The TV show, Animal Magic, delighted children and adults alike, thanks to presenter Johnny Morris, who seemed to have a natural bond with his four-legged co-stars. The long-running series was both educational and humorous, as it combined footage of various animals with voice-overs, so it appeared they were talking like people.
The animal-lover hosted the popular BBC show from 1962 until 1983. It was part-filmed at Bristol Zoo and the wonderful comedy sketches grabbed the viewers’ interest, while Morris, dressed as a zoo keeper, narrated many interesting facts about the furry and feathered stars.
Tales of the Riverbank
Newport-born Morris, who was 46 when he launched Animal Magic, was no stranger to working with our four-legged friends. Completely ignoring the show business saying, “never work with children or animals”, earlier in his career, he had narrated Tales of the Riverbank.
The series was broadcast by the BBC in 1960 and featured real animals including Hammy Hamster and GP the Guinea Pig doing human things, such as driving little cars and boats.
Morris had provided voice-overs for all of the animals. It was no mean feat persuading a group of tiny rodents to perform tricks, and various techniques were used, such as smearing food on the objects they had to touch!
Progressing to larger zoo animals three years later was something Morris did with ease. He had a true rapport with animals and the lovely thing about Animal Magic was that both he and the animal stars seemed to be enjoying themselves. Again, Morris provided the voice-overs for every animal on the show.
Many amazing creatures appeared on screen with Morris during the show’s run. In one famous episode, he is helped by a chimpanzee to build a giraffe house. However, the not-so-helpful chimp makes plenty of excuses not to do the work. In the end, he even persuades Morris to share a cup of tea!
In another memorable episode, Morris sat in the gorilla house, where he bravely took a few knocks while taking part in some rough and tumble!
The presenter managed to keep a smile on his face, as he was wrestled to the ground and jumped on by two fully-grown gorillas, who were “showing him who was boss”! It was amazing he wasn’t injured, although the gorillas didn’t show him any malice and seemed to be just playing rough.
One of his regular companions on-screen was Dotty the ring-tailed lemur, who was particularly tame. After appearing on numerous episodes over an eight-year period throughout the 1970s, she became well-known in her own right.
Morris featured on an episode of the factual television series TV Heroes in 1993, presented by Danny Baker. Many old black and white clips from Animal Magic were shown, delighting a new generation of viewers.
He was shown showering an elephant with a hosepipe – but Morris ended up wetter than his huge pal! He was also featured feeding and talking to the rhinos and letting a pair of squirrels run up and down his arms as they ate nuts.
He invented voices for exotic fish and various species of bird and allowed smaller monkeys to climb all over him and even pinch his nose! He skipped down the road with a llama, helped a baby elephant settle down in the hay for the night and played with penguins as he cleaned their tank.
He found humour everywhere and gave each animal its own personality, creating a world that kids could relate to, while keeping the show fresh and fun for more than 400 episodes.
End of an era
The show finally came to an end in 1983, when people’s perception of animals began to change. BBC bosses reportedly felt it had run its course because viewers no longer wanted to see animals in a zoo environment with human qualities and voices.
They ditched Animal Magic in favour of more wildlife shows where the animals were filmed in their natural environment. Sadly, much of the original footage from Animal Magic no longer exists, as it was reportedly cleared out in the 1990s by BBC chiefs.
Clips of the surviving shows on YouTube still attract lots of viewers to this day. Morris was awarded an OBE in 1984 and produced his autobiography, There’s Lovely, in 1989.
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