Like all great things, it started with breakfast…
“Well, how fitting it should come down to these two. Olive in her familiar black, five times the champion; Mabel the rising star, winner last year. You can see how excited they are.”
In late March, the boredom and banality of lockdown led Andrew Cotter to record his dogs racing to lick their bowls clean and treat it like a clash of titans. Cotter may not have been a household name but his voice is synonymous with sport, as familiar and essential as the constant clamour of a spectating crowd (more on that coming up).
A master of the art, Cotter commentates to complement, that Ayrshire enunciation, authoritative, concise and clear, enthusiastic without being overblown, breathlessly building up tension or retreating into a reverential hush as the momentum of the moment requires.
Apply this particular set of skills to describing the antics of two mischievous Labrador Retrievers and you have viral video gold.
‘The Dog’s Breakfast Grand Final’ was a furry phenomenon, turning Olive and Mabel into instant canine superstars, with Cotter their bemused owner.
“It just spread so quickly,” he says. “The speed it was getting viewed and shared… within a few minutes you realise something really strange was happening. Then it snowballs and exponentially grows and grows and grows. Then that’s when the real madness begins.”
The video and subsequent follow-ups were watched by tens of millions, bringing rare respite to viewers during the dark days of lockdown. People were worried about friends, family and whether the healthcare system could cope. Jobs were at risk, economies had stalled, a global recession had begun. What the world needed most was a disobedient dog in a pond – and we all lapped it up.
But until now, Cotter, who turns 47 next week, has not spoken about the story behind Olive and Mabel’s overnight fame and the unexpected burden that came with it.
Andrew Cotter was ready for a momentous 2020 with an epic summer of sport lined up – before Covid-19 blew the whistle on the lot.
Cotter lists the jobs that one after another were scratched from his diary: “The Masters, the London Marathon, the Boat Race as well,” he laments. “Wimbledon, the Open, the Olympics… big events you love to do.”
He should have been taking off for Tokyo, assigned to the opening ceremony – a crowning achievement for any commentator – followed by the Rugby Sevens then athletics.
It was on March 14, when Cotter was driving from his home in Cheshire to Cardiff for the Wales-Scotland Six Nations match, that he received the message that it had been called off.
“It was clear very early on that we were going to be without sport for a long time,” he says. “To be honest, you look at it from a selfish point of view. I’m a freelance sports broadcaster. If there’s going to be no sport, I’m going to have no income. My job has gone.
“I have savings, I’ve been lucky to do the job I’ve done for the last few years,” Cotter adds. “But it’s interesting. I remember one of the last games that we did, Scotland against France at Murrayfield. Everyone’s gathering around the outside broadcast trucks talking about it, because we knew this was coming. You rely on those events to pay your mortgage, your rent and suddenly when they don’t happen, there are a lot of people in a lot of trouble.
“You don’t get any government support. Again, this is not a cry for help at all, because I’m very fortunate and I realise that, but I’m in very much the same situation as anybody who works in events. There are so many people who depend upon crowds and mass gatherings, whether it’s a music festival or the theatre or a concert. The workforce has been utterly devastated. Events don’t happen, you don’t get paid.
“So that was my initial thought. Then you just try and have a bit of fun at your own expense and do a commentary on your dogs eating breakfast.” And a lockdown legend was born. Like many of us who are supported through rough times by our pets, Olive and Mabel were there for Cotter.
“They just carry on being normal. They carry on being that anchor for you. If you’re having a bad day, you sit with your dog or your cat or whatever it might be, and things seem a little better.”
Olive and Mabel brightened the days of countless viewers too who immediately fell for the pair and their individual, but universal, personalities.
“Mabel is slightly more juvenile, slightly more scatty – she is younger,” Cotter says. “Olive is more together. She’s deeply, deeply affectionate but she’ll have moments where she likes her own company. Mabel doesn’t like her own company, Mabel likes everybody else’s. You try to develop and show those characters in the videos you make.
“I would certainly never say, ‘Oh, I’m healing the world through laughter’. But lots of comments have quite often been, ‘I really needed that laugh today because it’s been a bad day’.”
Although Cotter says that becoming an overnight sensation was enjoyable and an undeniable buzz, there were serious drawbacks. “The world floods in. And it’s absolutely impossible to cope with.
“People contact you, say they liked the video because they’re having a crappy time at the moment, for whatever reason. You take that on board,” he explains. “If you add up everything it’s 50,000 or 60,000 messages on Twitter, emails a hundred a day.
“And with every one that comes in you take in a little bit of their problems, a little bit of their sadness at the situation they’re in. It is in the true sense of the word overwhelming.”
While Cotter was helping others cope with their problems, he was struggling to deal with his own life.
“At the same time, all the while you’re thinking: there’s no money coming in,” he continues. “And people were saying, ‘Oh, I want one of these videos every day.’ Well, that would really dilute it and make it less funny. And if you’re hammering away at the same old schtick…
“Clearly I was digging a bit of a hole for myself, ‘Oh, this is the guy who commentates on dogs’, but eventually I will go back to doing sports broadcasting so you don’t want to be the comedy commentator. You want to still maintain a little bit of gravitas – if I ever had any of that in the first place.”
This is the reason Cotter’s videos strayed away from simple dog commentary, starting with The Company Meeting, which perfectly captured the frustrations felt by workers from home trying to stay connected.
Although his entire canon of eight videos (so far) only lasts a total of 14 minutes, 20 seconds, speaking with Cotter about his output is like talking through a retrospective with a veteran auteur. There is the early work – the first two videos, spontaneous, energetic, accidental masterpieces; the mid-career work – solid sequels, crowd pleasers; then the later work – increasingly experimental, less appreciated by wider audiences.
But it is of these Cotter is proudest, especially the behind-the-scenes documentary that portrayed Olive and Mabel as struggling to deal with their success.
“That took far more work than a simple commentary on them fighting over a bone, but that gets 20 million views and the documentary – it still gets one and a half million and that’s really satisfying – but the amount of work that goes into it…
“You realise what it must be like for people who put their heart and soul into a beloved music project or film or whatever. They had a few massive hits, they want to replicate that. Then it comes out. It’s difficult because, you know, people just want dog commentary and I don’t want to do that any more.”
Well, we’ll always have Game of Bones.
So what is next for Cotter and his canines?
The sporting calendar is filling up fast with rescheduled events – the London Marathon and completion of the Six Nations in October, the Masters in November.
“I’m still sceptical of a few of those events happening. Certainly, they’re not going to have crowds if they do happen.”
Do you listen to the football with or without the crowd sounds?
“Without the crowd sounds. I hate the fake sounds because it’s not real.”
Will commentating on sport be different without a crowd?
“You’re always riding along on the back of the crowd and the atmosphere as a commentator. When you’ve got the crowd noise in your ears, you feel that your commentary is part of that great orchestra of sport. Whereas if you’re on your own, it’s like a solo. But again, that’s the reality of the situation.”
Until then, Cotter has to write a book, Olive, Mabel & Me, about his relationship with his pets. He’s greatly appreciative of the publishing deal, as “it’s the only thing I can use to buy dog food for them”, and asks we make sure to include the correct website link. “It’s oliveandmabelbook.com – you’ve got to spell Mabel correctly because the day after the publisher set up the website someone set up an Olive and Ma-B-L-E.com, where you can book escorts called Olive and Mable. Ridiculous.”
But he promises Olive and Mabel will stay in the spotlight.
“I’ve enjoyed the creative process far too much,” Cotter says. “This has given me a smaller bank account but the opportunity to try different things. I don’t want to waste that. I would like to continue to make videos, do projects involving Olive and Mabel.”
The pair (and Cotter just because he’s holding the lead) get mobbed on walkies, but are otherwise unchanged by the whole experience, continuing their daily routine of “eating and walking and sleeping. That’s it. And occasionally being told to sit still or do something stupid while I film them.”
They haven’t even developed any more respect for their owner.
“No, no. No respect. I mean, listen, they love me as I love them. But respect? No, that’s a bit of a stretch.
“But they have been great, obviously, as many people will have found with their dogs during this whole thing. Just to have them there to chat to, tickle their ear. They’re great therapy during difficult times.”