Grace Dent on TV: Why wouldn’t a cat start lobbying for John West tuna chunks at 4am?



The home of mainstream, brain-relaxing telly, ITV, ran two The Secret Life of… documentaries on the most broad and inclusive of subjects this week: cats and babies. Well,  I say inclusive. I didn’t bother with the baby one. I have a Facebook account, thus there are no more secrets about the world’s “bubbas” left to uncover. They look like pickled eggs and they make you very boring. The secrets are out.  I did, however, due to the marvellousness of the cat documentary, catch up on its forerunner, The Secret Life of Dogs, which ran last year and is still available on ITV Player. I suggest you do, too, as to my mind most decent British people identify as either a cat person or a dog person.

Of course, some people claim to love both cats and dogs in equal measure. These are the ilk of person whose homes are awash with hard-luck-story iguanas, and who have gardens which give refuge to one-eared donkeys. I hope to move into this stage in later life and spend my retirement in a swill-spattered dressing gown, nursing a micropig with a pipette while listening to light Radio 4 dramas. Obviously, some people don’t like cats or dogs – or any animals – but I tend not to keep these people in my life long enough to bother charting their whims, follies and tiresome dalliances with EpiPens.

Cats and dogs are, as these documentaries showed, some of the greatest gifts our planet has presented us with. I am dubious of anyone who can stand in a wet field being circumnavigated at high speed by a joyful soggy labrador, or play fetch with an earnest yet effervescent spaniel-eared stick-retrieval-machine, without feeling a terrific sense of life being lived as it should. Or who doesn’t secretly savour those detailed chats one has with one’s cat over whether it is reasonable to expect a door to be left open permanently as the bloody cat thing won’t commit to being in or out. “I can’t do this all night,” one might say,  before doing it all night, and then every other night for anything between seven and 13 years.

I loved these documentaries because instead of being overly scientific or scare-mongering, they opt for “lightly educational and heavily warm and fuzzy”, taking a damn good shot at capturing the odd, life-enhancing bond between pet and landlord. I won’t degrade cats by denoting the terms of their living conditions as “ownership”. We all know deep down that cats see us mainly as heated furniture, or simply suckers with opposable thumbs who are jolly decent to get that giant cat bed nice and warmed up for their day of sponsored idleness. Even these amazing cats we met this week, I wager, have a great capacity for heinous self-absorption and betrayal.

That cat that fell from the 20-storey window and survived, the other one who helps the lonely  little boy, the feral cat that acted as a guide-cat for a blind labrador – yes, they all made my eyes very soggy. But I bet if you changed any of these cats’ preferred biscuits to an inferior brand, or took up playing the banjo or any instrument it did not care for, the cat would move in with your next-door neighbour without a backwards glance. There was a lovely, heart-melting story about one large, careworn-looking Bagpuss type that had saved his family from gas poisoning after waking a woman up by scratching at her cheek.

“He knew! He wanted to save me,” said the woman. It was a gorgeous piece of telly. Obviously, knowing cats as I do, there’s a strong chance that the cat was simply alerting the woman to the tin of John West tuna chunks in brine going begging in the downstairs kitchen cupboard. To a cat’s logic, 4am would be a wholly reasonable time to begin lobbying. This is because all cats are bastards. Amazing, furry, sociopathic bastards. This would have been my title for the documentary, if I had been in charge.

Every single cat in Britain is, without exception, uniquely mentally awry in its own way.  I would devote an entire TV channel just to a single camera viewpoint of cats inside their homes or on window ledges, shouting at squirrels who have dared to enter their peripheral viewpoint. Or to looped footage of any dog sneaking up to steal a shoe it knows it is not allowed to chew  before running off with a “nothing to see here, hahahahaha!” swagger. Or footage of dogs waking themselves up by breaking wind. Or footage of dogs trotting over grass casually, then discovering a patch of something very stinky, then rubbing their ears and then their shoulders in the scent, before dropping on their backs with their feet in the air for a joyous, full-body, “I’m rolling in decaying rat” wriggle.

In fact, I could probably fill an entire evening on ITV with just the footage of the sort of stuff that clutters my iPhone memory. The truth about cats and dogs is that a lot of idiots like me just can’t get enough of them.

This week Grace watched... The Secret Life of... ITV

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