Among the most loved of television presenters, Johnny Morris (born Ernest John Morris in Newport, Wales, on 20 June 1916) entertained and educated generations of children and their parents through the BBC children's series Animal Magic (BBC, 1962-83). In his inimitable, relaxed, avuncular style, Morris presented the series for over twenty years, communicating his fascination for animals and investing them, through the humorous filmed inserts featuring his voice-over mimicry, with human emotions and characteristics.
A farm manager for thirteen years, Morris, a born storyteller, was discovered regaling customers in a pub with his stories by future BBC Radio Bristol producer Desmond Hawkins. Morris made his radio debut in 1946, and featured in a number of Radio Bristol series throughout the 1950s, as a storyteller or as a commentator on local events.
He first found success on television with the children's series The Hot Chestnut Man (BBC, 1953-61), reciting his own stories to camera from behind a chestnut barrow. His talent for mimicry in relation to animals found an early televisual outlet with his narration of Tales of the Riverbank (BBC, 1960, 1963; 1971), a Canadian-produced series, redubbed for British audiences, featuring real animals apparently operating such contraptions as miniature boats and cars.
Based on an idea by Morris, Animal Magic was launched on 13 April 1962, with himself as both studio presenter and a zookeeper in the filmed inserts. The latter were usually shot at Bristol Zoo and were the most popular element of the programmes. In his role of zookeeper (which many children grew up believing him to be), Morris bathed, fed and looked after various zoo animals, adding voices to the soundtrack to mimic their physical characteristics. Certain animals - Christina and Wendy the elephants, Dottie, the French-accented ring-tailed lemur (named after Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour) - even attained a level of stardom through the series.
Despite its popularity, it was this very anthropomorphic approach that eventually led to the series being cancelled by the BBC (which judged it out-dated), much to Morris' dismay. The final episode was broadcast on 8 March 1983.
Morris also worked throughout his television career on a variety of travel programmes, bringing them his usual relaxed presentational style. These included Ticket to Turkey (BBC, 1960), Johnny Morris in Mexico (BBC, 1968), Johnny Morris North from Lion City (BBC, 1969), following a journey from Singapore to Northern Thailand, and Oh, to be in England (BBC, 1976), in which Morris followed various groups of foreign visitors to Britain to gauge their reactions to the country.
Morris was awarded an OBE in 1984, but television appearances in the 1980s and '90s were infrequent. He revived his zookeeper character one final time in The Magic Keeper (Channel 4, tx. 24/12/1998). Partly filmed at Bristol Zoo, the dialogue-free film featured Morris attending to various animals, accompanied by the music of Darius Milhaud.
Morris was to begin working on an animal series called Wild Thing for Tyne Tees Television when he collapsed and died on 6 May 1999. He was buried, much mourned, with his old zookeeper's cap.