The Morris Men and what they did for Swindon
9:56am Wednesday 5th June 2013 in By Barry Leighton
THERE were two shows worth hurrying home from school to watch during the Sixties which didn’t involve an outbreak of serious hostilities bordering on violence between me and my sister over what should be shown on our grainy black and white television set.
They were about animals and presented by men called Morris. Both were bags of fun with an edge of unpredictability which would often provoke outbreaks of convulsive laughter.
Snakes on the loose scaring cameramen, chimps showing their bums, a pair of lions suddenly doing something they probably shouldn’t be doing in front of millions of wide-eyed kids. Desmond and Johnny Morris loved grappling with animals. The more cerebral and educational of the two programmes, Zoo Time saw Desmond provide a fascination insight into how animals behaved.
An element of slapstick prevailed at Johnny’s Animal Magic. While Desmond was in reality a curator at London Zoo, Johnny pretended to be a hapless keeper bumbling around Bristol Zoo, getting into comical scrapes while bathing or feeding the residents.
With a touch of ventriloquism, he even gave the animals silly voices as he gently clowned around with them in front of the cameras.
Moving to Swindon years later it was surprising to learn that both men had strong links with the area – Desmond’s great grandfather even founded the very organisation I had been hired to work for, the Swindon Advertiser.
Bizarrely, I met and interviewed both men at the same place, the Swindon Museum in Bath Road, Old Town owing to another passion, outside of natural history, that they shared – contemporary art.
Swindon has a fine collection of modern art; even the Greeks, fathers of culture and art, once borrowed 22 works from Swindon to mount to an exhibition in Athens.
The collection, however, would not have existed but for Johnny’s best pal and mentor, Jimmy Bomford. Young Johnny managed Bomford’s Aldbourne farm in the 1940s and recalled how his boss, an avid art collector, donated 21 works to Swindon, including a Henry Moore and a Lowry.
The legacy kick-started the now nationally acknowledged Swindon Collection. There in 1991 to launch a catalogue of the town’s 250 finest works Johnny – a Friend of Swindon Museum – said: “Jimmy loved art. He wanted the public to enjoy it too. He was very keen that these works should be publically displayed in Swindon.”
And he added in those familiar soft tones, while admiring the museum’s gallery of paintings: “He would have loved this.” As a TV star, he visited Swindon many times from his home near Marlborough; attending functions, supporting local events and making daft animal noises upon request.
I later interviewed Johnny, then 77, at his converted 17th Century barn where he lived contentedly with three cats. He was charming and funny – a bit like a chatty, amiable uncle – and every now and then picked up a violin and started playing it.
It was for a 1994 Valentine’s Day feature and he revealed how he wooed his future wife, divorced mother-of-two Eileen Minett, not with flowers or chocolates but with a string of onions.
It was war-time in Wiltshire and Johnny had no idea how to express his feelings for Eileen – she was older than him and also “about a foot taller.” And then suddenly, inspiration. “I would give Eileen something you simply couldn’t buy during the war. We had them on the farm.”
Eileen died in 1989. Johnny took me to his shrubbery, adorned with a statue of Diana, the Roman goddess of love – and said: “This is where she is – I talk to her every day.”
Johnny joined her in the shrubbery five years later, buried with his zoo keeper’s cap, after passing away at Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon, aged 82.
Desmond, whose 1967 book The Naked Ape – a study of human behaviour from a zoologist’s perspective – became an international bestseller, is an altogether different creature.
Television presenter, film-maker, author, zoologist… but also one of Britain’s finest surrealist painters.
Born in Purton in 1928, he moved to Victoria Road, Swindon when he was five, attended long-gone Swindon High School in Bath Road and having become “obsessed with art,” created a furore with his first exhibition, aged 20, at Swindon Arts Centre.
Some 44 years later he was back in Swindon, at the Bath Road gallery, for a major retrospective.
Desmond, whose surrealist works have been exhibited all over the world, said at the time: “People think my painting is a hobby, but it isn’t. I was doing it long before the other stuff and it’s more important to me than anything else.”
Which brings us nicely onto Diana Dors’ lips.
In 2002, Swindon council acquired – with £1,000 each from the Friends of the Museum and Art Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum – a Morris original.
Girl Selling Flowers is a collage of colourful imagery with a gorgeous pair of ruby red lips at its heart. Desmond painted it when he was 18 after returning to Swindon from London’s Petticoat Lane market.
On the phone from his Oxfordshire home he said: “I wanted to capture the colour and noise from hundreds of market stalls. Diana, who was a couple of years younger than me, was my girlfriend at the time. “I decided to incorporate her into the painting. Those big red lips symbolised Diana – they were her logo. These days stars have surgical treatment to get lips like that but Diana’s were natural.”
After a second or two, and perhaps a sigh, he added: “I have very vivid memories of Diana’s lips.” Who wouldn’t!
Desmond has often told how the nation’s future screen goddess, the “exotic young” Diana Fluck, taught him how to jitterbug at their Swindon hideaway, Queens Park.
This particular spot, his own “secret, private domain” played a big part in his life. It is where the young Desmond acquired an affinity with wildlife that would lead him into zoology and thus become the face of British TV’s first natural history programme. Today, Queens Park has become “a beautifully kept, neat and tidy public place,” as he described it.
But in his youth, during war years, it was “a magical, mysterious wilderness… a wild, unkempt jungle” where he observed large colonies of toads, frogs, smooth newts, sharp nose pike, roach, perch and chub, wild-fowl and “all the wild birds in huge variety.”
When the last surviving corner of this nature-rich wilderness was threatened with a “perverse” plan for a 32-bed travel-lodge Desmond was swift to support local residents who opposed the development… which they thankfully managed to do.
“There is no doubt about it,” he later wrote, “my little Lost World hidden away in the very heart of Swindon was the place which fired my imagination.”
Desmond on Johnny
This is what Desmond said of Johnny: “Johnny Morris was an old friend… we’d known one another since the 1940s, before either of us had stepped in front of a microphone. I was very fond of him.
“But I couldn’t stand the anthropomorphism (attributing human voices and characteristics to animals) of what he was doing, because I was trying very hard to show animal’s natural behaviour.
“I hated the funny voices and all the rest of it. I knew it was entertaining, but it was the old-fashioned form of television and it was very difficult for me because I loved Johnny as a person, but I didn’t like his way of televising animals.”
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