The sports commentator Andrew Cotter on the startling rise to fame for his labradors.
Among the good things to emerge from lockdown, two labradors ‘just being dogs’ tops everything. Olive and her younger yellow counterpart, Mabel, shot to fame when their owner, sports commentator Andrew Cotter, found himself with no work. He dithered for weeks over putting the first video online, of the pair having dinner with labrador zeal to his commentary, but, when he did, it defined ‘going viral’, garnering shares from the likes of Dara Ó Briain and Ryan Reynolds. It was ‘ridiculous, strange beyond imagining’.
Millions of people fell in love with Olive and Mabel: ‘Dogs are one of the things that unites us all.’ The two are very different, Olive steadier and more relaxed, Mabel ‘baffled by everything. She’s not as bright as Olive, there’s no getting away from it’.
The second video, Game of Bones — shared by no less than Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) — a tense drama concerning the ownership of an orange rubber bone, happens every day. ‘When it comes to possessions, Mabel’s the boss. Everything else, Olive’s the boss. The toys don’t belong to anyone, but if Olive has the bone, Mabel wants the bone.’
The third video shows Mabel standing in a pond, an expectant look on her beautiful face, others the pair on a Zoom call or online dating. ‘They were just dogs being dogs. I’d never dress them up,’ says Mr Cotter. ‘Even in the more contrived ones, they’re happy, that’s the main thing.’
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The dogs’ reach was ‘extraordinary’; Tim Rice rewrote Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina for them and only another lockdown denied them an appearance at the London Palladium. Inevitably, the demands for more videos became constant, not a situation the diffident, self-deprecating Scot, who is happiest alone on a mountain, welcomed at first. ‘I’m not a great people person,’ he admits. ‘I got thousands of emails, all very nice, but you take in a little bit of the emotion that person is feeling as well. You become an emotional sponge, a lightning rod, a rod with a sponge on top!’
On the positive side, the social-media engagement revealed that ‘there are more nice people out there than you might think. You hear the noisy awfulness all the time, but when people come up to say “thank you, I love your dogs”, you realise it’s good’. When the trio went on tour, people travelled miles simply to see two dogs pad around the stage. ‘They have no idea why so many people talk to them now — I think they assume it’s because they’re good dogs!’
Mr Cotter grew up in Troon, on the Ayrshire coast, surrounded by dogs and playing sports, although he had ‘no designs to do sports broadcasting’. He studied French and Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, then worked at an Edinburgh radio station before moving to London, where he met his partner, Caroline, at the BBC. ‘I knew I wanted to use language, I was always better with words than with anything more practical.’
Characteristically, he seized his opportunities. ‘I’m always wary of people saying you can do whatever you want. You can if you have the luck; we all work really hard, but you’ve got to acknowledge the luck.’ It was this attitude that led to his lockdown success: ‘I don’t want to think of the pandemic as good fortune, but it allowed me to do something very different.’
An admirer of comic writers, such as Armando Iannucci and Bill Bryson, of whom there is a definite echo in his own work, Mr Cotter writes with insight and an amusing turn of phrase. ‘I would like to have been a scriptwriter, but you’ve got to throw yourself into it wholeheartedly and it takes a great leap to change career.’
“There’s a lot of over-sharing. Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for getting on with it.”
His first book, Olive, Mabel & Me, ‘rode the wave’ in describing their rise to fame, interspersed with perceptive detail on why labradors don’t get cold in snow, whereas the second, Dog Days, is a more introspective look at the return to normality. He is candid about the need for PR: ‘To give a book longevity, it will be about quality, but selling is almost entirely about publicity. Writing for the joy of writing is the best way to be; trying to sell a book is deeply frustrating.’ He is more comfortable tweeting about sport and dogs than himself. ‘It’s all about selling oneself, saying “I’ve got a book out”. I was never going to do that’.
Although he has commentated on the world’s biggest sporting events, from Wimbledon to the Olympics and the Six Nations, with relish — ‘The bigger the event, the more fun it is, because you know all eyes are on it’ — the Olive-and-Mabel phenomenon was the first foray into revealing his own life. ‘I prefer being a bit more anonymous. There’s so much sharing in the world now. It’s good for people to open up, but there’s a lot of over-sharing. Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for getting on with it.’
Walking is his escape and not being able to go to the mountains during the pandemic (‘I can’t think of anything more socially distanced!’) was hard. Olive and Mabel adore these adventures: ‘There is an elemental joy. Dogs express pure and undiluted happiness, tails wagging, running around. “Be more dog” is advice I offer, but find hard to follow.’ (Search YouTube for joyous footage of the dogs encountering snow.)
If an amusing situation presents itself, there may be more videos, but Olive is 9½ now and although she’s ‘in great shape, I don’t want to be doing it when she’s grey’. That is the eternal trouble with dogs, ‘they don’t live long enough’. Referring to the dogs usually featured in this magazine, Mr Cotter jokes that Olive and Mabel are far from working labradors, but they have done a vital service these past two years in making us smile.
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