Photo recall: Monty, it was a gruff ride to the top

Photo / Michael Tubberty, Photo research / Emma Land
Photo / Michael Tubberty, Photo research / Emma Land

Some actors start out in soft porn, daytime soaps, or ads for personal hygiene products.

In December 1994, 20-year-old Oliver Driver was making his way through the world of improv and piecemeal theatre work when he landed a summer gig at Auckland Zoo.

Sharing the spotlight can be tough, but a billy goat smart enough to walk on his tiptoes brings back fond memories for Driver.

His character Farmer Jack was no grass-eating, nose-picking hick paid to hang around like a prop, or vacant Shortland Street extra.

He had well-defined duties, Driver says. "It was an actual job. I did it for the whole summer and played Farmer Jack, who was in charge of all the ungulates [hoofed mammals]."

Despite the well-worn cliche about working with children and animals, the zoo wanted someone who could do just that.

"You were there to show kids the animals and have a good time, and to be a sort of interactive keeper with them," Driver recalls.

An eclectic group of youngsters formed the audience that December day.

Aged 3, Jaymie Murray came from Henderson with his mid-90s junior mullet in tow. Jordan Taylor, 8, and Ian Sullivan, aged 10, were Westmere kids, as were James Taylor, 11, and 7-year-old Fiona Sullivan on the far right.

It's not clear whether Driver's audience or co-stars were tougher to please. But Monty's exuberant nature made him the natural choice to share top billing.

"Monty could do tricks. Goats are very clever. You don't know this, but goats are trainable. Monty could walk on his hind legs. They were always getting out of their enclosures because they're so good at climbing and jumping."

Driver remembers a touching visit that summer from children sick with cancer.

Some children were so ill they had trouble seeing, but Farmer Jack could at least help them pat the furry and cuddly critters. "You could make a kid's day special. I really loved my time at Farmer Jack's."

Driver got to know the zookeepers, who showed their own acting skills with a running gag at his expense. Keepers would circulate near Driver, looking confused, pretending not to know where the zoo's resident lion was. Was he in the enclosure, one would ask in earshot of the young actor. No? Then where the hell was he, another asked worriedly, while Driver looked over at Monty. "I thought: I'm standing here holding an hors d'ouevre on a rope."

Nineteen years, and dozens of TV shows and stage appearances later, Driver is now about to star in young Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour's play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.

"It's on for about 16 nights with 16 actors I think, so it's a different actor each night.

"You turn up on the night and get given a script.

"None of the actors in it have any idea what it's about."

And neither do we. But you'd think Farmer Jack would most likely take a .22 to the rabbits.

- Herald on Sunday

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