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'Congo' the TV chimpanzee and the 'biology of art' at London Zoo, 1956–62

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In April 1956, the Zoological Society of London signed an unlikely contract with Granada TV, Britain’s newly established commercial television franchise for the North West. The result, a resident film and TV unit in the grounds of London Zoo, was a world first. The unit is best remembered today for producing Zoo Time (1956–68), the weekly children’s show that gave Desmond Morris his big break on television. This paper focuses on a Zoo Time personality – not Morris, but a young chimpanzee dubbed ‘Congo’ by the programme’s audience. Congo became the mainstay of Zoo Time’s success in its first years on air, endearing himself to millions and earning an international media following for his remarkable ability to paint and draw. Morris, who first handed Congo pencil and paper, made him the subject of a systematic investigation into the evolutionary basis of art, spawning an academic film, a widely publicised exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and Morris’s first academic monograph, The Biology of Art (1962). In this paper, I use the story of Congo to exemplify how the complex media ecosystem of the Granada/ZSL Film and TV Unit could be pressed simultaneously into the service of commercial television, publicity for the world’s oldest scientific zoo, and the burgeoning discipline of ethology. I suggest how these domains shaped one another and put this in the context of the dynamics of science communication on British television in the 1950s and 1960s.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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