The one thing that BBC2’s Wonderland series does so well is to highlight the eccentricities of us Brits, as well as to focus on some very interesting characters all of whom have something in common. The latest film comes from renowned documentary maker Vanessa Engle, who most recently made the 2011 series Money, as she spends almost a year on Hampstead Heath meeting people walking their dogs. As Engle goes about making her film she meets a lot of disparate characters all of whom have a close bond with their canine companions as she asks a simple question why do people have dogs?
The first character the film focused on was Warren whose dog was Buddy, a French Mastiff which is a breed of dog a lot of people find fairly intimidating. As Vanessa gets to know Warren she believes that the dog could give people the wrong impression about him, however he admits he’d be happy with a Chihuahua, adding that he only got Buddy in the first place as he was free.
We learn that Warren was a troubled teenager however gradually he became a grafter however one night he found himself in a fight and ended up stabbing someone while trying to defend himself, which ultimately saw him end up in prison. It seems today though that Warren wants to better himself, if not for him then for his son Charlie who he now has custody of following Charlie’s mum also being sentenced to a jail term.
To me it seemed as if through his caring for Buddy, Warren had to take responsibility for somebody else and therefore when his son came along he was able to be a better parent. The one problem was that Warren was yet to inform the social worker that he had a dog living with him in the flat, though luckily we found out at the end of the film that he’d been allowed to keep him.
Scatty Marianne was the embodiment of a crazy cat lady only she had a dog instead known as Liliput but going by Lily for short. Throughout her interviews with Marianne, Vanessa seemed to insinuate that Lily was being used as a baby substitute, something Marianne vehemently denied, adding that she hates kids so wouldn’t ever want a child. Marianne believed dogs were a lot less demanding than people as usually you know what they want at all times though she did admit that you can’t have detailed conversations with them, which proves she’s not entirely nuts.
When she’s not fawning over Lily, Marianne also has designed a range of accessories for dogs including hand-knitted angora jumpers and jewel-encrusted dog leads with the latter costing between £500 and £600. Marianne seemed like a perfectly nice lady if one who was quite childlike when answering Vanessa’s questions however she did shower an awful amount of love on her dog, probably more so than anybody else in the film, which did make me question whether she was telling the truth about Lily not being a baby substitute.
Talking of babies there was also pregnant American Kelly and husband Dave whose dog Princess Katherine was named after Kate Middleton, I’m sure she’ll be thrilled! Vanessa’s main line of questioning was whether they’d keep Katie once the baby arrived and they told her they believed they could handle both.
Obviously not taking their word for it we saw Vanessa journey back to Dave and Kelly’s house following the birth of their baby. For now at least it seems as if they were coping with having both the baby and the dog ,which Dave partly attributes to bringing back the baby’s blankets from the hospital for Katie to sniff. Kelly is also happy that Katie is yet to raise her teeth to the baby however they are still cautious that something may happen as they believe their dog may be jealous of the new born. That jealousy was already witnessed when Katie was briefly abandoned when Kelly was in hospital, leading the dog to destroy a pair of Dave’s shoes.
As well as looking at new life and quirky characters, Vanessa’s film did a lot to document how dogs can be comfort in times of terrible emotional trauma. This introduced us to Gilly a glamorous looking woman who, if you saw her walking dog Bella along the Heath, you wouldn’t know had been through an awful time the past few years. As Gilly was suffering from bout of depression, she wasn’t aware that her partner’s business was going under and one day he left her alone meaning that she eventually had to move into a homeless hostel. Gilly had to give up her sons and her only real possession she took with her was dog Bella who has essentially become the one thing in her life that is keeping her sane. Despite having Bella to look after, we see Gilly is struggling with her life turning to alcohol and sleeping pills as a coping mechanism she is also at one point threatened with expulsion from the hostel. The hostel later started to have an impact on Bella’s well-being as she puts on too much weight after all the residents feed her scraps something that Gilly isn’t too happy about. Of all of the people featured here Gilly was possibly the one that I sympathised with the most as she had to go through things she never thought she’d have to and thankfully Bella was keeping her from going completely insane.
Vanessa also met Karen walking dogs Rick and Todd who she’d been walking every morning for the past seven months while her husband John was very ill in hospital. It was revealed that John had had a heart infection that lead to a massive brain haemorrhage which left him paralysed and will mean that he’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. As we saw John going through rehab he told us that he did indeed miss the dogs though he hoped to still be able to go out with Rick to get some exercise. Karen also described the dogs as a constant and whenever she has a dark day they’ll be there for her and they are a reason to look outside her own world. So it seems that like Jilly, Karen’s dogs are there to essentially keep her sane and have something to focus on outside of her husband’s tragic circumstances.
Another couple who’d been through great tragedy were Tony and Vicky who had lost their son in a paragliding accident a year ago and were still struggling to cope. They described Nigel as a rescue dog in that he’d rescued them from sitting in the corner and allowed them to re-engage with their lives. Though they told us Nigel would never take the place of their son he was still a massive distraction and they added that it was good to have another beating heart in the house. In this case Tony and Vicky’s dog is seen as a therapeutic way of coping with their tragic loss and, as with Karen, it has allowed them to focus on something else.
It would take too long to discuss everybody Vanessa met in her travels though I do want to briefly mention businessman Albert with his five Bichon Frises, Goldie’s former PA Marc who bought dog Kidda while caring for his father and finally awesome pensioners Margot and Sue who’d been walking their dogs together on the Heath for ten years while also trying to find dead bodies. Vanessa’s film made me care about her characters so much that I would’ve liked an entire series devoted to all of them…I wanted to know more. As well as being full of character, Walking with Dogs was also beautifully shot capturing the changing of the seasons while in addition focusing on all the ways these owners played with their dogs. The one thing I wasn’t a big fan of was the cheesy music selection from ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ to ‘Stand by Me’ it was all a little obvious and made the film seem a little bit more sentimental that it actually was.
Walking with Dogs was another great entry into the Wonderland strand and made me understand the vast amount of reasons why people keep dogs. In some cases it’s to fill a void in their lives such as was the case with Marianne for others like Warren it gave them responsibilities. Though for the majority of people in this film their dogs were something to focus on as well as a distraction from their personal problems and in most of these cases the dogs definitely seemed to do their jobs. While Walking with Dogs won’t make me rush out to get a dog any time soon what it did do was make me appreciate how much dogs mean to certain people and how strong the bond was between these dogs and their owners.
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