What made you want to take on this documentary?
"Jealousy. Martin Clunes had
done dogs. He’d done dogs and they came to me and said,
‘Would you do cats?’ Well I’d seen
Clunes’s two-parter on dogs and loved it. And I’m
fascinated with animals. I’ve done programmes with
orangutans, giraffes and things like that. And cats, well I
couldn’t love cats more. And it seemed to be able to link
domestic cats to the big beasts and find out about the cats place in
history was just thrilling."
What’s the most surprising thing about cats that you have learnt working on this documentary?
"The quality of cats is that they are
tame because they choose to be tame and absolutely at the same time
they are wild and they never lose that. And I think that duel
personality is what is so thrilling. Because you always feel
you’re being blessed by a wild animal when it comes and sits on
you. You see them in garden and you call, ‘puss,
puss’. If they’re going after a bird they turn round and
have to change their face and go ‘Oh hi, it’s just me."
What was your favourite location to visit?
"It’s hard to pick but I have
to say I was blown away by Namibia. I knew where it was and I knew it
would be dry and like a desert. What I didn’t know is that
it’s two and a half times the size of France with only four
million people in it, so it’s empty. I didn’t know
that it would have such a scrubby and violent landscape. A great
sort of savannah and prairies and deserts. And all over it are
warthogs and wildebeests. It’s the absolute business, I
fell in love with it. And
then the cheetahs. They are so cool because they can run faster
than any other animal and so don’t have to clean themselves. Or
rather they don’t bother, they’re dirty tykes.
They’re the only cat that doesn’t groom itself. So we had
to dart them to check them before they were released. We had them
unconscious and they gave me a big wire brush and said ‘Comb the
cheetah’. And I was combing out burrs and fleas from these
unconscious but beautiful and fabulous animals. And then they
looked so clean and shiny with their great black tails."
Can you sum up how the different cultures you have visited view cats?
"Well, Egypt was the first country
where cats actually lived with people and cats chose to come in.
Egypt was the first place where people stored grain in the history of
mankind. Mice and rats came in and said ‘Here’s the
stored grain – that’ll do us.’ Cats came in out of
the desert and said ‘Mice and rats? Perfect!’ So
that’s how cats decided to live with people, they were the Mao
cats. And we crept into the ancient Egyptian tombs and found drawings
that were thousands of years old of pretty Egyptian women with cat on
their laps. So that was great. "And then to Japan where they have
a fetish for cats. The Maneki Neko is the waving cat and we went
to the temple where the legend began. We visited a cat tailor who
has two very, very docile cats and she dresses them up in clothes that
she makes them. She makes them rabbits ears and frogs faces with
frogs ears. She even makes them Prince Charming hats and
tiaras. And the cats sit there being photographed in these
things. We went to Chicago, where there was a cat circus, where I
thought ‘Oh God, I don’t want to see this’. It
turned out to be a whole load of ordinary cats, who, if they felt like
doing something, would! It was hysterical. The circus was
only the size of this room and if they felt like it they’d come
out and do tricks for a bit of fish. So that was sweet and very
funny. We visited the great Hitchcock movie star Tippi Hedren, who
is the mother of Melanie Griffith. She has set up a big cat
sanctuary. All Hollywood stars want a tiger, leopard or a
panther. And then they don’t want them when they’ve
grown to their full size so they just throw them out and get rid of
them. So she has to go and get them. And we’ve just
come back from Mexico which was staggering. Where we were
traipsing through the jungle trying to see the shy jaguar. One of
the things we did was going over to Belgium. In the old days,
they used to think cats were evil and throw them out of a tower. We
went to a Cat Festival where, thank God, they throw toy cats, not live
ones. But they used to burn the people who they said were witches
and kill their cats."
Is there anything that these cultures all have in common with the way they view cats?
"Fascination. I think there’s
something compelling about them even today. Even with domestic cats,
people will tell you on and on and on about what their cat did."
People either love or hate cats. What is it about them that you think polarises opinion?
"It’s the sharpest divide
I’ve ever met. Some people actually said to me, ’Oh
you’re not making a programme about cats?’ And other
people said, ‘Oh I love cats.’ Some people say they
kill birds but if you’ve got one, put a bell around its neck and
birds will hear them coming. But there’s something that
some people find spooky about cats – they can hold you in an
unblinking gaze. Dogs always react in some way but cats just
stare and it can be quite unnerving. They also rather unnervingly know
exactly who hates them and always make a beeline for them to try and
get on their lap."
What is your favourite type of cat?
"A cat expert told me all vets and
cat experts like moggies best. It’s something about the
mixed race that works. They have a nicer temperament, they are
cleverer, more adaptable, fit in better and have a generally good
nature. It’s a lesson for us all in the world isn’t
it? It brings all the best qualities out. But I have to say
that Bengal cats are beautiful. They are crossed with a wild
Asian cat, so they’re like small tiger leopards with coats made
of pure silk."
Have you ever had any pet cats?
"Well we were an army family so out
in Malaya my mother rescued a cat. She heard a whimpering from a
well when she was taking the dog for a walk and there was a little
drowning kitten. She hooked it out with a piece of string and
brought it home and that was our cat for three years. But we
couldn’t bring him back so he stayed with a family over there
when we left. There have always been cats around me. If you
share a flat with girls there’s always a cat, somehow. And
you’re always looking after someone’s cat and then
you’ve ‘owned’ a cat. And my son brought back a
cat. He said me to me, ‘I’ll look after it forever,
Mummy’. Oh yeah? Well we had that cat for 18 years and
he was just magic."
Why do you think cats are such good
companions for humans despite their independence and perceived
aloofness? Why have they become our domesticated friends?
"Well, they don’t have that
unwavering loyalty like dogs but they do like people. We’re
visited at the moment by two neighbours’ cats. We
don’t feed them but they like us. So they come and hang around
and do ‘cat things’. When you’re working they
sit right in front of where you’re trying to write or read. When
I’m packing they come up and sit on the suitcase. So
it’s interesting because they’re not doing it for
food. So cats like people but they’re also fickle, which is
not like a dog. Dogs tend to love their person and you can
understand a dog better. You can train a dog but you can’t
train a cat. You can hope they’ll do something but
that’s all. You can reward them at the end. Dogs will
sit in an empty room just because you’ve told them
to. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different."
Has working on this documentary changed the way you feel about or the way you look at cats?
"I’ve felt very rewarded by the
fact I’ve handled cats that are notoriously difficult and
they’ve been complete putty in my hands. I think it’s
because I’m quite calm and quiet and I’m not in a
flap. And I love animals so I treat them with respect but I also
know how cats like to be. For example, the Japanese girls who
dressed their cats in clothes never allowed people to touch them. I
didn’t know that but I managed to put clothes on and off a cat
that was known to be difficult. Of course, I didn’t know
that it was temperamental and so there was no strain. It’s
been lovely – I’ve been able to make cats quiet who are
never quiet. My biggest aim in life would be to be like Dr.
Doolittle and speak to the animals!"
What breed do you think is the most beautiful cat?
"Of the big cats, it’s almost
impossible. The coat of a cheetah is too fabulous for words, so
ranging. With those fabulous black eyeliner marks down the front
of its face. But look at a jaguar’s coat and it’s
printed with roses – it has a centre with petals around the
outside. So instead of spots they’ve got these rosettes and that
is just unbelievable. But then you see a Bengal tiger up close and
you think, ‘Actually this is it.’ Then you see some of
those Siamese with their great hawk noses and slanting eyes. And then
you see a favourite moggy who just looks back at you with that tabby
face and the ‘M’ on its face which supposed to be the
finger marking of the prophet Muhammad. They say the
‘M’ is there because Muhammad loved cats. Muhammad was
asleep in his robes on his bed, in the heat of the day, with a cat
beside him. When he woke up, it was time to go to prayer and the
cat was asleep, lying on his robe. And he thought, ‘Well I
don’t want to wake the cat up’ so he cut the robe around
the cat and left the cat lying on it. And he went off with a torn robe
so that he didn’t wake the cat up. He also issued an edict that
anybody who treated cats badly was to be put to death. He adored cats.
Which is why cats are always respected in the Muslim community. But not
dogs. He said dogs were dirty because they don’t clean
themselves like cats did."
Was there a breed of cat that you only met for the first time during the programme?
"I met for the first time a ragdoll
cat. They’ve been specially crossbred to not mind anything.
They’re like beanbags. You pick them up and they just
flop. It’s not that they have no personality but
they’re just staggeringly docile. I met a ragdoll cat who was
taken to a children’s home where the children are very, very
badly disturbed. And they’re called “Pets As
Therapy”. They bring them into a class of about six or seven kids
with varying degrees of autism, deafness, blindness and mental
disturbance. And they sat there in a circle waiting for the
cat. The cat just lay on their laps and they stroked
him. The cat purred and they could feel it going through their
knees. The cat just sat there to be stroked by the children and it
sat on their shoulders. And the faces of those kids. It was
paradise. Sometimes the children brush the fur the wrong way or
hold them a bit too tightly and so the ragdoll is tranquil enough to
take that. And there’s always a keeper with it to make sure
nothing happens to it. It was terribly touching. There was also a
cat with very, very short stumpy legs. It was a mutant gene and
they bred it on, they kept it going. So it’s a cat with legs
like a dachshund. And I met a bald one – a hairless cat who
had also been bred to have short legs, so it had every kind of bad
thing going for it. It came out of its box with eyes like ET and
it looked up at me and I swear I heard it say ‘Please don’t
laugh at me.’ And I picked it up and held it on my lap and
it was so bald it felt wet. It had been bred like that, a freak cat."
Finally, can you sum up the programme, why should our viewers watch it?
"I think it’s going to be
absolutely stunning. It’s going to go from people like Celia
Hammond, who was the Kate Moss of her day, who has given her life away
to looking after cats. We’re in Canning Town collecting cats to
be spayed and in a council flat with a woman with 21 cats in the same
room. We’re going from that to the glamour of
Hollywood. We’re hunting jaguars in the jungle and trekking
with cheetahs from Namibia. We’re talking to vets about
cats. We’re holding cats, looking at cats and observing
cats. It’s cats at their best and worst. It’s
traditions to do with cats. Anyone who has any interest in animals
actually. But people particularly who love cats will be blown away
by this - there’s so much to see. The beauty shots of cats
that we’ve got – it’s worth watching for that alone."