Lee Ingleby interview

Lee Ingleby Plays George Mottershead

George Mottershead
Lee Ingleby as George Mottershead
How would you describe Our Zoo?

It’s the story of a man who decides – through a series of events to open a zoo. He takes pity on some animals that he sees at the Liverpool docks whether they’re going to be mistreated or put down – he buys them and then realises that he’s got a camel, a monkey and a parrot – and one thing leads to another. He starts to think about things and he sees this house, Oakfield House, at a sale at an auction and he starts to get these ideas in his head of “oh maybe I could open a zoo”. But he’s very passionate about a zoo which doesn’t inhibit animals because of what he saw during his time in the first war – not just with the people, but with the horses and the animals that were involved in the war in the trenches and stuff; he’s seen fear in animals and he doesn’t want to see that again. So he sets about this idea of creating a space for these mistreated animals and giving them as much freedom as he possibly can. Obviously there has to be some sort of barrier, but he has to create natural barriers and so he wants to let these animals breath and live and also for people to see them as well.

Does George face a lot of opposition to his zoo idea?
Yeah, so in the story, the town that the house sits – it’s a place called Upton – and the villagers don’t want the zoo and they don’t understand what it is. I think they’re fearful of upsetting the apple cart, they like everything “just so” and I think they feared the animals escaping, so George has this battle of this desire of wanting to create this little bit of animal heaven and having to deal with the opposition by trying to get them involved and get them on-side to reassure them. But I think sometimes they just don’t want to be reassured. They just don’t want to listen.
Who are the other members of the family – and do they support George’s dream?
I think initially there is only one member of his family who is all up for the zoo – or up for the animals at least – which is his youngest daughter, June. The other members of the family are a bit more realistic and I think anybody saying, ‘Listen I want to open a zoo, there’s a house for sale down the road, it’s massive’ I think they’d just go ‘Forget about it’. I think he’s trying to convince everybody, but I don’t think he’s trying to convince himself because it’s obvious to him. It makes him happy. It brings calm to him because he suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder - which was called Shell Shock in those days - and it’s taken him all this time 12 years later to get over that and he’s suddenly found something that brings peace to him and drives him as well at the same time. And so he is going for it and he’ll go for it come hell or high water. I think his wife is cautious rather than against him… but I think once he gets the wink from her then its full guns ahead!
What attracted you to the project?
It was just a really lovely script. It was just one of those that just stood out. I liked the family within it and the fact that it is a true story and at the very heart of it, there’s this nice tale of someone trying to do some good. And, you know, there is a little bit of him doing it for himself - but I think ultimately it is to create this haven. I just liked it. I liked him. I liked his drive, I liked his vision, I liked the way that everything was against him and around him and I wanted to marry everything and create this wonderful thing.
Did you know much about the history of Chester Zoo before you started work on the project?
No I didn’t. I didn’t know the story or anything like that and so, looking in to it more and realising the lengths that they went to. I don’t think that would ever happen today; there would be too many restrictions and barriers and people just laughing, you know, to the point where he’d be like ‘Forget it’ and go back to his life. I think that’s almost there; there are a lot of people laughing at George and he just has his blinkers on saying ‘No I can create something’ – and he does. I think it was just all about his desire was to create this zoo but to keep it with no barriers no bars, no cages. He didn’t want to see any animals locked at all, he wanted to keep them free as much as he could and I think that was for him to provide sanctuary for lost animals and for animals that were going to be destroyed and forgotten about and he just took them in. And then of course it’s business.
What has it been like working with animals?
The animal handlers are great. They give the animal all the time. We’ve got to work around the animal, not around us. We give it all the space and the time it needs because they have to be happy. Mortimer the monkey was great to play alongside.
Do the handlers prep you before you work with the animals?
Yes they give us as much information as we need to, so we know what not to do and then after that it’s just growing comfortable with them and handling them as though we have been handling it for a long time. And they’re unpredictable so you just got to go with however they’re feeling.
What’s that like working with an animal who you have to work around rather than the other way?
They always say don’t work with animals and children and we’ve got both, and they have been problem free. I think it’s the rest of us that have had a struggle! But, no, they have been absolutely fine. Some of it is amazing, we had the lions and I had to stand in front of the lion. Obviously there was a cage between me and the lion, but you forget yourself for a minute and think – look there’s a lion. Then you have to do a scene. But, no, it’s been amazing working with them.
Have you done any CGI scenes?
Yeah we have a bear. We have two bears in the story, which is again true; the real George went to Matlock to get these bears that were being mistreated and just abandoned in a cave, they go and rescue them and try and create this enclosure for it. So we have worked with the bears, but again we can’t really work together because they’re bears so it’s a case of filming them and then we come in and film the same scene but without the bear and then, by the magic of television it comes together. It’s important that we watch what the bear does and then we just try and remember and act, again it’s the animals who just lay down the law and we just follow which is how it should be I think.
What’s it like working with the other cast members?
I’ve worked with Liz before who plays my wife and I’ve also worked with Peter and Anne who play my father and mother which always helps. So I knew them straight away and they’re just lovely people to work with. And then coupled with the kids – it’s like we’ve become a little family. We’re very protective of each other so it’s lovely. From the word go we really we just found each other’s rhythms really easily and just clicked. It’s lovely really, we have fun doing it.