June Williams has a question for me the second I arrive to interview in her childhood bedroom in the grounds of Chester Zoo.
“Have you got any of the pictures one of your photographers took of me with the animals back in the 1930s?” she asks. “He took some really great snaps of us and we had so much fun - he brought me toys and used to make me laugh.”
“I’m sorry, June,” I stutter, a bit taken aback. “I don’t think anyone at The Chronicle will be able to remember a photoshoot quite that far back, although staff do tend to stay here a long time, so chances are he might still be around to ask,” which makes her chuckle.
After all, it IS nearly 84 years since June’s father George first uprooted her and her mother and sister from their Crewe home to Oakfield Manor, to follow his dream of creating Britain’s first zoo without bars.
For a little girl who loved animals, it was the ultimate fantasy world for June, now 88, to grow up in alongside the lions, tigers and chimpanzees she counted among her best friends, which is why in many of the pictures of her childhood, she’s sitting on an elephant’s knee or dancing with goats. In fact, the animals were as much members of the family as she was.
So fascinating is the Mottershead family’s tale, it’s small wonder the BBC decided to make Our Zoo, a six-part miniseries chronicling the ups and downs the family faced in the zoo’s early years; and what makes it even more exciting is the show features an all-star cast that includes Anne Reid and Ralf Little in some of the main roles.
“They’re all very good,” says June, who had some involvement in the show’s production. “I mean, I don’t think of them as my family, because they’re actors, but they play their roles so well, especially Honor (Kneafsey) who plays me. She was fearless with the animals, like I was, and I was full of admiration for her.
“The BBC have been very good to me, they involved me and sent me the script so I had a few inputs. My dad would be very pleased, it's marvellous publicity for the zoo! I think what they’ve done is very good, the basics are there although some aspects are different. But as in the show, we faced a lot of hostility from local people, afraid the animals would escape. Upton had many large houses and businessmen in those days and they didn't like this coming in and taking over."
At the zoo’s special BBC premiere of the first episode I’m lucky enough to attend a few days before it airs on primetime TV tomorrow, I find myself sat near June, which I’m pleased about because I can get a birdseye view of her reactions.
It’s obvious from the first scene in which she and George (played by Inspector George Gently star Lee Ingleby) attend a circus, of June’s bond with her father. She is there for him when, traumatised by memories of the war, in which he lost a brother Stanley, the violence used on the animals leaves George in tears, and while his reluctance to fully move on with his life frustrates the rest of his family, June is always patient and understanding.
But after finding an abandoned parrot and monkey, George finds an unlikely solace in animals and raises eyebrows when he brings them home to the small house he shares with his wife and parents. They tolerate it but after bringing a camel home to live in their yard, they think he’s ‘finally cracked’.
They’re further displeased when George takes them to Oakfield Manor, an empty mansion near Chester. He could turn the acres of land surrounding the house into a zoo, he tells them excitedly, explaining: “I’ve seen enough suffering - now I just want to put a bit of beauty back into the world.”
It seems George has to convince everyone (except June) his dream could one day pay off, including a sceptical bank manager, but he eventually manages it, and the family (some more reluctant than others) leave their home and business for Chester and a brand new start.
I agree with actress Liz White, who plays George’s wife Lizzie, when she describes the whole story as ‘enlightening’. “It’s something you just don’t really put much thought into, but when you actually think that this family decided to birth this idea of building an actual zoo, it’s fascinating,” she says.
And filming the show alongside Anne Reid and her other co-stars, was, Liz says, ‘a thrill’. “The script was really well written. And June had put together an information book which described some character’s personalities, which helped. Of course, George gets a lot of the credit, but Lizzie is often forgotten, she was the voice of reason, maturity and thoughtfulness. She supported his dreams.”
When you watch Our Zoo, you’ll see that for yourself. It’s a must-watch, not just because it’s heartwarmingly funny and strangely comforting, but because it’s also an inspirational story of a family who took a risk, despite much opposition.
At various points when I looked over at June’s beaming face as she watched her family story played out on screen, I felt a surge of pride for Chester. For years we’ve grown up with the zoo on our doorstep, and perhaps taken it for granted as being just ‘there’, but this show gives us all the opportunity to learn about a wonderful piece of our great city’s history, and discover a tale we might not have known before. And whatever you think of the programme, that can’t be bad can it?
Our Zoo airs on BBC1 on Wednesday September 3 at 9pm