NEVER work with animals or children, goes the old showbiz saying.
But Liz White broke both those ‘rules’ at the same time after playing mum and zookeeper in BBC One’s Our Zoo.
The 34-year-old has scared the living daylights out of viewers as an evil spirit in The Woman in Black and made her name as Annie in the time-travelling police drama hit, Life on Mars.
But performing alongside monkeys, camels and bears was completely new to her.
Liz plays the wife of George Mottershead in the 1930s drama about the early days of Chester Zoo. It was partly filmed at Walton Hall between March and June.
So what was it like breaking the old adage about animals and children?
“It was brilliant,” said Liz, speaking to Weekend at Oakfield Manor where the Mottershead family lived.
“They were both the easiest to work with. The animal handlers were on set at all times and they were excellent at observing the animals’ needs.
“Dennis the bear was so docile and Darhan the camel was extraordinary. What an energy. He was such a good actor as well. He would stand there like he owned the place.
“There is a scene in the first episode where Lizzie, my character, comes into the backyard and she is astonished and almost disgusted that her husband has brought a camel home.
“We have an argument in front of Darhan and George storms off – and I don’t think they’ve left it in the programme – but the camel watched George leave and then looked back at me as if to say: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ It was such brilliant timing.”
But Liz’s favourite animal to work with was the mischievous squirrel monkey.
She added: “We had this tiny little creature and watching Honor Kneafsey, who plays George’s daughter June, handle the monkey was amazing. It was as if they had been friends for life.
“She used to dip her hand in this bowl full of maggots and when we started filming she would very discreetly chuck one up for him to eat.”
Of all the animals it was actually the gentle love birds which gave Liz last minute nerves as there is a scene in the aviary where one of the birds uses its beak to climb on her finger.
“I felt a bit scared and it’s ridiculous because the love bird is a tiny, beautiful little thing,” said Liz.
Our Zoo is the true story of how the Mottershead family gambled everything they had to build the first British zoo without bars.
Liz added: “This completely unassuming family had a grocers shop and a florist and then managed to create the reality of their dream. It is a really inspiring story.”
And Liz told Weekend she was proud to play a strong woman who was instrumental in Chester Zoo’s success story behind the scenes.
She said: “Her husband had the idea but she supported him in every way that she could and helped make his dream and their dream come true.
“So the challenge of playing this in the 1930s is to get across the equality that could exist in the relationship.
“Lizzie was 10 years older than George. She’d been brought up on a farm so she was used to animals and used to land management and I don’t think George had any experience of that.
“So she would have been a great source of information for him.”
Liz also enjoyed chats with George and Lizzie’s daughter June Williams, who is now 88.
She added: “June often came to Walton Hall while we were filming and she would always remark on what a blast from the past it was.
“It’s one thing being told that the BBC are going to make this drama about your life and another to go on set and see how many people are involved, the money spent on it and the craft, skill and attention to detail. It must be really overwhelming.”
Liz knew she wanted to be an actor since she was at school and joined Barbican Youth Theatre in Plymouth.
She said: “I just loved making people laugh and doing impressions of people. I used to impressions of Julie Walters doing impressions of old women.
“Then my mate said that she went to youth theatre and it was like someone rang a bell in my head that if I wanted to be an actor then that’s what I had to do. It was the most fun that I ever had.”
Liz said her big break on Life on Mars felt like being part of a ‘juggernaut’.
She said: “It’s such a joy to think that people’s faith in BBC drama was restored again because of that show and to be part of TV history. It always gets mentioned on the best cop shows of all time.”
But Liz said one of her most challenging – and eerie – roles was playing ‘The Woman in Black’.
She added: “She was a ghost and she killed children for fun so it was quite a difficult head space to get into.
“But in terms of my process it was really helped by the fact that I had this massive Victorian mourning gown to wear with loads of layers of latex on my face “I looked really strange on set to the point where people couldn’t talk to me because I would just freak them out!”
- Our Zoo starts on BBC One tomorrow, Wednesday, at 9pm.