Exclusive Interview: ‘Our Zoo’s Lee Ingleby

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BBC Drama Our Zoo chronicles the unusual history of one of the UK’s most popular attractions, Chester Zoo.

Lee Ingleby stars as the mastermind of the project George Mottershead, a World War One survivor bent on creating a cage-free refuge for unwanted animals. The show was supported by Creative England’s Production Services team who provided key locations advice and helped secure regional crew members for the shoot. Full details of how we supported Our Zoo can be found on our Production Services blog.

With the show arriving on DVD, we caught up with actor Lee Ingleby to discuss becoming George Mottershead, shooting in the North and his thoughts on returning to the character for a second series…

How did you approach the character of George Mottershead?

When we find him at the beginning of the series he’s a shadow of his former self. He was severely injured during the war, he was shot in the neck and it affected his spine and he didn’t think he would walk again. It took him two years to learn how to walk and his brothers died during the war. When we find him it’s been a few years since the war but it still affects him and shell shock back then was treated differently from the post traumatic stress we know of now.

I wanted to see him as he finds something he’s passionate about, something he’s good at and something he has a real determination for which is animals, the safety of their upkeep and also learning from them and housing them in a way that doesn’t feel as though he’s caging them up. It’s about creating an environment that’s as open and as free as you can possibly make it and that was fascinating. He’s almost like a bud turning into a flower, opening up and seeing the light in his eyes again and his passion and his drive sometimes to the point of distraction,

Did you feel any pressure knowing you were playing a character that’s based on a real person?

Oh absolutely. I think we all did, all of us as actors and the crew as well. We kept it as truthful as we possibly could and of course you’ve got certain dramedies that you’ve got to put in because we don’t know what so-and-so said to so-and-so at any given moment but the story’s within the realms of truth. We wanted to make sure we got it right as well as telling the story and a beautiful story at that,

British period dramas are in high demand at the moment. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. The reason I enjoy them is because it’s a world that’s not too far away. In terms of Our Zoo it was 70, 80 years ago – it wasn’t really that long ago but it was a completely different world. We look at what we have today and our technology and compare it to the people who lived in the 20s and 30s and it’s a world away. Social attitude, fashion, the way people presented themselves, work ethics – it was all completely different and I think people find that really fascinating. The Interwar Years are fascinating,

The visual look of the show was brilliant. What were your favourite locations from the shoot?

There were a couple. I enjoyed working at the docks, even though they weren’t actually the docks, they were made to look like the docks. It just looked so good and busy and you got a real taste of what working life was like but also the house itself, Oakfield House – the location of that was fantastic because it just felt like it was a character in itself. The cast and crew became very protective of it and it became ours, even though it wasn’t ours!

You shot primarily in the North – what did the cast and crew get up to in their down time?

Well a lot of us are from round there or not too far away. There was a really lovely atmosphere and the weather was lovely which always helps, it was just nice. There wasn’t really much down time to be honest. We’d finish filming for the day and apart from a bite to eat and a peruse over the script again it was back to work. It was quite a full-on shoot really but it was an enjoyable one,

You’re from the North yourself. Do you have a soft spot for Northern locations?

Yeah, I think it’s because it’s all areas that I knew as a kid. It’s always nice to be home and to take half an hour away and drop in on my parents and say hello. I enjoy working in the North, it’s always a friendly place to work,

25% of the cast are animals – did you have any pets growing up to prepare you for this?

Well we always had dogs growing up and cats as well but I didn’t have any baboons or lions or anything but I love animals and I suppose that always helps. I enjoy being around animals and learning about them and watching nature programmes. A lot of the cast just found it fascinating to share the screen with them because they weren’t just ordinary animals, they were their own characters. They were who they were as well, so it was lovely to work with them,

They say you should never work with animals or kids – Our Zoo had both. Do you feel prepared for anything now?

Yeah well to be honest the animals and kids were fantastic, we didn’t have any trouble with either one of them. They were all spot on and they all knew their lines which was great and more than can be said for some of us sometimes. We had absolutely no trouble,

Would this be a character that you’d like to revisit and if so – where would you like to see the story go next?

Oh definitely, if they recommissioned it I’d be over the moon. I know Matt the writer knows where he wants it to go if we went again but it’s also the fact that they struggled when they first opened, they were in debt and they didn’t make any money for years so I think there’s plenty of potential there with them struggling with it all but who knows,

How do you feel about becoming the new Bob the Builder?

I’m excited by it. I think we’ve all got to bear in mind that it’s for kids at the end of the day. I had some people tweeting me going ‘No! This should never happen, you shouldn’t change it, you’ve ruined my childhood!’ but I think, ‘You had that..’ this is taking it on a different journey and it’s for a new audience. What they’re able to do is create a bigger and better and shinier world and the kids are going to love that. I love doing different things and you should just have fun and not take it too seriously,

What’s your go-to item that you can fix around the home?

Oh no, I’m terrible at DIY – I’d just get somebody in. I can’t fix it!

Our Zoo is out now on DVD

Need help filming in Manchester, filming in Liverpool or filming in Warrington? Contact our Production Services team.

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