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G2: Last night's TV Spare that camel! It's hard not to like this sentimental, animal-happy drama: AND ANOTHER THING

September 4, 2014

Rebecca Nicholson



Our Zoo (BBC1) arrived with an air of early Sunday evenings: a new six-part drama on BBC1, set in 1930, about George Mottershead, a plucky man who loves animals and adventure, and so decides to set up a zoo. Will he triumph, against the odds? Well, yes, because it's "based on a true story", and - spoiler alert! - that zoo became Chester zoo, which is currently open and thriving, and offering visitors a truly "ANIMAZING day out".

The televised story of its genesis is a bit grimey, like Call the Midwife, and it's northern, like The Village and The Mill, in the sense that its actors settle on accents located in a generic North, somewhere between Durham, Leeds and Manchester. It's got posh people and it's got poor people, like Downton Abbey. It's shot with the same sepia-ish hue that afflicts photographs on the covers of heartstring-tugging airport novels with titles like Please Daddy Come Home. It's Sunday telly through-and-through, and yet here it is, piggybacking on the Great British Bake Off in the middle of the week, slightly out of step with its competitors (on Wednesday, Grand Designs and a documentary about the dark web). I wonder why it's here in this slot; I can't work out if it's being given a leg up, or has been put out to pasture already.

It's a shame if it's the latter, because Our Zoo is better than it sounds. Lee Ingleby, an actor with a contrary knack for bringing out watery-eyed steeliness in his roles (Inspector George Gently, The Street), plays Mottershead with kindness; his character is a fundamentally decent man, prone to PTSD following a near-catastrophic injury in the war. Early scenes in which his "shellshock" is triggered by a shootin' cowboy at the local circus hint that there is more depth than the show's initial cutesiness suggests. Mottershead leans against the gate of his backyard, stricken and weeping, as his baffled daughters run into the house, afraid. Although we had only just met these people, it was a surprisingly desolate and moving moment.

Then the animals appeared. Mottershead brings home a parrot and a monkey from the docks, because the dockmaster is about to chloroform the tiny simian into next week. He sets up a prototype zoo in the outside loo in the backyard, and sticks a bucket behind a curtain to accommodate the family's privy-based needs. On reflection, he decides he should sell the monkey to the circus, but the ringmaster suggests that an old camel may need to be put down, so instead, Mottershead brings the camel home to his little terraced house to join his nascent menagerie. He's possessed of a spontaneity that in real life would warrant immediate divorce, yet in the context of this programme, it is adorable and quirky and noble.

Anne Reid, as his long-suffering mother, is the only voice of dissent. She's set up as a cranky working-class version of the Dowager Countess, and says things like "Elephants? Yer off yer rocker!". But as the son has essentially ruined the family business by sticking a camel in the backyard, and then forced them to sell up to move to a crumbling house in an unwelcoming village, it's quite clear that she's the only one talking sense. To be sensible lacks heart, however, and Our Zoo has bucketloads of that.

"I can't make a decision based on sentiment," a stern bank manager tells Mottershead, as he applies for his loan to buy a crumbling mansion (naturally, he is turned down, then makes a rousing speech about bringing beauty into the world, causing the financier to do an about-turn so reckless he could have been a banker today). I felt his dilemma. Ostensibly, this is drama by the book. I have seen the sulky, runaway teenage daughter before. I've seen the aristocratic neighbour whose well-spoken charms set the action in motion. I've seen the weary yet loving wife, the quiet, supportive father, the caddish brother-in-law, the kindly vicar, the unfriendly new neighbours. Yet despite being well aware that I was manipulated at every turn, I made a decision based on sentiment, and found myself rooting for George's idealism, and scoffing at his cynical mother, and hoping they wouldn't shoot the monkey, even though he'd - gasp! - stolen some eggs. It wasn't quite animazing, and it wasn't quite mid-week, either, but it was almost shamefully watchable.

Excellent new series Transparent (coming 26 September) looks as if it will be Amazon Prime's first serious contender in the original programming stakes.

Captions:

Lee Ingleby and Liz White as the Mottersheads, with their new lodger


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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