Ahh, Johnny Morris. They don’t make children’s television presenters dressed as zoo keepers who pretend the animals are talking to them like that anymore do they? If you’re a child who grew up in the 1960s or 70s then chances are you got your introduction to the natural world through the warmth and charisma of Morris and the loquacious creatures that he hung about with for Animal Magic.
Animal Magic was a children’s television programme that began in April 1962, with the intention of giving its young viewers both a fun and an educational insight into the lives of the zoo’s inhabitants. Morris, dressed as the aforementioned zoo keeper would carry out both sides of conversations between him and his furry friends, or provide a voiceover for various animals shown in the wild through video clips. Up until that point I had never given much thought to what kind of voice a penguin might have if it chose to speak but the moment I heard Morris provide it I just knew he had to be absolutely correct.
Ernest John ‘Johnny’ Morris’ gift for humorous narration was what started his broadcasting career in the first place. Whilst working as a farm manager in Wiltshire he was overheard recounting anecdotes in a pub by Desmond Hawkins (a producer at the BBC and later a fundamental part of setting up their Natural History Unit) who signed him up straight away. Morris made his radio debut in 1946 fronting mostly light entertainment programmes including Pass the Salt, a show where he would take on different jobs for a day at a time. On one occasion this involved him becoming a zoo keeper.
In 1953 Morris transferred his skills to television where he assumed the identity of ‘The Hot Chestnut Man’; he would sit by a pan of roasting chestnuts (obviously) and tell a gently humorous children’s story. Seven years later he became the voice of ‘Tales of a Riverbank’, an imported Canadian programme which featured real small animals inserted into whimsical tales set on a fake waterside. This meant that you would often turn on to see a slightly confused rat at the wheel of a tiny motorboat as it meandered up stream or a hamster having his photo taken on a camera designed by a guinea pig (it happened).
Around the same time as Morris’ stint as the Hot Chestnut Man was coming to an end, the BBC were in the midst of setting up the already mentioned Natural History Unit. They asked Morris to come on board their new animal show - which was to be based at Bristol Zoo - and his natural charisma and obvious connection with the wild inhabitants that he encountered with was a winning formula, not just with the children it was intended for, but with many adults as well. Morris obviously also got to extend his repertoire of creature vocals from small, wet rodents to elephants, giraffes, leopards and more.
Most people, when asked to recollect Animal Magic will come up with Johnny Morris as the main man, but not everybody remembers that he had a host of co-presenters throughout the show’s run; the most notable of these being Gerald Durrell, David Taylor and Terry Nutkins.
Gerald Durrell is remembered for being an author, conservationist, naturalist and zoo keeper, not to mention being the founder of Durrell Wildlife Park and what is now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
David Taylor was a vet, although not just any old ordinary vet. He was the first veterinary surgeon to go on to focus on wildlife and zoo medicine, through which he was consulted on some of the world’s rarest species, in particular for his expertise in treating marine mammals. He was renowned for some of the more creative techniques he used; he performed the first ever zebra caesarean and once gave a hornbill a prosthetic beak. He wrote several books detailing his experiences which were made into the BBC series One by One and Taylor also appeared on numerous occasions in No. 73, where he often brought in interesting creatures for the viewers to see.
Terry Nutkins is beloved of a generation of children who grew up witnessing both his passion for wildlife and his eccentric hairstyle. He and Morris worked well together, and Nutkins later described the older man as his second mentor (his first being Gavin Maxwell, a naturalist he had worked for in his teenage years). Nutkins’ appearance on the show coincided with the producers’ attempts at harnessing new technology; camera trickery which allowed the presenters to be put into the animal action; for instance being ‘shrunk’ into a scene in order to enter a creature’s world. Nutkins often appeared on screen with the sea lion which he had raised from a pup, Gemini, and was the man to go to for information on anything which resided in or near water.
Perhaps, however, the most memorable co-presenter was Dottie – a ring-tailed lemur who appeared with Johnny for eight years of the programme’s run. She didn’t add much to the conversation, but she was very cute.
Animal Magic ran until March 1983, with over four hundred programmes broadcast during that time. When it first began it was a fortnightly edition, until its popularity persuaded the BBC to show it weekly from 1964. It’s original theme music was distinctive; the well-known ‘Las Vegas’ which was composed by Laurie Johnson and performed by the Group Forty Orchestra. A seventies’ update brought in heavy use of the wah-wah pedal – something I strongly believe more theme tunes would be wise to employ.
In 1983 the powers that be decided that the viewing public were no longer interested in watching animals with funny voices, and Animal Magic was dropped from the schedules; Morris was reportedly hurt and angry with this decision. To add to this the BBC, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the show wasn’t worth hanging on to, and in 1990 destroyed many of the episodes, depriving many children of a genuinely amusing, empathetic and educational animal experience.
Not to mention the chance to hear how a chimp would speak if he were a builder constructing a giraffe house. It happened.