The first wildlife series aimed at children appeared on ITV in 1956 at the instigation of Granada Television boss Sidney Bernstein. After consultation with London Zoo's animal specialist, Dr Desmond Morris, who argued that the animals would be more at home and more likely to be better behaved in familiar surroundings, a special residential television studio, the only one in the world, was built within the grounds of the zoo, and the TV show, hosted by Desmond Morris, was broadcast from there weekly.
In all 331 live half-hour editions (with pre-filmed inserts) of Zoo Time were produced and not all of them were without mishap. On one occasion a deadly cobra escaped from its basket and a terrified cameraman ended up taking refuge from atop his camera pedestal where he continued to film the episode.
Another famous incident involved Andrew Watson dashing across the studio to retrieve an escaped vampire bat and forgetting that he still had his neck microphone attached. Half way across the studio the cable of his sound equipment suddenly reached its maximum length and the unfortunate presenter was bought to a jarring halt and immediately vanished from camera view. All the viewers could hear was the sound of Watson trying to wrestle the strangulating cord from around his neck, and many were convinced that the bat had attacked him. Within minutes of the broadcast going out newspapers were phoning the zoo demanding to know if it was true that a vampire was loose and if it had already killed one person!
Not content with just alarming the viewing public, the programme sometimes caused any watching mums and dads a certain amount of embarrassment, too, such as the time Desmond Morris tried to present a segment whilst a lion mounted his mate. Aware of the situation going on behind him, Morris moved swiftly along only for another lion to come into view and begin performing the same act.
But for most viewers the highlight of the shows was always a chance to see the antics of the young chimpanzees. And it seems each viewer had his or her favourite. One young chimp, called Congo, showed an artistic talent and Morris adorned the walls of his office with Congo's creations. One fan was so impressed that he even purchased one of Congo's works of art. That fan's name was Pablo Picasso!
In 1959 Desmond Morris relinquished his role as series presenter to move on to Animal Story (Granada TV 1960-62), which was presented from both the London and the larger open-air Whipsnade Zoo. His place was taken by director and cinema documentary pioneer , and a host of presenters followed him until Chris Kelly took over for the final year (1967-68).
Other famous names associated with the unit were Derek Twist, Phillip Oakes and Milton Schulman. The show was also instrumental in maintaining the zoo's status as one of London's top visitor attractions.
Published on February 13th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (January 2003) for Television Heaven.