Home Television Drama Old Men at the Zoo, The

Old Men at the Zoo, The

1 9 8 3 (UK)
5 x 55 minute episodes

This five-part BBC drama was a dark mixture of high drama and low comedy set against the backdrop of London Zoo for a near-future tale of imperial decline and war – between Britain and the Middle Eastern state of Bilad al Hawa.

Simon Carter (Stuart Wilson), the zoo’s newly-appointed young secretary, finds himself surrounded by fanatical old men whose answers to the impending crisis all ignore either morality or reality.

The titular old men themselves are extremely well-played with Robert Morley as the deliciously wicked and politically manipulative press baron and zoo president, Lord Godmanchester; Andrew Cruickshank as curator of insects, Mr Sanderson; Richard Wordsworth as curator of birds, Mr Price; and Marius Goring as curator of reptiles, Emile Englander.

Carter’s wife, Martha (Toria Fuller) returns from America where she has left their children for safety and the zookeepers make arrangements for war. Sanderson prepares butterflies to survive an atomic blast while Price plans to smash his aviary’s glass to release the birds.

Meanwhile, the new director of the Zoo, Sir Robert Falcon (Robert Urquhart), is making plans for Empire Day, a grand Victorian spectacle and Carter is furious that Falcon is ignoring the threat of war. Lord Godmanchester calls Carter from Snowdonia (where he has retreated to prepare for a post-war devolved government) urging Carter to support the project as a means of raising national morale.

At home, Martha has admitted to Carter that she slept with Falcon while she was abroad and has moved into the basement in preparation for an attack. Carter tells her that he will know when a war is imminent because the Home Office will order the destruction of dangerous animals.

The next morning, soldiers arrive at the zoo to shoot the animals and a Home Office official calls Carter to tell him that missiles are on their way in 20 minutes.

Falcon is still oblivious, and his secretary locks him in his office while Carter helps Price release his birds. Falcon escapes and berates Carter with a megaphone from the zoo’s clock tower. Price is breaking the aviary’s glass roof when a missile destroys the zoo.

The series was adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin from a 1960s novel by Angus Wilson. The series stays close to the novel’s plot until the fifth episode, which deviates into an extended portrayal of Britain under the dictatorship of the neo-fascist ‘One Europe’ and Simon Carter’s imprisonment and torture.

Two years after the missile attack on the zoo, Carter is awoken from a coma by Emile Englander – the zoo’s new director – wearing the uniform of the right-wing paramilitary organisation ‘One Europe’.

Simon Carter
Stuart Wilson
Emile Englander
Marius Goring
Mr Sanderson
Andrew Cruickshank
Strawson
Barry Stanton
Martha Carter
Toria Fuller
Lord Godmanchester
Robert Morley
Sir Robert Falcon
Robert Urquhart
Dr Charles Langley-Beard
John Phillips
Matthew Price
Richard Wordsworth
Mrs Purrett
Priscilla Morgan
Maryon
Jacquie Cassidy
Dr Edwin Leacock
Maurice Denham
Lord Oresby
Roland Culver
Diana Price
Shelagh Fraser
Harriet Leacock
Jan Harvey
Violet Carter
Kipper Ellis
Reggie Carter
Alan Renton

Episodes

A Tall Story | Godmanchester’s Plan | Exodus | Armageddon | The Year Of The Yeti