The Old Men at the Zoo (1983)


Five parts. Writer: Troy Kennedy Martin; Adapted from (novel): Angus Wilson; Producer: Jonathan Powell; Director: Stuart Burge

In all the myriad apocalypse dramas produced in the UK, what matters most is where the bomb drops. The drip-drip of radio bulletins in the suburban daily lives of Threads cut straight to the contemporary fear of nuclear war, and the 1984 film’s unfussy depiction of local authority admin echoes the staccato, functional, inevitable nature of Peter Watkins’ The War Game. As a narrative device the anticipation of Armageddon can create real tension, the strike clearing away characters in a single bound and providing a fundamental gear change in a long storyline. After which it’s either about the journey back or, more likely, an acceptance of the new order.

The Old Men at the Zoo, a 1983 serial for BBC2 based on the novel by Angus Wilson, leaves the flashpoint unfashionably late. Although the threat of war is ever present the focus is very much on preparation, propaganda and domestic politics. Curiously, and rather more indicative of the age in which it was adapted, the nuclear bomb that arrives four fifths of the way through was not even present in the novel.

The story is set in 1970. Simon Carter (Stuart Wilson) is the Secretary of the British National Zoo and by far its youngest member of senior staff. Smokey, an ill and frightened giraffe, has killed a warden and the ensuing blame-game fires up the tensions between Director Edwin Leacock (Maurice Denham) and mammal keeper Sir Robert Falcon (Robert Urquhart). Leacock is poised to deliver a major television lecture on his dream of a National Park, an open range for the full zoo collection. Godmanchester (a memorable Robert Morley) is a press baron as well as president of the Royal Zoological Society and uses his powers to position the Zoo as a key propaganda tool on the eve of a European war, and part of this is to grant Leacock’s wish. Images of animals being taken to a new National Park in Wales confirm to the public that there is danger coming, and people flee the cities. “The public,” Godmanchester says, “only really understand animals.”

The operation backfires, with locals attacked by the wilder animals and Leacock’s own daughter – a member of Animal Liberation – savaged by her dog during an act of bestiality in the forest. As the London zoo is hurriedly restored Falcon goes mad with power in his new role as Director, while reptile keeper and political extremist Englander (Marius Goring) retreats to Scotland with his entire collection. London is bombed heavily, with starvation and civil unrest facilitating a new fascist regime which soon positions Englander as the latest Director. A sickening “Europe Day” at the Zoo includes the staging of a Roman circus, with caged “criminals” tormented by lions. Carter, whose wife has left him in disgust at his inaction, attempts to continue as Secretary but his indiscretions eventually place him in a concentration camp. When Liberation Day comes he decides to run for office as the Director of a severely diminished Zoo.

Published on 25 September 1961, The Old Men at the Zoo received mixed reviews and was the first real faltering moment in Wilson’s extraordinary career. Although it had its admirers – Anthony Burgess, Michael Moorcock and Evelyn Waugh amongst them – many critics found it a flabby book, with a dislikeable narrator in Carter, a ‘priggish’ sort who looked coldly on characters who were, as the Times put it, “just exhibits in Mr Wilson’s brilliantly lit but obscurely allegorical and cruelly depressing cage.” His novels were heading down the road of high experimentation and the use of a narrator with no particular heroic qualities formed part of this. Wilson defended Carter as a study of “the impossible dilemma of liberal man”, and it’s perhaps telling that in the same year his champion Waugh took similar brickbats for Guy Crouchback, the central figure in Unconditional Surrender, the final book in his Sword of Honour trilogy.

Vital to any understanding of 1983’s quite radical take is the deliberate phrasing in the opening titles: “A Version for Television”. A force as powerful as Troy Kennedy-Martin was never going to agree to a humble, obedient transfer from the page. He takes many liberties with The Old Men at the Zoo, restructuring freely, creating new character motivations and relationships for the sake of plot expediency, ditching the narrator device almost entirely and expressing a clear preference for his own dialogue.1 Yet the satirical intent of Wilson’s novel remains, in the respectful and sensitive sharpening of the allegory at the heart of the tale: the administrative squabbles at the Zoo, this icon of an ailing British Empire, serving as a mirror to global unrest.

It’s a structurally sound and well managed script. Rather than a non-nuclear war, the series really does opt for decimation, totally disregarding the novel’s WW2-ish civilian effort and descent into mob rule. Kennedy-Martin favours a more extreme exploration of how otherwise decent English people would behave if under the rule of fascists, and it remains remarkable that the concentration camp which Carter is banished to was passed over by Wilson in a single sentence. Here, it is a grey and utterly dehumanised ten-minute nightmare that’s totally in keeping with the consequences of Carter’s “impossible dilemma”.

The adaptation is far better for women too, which is a sad thing to report of a novelist who channelled femininity so effectively in other books (particularly the moving Late Call). Carter’s wife, Martha, is a real protagonist in this BBC2 adaptation, taking part in the resistance group, having more of an influence on Falcon and going on a tangible journey of fear and identity which leads to her sending their children to America for safety. Director Stuart Burge has a very firm hand on character also, with many of the cast experiencing eruptions or drastic differences in circumstances that are carefully worked towards across the five episodes.

A cohesive sense of Empire pervades The Old Men at the Zoo. Peter Netley’s opening graphics bring together the various images of utopia presented in the story, and there are similar evocations in the multi-faceted and gently parodic score by Simon Rogers (who would soon join the visionary English rock band, The Fall, during their most commercially successful period).

In fact, in another of those well made BBC serials that we used to take for granted there is so much that stands out. Burge, who had just finished a six-year stint as Artistic Director of the Royal Court, is adept at energising dense political discussion with movement and the seemingly endless permutations of setting that a real Zoo provides for location filming. There’s even a rumour that the parrots got so used to his cries of “CUT!” that they learnt to mimic him en masse during takes…

On first broadcast, episode 1’s first ten minutes clashed with the climax of Star Wars, the film’s second terrestrial screening albeit at a time when a repeat could still garner 13.7m viewers on a Thursday night. The Old Men at the Zoo found its audience nonetheless, with 2.7m on its opening night, holding the audience of the preceding Kenny Everett Show and charting tenth in BBC2’s ratings for that week. In retrospect, it’s impressive that later episodes went up against the debuts of John Sullivan’s Just Good Friends and GF Newman & Les Blair’s The Nation’s Health, and in week four a repeat of The Naked Civil Servant on Channel 4. Thank heaven for VCRs.

Actually, videotape serves as a good final point. The Old Men at the Zoo was very comfortable in its own skin as an all-VT production, save for a couple of short pieces of stock footage here and there. Regrettably, though, the production falls short when “fantastic” is needed most. The Roman circus in episode 5 looks cheap and silly, as if the wild visions of science fiction were slightly beyond a production team more used to making down-to-earth dramas. There’s no better example than the nuclear strike itself. It’s a reasonable montage and quite compelling in how it unceasingly emphasises the Zoo staff’s amateurism, but after three and a half hours you’re really expecting something with the dynamism of Threads’ Peter Wragg and his melting milk bottles of doom. No such luck.

Originally posted: 1 October 2013.
[This piece first appeared on the Tachyon TV website in September 2011. It is presented here with minimal revisions. The editor thanks as always the good people of Tachyon TV.]

  1. The Old Men at the Zoo: ‘A Tall Story’, tx. BBC2, 15 September 1983; ‘Godmanchester’s Plan’, tx. BBC2, 22 September 1983; ‘Exodus’, tx. BBC2, 29 September 1983; ‘Armageddon’, tx. BBC2, 6 October 1983; ‘The Year Of The Yeti’, tx. BBC2, 13 October 1983. []