IN the mid 1960s, Martin Lacey was making his way as a zoo curator and a TV presenter.

He’d been sent from St Asaph’s zoo in north Wales to open a zoo at a disused hotel and parkland near Stanley, in north Durham.

It was to be part of a chain of zoos which Flamingo Park in North Yorkshire (now Flamingoland) was opening around the country. Stanley seems to have been chosen because of its proximity to the large Tyneside market, although the Harperley Hall estate was a little out of the way.

Martin doubled his work building a zoo by appearing on Tyne Tees Television’s Gangway programme – a version of the BBC’s Blue Peter, which was aired in 1966 and 1967.

“The producer asked me if I had a bear that could dance, and I said no but that I had a couple of young bears down at St Asaph which I thought could be trained to get honey off a stick,” he says, “ and that’s what that picture is all about.

“It was because the Alan Price Set had just released Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear, and that male bear became quite famous, appearing on TV with Alan Price – fortunately the bear took me along too.”

In Wales, the bears were known as Diane and Blodwyn. Up in Stanley, they were Ann and Ted. Whatever they were called, they helped Alan Price get to No 4 in the hit parade with his dancing bear.

The publicity helped put Stanley zoo on the map and soon it was receiving 100,000 visitors a year. Because visitor numbers fell off in the colder months, Martin established a winter zoo in Newcastle’s old town hall in the Bigg Market, where Geordie the Giraffe and Fred the Indian elephant became big stars. The best behaved animals were allowed to mingle with the crowds in the Bigg Market – llamas often stalked the side streets, and one puma was taken on a lead into pubs.

Martin left the North-East after a couple of years because his TV career was taking off – he did Magpie for seven years as well as lots of other children’s programmes like Man Bites Dog and Sing to the Animals – and he wanted to open his own zoo, Sherwood Zoo, near Nottingham.

“At Sherwood, we employed Billy Smart’s circus polar bear act,” he says. “I was helping the handler, and he asked me to stand between the two bears and stop them from fighting – they’re 11ft tall on their back legs!”

But his experience of getting dancing bears into TV studios and of separating pugilistic polar bears led him into animal training full time.

“Safari parks were springing up all over the place, lion cubs were being born and were being drowned because they were too expensive to keep,” he remembers. “So I obtained some cheap lions and a couple of broomsticks, made lots of mistakes and luckily got it right in the end.”

He was known as the “King of the Cages”, and “the Man that Fear Forgot” because he was the only performer who dared to put his head in a lion’s mouth. His circus was named the best for animals six years running, and he trained the tigers for the 1970s Esso petrol adverts.

Martin has bred about 120 big cats at his home in Lincolnshire – 76 are performing with one son’s circus in Germany, and 18 with another son’s circus in the US – but he is now moving on.

“I’ve just sold all my 37 reindeers and my place is now for sale as I’m downsizing,” he says. “I’m 76 now, and I’ve stopped going in with lions because they move faster than I do nowadays.”

He has fond memories of his time starting out in the North-East 50 years ago. “I found the people incredibly friendly,” he says. “The first time I was up there I got lost in Consett and I stopped and asked for directions. John Kirk pointed me down the hill to Stanley. He was the local milkman who was quite well known because he had won a holiday to Spain – that was 1964, and we’re still in touch today.”

Plus, he has friends in Darlington who kindly sent him a copy of Memories 392 which included the picture of Martin and Ted, the amazing dancing bear of Stanley.