discovers one of the bears is pregnant connects to her own motherhood and becomes an advocate of the zoo. The character is so well written, her evolution so carefully handled and Anne Reid delivers impeccably, always practical, always with a mixture of steel and a sparkle of mischievousness.
Lee Ingleby is- as I’ve written many times over the years- a wonderfully nuanced actor who can snap from one mood to another. I’ve seen him play the nastiest and nicest characters and everything in between- equally convincingly and he nails George’s conviction from the start. He’s not the super nice hero you might expect from one of those Sunday night dramas, George is elf centred, temperamental, obsessed even and some of the criticisms the opponents of the zoo make against him ring true. Yet he is also pursuing a vision and Lee Ingleby puts all this over so well that whatever he does you’re with him all the way.
There is potentially another story lingering as Lady Catherine Longmore who lives on the next estate takes a shine to George’s concept and helps him out which rather irks George’s wife Lizzie. Unpredictably and to its credit the series does not travel down the road of George having an affair, rather all three actors hint at the possibility alone. There are a few moments when George and Catherine look at each other and the actors know what they’re thinking and yet the characters know they can’t go there. Equally whenever Lizzie sees Catherine arriving or leaving there is a tension to her that tells us all we need to know. Barely a line of dialogue refers yet it’s all in the actor’s choice. Liz White makes Lizzie a practical wife to Goerge’s flights of fancy and you can see the pride she has in George. Sophie Myles makes Catherine so kind despite the revelations about the character that have caused something of a scandal and which are revealed during a fundraiser at her house when her outward confidence crumbles and you realise how much she’s been hiding.
There’s more- Stephen Campbell Moore’s conniving Reverend Webb struggling with conscience and morality as he tries to sabotage the zoo, Peter Wight’s stoic supportive father, Albert Hayley Carmichael’s furtive post mistress Mrs Radnor who does much to help him but has a secret of her own that is revealed near the end, Amelia Clarkson as George’s eldest daughter Murial whose initial teenage strops develop into maturity, Honor Kneafsey as June his younger daughter who expresses sheer delight at the animals and has utter faith in her father and Ralf Little as Lizzie’s brother Billy whose scampish antics end up helping as well as hindering. It’s a great cast.
What the script does is present both sides of the argument so well. There are convincing arguments for and against and some fabulous scenes when the sides clash. George’s enthusiasm sometimes causes more harm than good to his while if you think about it the idea of the zoo must have been a real shock to the villagers.
Our Zoo is a quiet triumph and a welcome change which has enough truth in it’s drama to sweep you away.