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Old Men at the Zoo, The (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Old Men at the Zoo, The (1983)
BBC/London Film Productions for BBC2, tx. 15/9-13/10/1983
5 x 55 min episodes, colour
DirectorStuart Burge
ProducerJonathan Powell
Adapted byTroy Kennedy Martin
From the novel byAngus Wilson

Cast: Stuart Wilson (Simon Carter); Robert Morley (Lord Godmanchester); Maurice Denham (Edwin Leacock); Robert Urquhart (Sir Robert Falcon); Marius Goring (Emile Englander); Andrew Cruickshank (Mr Sanderson); John Phillips (Dr Langley-Beard); Richard Wordsworth (Matthew Price)

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Against a backdrop of growing international tensions and the threat of nuclear Armageddon, the curators of London's zoological gardens jockey for status and indulge themselves in self-serving alliances and rivalries.

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The Old Men at the Zoo uses London's zoological gardens as the setting for a near-future tale of imperial decline and war, with the zoo serving as a metaphor for lost Victorian glories while being intimately entwined with British politics. The zoo's animals are moved to a wild paradise in Snowdonia, then returned to London, only to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb and the survivors used in a cruel neo-fascist circus. Simon Carter, the zoo's newly-appointed young secretary, finds himself in a decaying institution, surrounded by old men whose answers to the impending crisis all ignore either morality or reality.

It might be quite a dry story were it not for the excellent use of London Zoo's architecture and animals as a backdrop. The scene in which the army arrive to cull dangerous beasts is a particularly skilful and harrowing montage of rifle sights, retorts and sleeping beasts. The titular old men themselves are also well-played. Robert Morley is fleshy and threatening as the politically manipulative press baron and zoo president, Lord Godmanchester. Though the writing steers clear of obvious comparisons between curators and their collections, it's hard not to see something beetling in Andrew Cruickshank's curator of insects, Sanderson, or hawk-like about Richard Wordsworth's curator of birds, Price, while Marius Goring, as curator of reptiles Emile Englander, is the ultimate snake in the grass.

Angus Wilson's early 1960s source novel was set in the near-future of the 1970s. Troy Kennedy Martin's adaptation is similarly set ten years or so ahead, but updates the threat of war from Wilson's united continental Europe to a resurgent Middle East. The series stays close to the novel's plot until the fifth episode, which deviates into an extended portrayal of Britain under the dictatorship of the neo-fascist 'One Europe' and Simon Carter's imprisonment and torture.

With its story of nuclear conflict and post-apocalyptic dystopia, Kennedy Martin's adaptation builds on the paranoid mood of the last phase of the Cold War. Televised the year after the Falklands War, it also reflects the end of any British pretence to global hegemony. Britain's ultimate abandonment by the United States is foreshadowed in Carter's uneasy relationship with his American wife. Though the idea of Britain under a fascist regime goes back to Orwell's 1984, much of the drama's power flows from just how real, in 1983, the threat of nuclear annihilation felt.

Danny Birchall

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Video Clips
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Complete episode (52:30)
Ark, The (1993)
Culver, Roland (1900-1984)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Goring, Marius (1912-1998)
Martin, Troy Kennedy (1932-2009)
Morley, Robert (1908-1992)