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Ark, The (1993)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ark, The (1993)
RTO Pictures for BBC
1/11 - 22/11/1993
4x60 minute programmes, colour
DirectorMolly Dineen
ProducerMolly Dineen
CameraMolly Dineen
Sound RecordistPhil Streather

Behind-the-scenes examination of London Zoo during a difficult year in which the administration were forced to resolve its financial problems or die.

Show full synopsis

In its Victorian heyday, visitors marvelled at 'the Ark in the park'. By 1991, however, London Zoo was in trouble. With government subsidies ended, the loss-making institution had one year to balance its books or face extinction. In came the moneymen and out went 1300 animals - a third of the zoo's collection - and 26 keepers. In too came Molly Dineen, director/producer/photographer of The Ark, the BBC's four-part series about those troubled twelve months.

Dineen described the series as "about a British institution undergoing radical change" and critics drew parallels between the power struggles at London Zoo and those within the Labour Party, the Church of England and, notably, the BBC at the time. If The Ark is about animals, it is those of Animal Farm, a point underlined when a giant panda with box-office appeal arrives to star treatment and Dineen's narration quotes Orwell's famous satire: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

The Ark never falls into the easy trap of simplifying the issues or sentimentalising the animals, and Dineen's distinctive style, unlike the cool pseudo-scientific observation of much fly-on-the-wall fare, is best described as "warmly objective". Although unseen, Dineen leaves her questions on the soundtrack and her presence is felt throughout as she moves chameleon-like between the warring factions. With only a two-person crew (with sound recordist Phil Streather) Dineen could afford to shoot a lot of film. As a result, subjects talk with remarkable candour and nothing of the drama seems lost.

The parallels between the animal kingdom and the world of their captors resound throughout the series and are emphasised in the episode titles. In the first, 'Survival of the Fittest', all keepers must reapply for their old positions as management seek to purge a third of the workforce and transform the remainder into (in the words of Development Director Andrew Forbes) "man managers as opposed to animal managers."

As he boasts of the entrepreneurial skill of his daughter, selling pine cones from the age of two, Forbes seems a different species to the keepers, whose decades of experience-based knowledge will never show up on a balance sheet. "With animals you haven't got to prove anything", says one keeper, "they either accept you or they don't." Dineen shows a similar, and admirable, lack of bias as she welcomes these strange creatures onto The Ark.

Joe Sieder

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Cost-cutting exercise (1:47)
2. Chimps or Orangs (2:26)
3. Chimps or Orangs 2 (3:56)
4. Public Images (3:15)
Complete episode: 'Natural Selection' (58:23)
Old Men at the Zoo, The (1983)
'Fly on the Wall' TV