Thursday, 4 September 2014

Our Zoo

This predictable but nonetheless delightful period drama started last night. Coloured on screen by the same numbered hues as previous BBC1 hit Call The Midwife, Our Zoo tells the story of the founding of Chester Zoo. George Mottershead, unable to function properly in life thanks to war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, finds his calling when he begins to rescue exotic animals in unlikely circumstances. Whilst on a trip to the Liverpool Docks to buy fruit for his family's grocery business, George follows a limping kangaroo into an office (as you do). This diversion results in him bringing home a parrot and a monkey that had been imported but subsequently abandoned in quarantine by their owners. George figures that life for the monkey in his Victorian terrace back yard privy would be an improvement on the choloroform that the harbourmaster was offering. The monkey (which may or may not be the same one that played Marcel in Friends) certainly seems to see a lot of snogging from his seat on the toilet. Shortly thereafter, once the monkey's condition has improved, his family, unsurprisingly unwilling to arouse the nosey neighbours' ire, pressure him to get rid of it. George tries to pass the monkey on to a travelling circus, only to return home with both the monkey and a lame camel that was about to be fed to the lions. Which also ends up being kept in the back yard. Not so much room for snogging now.

George's family are convinced that he has finally gone insane. His mother, played by Anne Reid, spits out one-liners in the style of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, only in a northern accent ("Get shot of those animals and everything will return to normal"). But George has never felt better. He has a dream. He is sick of seeing animals being kept in cages or overworked and abused by their owners. He wants to build a zoo, but a zoo without bars. Before long, he has found an abandoned manor house in the outlying village of Upton, and a bit of posh totty on a horse to encourage him. He convinces a bank manager to lend him enough money to buy the property at auction. ("Let me put a bit of beauty back into the world.") The money isn't enough, as a London property developer also has his eye on the land, but at the last minute, George's father decides to sell the family shop to provide the extra that he needs. By the end of the first episode, they have moved into the dilipated mansion, which Mother grimly observes has subsidence to boot. They figure they can turn the mansion into a tea room as the zoo's "main draw", and will just about survive financially if they can get through winter and open in the spring. Hm. They still have only three animals, one of whom nearly gets shot for stealing eggs from the village shop (no prizes for guessing which). But as George's wife Lizzie's beloved piano has been dropped off the back of a lorry, she will have no excuse but to focus all her attention on the accounting. And they may just pull it off.

Which of course they will. We went to Chester Zoo a couple of years ago, on probably the wettest July day I have ever experienced. We needed a child-friendly stop-off between North Wales and York after a weekend away, and as our daughter was not yet two, it meant she would still be free on a generally very expensive day out. We trudged around in the lashing deluge, trying to find shelter whilst avoiding spending any more money, which ruled in several animal houses (in which the disgruntled, wet animals were also cowering) and ruled out the monorail and food courts. School parties were sat outside eating miserable picnics in the teaming rain. Some of them, sat near the bears, were from a primary school in Liverpool where my mother held her first teaching job in the 1960s. The site is vast, and I am sure we will go back another time in better weather, as we have much left to explore. Although the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster is now our nearest zoo. However, they don't have elephants, which Chester does, meaning that George's excited promise to his young, wide-eyed and curly-haired daughter June is - in the end - fulfilled.

Very wet elephants at Chester Zoo, July 2012

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