Peter Wight interview
Peter Wight Plays Albert Mottershead
How would you describe Our Zoo?
It’s about the beginning of Chester Zoo. Now a kind of huge flourishing enterprise with a million and a half visitors a year or something extraordinary. It’s one of the main tourist attractions outside of London in the UK. This is about the tiny seed that began that whole enterprise in 1930. So it is a dramatization of how the zoo started, and along the way a dramatization of the Mottershead family who created the zoo – George Mottershead specifically – and the tensions within the family that this bizarre enterprise creates within the family. It’s a family drama and a starting of Chester Zoo drama mixed up.
How is your character related to George Mottershead?
I am his father, Albert who is married to Lucy (Anne Reid), so we’re George’s parents and our grandchildren are Mew – Muriel – and Honor who plays June. So that’s the family.
Can you describe Albert’s Character?
Well he’s a very interesting character. My take on him from the script and the work we’ve done so far is he’s the head of the family, he’s quite tough but in a quiet way. He’s not a dominating, domineering head of the family. He’s quite quiet, lives in his own world, he runs a little green grocers shop to begin with. He is very in to plants, loves things growing and doing things with his hands and nurturing things and that’s what I see Albert like, really, and his relationship with this whole enterprise with his son starting the zoo, I mean he’s taken aback at the beginning - his whole family is - because it’s such a bizarre idea. George starts to collect animals and put them in the backyard of our little terraced house which is very odd. But Albert quite quickly and intuitively sees the effect that this relationship with animals is having on George, so in a very quiet way he starts to go along with the idea. Whereas Lucy, Albert’s wife, thinks the whole thing is insane and is very against it. She’s more vocal about saying what she thinks. But Albert, in his quiet way, he’s quite determined and he follows George’s dream and because he can see how therapeutic it is for George to relate to these animals. So quiet but toughly determined, that’s how I’d call him. And then as the story develops, you see his relationship with his grandchildren and with the animals. He edges towards it in a kind of cautious, fond way.
Tell us about your character’s journey throughout the series?
There’s a crucial scene which describes his journey well in Episode two – he and Lucy, they come to this crucial moment because we’ve sold their shop and house to put their money towards Oakfield, so they have burnt our boats. Lucy is very against doing that because it’s a reckless act – I’ve sold our family business, our pension, and our priority in order to realise George’s dream. Lucy, very reluctantly comes along but she’s very against it, and she’s very stubbornly resistant to this crazy idea and she’s right in a way. There’s kind of a clash or personality scene between Albert and Lucy which she’s saying ‘Look can’t you see what’s happening, he’s making a fool of you, it’s ridiculous’. And in that scene Albert finds how to articulate what it is about this mad idea that he’s determined to go along with and he says, you know, I like it here. I’ve discovered I like it here even though, on a rational level, he can see that Lucy’s quite right and that it’s completely crazy, but he says ‘I like it here’. So it’s not just to support George; he’s found something for himself. He says I’ve got a place, I’m in the sun all day, I’m growing things – cos there’s a big green house at the back of the zoo that he’s looking after. I think that’s a part of his journey that is very important because there was a kind of dissatisfaction with him before in his previous life, as the shop keeper, and in his relationship with Lucy and in his relationship with his son.
How aware of the real life story of Chester Zoo were you?
Very little. I don’t think I even knew there was a zoo in Chester. It’s all been a great education for me. It’s a fascinating story and June Mottershead (now June Williams) – who Honor is playing, she’s the one member of the family who is still alive – she’s been on set and took us to Chester Zoo the other day. It’s her memories which this whole thing is based on, so through her and through the script and talking to other people and visiting the zoo where the history is all laid out, I’ve kind of built up a kind of sense of the story. But it was all completely new to me.
Do you think it was quite an important story to tell?
Yes because it’s of its time, but it’s also something about one man’s vision. I mean that’s what struck me that is new to me, having got this far with the series and having seen the real Chester Zoo, it’s like you see this fantastic tree and we’re dramatizing the planting of the seed. It’s kind of one man’s crazy vision that he’s doing for himself, he’s doing from an instinct. He doesn’t even know why he’s doing it in some ways but he knows that it’s really important to liberate these animals from these cruel cages and bad circuses and put them in a sort of flourishing environment. That story of one man’s drive – which is completely bonkers on one level – so he drives through. There’s a lot of intuition in this series. I remember that from when I read for the part. I remember that word which struck me in the script; it’s all about deep intuitions. It’s not a sort of rational process of ‘let’s create a zoo!’ it’s a kind of coming from George’s intuition and instinct – and then Albert’s intuition follows him. And gradually, it all kind of gets in to line with his intuition on why this is so important.
Have you shot many scenes with the animals?
A few. Albert is one step behind, story-wise. So the front foot with the animals is George and June, so they’ve done the scenes with the animals, and then Albert is like observing and he’s gradually led to touching them or meeting them and that’s what it’s been like for me.