The Old Men at the Zoo (TV Series 1983– ) Poster

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Stark , Flabby , Uneven And Bleak Black Comedy That Can Still Disturb
Theo Robertson21 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers
This is adapted from Angus Wilson's novel by Troy Kennedy Martin . I've no knowledge of Wilson but Troy Kennedy Martin is a name familiar to me . He was born on the same island I was brought up on and in 1985 his teleplay EDGE OF DARKNESS was a massive critical hit . That drama gave the impression it was going to be a straightforward political thriller but then changed in to something entirely different . In many ways this black comedy is a precursor to that at least in spirit and structure ZOO got a Radio Times front page and in 1983 I was under the impression that I was going to be watching one of those off beat satirical dramas the decade would see later with BLOTT ON THE LANDSCAPE and A VERY PECULIAR PRACTISE so gave it a miss . It wasn't until after it was broadcast that I found out it was a piece of Dystopian speculative fiction . Somewhat typically this meant that I then wanted to see it but abandoned any hopes of that until I stumbled upon it last night

The 1980s was the era of Thatcherism and the title sequence hints that we're going to be watching a satire along the lines of BRITTANIA HOSPITAL , or a subtext lamenting the end of empire . The story starts with Simon Carter arriving as the new director of London Zoo sometime in the future . I think this type of future is generically called " the day after tomorrow " and finds a young keeper has been killed by a stampeding giraffe . The zoo hierarchy aren't keen on any public enquiries so effectively cover it up and Carter finds himself at odds with the eccentric and often reactionary old men running the zoo

Watching this today there is a slightly dated feel to it and you have to meet it on its terms to a degree . One problem is that the storytelling is somewhat flabby and concentrates on the more colourful and bizarre characters some of whom are dare I say superfluous to the plot such as Leacock's daughter who gets savaged by a dog during an off screen act of bestiality ( ! ) It's five episodes long but could be better told in four . That said the character driven elements do start taking a back seat to the plot that changes due to a massive plot turn towards the end of episode 4

The plot turn is a nuclear conflict between the Arabs and Europe that destroys the entire Middle East and leaves Britain devastated . ZOO probably isn't on the same shock level as THREADS but is fairly effective of showing the devastation and more especially the fascist new order that follows the war . Former reptile keeper Englander rules the shattered country in an iron grip and mankind being an evolved animal believes not all animals are equal and decides to keep Carter and any other dissident in a human zoo where putting down the caged animals is very common . The fate of Carter on what would appear on paper as bizarre and laughable is deeply disturbing and grotesque in execution . Goodness knows how this would have played out on an audience away back in 1983 who upon watching the opening episode were expecting something along the lines of a zoological version of a James Herriot type tale

This isn't a perfect television drama . It's rather flabby in its storytelling and I felt it was somewhat overlong and could have been streamlined . The build up to the war isn't entirely convincing with everyone being a bit too calm and reserved but once the war and its aftermath happens it is a rather disturbing piece of television something we probably wouldn't get nowadays
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