Dogs on screen

Anne Caborn takes a look at dogs in the media

According to the old saying bandied about in acting circles, you should never work with children or animals. It’s credited to W.C.Fields but most people admire the sense while being ignorant of its provenance. No matter how great your acting talent, share the stage – or the celluloid – with a waggy tail or some wide innocent eyes and you’re going to be eclipsed by the ‘ahhhhh’ factor. But if the above advice is true, then an awful lot of modern celebrities choose to ignore it (and it doesn’t do their careers any harm whatsoever). Dogs on screen can prove a silver lining when it comes to their careers.

Paul O’Grady, once better known as Lily Savage, is now riding high on For the Love of Dogs on ITV, which films the four-pawed emotional roller-coaster that is Battersea Dogs Home. The show is back for its third series. Then there’s Alan Davies, the human star of Channel 5’s Dog Rescuers. TV channels, like dogs, prefer to hunt in packs. Nothing stands testimony to the success of the dog-celeb format than other companies trying to emulate it. Another example is Martin Clunes: A Man and His Dogs, also for ITV.

Of course, animals other than dogs have star appeal but not to the same extent. You can track successful dog-human partnerships way back to the early days of television. Other furry friends – cats, kangaroos and the like – come and go.

Petra, the first Blue Peter dog, made her debut on the BBC back in 1962. In the same decade, country programme presenters such as Jack Hargreaves and Ollie Kite used to don a dog or two the way modern naturalists reach for the Hunters and Barbour.

A little later and it was the turn of Clement Freud. You may have difficulty remembering the detail of his political career but any child of that generation can recall at least one of the dog food commercials he appeared in, sharing the screen with an equally doleful-eyed bloodhound.

So is there something special about dogs that makes them excellent co-stars? There’s no doubt that they’re bright and can take direction as well as human stars, if not a little better and without the histrionics (“Woof! What’s my motivation for this scene?” “Get it right Lassie and there’s a pigs ear in it for you.”)

Dogs are, I’d argue, intellectual as well as emotional co-stars on-screen and off. Take art critic Brian Sewell, a waspish but towering intellect and the author of Sleeping With Dogs, an autobiography mapped against his personal and poignant (but not mawkish) canine interactions. He has been quoted as saying he would rather give up his art than his dogs. And where would Pavlov have been without his?

Truman Capote was a dog lover and owner, as were Virginia Woolf and John Steinbeck. Pablo Picasso had a Dachshund called Lump. Lump actually belonged to a photographer called David Douglas Duncan, but Picasso enticed Lump to stay with him, his goat called Esmeralda and a Boxer called Jan. (When the popular press talks about the artists and ménages à trois do you think this is what they had in mind?)

There’s no doubt that when you recount that rotten day at work the dog at your feet is doing more than a bit of basic empathising. Those rolled eyes and that proffered paw speak volumes. Maybe celebrities, whose careers are structured on the whims of public fancy, and programme producers, know that at least the dogs they share the screen with won’t bitch (sorry) about them behind their backs or demand an unfeasible pay rise or a Boneo rider.

W.C.Fields may have presented to the world as a bellicose misanthrope but apparently he was also a dog owner and may never have said anything against working with them or small children, despite being so credited. Wise man.

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