Olive and Mabel saved everyone’s sanity – mine included, says Andrew Cotter

The other day, getting ready for Wimbledon down at SW19, who should Andrew Cotter bump into but Andy Murray. So what did one Scot say to the other, player to commentator? Surely it was tennis-related with the greatest tournament in the world returning from lockdown. If not that then maybe football-related following our national team’s sorrowful departure from the Euros.

When you're screen sensations with 60 million views you need to get away from it all.

“All he said was: ‘How are those dogs?’” laughs Cotter. “That’s the only thing anyone says to me now. Who I am is no longer that lucky bloke with a front-row seat at great sporting events describing them for TV. I’m the owner of Olive and Mabel and I know my place ... ”

Covid has required the equivalent of ENSA, good gags and inspiring acts to boost national morale in a different kind of war, and thankfully there has been Captain Tom, fitness guru Joe Wicks, the Priti Patel mimic, the spoof Prime Ministerial aide with the Hooray Henry laugh, the demon drumming Welsh weatherman, a hundred back-garden trick-shotters - and best of all, Cotter’s daft dug double-act.

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Olive and Mabel were the labradors that broke the internet. Social-media scenelets of irresistible dopeyness, with their master elevating tussles over a bone to Olympic standard to compensate for the serious competition he was missing in his work, were viewed more than 60 million times. The pair got their own book, a bestseller which brought star turns at literary festivals, and once Cotter has finished with Wimbledon and the real Olympics, he’ll be taking them on a sold-out theatre tour. Surely, with Hollywood royalty Julianne Moore, Mark Hamill and Ryan Reynolds among their fans, Olive and Mabel: The Movie can’t be far behind.

Working at Wimbledon

But hang on - down, girls - Cotter is wary of becoming the parody commentator and this is The Scotsman, not Labradors Today. Wimbledon starts on Monday and Sir Andy is back on the singles court for the first time in four years. We’ll return to the dogs, because we must, but let’s talk tennis.

Cotter, 47, loves Wimbledon for the juddering juxtapositions. This is a genteel affair of considerable violence. Off court, the clinking of the finest bone china. On it, tremendous thrashing and thwacking as the great gladiators do battle.

So which of the gladiators of the men’s game is going to win? “It looks like [Novak] Djokovic’s title to lose. For the first time in a while there’s a clear favourite. [Roger] Federer is still class but vulnerable now and [Rafael] Nadal isn’t here this time. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rafa but one of the disadvantages of working in sport is that you become part of the machine. You still love it but you’re never quite the fan you were as a ten-year-old boy, cheering for [Bjorn] Borg or Seve [Ballesteros, golf being another of Cotter’s gigs]. I don’t have favourites when I’m commentating, unless Scotland are involved, in which case I’m usually masking my feelings in expressions of disappointment.”

An urgent Zoom meeting but all Olive and Mabel want to know is when they'll next be fed.

Usually, but not always. Cotter is cheered by Murray’s return to the scene of past triumphs while, like the rest of us, steeling himself for the eventual end. He says: “Maybe it would have been better for us, although obviously not for Andy, if there had been a sudden stop. Yes, that would have been brutal and a terrible blow, but we would have come to terms with it. In a sense it’s the hope that kills you. There was that win in Antwerp a couple of years ago and we all thought: ‘Well, he can do it on tour, so maybe … ’

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“I suppose we think he’s unlikely to win another Grand Slam singles title. Some are wondering why he’s still out there, after so many injuries, operations and setbacks. But Andy says: ‘I want to play. I don’t worry about what I was, I just want to play tennis and try and compete again.’”

Learning from Andy Murray

Lockdown superstars Olive and Mabel have a wee lie down after breaking the internet

This is what champions do, adds Cotter, and Murray has been a great one, all the more for having emerged from rain-lashed Scotia, a land of crater-marked public courts and a major football obsession, and then to have muscled his way onto tennis’ top table in what’s been a golden age. “In the era of the three kings, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, to have become the fourth king and won three Slams, two Olympics and been world No 1 is incredible, absolutely incredible.”

So what will Murray’s legacy be? “I’ll tell you: sometimes in Scotland we’re too negative and I speak as a negative person myself. We’ll get to major finals, for instance in football, and think that achievement enough for a small nation. But look at Denmark and look at Croatia, who put us out of the Euros. They’re small too and have achieved much more.

“And look at Andy and what he’s done in a global sport. Could our football team go further? When you’ve got talent combined with the cussedness of Murray and also the belief that you could be the best in the world or at least the desire to strive, then you don’t have to say: ‘We’re here, we’re happy with our lot.’

“I was reporting for [radio station] Scot FM when Kevin Gallacher’s goal at Celtic Park took us to the [1998] World Cup in France and no one thought we would then be absent from finals for so long. Like everyone I became inured to disappointment, but then we qualified for these Euros and maybe from now on the performance against England can be who we are. That wasn’t just a scrap for a point; the team played extremely well. If we can do that more often then perhaps Scotland will get rid of this image of ‘Oh, they’re brave and gutsy and will fight hard.’ You want skill in sport, skill will always prevail. Andy Murray is gutsy but he’s also one of the most skillful tennis players there’s ever been.”

Some doggy downtime for Andrew Cotter before Wimbledon.

Okay, okay, I hear you: the dugs. Cotter, Troon-born and now living with his partner Caroline in Cheshire, was halfway up a mountain in Glencoe when the first lockdown loomed last March. His four-legged friends’ mucking about was a welcome distraction so he revved up his cameraphone and added some words. The posted clip went bonkers.

The Olive and Mabel phenomenon

So did the follow-up - “That difficult second album” - and the one after that, immediately hailed as a classic of the genre for the gormless expressions of Olive, seven, and three-year-old Mabel, while stuck in a fetid pond. Cotter expanded into video, longer shaggy dog stories, titled them (“Game of Bones”) and the labs’ escapades, in making the world smile a bit more and depressed and fearful a bit less, moved Sir Tim Rice no less to pen a song in tribute.

How the heck did this happen? Cotter is astonished but, equally, unastonished. Like many, lockdown left him bored and unemployed - “I only worked 12 days last year.” For the sake of his own mental health he needed to do something. Britain is a nation of dog-lovers and in 2020 this country, along with everywhere else, provided a captive audience.

“It felt like everything was collapsing,” he says, “so here was this guy, job gone, who’d been reduced to commentating on his dogs eating breakfast.”

That chimed with a world frantically trying to diversify to stay afloat, and one desperately needing to laugh.

Andrew Cotter is a huge admirer of Andy Murray. Picture: Paul Harding/Getty Images

People being silly on the internet - good. Dogs - better. “I think we see in dogs only the good things - the innocence, the honesty, the love,” adds Cotter. “There’s none of the unpleasantness that sometimes comes with human company. I sound misanthropic, and I am a bit, but there’s no side to dogs - they’re wonderfully transparent.” Humans are cynical and conniving and always wanting something more, whereas dogs simply want biscuits. That’s his experience of labradors, anyway. “Some terriers can be total bastards.”

Cheering up the nation

So, right time and right stars, but Olive and Mabel still needed a script. Cotter would adopt the hushed tones of the US Masters narrator, hiding in the azaleas at the 18th green: “This is where Mabel is strong … using that intensity … staring at a slightly torn cloth rabbit for more than seven-and-a-half minutes.” At other times he’d be the disappointed master, issuing direct reprimands: “You’ve pretty much ruined the sofas … 913 squirrels chased and none caught.”

Cotter says: “Everyone’s a frustrated comedy writer, aren’t they? I know I am.” The tweet of approval which has pleased him the most came from Armando Iannucci, satirist supreme and creator of The Thick of It and other modern classics. And indeed there have been moments when our man has felt like the topical gagman racing against the deadline clock. “Sometimes I would panic and be almost bullying Olive and Mabel into being funny: ‘Do something for God’s sake!’ Caroline would have to remind me that they were first and foremost our dogs. There was pressure from the folk who were enjoying the videos: ‘Please make another one soon.’ And in many cases I was getting back genuinely touching, serious and sad stories.” The hounds were cheering up the nation in a way that Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock couldn’t.

From the “hundreds of thousands” of expressions of gratitude, Cotter chooses one: “I was on the Merrick in the Southern Uplands when just about everybody seemed to recognise Olive and Mabel. This fellow stopped me to say that his mother who suffers from dementia loves the videos and watching them is the only time she smiles. That’s a very powerful thing to hear. They are silly little films and you’re doing them for fun, but fun is very important at the moment.”

Last month he took the dogs into the Cairngorms for what he thought might be the last of the videos (“Some of the oldest mountains of the world … inviting the great questions of life … what do you mean you’re thinking about sausages?”). His reasoning was: let’s not overdo this. Then just the other day, to the delight of the Olive/Mabel massive, a face-off on a country lane simply offered too much comic potential (“Her last chance is to confuse the prey with a couple of spins, a shake and a bit of pointless leaping”).

With a follow-up book on the go Cotter envisages the dogs making occasional re-appearances on film, not least because for him the work has returned, although instead of being in Tokyo for the Olympics, Covid restrictions will mean require him to commentate on the athletics from a studio here, also the opening ceremony which sounds like a challenge and a half.

Do they get separation anxiety when he’s away? “Yes, but if my voice is on TV they don’t howl at the moon or anything. I’ve tried to face-time them but that’s useless. When I’m not at home, being blessed with short-term memory, they forget me pretty quickly. Dogs simply deal with whatever’s on their plate and hopefully it’s literally something on their plate. One of the great joys of their superstardom is that they’re completely unaffected by it.”

It is Cotter who misses them, adding: “The messages of how Olive and Mabel helped folk, helped me. I struggled through lockdown like everyone else and the dogs saved my sanity, too.”

Andrew Cotter is part of the BBC’s Wimbledon 2021 line-up. Catch all the action across BBC TV, radio and online from Monday.

Olive, Mabel & Me: Life and Adventures with Two Very Good Dogs (Black & White Publishing) is available in hardback and paperback.

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Olive and Mabel join Andrew Cotter at the Poet's Path in Alloway to meet another doggie duo, The Twa Dogs; a new sculpture at the National Trust for Scotland's Robert Burns Birthplace. Picture: Jeff Holmes
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