This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28th May 2016.
Secret Life of the Human Pups: Wednesday, Channel 4
Love, Nina: Friday, BBC One
We all want to be seen as different in some way, as unique individuals set apart from the masses. Some choose to express their iconoclasm by wearing humorous socks or pretending to enjoy experimental jazz. Others make a stand against conformity by dressing up in tight-fighting rubber dog costumes. Whatever works.
Despite its voyeuristic premise, Secret Life of the Human Pups took a sympathetic look at a growing subculture of men who live unusual double lives. Although it sprang from the underground fetish scene, it seems that for most human pups in the UK – current membership, around 10,000 – it’s not about sexual gratification.
Many of them are bored. They enjoy adopting a canine alter ego as a way of escaping from the dreary pressures of life. Whereas some people take the edge off with drugs and booze, these chaps take the healthier option of having their bellies rubbed by designated handlers. Others suffer from social anxiety. Theoretically, escaping into another identity and meeting likeminded, non-judgemental believers should improve their self-esteem. Just another form of cosplay, it all seems fairly harmless.
Of course, any practice deemed outside the accepted parameters of society will always come at a price for some. Tom, who sleeps in a cage – despite evidence to the contrary, he insists it’s perfectly comfortable – was last year honoured as the first ever Mr Puppy UK.
But Tom’s doggy desires destroyed his romantic relationship with Rachel, to whom he was once engaged. She’s still his best friend, but her sadness was palpable. “It would be a nice thing to have him back,” she sighed, as Tom prepared to compete for Mr Puppy Europe.
Back in Britain, it was telling that when a handler arranged for a group of them to take their first walk in public, only two of the 50 applicants turned up. While it was brave of these men to expose themselves on camera, their reticence to risk public wrath is understandable.
Personally, I suspect that most people don’t really care if grown men want to dress up as dogs for kicks. They’re not harming anyone, after all. What is normal anyway?
Thankfully, that was the position the programme took. While it didn’t ignore the innate humour of their fetish – it’s not as if human pups take themselves entirely seriously either – it didn’t poke fun at them. To each dog their own.
Adapted by Nick Hornby from Nina Stibbe’s autobiographical book about her time spent as a nanny for a well-heeled London family in 1982, Love, Nina is a comedy-drama which just about stays afloat on a waft of gentle charm.
A no-nonsense lass from Leicester – The Generic North, in other words – Nina looks after the precocious/annoying young sons of an elegantly lonely single mum (Helena Bonham Carter) while fending off snobbish putdowns from the gossipy Scottish poet next door (Jason Watkins, playing a character loosely based on Alan Bennett).
Despite being the living definition of a comedy designed to provoke, at best, wry smiles instead of laughs – it’s all very Radio 4; a so-so Brit flick in episodic form – it ambles along inoffensively.
But current BBC comedies such as Going Forward and Mum are far more effective in wringing subtle humour from character detail and social observations. Love, Nina, by comparison, is too whimsical, too insubstantial, to make much of an impression.