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."

(© ITV.com)