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I have hundreds of the Screen Break columns on my laptop, and I am currently putting together a book of some of 'the best,' which frankly are barely distinguishable from some of the worst. Here's one that might not make the cut, but you might enjoy simply for the fact that The Guardian let me get away with so many questionable jokes.
My parents would not let me have a dog when I was a child. They took me to Butlins in Pwllheli instead, as a consequence of which I have grown up with an abiding love of the North Wales coast, but no real understanding of people’s utter dottiness about their dogs. The annual jamboree at Crufts reaches me like a communication from another planet.
It is unmissable TV, though. Twenty-two thousand dogs, 140 thousand people ranging from the mildly eccentric to the totally barking (last pun, I promise), and Clare Balding in a leather coat. What is not to like?
As for Clare’s co-presenter, he sets me wondering if, in the same way as dog owners are said to grow to look like their pets, television presenters might begin to resemble the events they cover; because if ever there was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, shiny-coated, eager, panting pedigree puppy of a TV front man it is Ben Fogle, as he bounds onto the sofa alongside Clare to appraise her of the latest developments in the gundog category. He was that close to laying his head in her lap, I swear.
Maybe the BBC is playing it for laughs this year. Just as it is well nigh impossible to take seriously the music of bands like Saxon, Krokus, or any other with an unnecessary umlaut or two in their name, after the merciless lampooning of This Is Spinal Tap, so the same team’s spoof dogumentary (all right, two puns) Best In Show must make it difficult to approach Crufts with an entirely straight face.
The crew certainly seemed to be finding it so at times. There was a glorious sequence where Ben, having bought little fluffy facsimiles of some of the dogs from a stall, returned to the studio and presented them to their canine models, who did exactly what dogs tend to do with soft toys.
“Archie, don’t eat yourself,” Ben instructed the animal, to the very audible amusement of the boys behind the cameras, who were clearly thinking of dogs eating themselves in the more literal sense occasionally referred to in whiskery old locker-room jokes. I should explain, for those of you who have not spent much time in that bracingly masculine atmosphere, that these jokes usually involve a male watching an act of canine self-fellatio, saying, “I wish I could do that,” which is hilariously misconstrued by a second spectator, whose response is on the lines of, “Well, give him a dog biscuit and he might let you.”
That joke, by the way, before you throw down the paper in disgust, was in aid of Comic Relief, under which banner I believe almost any old tat is currently considered acceptable.
Regular listeners to BBC Five Live’s hit Saturday morning show Fighting Talk will know of my objections to Comic Relief on the principle that comedy should by its very nature be subversive and anti-establishment, and while it is laudable that performers work for charity, it would be preferable if comedians at least were to do this on the quiet, while publicly turning their mocking gaze on self-regarding leviathans like Comic Relief.
Charity begins at home, I say, not on prime time BBC1 with repeats and expanded coverage on BBC3. I am not entirely sure exactly where the comic element comes in either. Though it might be mildly amusing for a nanosecond to hear Ray Stubbs murdering The Jam’s Goin’ Underground, it is not exactly The Marx Brothers. And who decided the event should go on for two weeks? Later this week, God help us, there is a celebrity version of The Apprentice under the Comic Relief imprimatur. This is not so much telethon, more fund-raising eternity.
And so, with some relief, back to Crufts, where competitors are going through their paces in the obedience ring, which is not, as you might have imagined, an internet network of like-minded fetishists, but the area where owners demonstrate how damned clever their dogs are.
My favourite bit is where the dog careers around the ring before the judges, with its handler clutching the lead and running behind with what dignity he or she can muster. I particularly enjoyed the work of Miss Jonna Sanden, a statuesque Swede, trailing after her flatcoat retriever Simon, successful in the gundog category. The commentators praised Simon’s “deep girth,” and one spoke admiringly – I am not making this up – of his being “obviously a male dog, but without being overdone anywhere.” I could not say myself, because I was busy watching Miss Sanden. Is that wrong?
There has been some talk this year about this kind of event being tantamount to animal cruelty, but my view is that when an owner spends hours on end following behind his or her animal with a little plastic bag scooping up its waste product and looking for a bin in which to deposit it, it does not seem too much to ask for the mutt to give something back once a year.
I am inclined to accept the assurances of Jessica Holm, one of the BBC’s commentary team, that the four-legged competitors find all the fussing, the training, the preening, the pimping, and performing a huge blast. “They love it. My dogs turn themselves inside out with excitement when they know there is a show in the offing,” she said, “It’s like a big social for them,” and with 21,999 brand new backsides to sniff, who could doubt it?
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