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The story behind BBC One’s Chester Zoo drama, Our Zoo

PUBLISHED: 09:55 15 September 2014 | UPDATED: 22:30 23 October 2015

Honor Kneafsey at June and Peter Wight as her grandfather Albert Mottershead in Our Zoo

Honor Kneafsey at June and Peter Wight as her grandfather Albert Mottershead in Our Zoo

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Chester Zoo is now one of the world’s favourite zoos. But, as a new TV drama tells, it began, over 80 years ago, as one man’s dream.

June Mottershead gets to grips with a pelican at Chester ZooJune Mottershead gets to grips with a pelican at Chester Zoo

Never work with children and animals, they say. Proving that motto wrong is the new feelgood BBC One drama Our Zoo, based on the true story of how George Mottershead set up Chester Zoo at Upton in the 1930s.

The ‘cast’ includes assorted wildlife. But the rising star of the show is ten-year-old Honor Kneafsey, playing the part of George’s daughter June, who grew up in the zoo with animals as her friends. June is now 87 and still lives near Chester Zoo. The family photo album reminds us now of a most unusual childhood, feeding pelicans, cuddling koala bears, petting lion cubs, conversing with chimps and riding bareback on a tapir.

George Mottershead and workmate at Chester ZooGeorge Mottershead and workmate at Chester Zoo

‘I was only four and a half when my father bought the zoo,’ she told the Daily Mail earlier this year. ‘There was a bad reaction to it at first because people were frightened of the noise and whether the wild animals might get out. In those days, Upton had lots of large houses and businessmen living there and they didn’t want something like this coming in and taking over.

‘I never thought my childhood was unusual as it’s just your parents and your home. You grow up all the same and don’t know any different.’

Lee Ingleby as George Mottershead in BBC One drama Our Zoo.Lee Ingleby as George Mottershead in BBC One drama Our Zoo.

George Mottershead (played by Lee Ingleby in Our Zoo) was born in Sale Moor in 1894. He suffered spinal injuries when he was hit in the neck by a bullet in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and had to be nursed back from paralysis. Two of his brothers died in the First World War.

In the 1920s, George, his parents, his wife Elizabeth and elder daughter Muriel all moved to Shavington, near Crewe, to set up a market garden, where George also started to show his collection of birds and other animals.

Stars of BBC One drama Our Zoo,  left to right Amelia Clarkson as Mew Mottershead, Liz White as Lizzie Mottershead and Honor Kneafsey as June.Stars of BBC One drama Our Zoo, left to right Amelia Clarkson as Mew Mottershead, Liz White as Lizzie Mottershead and Honor Kneafsey as June.

George’s attitudes to animals in captivity had been forever shaped by a visit to the zoo at Belle Vue, Manchester, when he was just eight. Horrified by the caged animals, he formed a vision of a zoo without bars. In 1930, he made this vision a reality by buying Oakfield Manor, Upton, and seven acres of land for £3,500.

Chester Zoo opened on June 10 1931. George’s motto was ‘Always building’, and his small collection of animals grew quickly, with two brown bears from a wildlife park in Matlock, a pair of elephants retired from circus life and an influx of moneys, apes, birds and reptiles.

George received the OBE in 1973, and died in 1978, aged 84. The zoo which began as seven acres today covers 110 acres and has 11,000 animals from 400 different species. It was this year named the UK’s best zoo, the second favourite in Europe and the sixth best zoo in the world by users of Trip Advisor.

Our Zoo is a six-part series, and began on BBC One on Wednesday September 3. Look out for some familiar filming locations, including Liverpool, Walton Hall, Warrington, Great Budworth, Lyme Park, Stockport Town Hall, Frodsham and Abney Hall, Cheadle.

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