Review: The litter traits of feline friends exposed

ONE OF the less endearing tics of glossy magazines, from Titbits all the way across the block to Tatler, is an obsession with lists. In one column, it's who's in or the dos of shopping; in the other, it's who's out or the don'ts.

Apropos of not a lot, this small corner turns glossy for a nanosecond with a list of its own that infallibly categorises every one of us. (Space does not allow the normal tabular layout, with lots of creative white space.) Either you do or don't read Shirley Conran / eat chicken biryani / approve of Wales / do press-ups / worship a god / nod off watching Arsenal / take the Independent / fondly remember Spandau Ballet / loathe cats.

And there's the rub: if you don't regard 'feline' and 'friend' as two words that were just made for each other, then you won't have been watching 'It's A Cat's Life', a film for Short Stories (C4). You missed a treat. In Britain there are six million cats, which, in case you didn't know, means these islands contain twice as many cats as Welsh people. Not all of them are owned by those who fall into the 'I adore cats' category. One female moggy is responsible for 20,000 offspring in five years, with the result that 200,000 are made homeless every year.

These statistics issue from the Cats Protection League, the subject of this documentary. When a bunch of people call themselves a league, usually their motives are either impeccable (the League against Cruel Sports) or very peccable indeed (the Premier League). The cats' league seems to mean well, providing board and lodging for cats suddenly deprived of both, but their methods are sometimes iron-fisted in the way that only the morally convinced can be.

One London branch of the league answered a call-out about a woman who locked her cat in an outdoor rabbit hutch at night - presumably the owner calculated that here was the one place where her cat wouldn't breed like a rabbit. The owner had been shopped by someone else in the block of flats and in the ensuing melee it dawned that this was that rare curio, a natural history programme that was actually about Homo sapiens.

Observe, for instance, from the previous scene, in which the cat-owner opening her front door is not asked if she wanted to be filmed, how primitive our concept of privacy still is. Note, from other footage, how when communicating with cats the human voice can go up higher than Callas ever got in Tosca. Further research demonstrated that some owners who are forced to expel their cats say things like 'Oi dint really want to get rid of 'er, loike' and wear T-shirts bearing the slogan 'I'm Too Sexy For My . . .' (punchline mercifully tucked inside trousers).

One day someone will make the definitive series about cats - Martyn Lewis, perhaps, the good-news heavyweight who's already done the book - but Short Stories is not the place. If BBC2 hadn't got there first with its own, longer version, Channel 4 could have called the strand 27 Minutes, because it operates on the same rambling remit. 'Let's go find some quirkiness,' you can see them enthusing every Monday morning, as they commission another production company to tail a tinker, a tailor or a candlestick maker. Such programmes work on the rule that if you point a camera at the most innocuous of nobodies for long enough, their individuality will out. And generally, the rule holds true. It did here.

Secretly, this was yet another programme about the recession, because cats are often the first economy measure in cash-strapped homes. Openly, Public Eye (BBC 2) was yet another programme about child abuse, a subject that seems incapable of going away. This time the context was divorce, and the growing tendency of some spouses to allege child abuse solely as a device for gaining custody. The programme used actors, who usually bring a layer of artifice to the proceedings, but not this time. If this is the way some people treat each other, then even the most wretched of cats have it easy.

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