“It Was Like Early Reality TV”: Channel 4 Orders History Doc ‘Britain’s Human Zoos’ On Shocking Victorian Entertainment Practice

EXCLUSIVE: Channel 4 has ordered Britain’s Human Zoos, a doc about a shocking but forgotten Victorian era entertainment practice.

The doc will likely air on the UK network later this year, and we hear active discussions are underway with a buyer in the U.S., with a Hollywood studio player understood to be interested.

The shocking exposé will see acclaimed Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed investigate the stories of the people brought to Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to appear in exhibitions called ‘human zoos.’ The pastime was hugely popular in the UK, Europe and U.S. as a forum where people from western colonizers could see Black and Brown people for the first time.

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Many members of the zoos were transported from their homelands under dubious circumstances to be used as a form of entertainment, many more were subject to psuedo-scientific studies and their stories largely untold and unknown to most people today.

“It was like early reality TV,” Mohamed told Deadline. “Fifty per cent of the British population saw them at their height. It was seen as educational, a glorious validation of the British Empire and a way people learned about the world.”

Mohamed, whose novel The Fortune Men was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, discovered the story after looking at pictures of people brought to Europe for the zoos. She then met a man whose father had been a member of a travelling zoo in Europe, and “knowing this is within living history made it feel so connected to our everyday lives now,” she said.

In the doc, Mohamed unveils interracial love stories that scandalised Britain, unearths hidden documents and tracks down descendants, and exposing how, unbelievably, some of the zoo members’ remains can still be found on display in museums to this day.

“This is a Western colonization story story, but it is also the story of people,” said Paul Berczeller, who is executive producing alongside Milk & Honey Productions’ Lucy Pilkington. “Those who went to the zoos were interested in the places they were colonizing but also felt superior.”

Nadifa added the story was not just a critique of the antiquated practice but also a means of giving back autonomy to the voiceless. “I discovered you can’t just have negative attitude. People had their own, diverse reasons for joining the zoos,” said Mohamed.

“Going on this journey has afforded me the chance to shed some of the secrecy and find stories that were touching and upsetting, but that also went against my own preconceptions,” she added. “To give light, agency and dignity to members of these human zoos who came here in a vastly different time is a real privilege.”

Berczeller’s British unscripted indie Red Bicycle is co-producing the film with Pilkington’s Milk & Honey. U.S.-born, UK-based director, producer and writer Berczeller launched Red Bicycle along with his former Free Turn Entertainment colleague Will Robson and author, producer and broadcaster Yasmin Hai. Berczeller and Hai are directing Britain’s Human Zoos.

Shaminder Nahal, Head of Specialist Factual, Channel 4 commissioned the film, which will be known internationally as Secrets of the Human Zoos. UK-based distributor Abacus Media Rights is on board to shop it.

Channel 4’s Nahal said: “This is a story that needed to be told and Nadifa brings the power of a master storyteller to these shocking buried histories. As she explores a love story that caused a scandal, an array of fascinating lost figures and the disturbing realities of imperialist fantasy dressed up as anthropology, we come face to face with hard questions about the past that reverberate to the present day.”

“This was a very challenging film to make,” added Berczeller. “However, it was incredibly important for us to tell these forgotten stories and remind people that horrifying events like this are not that far in our past. Nadifa handles the subject with such depth and sensitivity. It was remarkable to see her intelligence and compassion come to the fore, exploring these incredibly difficult emotional subjects. We hope the documentary serves as an important reminder that we still have a long way to go.”

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