Johnny Morris OBE was a Welsh television presenter for the BBC, mostly associated with children’s programmes on the topic of zoology and is probably best remembered for Animal Magic, which ran for 21 years and more than 400 editions.
Johnny was born in Newport, Wales, the son of a postmaster and was first discovered by the BBC telling stories in a pub. He made his radio debut in 1946, and featured in a number of Regional series throughout the 1950s often employed on light entertainment programs as a storyteller or as a commentator on local events.
A natural mimic and impersonator, Morris first appeared on television as The Hot Chestnut Man, where he would tell a humorous yarn in a West Country accent, often ending with a moral.
In 1960 he narrated the imported, Canadian-produced Hammy Hamster’s Tales of the Riverbank; a series of stories about Hammy the Hamster, Roderick the Rat, GP the Guinea Pig, and their assorted animal friends from the riverbank. The show used slowed-down footage of real animals filmed doing humanised things such as driving a car or boat, and living in houses.
Morris’s ability to create a world which children could relate to through his mimicry lead to his best known role, that of the presenter, narrator and zoo keeper for Animal Magic. From 1962 until 1984, filmed in part at Bristol Zoo Gardens, Morris would carry out a comic dialogue with the animals, whom he also voiced. His regular companion on the show was Dotty the Ring-tailed Lemur, and he presented more than 400 editions. The show was only ended when more modern cameras were introduced, allowing filming to take place in natural habitats, so the idea of putting human qualities and voices to animals disappeared.
In the 1970s, Morris read children’s bedtime stories for the Post Office to be heard via the telephone. Children could dial 150 and hear a different story over the telephone each week. He was also a presenter on BBC School Radio’s Singing Together and wrote and read stories on BBC School Radio’s A Service for Schools which was later renamed Together.
Although in later years he was criticised in the 1990s for putting human-qualities to animals, he practised what he preached in environmentalism, and in his eighties demonstrated against the building of the Newbury Bypass near his home.
A diabetic, Morris collapsed at his home in Hungerford, Berkshire in March 1999 when he was about to star in new animal series Wild Thing on ITV. Admitted to the Princess Margaret Hospital, Swindon for tests, he was discharged to a nursing home in the Devizes and Marlborough district, where he died on 6th May 1999.
He was awarded the OBE in 1984. His autobiography, ‘There’s Lovely’, was first published in 1989.