As you may have guessed we don’t watch a lot of TV. And in two years we have never reviewed a single thing on the gogglebox.
But last night’s documentary on BBC2, by Vanessa Engle, was revelatory. By turns funny, moving and even tragic, this glimpse of dogs and their owners over the course of a year on Hampstead Heath never settled for sentimentality or cliche. And the photography of locations we all know so well – the hill, ponds, woods – spoke in an elegiac way, too.
It would have been easy for Engle to populate the doc with the braying middle classes or eccentric rich twits, and whilst inevitably there was a sprinkling of such types – lonely singletons, kooky OAPs (‘Is that a poo in your pocket?’ she asked at one point), a rich guy with his five fluffy white bichon frises – she was careful to portray a social mix genuinely reflective of the wider area. After all, Queen’s Crescent and Gospel Oak lie at the foot of Parliament Hill, and the Heath is neither the wealthy idyll nor gay cruising park that some non-Londoners may think (although both these aspects can, of course, be found).
And some stories were breathtaking in their frankness. Take Warren, a single father who’d just come out of prison and lived on an estate with his small son and French Mastiff; or Gilly, an elegant, well-spoken woman with gorgeous Weimaraner who turned out to be homeless, living in the Holmes Road centre in Kentish Town. In fact, bereavements, addictions, overdoses and illnesses filled these supposedly casual conversations, none more tragic than the parents of a 25 year old son who had died last year paragliding, and had bought a puppy not as a replacement, but as a way to focus on simply getting through each day.
As we dog owners already know, it soon became apparent that dogs really do help keep the mind in the moment, as one recovering alcoholic repeated (his young daughter cringing alongside him). He had, he explained, even named his new dog Zen. Because no matter what is going on in our lives, a relentless waggy tail, an animal’s quotidian needs and the humbling excitement of its appreciation of nature make a pretty good cure for excessive introspection.
You could, of course, tell in her questioning that Engle is a non-dog owner. But perhaps it needed that sense of remove to offer a balanced perspective in the juxtaposition of real lives in all their absurdity and unpredictability. And in this way the doc reminded me of a project I did a couple of years back on the stories behind memorial park benches, many of which were on the Heath and were a startling glimpse of tales previously untold.
Watch it here.
Words: Stephen Emms