I interviewed trainers from TV show Dogs Might Fly for the Guardian

Dog with plane joystick

I interviewed the trainers from Dogs Might Fly, a TV show that aims to show how lovely rescue dogs can be with the right care and attention while, yeah, also teaching them TO FLY A PLANE, for the Guardian. Read it here or unedited version below.


Can a dog fly a plane? And, if it could, would you go as far as to, say, get in a plane that a dog was piloting? Probably not. However, Victoria Stilwell, one of eight dog experts on new six-part SKY 1 show Dogs Might Fly, would. Despite being a nervous flyer she can “confidently, 100% say yes.”

The show, presented by Jamie Theakston, will see 12 rescue dogs, handpicked from shelters across the country put through their paces in a series of challenges designed to highlight their extraordinary abilities before three luckily finalists graduate to doggy flight school.

So how in the name of dog do you attempt to train a canine for aviation? “A dog is a ground-based quadruped, so they’re not designed for flying – as humans aren’t,” understated Mark Vette, an animal psychologist on the show. Dogs “don’t have arms and hands – they’ve got four legs – so there were some issues with dexterity: how would they manipulate the yoke and the controls, and how they would sit up comfortably?”

“We went through some pretty challenging experimentation… The [Civil Aviation Authority] were adamant that we minimise changes to the plane. A big challenge was set, and that’s what the series is about.”

Although tight-lipped about the details of the process, the trainers did reveal the key attributes they looked for – confidence, a strong ability to read human signals and a dog who is, as Stilwell puts it in language more normally associated with City headhunters, “willing to go the extra mile, to problem solve and to investigate how to work something out for themselves – that’s the kind of dog you want flying a plane.” The muttley crew include Shadow, a Staffordshire bull terrier who was just hours away from being put down by the council when the team discovered him. He was, according to Stilwell, “really good at unlocking [doors] and then pretending he hadn’t done anything wrong.” He was such a top notch Houndini that during his audition he escaped twice before auditionbombing the other hopefuls.

“The crew were chanting ‘who let the dogs out’,” said Charlotte Wilde, a trainer who has supplied animals for Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean. “Shadow also found love at the airfield – hopefully you’ll see in episode six – and has already taken a small part in a shoot… Hollywood here he comes!”

Then there’s Wilf, a 22-month old collie cross, who Stilwell, star of dog behavioural show It’s Me or The Dog, said: “Loved eating water”. “He loved his paddling pool and would dive in trying to eat the water instead of drinking it.” Spike, a terrier-mix, was “brilliant at not doing any of the challenges set for him and instead was really intent on licking everybody’s faces, all the crew. You’re trying to get the shot and he’s just in your face having a fabulous time.” And, when working with dogs, there’s always one that “takes a dump somewhere right in the middle of the beautiful set.”

Challenges include an aviation-themed theatrical show with puppets (yes, really, really, really) – the dogs operated puppets through a series of specially designed platforms. We can also look forward to the “rock performance of a lifetime”.

“You’ve got to make sure that the dogs don’t mind sound,” said Stilwell. “You do these tests to see if the dog can be around a drum kit.” The dogs are rewarded for touching markers with their paws and noses before moving onto important things such as drum pedals. Not every dog, however, has the skills to be the next Ginger Barker or a Phil Collie. One of Stilwell’s favourites, Spot, a “wonderful” Beagle-mix, is “the funniest dog you’ll ever meet.” “She wasn’t that adept at playing the instruments so she was a backing vocalist. You teach the dog to sway, one paw to the other. It’s so cute.”

The dogs also had time to chill out in their luxury Sussex countryside pad, The Dog House, where it was no dog’s life. “As well as their very own Dog Studio,” said Wilde, “there were sofas and comfy dog beds. Although the dogs didn’t learn how to operate the Aga unfortunately. Or the bathroom.”

“They were treated like royalty,” added Stilwell. “They had the highest quality food, delicious treats, their own groomer and 24 hour vet care.” Bar the odd scuffle, the housemates got on too, which is refreshing for reality TV.

We’ve seen a pooch in space and now, just 59 years later, are we about to see the world’s first dog pilot? “I can’t tell you because I think it might be quite surprising,” said Stilwell. “Watch the show and you’ll see and you’ll go ‘wow’.”

– Dogs Might Fly goes out on Sky 1 at 19:00 on Sunday 28th February

– All of the dogs featured on the show have since found permanent loving homes.


Breakfast TV: Why are female presenters so glam at 6:30am?

From the Daily Mail

From the Daily Mail

I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian G2 Shortcuts. Hope you enjoy…

Once upon a time, if a conversation arose about breakfast glamour, it would probably have been concerned with shiny high-class toasters. But something has happened to breakfast TV over the past few years, it’s gone sexy. So sexy, in fact, that Clare Balding said in an interview with the Mail on Sunday last weekend, that the female presenters look “as though they are going to a cocktail party.”

While most of us are still wiping the lip cheese from our mouths at 6:30am, presenters such as Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid are already glossy and preened. Even at this ungodly hour, they manage to bring us the news in killer heels and dresses as tight fitting as a lace wetsuit. More controversially, the trend for plunging necklines is revealing a bit more tattie than most people are ready for prior to their morning caffeine hit. Especially when the only growths you were looking for were the ones concerning the war in Syria.

“Why do you have to do that?” Balding said, pointing out that women should be judged by their talent, not their appearance. “Why would it be wrong to sit there in trousers? Why don’t they wear a dressing gown, present the show in their pyjamas once a week, maybe every Friday?”

And she’s right, the worth of female breakfast TV presenters – who, after all, are just doing their jobs, not running for Miss England – is assessed far more on looks than their male counterparts. A few weeks ago, Australian TV anchor Karl Stefanovic admitted to wearing the same blue ­suit for a year in order to make a point about the way his female colleagues are unfairly judged. He came up with the idea after hearing that co-presenter, Lisa Wilkinson, had been sent a letter by a viewer telling her to “get some style”. But predictably, no-one noticed despite the fact that blue, like, isn’t even his colour.

In the eighties, our wake up call came from Anne Diamond in an array of high-necked blouses and garish jumpers. In the nineties, it was a floppy haired Kirsty Walk. Today’s presenters might look as though they’re about to be whisked off to an impossibly classy soiree (not a single Ferrero Rocher in sight), and it may not be progressive, but with women in the media now under such close scrutiny, it’s understandable.

In the interview, Balding also talked of how she’s uncomfortable wearing “a skirt or dress because it is difficult to look good sitting down… I want to feel like nothing is going to distract from the job I am doing.” But until things do change, it’s likely that even pyjama-Friday would be a glamour-fest.

I wrote about EastEnders and comebacks for the Guardian

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 13.01.58

I wrote a piece for the Guardian on a topic of GREAT importance: EastEnders. I’ve been getting a bit peeved with the heavy flow of characters making a comeback recently, especially as the new(ish) Carter family are simply wonderful, and more than enough for me. So I wrote a short little thingy for the TV and Radio blog. You can read it here, or my full version below.

Last week, EastEnders gave us the somewhat inevitable slick-haired and black-clad second coming of Nasty Nick Cotton. And just when you thought that was enough soap resurrection to be going on with for a while, the latest round in the EastEnders comeback extravaganza was revealed with a whopping four characters set to be raised from the dead for this year’s Children in Need special. All before you’ve even had a chance to perfect your best oak-tinged ‘hello Ma’.

The sketch will see Ian Beale knocked unconscious. Oh sorry, that’s not the good bit – and later he is confronted by the ghosts of mum Kathy Mitchell, aunty Pat Evans (although whether her voluminous taste in earrings has been allowed to continue in the afterlife is yet to be confirmed), ex-wife Cindy and daughter Lucy, whose murder earlier this year is still to be solved in one of the most achingly drawn out storylines in TV history. But after a slew of recent comebacks, EastEnders is becoming more like a tedious Facebook meme than a soap – ‘like’ if you remember Kathy getting beaten up by Phil!

Since Dominic Treadwell-Collins – DTC to fans of the show – took over the reigns as executive producer of EastEnders in late summer last year, the tally of returning characters has racked up more notches than Max Branning’s bedpost in an attempt to boost flagging ratings. So many, I simply haven’t got the word space, or patience, to mention them all. Along with Dot Cotton’s dastardly son, recent revivals have included: Womanizing David Wicks, Stacey Slater, broody – and no doubt less of a hit with female viewers following the hard-hitting Linda Carter rape scene – Dean Wicks, wet-flannel Sonia Fowler, Ben Mitchell with yet another new face – as actor Harry Reid took over the role – and even a brief surprise appearance from Peggy. With Martin Fowler’s return looming and rumours that frankly dull Charlie Slater, last seen in December last year, is to make another appearance, this extended trip down memory lane is becoming boring.

“It’s good to have one foot in the past while looking to the future,” said Treadwell-Collins in an interview with Radio Times earlier this year. “My idea is to make the show feel fresh with the Carters, but also a bit nostalgic by bringing back characters we love.”

And surprisingly to anyone who anyone who sat through the frustrating rehash of the Phil-Mitchell-gets-shot-and-sadly-survives storyline, he also said that “EastEnders has got to shake up the audience. We don’t want to do cover versions of greatest hits. EastEnders has to sing new songs…”

However, the episode, which saw Shirley shooting Phil in a jealous rage after he married Sharon, did bring in 7.13m viewers. It’s a long chalk from the 17m it received the first time round in 2001, but after ratings slumped to less than five million last summer – lower than Corrie and Emmerdale – he must be doing something right. Nasty Nick’s return has further boosted the show’s audiences, too, but how many characters can one show bring back? Will we be seeing a wet-tongued return from Wellard soon, or a surprise home visit from Doctor Legg?

Too much nostalgia can turn to indulgence, and indulgence inevitably leads to flabby storylines and before you know it, we’re going to need a forklift truck to get this thing up and running again. With the run up to the 30th anniversary in February under way, it’s easy to see why Treadwell-Collins is keen to relive some of the soap’s history, and who could be so mean as to deny the show a little whimsy for a good cause? But once the Children in Need festivities are over, enough with the comebacks – this girl’s had enough.

An Unnatural History of London, BBC4

There are three colonies of European yellow-tailed scorpions in London

There are three colonies of European yellow-tailed scorpions in London

Pigeons that catch the tube, pigeon eating pelicans, duckling nabbing turtles, scorpion (!) invaders, fox fighting badgers, screeching parakeets, crayfish gang wars – London has the best wildlife. It’s one of the greenest and most animal-friendly cities in the world. Last night’s Britain’s Natural World: an unnatural history of London’s streets on BBC4 told the often unseen story of London’s natural world, a bustling community as diverse and populous, more populous, in fact, than its human colony. And just like its people, London’s collection of weird and wonderful animal inhabitants is changing, ever evolving with the ebb and flow of migrants (stealing their rubbish). Recent arrivals include several small, relatively harmless, scorpion colonies that glow under UV light.

I’m not quite sure why nature-loving and general nuttiness seem to complement each other so well, but there are a good few, shall we say ‘special’, characters here: the sausage-wielding woman who’s trained her local foxes to sit on command; the photographer who seems to genuinely believe that pigeons have political opinions, that they’re a community of power fighting protesters, and the man who likes birds so much he bought a house overlooking a RUBBISH DUMP. Perhaps, with a bit of practice, I’ll be as uniquely eccentric one day.

The show’s only on iPlayer until Wednesday 27th November (which is one of the BBC’s many annoying habits).

WATCH: an unnatural history of London