It seems to me that TV drama is gearing up for the impending autumn and winter months with a number of period dramas ready to drop. Set in 1930; Our Zoo features down-to-Earth characters, wonderful period costume and plenty of cute animals. Upon first seeing the drama I felt it was ideal Sunday night viewing, so I’ve got no idea why BBC One have decided to schedule it on a Wednesday. Regardless, playwright Matt Charman’s story of the creation of Chester Zoo isn’t without its charm.
Our hero George Mottershead is a well-meaning chap who clearly loves his family, but is still suffering with shellshock after serving in World War One. George’s pain is first demonstrated when he suffers a panic attack at the circus whilst watching a couple of pistol-wielding cowboys do their act. George’s emotional breakdowns have caused him to be viewed as somewhat of a loose cannon by many of the neighbours in his family’s close-knit community. George’s battleaxe mother Lucy is possibly the least supportive member of the family and feels her son should be better by know. Lucy can’t understand why exactly it’s taken George so long to recover from the war especially seeing as her other son didn’t survive the conflict. Meanwhile his teenage daughter Muriel feels that her father’s behaviour is affecting her budding relationship with her boyfriend; who always appears to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thankfully his shopkeeper father Albert is behind him all the way, even if he finds it hard to stand up to Lucy from time to time. Seemingly keeping the family together is George’s wife, and childhood sweetheart Lizzie who is presented as fiercely loyal as well as supportive of her husband’s emotional state. But even Albert and Lizzie find it hard to cope with George’s behaviour when he starts bringing exotic animals home with him.
The title Our Zoo may be a clue to the fact that animals play a key part in the series and, from the opening scene onwards, almost outshine their human co-stars. In the aforementioned opening, George and younger daughter June attend the circus and are confronted by a cavalcade of monkeys and lions. Later, at the docks, George discovers that another monkey and a parrot have been unclaimed and will be killed unless somebody claims them. George’s decision to home them in the already cramped conditions leads to further speculation over his unstable nature whilst Muriel is particularly unimpressed when the monkey attacks her beau. George’s menagerie is extended when he goes to the circus to sell the parrot and monkey and instead brings a camel home with him. Lucy is particularly perturbed by the growing number of animals in her back garden and attempts to get her life back to normal by making an incredibly extreme decision. But, in one of Our Zoo’s many narrative conveniences, George finds a potential new home for his collection of pets when he gets lost on the way to a military reunion.
The home in question is a dilapidated stately home in the small village of Upton which catches George’s eye due to its large grounds. After a chance meeting with the beguiling Lady Longmore, he learns that the house is for sale and is soon to be auctioned off. However his family is torn over his scheme to buy the property and turn it into a zoo without bars. Lucy is particularly vocal about George moving away and is even more upset when Albert decides to sell the shop to fund his son’s dream. But it appears as if the Mottershead family may have as much trouble fitting in in the sleepy village of Upton as they did in their town life. This is especially true when the mischievous monkey escapes and invades the village store putting the area’s latest residents in the spotlight. Adjusting to life in Upton might not be the clan’s only problem as George seemingly faces opposition from the village’s scheming Reverend who is seemingly interested in quashing the creation of the zoo and romancing Lizzie in equal measure.
Just like its protagonist, Our Zoo is a well-meaning and harmless drama but at the same time that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly entertaining. I feel that Matt Charman had the hardest job to do in this episode, namely introduce all of the characters and get them out of their normal habitat and into the zoo. This meant that some of the members of the Mottershead family feel underwritten and occasionally lapse into cliché. This is especially true of fifteen year-old Muriel who spends most of her time acting either stroppy or wondering why she can’t get any boys to like her. Because of her limited screen time, I found it really hard to care when she suddenly ran away from home and felt that her absence would at least make George’s dream financially possible. Similarly, Lucy is presented throughout as the domineering matriarch who isn’t concerned with feelings and instead wants normality in her household primarily so she can retain her social standing in the community. Thankfully Anne Reid does a masterful job of unleashing Lucy’s vulnerable side and the actresses’ facial expressions convey her sadness over being forced to leave the family home. Reid also shares brilliant chemistry with Peter Wight who shines towards the end of the episode when Albert comes into his own.
In the lead role, Lee Ingleby is a dependable hand and he makes you believe in both George’s tough past and the fact that he’s a loving family man. I’m a big fan of Liz White, but she wasn’t given a lot to do in the first episode as Lizzie’s job was basically to react to everything George did. But White showed potential for her character to grow and she really shone for me in the scene in which Lizzie was advising Muriel about her future. Meanwhile it appears that Ralf Little has been drafted in to provide a bit of comic relief as Lizzie’s wheeler dealer brother Billy. Little copes well when delivering Billy’s sales patter but it isn’t as impressive in his character’s more dramatic moments. Elsewhere, young Honor Kneafsey steals the show as June and she’s absolutely brilliant in the scenes where she has to play along with the animals. The animals themselves are fantastic and provided some of the most memorable moments of the entire episode. In fact the outstanding animal performers are one thing that marks Our Zoo out from any other period drama on TV and I feel that they are really the stars of the show.
Ultimately I felt that the first episode of Our Zoo showed promise, even if it never really blew me away. Although some of the secondary characters felt clichéd, Matt Charman’s script was still full of heart and it seems as if he’s dedicated to the story he’s telling. Lee Ingleby anchored the drama well whilst his animal co-stars were just a joy to watch. Despite the first episode being a little hit-and-miss I’m going to reserve judgement for now and see if Our Zoo improves now that the Mottershead family are living in the village. But even though I’ll be watching the next episode I don’t ever think I’ll be convinced that Our Zoo shouldn’t be airing on Sunday evening rather than on Wednesday night.
What did you think to Our Zoo? Do you think it belongs on Sunday nights?
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