Inside John Wilson’s weird and wonderful ‘Pet World’
Beloved 1980s’ television series enjoys a second life thanks to social media
John Wilson with his dog Coco: “I’d say if I were to go to Finglas today, I’d be like the Pied Piper.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
In Ireland, we do nostalgia particularly well: nowhere more so than on social media. And in one particular outpost of Facebook, people who came of age in the 1980s have unearthed a particularly gratifying gem. On the ‘John Wilson – Pet World’ page, which is gaining traction by the day, is a treasure trove of clips from the beloved RTÉ series. Each one is a trip down memory lane, but also a delightful snapshot of the quirks of Irish society. You’ll find footage of Bertha, the oldest cow in Ireland (whose lifespan was attributed to poitín); Pepe the jet-skiing dog; a woman who lived with 23 hamsters; the working horses of Midleton and Franciscan monks giving blessings to animals in Waterford city.
Among the most viewed clip on the page is footage from Finglas, where the youngsters are racing horses in a field. Per the edicts of Irish youth programming, Wilson is incongruously dressed in a brightly coloured jockey outfit. The clip’s comments, meanwhile, feature the emotional comments of family members of many locals in the clip who have since passed on. “Great to have this,” is the general gist.
“I’d say if I were to go to Finglas today, I’d be like the Pied Piper,” Wilson smiles. “A lot of the grandkids of the guys recognise them on it. We’re getting lots of ‘jaysus, there’s me da’.”
Now in his mid-70s, and a good 15 years out of general veterinary practice (“You don’t ever really retire, though”), Wilson is still an utterly charming, affable and drole presence. Any viewer of Pet World would recognise the glint of mischief in his eye, and it’s still there today. He apologises for “yattering away” – a road traffic accident in February 1977, he explains, left him with cognitive impairment which has “flared up” in the last year. “The ability to play table tennis is, again, another casualty,” he says.
In the wake of the accident, Wilson was told people with injuries such as his don’t usually survive. After three months of bed-rest, he started to run marathons.
“I decided to get fit again,” he says. “I was at home, fluting around.” Rather amazingly, he completed six marathons within a year of the accident. “You just put one foot in front of the other,” he shrugs.
Wilson’s route to RTÉ was a circuitous one. Growing up “four miles from Nelson’s Pillar” on a farm on Coolock’s Tonlegee Road, he admits to being a “spectacularly useless” student at O’Connell’s school in Drumcondra. He went on to study veterinary medicine in university, noting that students didn’t have to get the points or marks they might need now. Graduating in 1962, he worked in an Athy practice before setting up his own practice in Greystones, Co Wicklow – the Blacklion Pet Hospital – with fellow vet Noel Kelly.
“My stand-out memory [of that time] would be the relationships I built up with the small farmers of Glencullen, Roundwood and its surrounds,” he recalls. “They were the most incredible people.” He soon worked out a wily system for house calls: “I started to know which house would be making coffee at 11, and jam tarts at 12.”
He was also a man determined not to let his life-changing injuries hold him back. By the mid-1980s, Wilson had begun contributing to Joe Bollard’s show on BLB (now East Coast Radio). A few years later, he came to the attention of Philip Kampff. These days, Kampff is a renowned TV producer, but back then he was the 22-year-old running the Gay Byrne show.
“We used to get sacks of mail every day, and we needed a vet for queries. I’d come across John in Bray,” recalls Kampff. “He’s very entertaining. He has a great energy to him, and a great passion. Simply put, he’s the David Attenborough of the pet world.”
Wilson made just as big an impression on Gay Byrne. “The first time I went into the studio to broadcast, it was snowing, and I couldn’t drive my car further than 100 yards,” Wilson recalls. “I cycled through the slush. The doctor for the show, by the way, used to arrive in a Rolls Royce.
“When I got in, my feet were wet and there was a radiator with lovely heat,” he continues. “I asked Gay, ‘do you mind if I take off my socks?’ When I put them on the radiator I could see Philip Kampff on the other side of the glass wetting himself. Gay was probably at the point of saying, ‘out you go’.”
Still, Wilson’s no-nonsense ways proved a valuable addition to the airwaves. Pretty soon, he was advising Zig and Zag on how to take care of their new pet Zuppy, and helped to get Dustin the Turkey a pre-Christmas stay of execution by persuading his Den co-hosts that he was, in fact, an eagle.
By the time Kampff decided to migrate to TV, he wanted to take Wilson with him. In 1989, RTÉ’s Pet World was born. Judging from the unearthed clips, Kampff had no problem putting Wilson in some hilariously compromising positions – singing to cows, sitting in baths with snakes – for the sake of good TV.
“He didn’t need any encouragement,” smiles Kampff. “He’s a born performer. That’s why Gaybo liked him. There was a huge reaction to John. Here was a guy who wasn’t mannered and polished, and that’s what made him special.”
“Philip was able to spot the idea,” Wilson recalls. “We got a list of vets around the country and rang them, and that’s how we got some interesting stories.”
In time, Wilson’s charm would bring him to the attention of BBC and Channel 4 bosses, and he completed a number of specialist shows for both broadcasters.
To this day, Wilson gets recognised by viewers who grew up in thrall to Pet World. “It happens in the most unusual places, like the subway [underground] in London,” he admits. “You’d go to the toilet and there’d be a fella beside you and he’d know who you are.”
Still, Pet World’s second life on Facebook has evidently tickled the vet.
“It’s there for a whole new audience and the thing is, the programme hasn’t aged a day,” he says. “When it comes to human nature and animals, there’s a glorious area of interaction there. And really, isn’t it great to be in the situation where that has been your whole life?”
To watch archived videos from the Pet World series, see https://www.facebook.com/JohnWilsonPetWorld/