A Stationary Ark


Gerald Durrell was an English naturalist, conservationist, author and tv presenter. He founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on Jersey in 1958 and also wrote many autobiographical books based on his experience, knowledge and love of animals.

I have just  been reading his 1980 script: The Edge of Extinction (BBC), where he describes living in “a kind of stationary ark”! This of course is the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, which evolved as he gave over the grounds of his house to “give sanctuary to some of the world’s rarest animals”. Durrell describes his work in this animal paradise as “really like running a first class hotel”:

“… the food has to be the very best, fresh fruit salad for the marmosets and tamarins, minced mouse for the Ibis chicks: straight down the throat as their mother does it”.

Well not quite:

“you have to keep a constant watch on maintenance, for we have a problem that no big hotel has, and that is that one of the guests might want to break out” ‘… and “ I don’t quite know if you’d do this to a guest at Claridge’s, but this is a wallaby … and routine veterinary inspection is necessary”

Reading this script inspired me to watch the 2005 BBC dramatization of Durrell’s book My family and Other Animals last night, which I enjoyed for its nostalgic trip to the pre-war world where Durrell’s love of creatures began, here as a boy on Corfu. We see this boy in Durrell again and again. Filed away in the BBC written archives is the proposed programme Menagerie Manor – life at the zoo with the Durrell’s, whose private flat is full of animals, and ‘where it is not unusual for a dinner party to be interrupted by the appearance at the door of a keeper with some problem – such as a sick Boa round his neck’. Further delving in this file reveals that the BBC 2 Controller of 1965, yes David Attenborough, was not so keen on a full evening “spectacular” of My family and Other Animals. He was concerned by the complications of mixing drama and natural history – the challenge of finding personnel that would cross natural history and drama genres – by the grip of restrictive union practices such as Equity, and that it might not sustain an audience. Such industrial relations are often a very evident presence in off-screen production decisions and practices, even though they may not be felt on-screen, as was happily the case in this 2005 BBC production.

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