A lion escapes from the zoo and kills a Rotorua poodle. Weird story, but how did it actually happen? Jean Sergent watches Who Killed Lucy The Poodle?, a TVNZ documentary that attempts to get to the bottom of the legendary affair.
For some reason, this story makes perfect sense to me. The premise of Who Killed Lucy The Poodle? is a faded childhood memory about a gang of lions loose in Rotorua after feasting on poodle meat, sparking a hobby investigation 32 years later. It’s the most New Zealand thing I’ve ever heard. It elicits in me a passionless nonchalance like an uncle at a barbecue saying, “oh yup” to the news that another teenager in your family is pregnant. You wouldn’t know it from my expressionless New Zealand face but I am absolutely living for this vintage drama.
The series is a four-months-off-work labour of love by Rotorua boy Kent Briggs. Briggs is a curly-haired smiler, the type of ingratiating chap you’d invite in for a cup of tea and proceed to tell him all your dark family secrets. His brother Gareth – who lives in Austria for some reason, as if that’s a perfectly normal place for a New Zealander to emigrate to – pops up on Skype to confirm Kent’s childhood memories that they were in fact at the circus the day the lions broke free, and to give Kent some sound advice like, “I think you should speak to the cops before you talk to anyone else.” Absolute pearl of wisdom, cheers Gareth.
Kent Briggs, amateur autobiographical sleuth, enlists the mentorship of TV cop legend Graham Bell, introduced to the audience by way of an absolutely brilliant supercut. The casting of the former Police 10-7 host is a tremendous coup for fans of phrases like “bloody mongrels” and “bloody scumbags”, and those nostalgic for Bell’s verbiage are in for a treat as he guides hapless Kent through crime investigation 101.
The alleged lion-freeing circus in question was Whirling Brothers Circus, which was top dog in the ’80s circus scene here in God’s Own. Whirling Bros was run by Tony Ratcliffe, a man with Big Take-Your-Elephant-To-The-Pub Energy. The circus employees of importance are the knife thrower, the clown, and Tony’s missus who owned the fated poodle. The day the lions broke loose – or were they released? – the relevant journos were Catherine Watson and Jill Nicholson. Both of these women should be revered as icons.
Catherine was the type of junior journo who gets assigned to boring fluff pieces like, oh, I dunno, the day the circus came to town. Jill Nicholson was a police reporter, so nothing fazed her, although she acknowledges that the lion escape was pretty memorable. Coppers on the ground were Dave Donaldson and Mike Keefe, who I hope proudly lists “impromptu lion sniper” as one of his achievements in his CV. Don’t worry, he didn’t shoot any of the lions; the point is that he was ready, he had a rifle, and he was on a roof.
When constructing a timeline of what happened the day the lions escaped, the filmmakers use a superb miniature. The diorama looks like if your kids (or some kids) got all the plastic bits of Farm Yard and Town out of their toy box, and made a stop motion film, gluing together extra characters on the fly as needed. It adds to the home-made quality of the series, and I was tantalised to see in the credits that some of the miniatures were made or provided by Mr Tony Ratcliffe, Circus Impresario™ himself.
It was the ’80s when this all went down, which is important if you find it difficult to believe that a New Zealand based circus would have lions and elephants. The filmmakers reinforce the setting with stock footage including Homosexual Law Reform protests, and eggs being thrown at the Queen and Prince Philip, both iconic moments in New Zealand history. Yet, somehow the most shockingly aged moment of the doco is when an article about the event refers to Lucy the Poodle as a “bitch”. It felt unnecessary until I remembered it was technically true.
So who killed Lucy the Poodle? And why? Was there a rival circus owner trying to sabotage the market leader? Disgruntled clowns and knife throwers? Did Tony do it for publicity, or to get back at his girlfriend? In classic New Zealand documentary style, every time a strong lead is pursued the foundations get rattled.
Uncle Of The Nation Graham Bell gives Briggs some immortal advice: “If they think you’re a prick, they’re not gonna wanna tell you anything.” Kent Briggs is already not a prick, but he takes this advice out on the road. One of the best exchanges from an interview in the show goes like this:
“So you can throw knives but you weren’t throwing knives?”
“Why would it say that you were?”
“Well I wasn’t.”
Classic not-a-prick interviewing technique, and a riveting plot twist worthy of, I dunno, David Lynch?
The zinger quotes come hard and fast in this absolute gem of a series. Keep an eye out for classic moments such as Dave Donaldson making the baffling statement “mature lions roaming amongst the public, there’s always the opportunity for things to go horribly wrong”; icon Jill Nicholson recalling “he told me to get out of the way or he’d fucking shoot me”; and Dave Donaldson again, “he crashed into a lion, or a lion crashed into him, whichever way you look at it”, providing an unnecessarily balanced perspective given the circumstances.
This is a classic New Zealand yarn, like Opo the Friendly Dolphin, and it should be ingrained in all our souls. It’s the sort of weird television New Zealanders could and should be making. Our families and communities are full of odd tales told around the Christmas table, or jokes shared at funerals to break the tension. The combination of dry humour and peculiar happenstance is a winning formula.
We see a lot of bleak true crime output for such a small population, and while we’ll probably never stop talking about the Bains or wondering who killed the Crewes (it was so definitely her dad Len, don’t even come at me about this), I think New Zealanders have a genuine appetite for the bizarre as well. Cheers, Kent, for sharing your good yarn!
You can watch Who Killed Lucy The Poodle? in its entirety on TVNZ OnDemand here.