Channel 4 has commissioned a 1×60’ historical documentary that will spotlight the troubling history of Britain’s fascination with so-called ‘human zoos’, a disturbing cultural phenomenon of the late Victorian era that was popular through to the twentieth century.

Britain’s Human Zoos, made by Red Bicycle with Milk & Honey, will see Booker Prize shortlisted author Nadifa Mohamed (The Fortune Men) explore how African and Asian people were transported from their homeland, largely under dubious circumstances, and used as a “form of touring entertainment that exaggerated their perceived barbarous and exotic aspects.”

Nadifa will investigate the stories of the people brought to Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The film -part of Channel 4’s Secret History strand- will show “disturbing instances of how these people were subject to pseudo-scientific experimentation and will trace how the legacy of this now shocking phenomenon lives on in modern Britain.”

Shaminder Nahal, Head of Specialist Factual, Channel 4:“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.”

Paul Berczeller, Managing Director, Red Bicycle: “This was a very challenging film to make; 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.”

Nadifa Mohamed said: “I’ve wanted to know more about the history of Human Zoos for a long time, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the opportunity to go beyond the surface of what was already known. 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. To give light, agency and dignity to members of these Human Zoos who came here in a vastly different time is a real privilege.”

Lucy Pilkington, Founder and Managing Director, Milk and Honey Productions said: “It has been a privilege to recover these pioneering people’s stories, not just as strange and horrifying one-offs but as an integral part of history, because the history of Britain and Africa are inseparable.”

Britain’s Human Zoos is executive produced by Paul Berczeller for Red Bicycle and Lucy Pilkington for Milk & Honey. It was directed by Yasmin Hai and Paul Berczeller.  The Documentary was commissioned by head of Specialist Factual Shaminder Nahal for Channel 4.

Jon Creamer

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