Celebrity Snoop Dogs: the four-legged solution to making TV in a pandemic

Reality TV

In Channel 4's new series canine cinematographers show us round the homes of their famous owners. We sniff out a surefire lockdown hit

Who let the dog out? ...

A Celebrity Snoop Dog.Photograph: Channel 4

When Channel 4 revealed its first slate of Covid-era commissions at the end of April, one new format sounded like a particular treat. Celebrity Snoop Dogs would invite viewers to guess the identity of a mystery celebrity by strapping a GoPro camera on their pet dog to sniff out clues in the family home. On paper, it seemed purpose-built to dethrone Alan Partridge's Monkey Tennis as the pre-eminent TV pitch so absurd it might actually be genius.

Exploiting shut-in celebs and outsourcing camera duties are certainly creative solutions to the knotty problem of programme-making during a pandemic. But there is a world of difference between coming up with a good title in a Zoom meeting and actually executing the idea. Someone has to try and make fetch happen.

So it fell to Jamie Wightman - a veteran series producer and director of factual TV who has worked on everything from Don't Tell the Bride to Shed of the Year - to deliver on the promise of that glorious premise in a rapid six-week timeframe. "There have been a lot of technical challenges," Wightman admits down the line from his Surrey base. Foremost has been how to make a property show without production staff crossing the threshold. "First of all, we have to perform some sort of location reccy via video so we can determine where we want to put the cameras," he says. "Then we have to coach the homeowner on how to position the cameras and rig the animals." After delivering disinfected equipment to the subject, Wightman and his sensibly distanced skeleton crew monitor from an outside broadcast truck, hunkered down like an FBI surveillance team.

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While part of the fun will be audiences trying to guess the identity of the celeb as their doggo scampers round the master bedroom, Celebrity Snoop Dogs is not intended to be merely a Kennel Club spin on Through the Keyhole.

Instead, the plan is to mix the ground-level doggy-cam material with the visuals of an upscale interiors show. "You would expect a presenter to take you round a property and look as if they are really absorbing the things that they are looking at," says Wightman. "I was hoping we could mimic that with the dog, because we have these remote camera positions where you can see the dog walking around or looking out of the window. Watching the footage you think: what a clever little doggy, look at you taking us around this house!" In preparation, Wightman absorbed TV shows and films where non-CGI dogs were the stars - including Netflix's recent Benji reboot - and consulted with Game of Thrones animal handler Kenny Gracey on how to get the best from his amateur hosts. "You can encourage a dog to take a journey from A to B to C if you let him know that there are tiny little treats in those places," he says. "You run through it a few times and then you remove the treats, and they'll still make the same journey.

It gives the impression that you're going on this lovely tour. That was a tip from Kenny, it's how they did it on Game on Thrones." So far the dogs have come in all shapes and sizes, ranging in age from four to 10, with varying energy levels to match: "Some of them just want to go to sleep in every room." Halfway through filming, Wightman is loath to disclose any of the breeds featured, conscious that beloved pets feature so heavily on their owner's social media channels that they might give the game away. "Some of our dogs have done lots of photoshoots, so I suspect that the owners could be deciphered through the pet, if people are familiar."

Anyone working with animals onscreen will be mindful of the notorious 1969 Blue Peter episode where Lulu the baby elephant relieved herself on live TV. Has Wightman had any similar accidents that might become TV gold? "So far, they've all been very well-behaved," he says. "Food has disappeared from tabletops, shopping bags have been upended and clothes have been thrown around, but there have been no terrible messes." It may have been conceived and fast-tracked because of the paused state of the world but Celebrity Snoop Dogs does not aspire to be lockdown TV with a capital "L".

Wightman hopes it is a strong enough concept to outlast the current crisis. "If it does the job, people will hopefully love it regardless of the fact that it was filmed under these restraints," he says.

For the initial run, filming has been limited to the UK, but surely there is a dream mystery guest for the show - a certain US hip-hop superstar whose French bulldog Juelz has their own Insta? "I would love to have had a nosey around Snoop Dogg's house," laughs Wightman. "Maybe next series."

Celebrity Snoop Dogs starts Friday 26 June, 8.30pm, Channel 4

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