IGNORING the old showbiz rule to never work with children or animals, the exotic cast list for new BBC1 drama Our Zoo includes penguins, black bears, monkeys and a camel. So while the end result – a six-part series about the origins of Chester Zoo – is a heart-warming treat for wildlife-lovers, filming didn’t always go to plan.
“It became clear really quickly that the animals were going to act us off the screen – it didn’t really matter what we did,” says Liz White, who plays the wife of the zoo’s founder, George Mottershead.
During the shooting of one emotional moment between George (Lee Ingleby) and White’s character Lizzie, the Bactrian camel behind them “decided to take a very long wee”, the actress reveals with a smile.
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In another serious scene around the kitchen table, a parrot flew off his perch and landed on the casts’ heads – including that of veteran actress Anne Reid, who plays George’s mother, Lucy.
“It made us really relaxed, because the animals didn’t care that there was a camera there, or that their mum was going to be watching,” Line Of Duty actress White notes.
The Our Zoo adventure begins in 1930, when kind-hearted ex-serviceman George (whose family runs a market garden business) pays a visit to Liverpool docks – and returns home with an unwanted squirrel monkey and a camel who is about to be put down.
After coming across a run-down stately home surrounded by acres of land, he hatches a plan to create a ‘zoo without bars’, and persuades his family and bank manager to take the leap with him. The drama follows George securing an initial £3,000 loan to opening the zoo, which went on to become one of the largest in Europe, the following year.
Ingleby, who plays the Manchester-born founder, had no idea about the zoo’s background until he received the script.
“I went there on a school trip when I was seven or eight, but I’d never heard the history of it,” the Burnley actor says.
“I found it really fascinating how this guy just had a vision. In the first episode, Lizzie says, ‘People like us don’t do things like this’. I think he just thought, ‘There’s an opportunity here’.”
“It wouldn’t happen now. There’d be so many hurdles to jump over,” adds Ingleby, 38, who has previously appeared on screen in Inspector George Gently.
That said, the Mottersheads are faced with plenty more challenges over the course of the series – from escaped animals and public opposition, to financial struggles and planning permission headaches.
“I think the idea was so romantic and made complete sense to him that he just grabbed it,” says Ingleby. “I don’t think they made any money for years, it was a real labour of love.”
Despite her initial shock at discovering a monkey and a camel in her backyard, Lizzie eventually warms to her husband’s plans.
“George had the entrepreneurial mind and passion to pursue his goal and make it happen, whereas Lizzie was very pragmatic and able to put everything in place,” White, 34, explains.
The actress, who previously worked with Ingleby on sci-fi crime drama Life On Mars, jokes that the Mottersheads’ living arrangements might have had something to do with Lizzie’s keenness to get on board.
“If you were living in this two-up, two-down kind of place with your mother and father-in-law (played by Reid and Vera Drake’s Peter Wight) for 15 or 16 years, then perhaps any opportunity to escape would be a viable option.”
Our Zoo’s cast and crew had an invaluable source of information in the form of George and Lizzie’s youngest daughter June, who is now in her eighties.
She is played in the drama by child actress Honor Kneafsey, who Ingleby says “was the most professional out of anyone; she knew what to do with the animals”.
“I suppose we became almost like a family in a way,” he adds. “It was a really lovely, happy shoot.
I became very protective of (the cast), and the animals as well.”
By the time George Mottershead died in 1978 at the age of 84, his “zoo without bars” was thriving, and today takes up 110 acres. While White “can’t organise my office, let alone a zoo”, she found the Mottersheads’ story inspirational.
“As actors, we got a real sense of fun making this programme. And the sense of achievement and adventure that comes with creating something from nothing – something that everyone else turns their nose up at and says, ‘You can’t do it’,” she adds.
“There’s actually a real thrill in saying, ‘Well, we can and we did, so there’.”
EXTRA TIME – CHESTER ZOO
- Chester Zoo opened on June 10, 1931 and has been a conservation charity (North of England Zoological Society) since 1934.
- George Mottershead’s hard work earned him an OBE, an honorary degree as a Master of Science, plus a term as president of the International Union of Zoo Directors.
- Today, Chester Zoo is the largest zoo in the UK and is home to 11,000 animals and 400 different species.
- It attracts 1.4m visitors a year and was recently voted sixth best zoo in the world in a TripAdvisor survey.
- The zoo is currently working on Islands, a £30m development which will be home to species including the Sumatran tigers and orangutan.
- Our Zoo, BBC1, Wednesday, 9pm