Ralf Little interview
Ralf Little Plays Billy Atkinson
How would you describe Our Zoo?
The show is a true story, following George Mottershead and his family, who comes back from the war, unable to reintegrate in to society but finds meaning and purpose in following his dream of founding and developing a zoo because he can relate and find comfort in caring for animals. That’s sort of his rehabilitation that had become an obsession, and he founds Chester Zoo and brings all the animals and the pitfalls that go with it. He also has to drag his family along with him – it’s not their dream but they support him, some more willingly than others, but it’s with his family’s support that they eventually try and make it happen.
Can you describe your character?
My character Billy is the brother-in-law of George Mottershead who has this dream to found Chester Zoo. Billy’s sister Liz is married to George so she’s been roped in to this crazy dream of founding this zoo, and Billy’s been dragged in to come and help because my character, he’s a bit of a trader, a bit of a wheeler dealer, he’s a bit of Del Boy 50-odd years before a Del Boy type character existed, but without him it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t happen because, as much as it’s joked about that he’s a bit of a wheeler dealer, without him things just wouldn’t happen. So it’s all very well saying ‘oh we got these animals, we’ve got this in place and that in place’, but at short notice when you need mangoes or whatever and you don’t know where to go, Billy’s your man who will go and sort it all out. There’s a lot of fun to be had with him. I don’t think he’s bad at what he does, I think he’s actually quite a savvy bloke but a lot of what he does has to be covered with bluster and smiles and patter – so I think he can be mistaken for someone who is a bit of a cretin whereas, actually, he always comes up with the goods in the end.
Is it fun playing Billy?
Yeah, I’m probably having more fun than anyone else because everyone else – their characters – have a lot of responsibilities and they are going through a lot of anxieties and Billy tends to breeze through life even if things aren’t going very well, he’ll sort of smile and glide over the top of it and somehow, with a bit of a grin, it always seems to work out for him in the end. Because of that I just get to have a load of fun playing him. When everyone else is having to go through this anxiety of ‘will this work, will that work’ and Billy just tends to swan around, going ‘yeah it’ll be fine!’ – I’m having a great time!
There’s a tension between Billy and his sister, Lizzie, isn’t there?
Well Billy’s got a bit of a reputation; he’s a bit of a womaniser so this means that he and his sister Liz are quite estranged. Billy is in this situation where he gets on really well with his brother-in-law George and he’s helping him with the zoo – but his sister who is married to George doesn’t get on with him because they fell out when he brought the family in to dispute by being a bit of a womaniser. He sort of disappeared off to America, being a bit of a trader, had a great life and came back a couple of years later to find Lizzie, his sister, is still not very happy with him. So he’s got that to overcome but the way he deals with it is very typically Billy – rather than tackling it head-on and talking to her and being grown up about it, he just sort of thinks that things will work around in the end. But actually, funnily enough, that works better than anything he could have done, he just keeps on managing to pull through and help out and in the end I think she comes around. It’s not entirely in the bag - I think she still has her reservations about him. Lizzie still thinks that Billy might drag the family down in to disrepute in some way… and who knows maybe he will.
What are some of the unique things that Billy tries to sell?
Well when we first meet him, he’s trying to flog sunglasses, electric shavers and lighters and that sort of thing – which sounds pretty run of the mill now, but in the 1930s no one had ever seen an electric shaver before, he might as well have turned up with an iPhone - people wouldn’t have known what on earth it was.
Doesn’t he also have peanut butter?
Oh yes, peanut butter had only just been invented and he got 10 crates of it, but Billy being Billy had heard that this was all the rage in America so he just ordered 10 crates of it thinking that it was going to take off here and opened a pot and tried it, and it was absolutely disgusting. Peanut butter in the 1930s isn’t what it is now. It’s much tastier now- it was sort of like wallpaper paste back then. He’s definitely got a bit of Del Boy about him, but he always comes up with the goods.
What attracted you to the project?
It’s a great script. Matt Charman is a very clever writer; I was a big fan of his already having seen his play The Machine, about the chess supercomputer Deep Blue and its match with Garry Kasparov. I saw that in Manchester and I thought it was brilliant, so I was already a fan of the writer anyway, so when I saw the script I thought it was really clever. I think there is a real fashion and interest at the moment in period – obviously there’s the success of Downton, Call the Midwife, Mr Selfridge that kind of thing, I’ve never done a period drama. The suits are great, so it was a chance to dress up. All actors want to play dress up, really, that’s really why we do it.
Is it a unique experience working with the animals?
Well they say never work with children or animals and we’ve got a nine year old girl and loads of animals on this. Honor is brilliant and the animals they’re… interesting, they are… I mean they’re animals. They’re not great at doing what they’re mean to do at the exact moment they’re supposed to, so it’s a challenge, but it’s unique. It’s a strange job for that reason. But I mean its every now and again when you have those moments where you’re like oh this is annoying we’re going to have to do this again, you have to stop yourself and go ‘this is AMAZING!, what we’re actually doing is amazing’.
Have you met the real June?
June is around quite a bit. She’s absolutely fantastic. What a character! And of course she lived through all of this, so it’s a mixture of being fascinated by the hearing of the real stories, so she’d be like ‘of course what you’re doing actually happened and I remember that my father was talking about the pelican and it was my favourite pet’. She’s absolutely amazing to have around, she’s a real character. Some of the stories that she tells are unbelievable. Which is why we are trying to make this. It’s those moments where you think to yourself, ‘Actually this is all true.’ I mean we’ve taken a couple of liberties with things here and there but, by and large, this is exactly how it happened and that’s quite extraordinary.