Ruff drafts make the final cut

With their fiercely competitive breakfasts, lax attitude to work Zoom meetings and upside-down sleeping, Andrew Cotter's dogs Olive and Mabel were the hottest online stars of the lockdown

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There’s a chapter in Andrew Cotter’s new book in which the sports commentator recalls being invited to meet the Duchess of Cambridge alongside tennis legends Tracy Austin, Chris Evert and Pam Shriver during this year’s Wimbledon.

Understandably, he felt the odd one out, his ensuing reserve reminding him of every party he’s endured since his teenage years.

“There was no real thought to doing the videos, like a lot of decisions I’ve made in my life.”

“I continue to stand, mute, on the periphery and if the duchess has noticed my presence at all, it must appear to her that I am only there as some sort of competition winner,” he writes, capturing the cringe-inducing awkwardness of small talk for the socially challenged, including a mistimed question where “I’m left talking to only myself.”

“I’m confident in my talents as a broadcaster, but it’s slightly more difficult when I’m brought in for small talk and I was wondering what I was there for,” admits Cotter, 48, whose gentle Scottish burr is recognisable to anyone who’s watched the Olympics Opening Ceremony, the Masters, Rugby World Cup, the London Marathon or Wimbledon in recent years.

As successful as he is observing the greats of the sporting world, he’s equally adept at scrutinising life’s mundanity with wry gusto and self-effacing wit.

“I am very self-deprecating by nature but then I think the world needs more of those people, to be honest. There are enough people shouting about how great they are. We’re all just muddling through, aren’t we, so it’s okay to say I don’t know what’s going on,” remarks Cotter, especially in light of the last 20 months and the strange, shared experience of a pandemic we’ve yet to process or fully emerge from.

He reflects on this unique period in his new memoir, Dog Days: A Year With Olive and Mabel in which he details life with his beloved labradors, Olive, 8, and Mabel, 4, who became an online sensation during the first lockdown when Cotter filmed them eating breakfast and commentated on it as if it was an epic sporting event.

Called the Dog’s Breakfast Grand Final, the YouTube footage went viral, and was followed up with other videos, such as Game of Bones, which involved a tussle over a toy, the Company Meeting, a parody of Zoom meetings, and Scent of a Dog – an ode to pretentious perfume adverts.

Providing much-needed silliness and joy, the videos clocked up millions of views across social media, inspired celebrity endorsements and prompted a debut book, Olive, Mabel and Me, which was published last June, as well as worldwide press interest. And yet the canine superstars have remained endearingly oblivious to their global success.

“There was no real thought to doing the videos, like a lot of decisions I’ve made in my life. It was a little bit of boredom, partly the panic of no work, and I’ve always liked trying to make people laugh. I knew it was quite silly and funny but had no idea the first video was going to do that, and then the second went even bigger, and you keep on doing it. But it’s all about the feedback. People would say ‘I needed this today, I needed that laugh’ and that’s what I always wanted the videos to be,” explains Cotter who lives in Cheshire with his partner Caroline.

“I wanted the book to have a similar tone, for people to laugh and to have that feeling of connection of going through lockdown together, and the oddness of it. Yes, there were extraordinary moments like meeting Kate Middleton or appearing on Celebrity Mastermind but really we’ve all been through the same experience, and we’ve also had to readjust as restrictions have lifted and our world’s become bigger again. It’s observing all of that with a lightness of touch, hopefully, and all the while going through that with dogs by your side.”

So large and loyal is their following that the trio embarked on a nationwide theatre tour this year.

“People go: ‘What’s your act?’ The act? It’s where you sit on stage and Olive occasionally goes to the front rows for biscuits from audience members, but that’s all people want. It’s that little bit of escapism, of forgetting about the rest of the world. It’s social media come to life when you hear the laughter as Olive and Mabel trot on stage,” says Cotter who was brought up surrounded by dogs in the golfing town of Troon in Ayrshire.

He started his career on local radio in Scotland before moving to London in 2000 and at BBC radio began commentating on rugby and golf before moving to television.

A decade on from Des Lynam hailing Cotter for his talent, tone and poetic style, he’s now one of the country’s leading commentators, working across a multitude of popular sports bar football and Formula One. But despite his experience, Cotter admits to feeling the pressure when commentating on the Olympics Opening Ceremony, and not only because of the 200-plus countries involved.

“You’re constantly trying to educate and inform and entertain but, while you’re trying to entertain, you’re having to rein it back just a little bit because what might be very funny to some people might be beyond the pale for others. It’s a balancing act. You can’t sit there and do full Eurovision Song Contest commentary where you’re poking fun at everything,” says Cotter who confesses there’s isn’t a sporting event left on his bucket list.

“I’ve peaked and the only way is down because I can’t think of anything! I just want to keep doing the events because they’re different every time. There’s a different story, a different outcome, different things to describe,” he notes, and that’s a challenge in itself.

“The trouble is when you do a dog video with sporting phrases like ‘Still waiting, still believing’ as I did in Game of Bones, you go to cover a sporting event and you’re about to use the same phrase you’ve used in a dog video. I’ve either got to expand my vocabulary, or stop doing dog videos.”

But he continues to film his canine pals, although he’s adamant the gig won’t go on forever.

“One, because other work gets in the way. Broadcasting’s back with a vengeance, albeit remotely for the most part, but also it has a certain shelf life. There will always be an idea for a video but whether you do it or not, is a different matter. You don’t want to be prodding an aged Olive into position,” he says.

“The writing though, that’s something I hope will continue. I’ve been incredibly lucky in very unlucky times to be given this opportunity to write and make videos and try and make people laugh because you’re not really giving full vent to any sort of writing dreams you might have when you’re doing sports broadcasting. And suddenly, because of two comedy labradors, who are currently sleeping upside down beside me, it becomes a possibility.”

Dog Days: A Year With Olive and Mabel by Andrew Cotter is published by Black and White

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