This week, a video surfaced on Twitter of a border collie dancing to the early-2000s metal song “Bring Me To Life” by American mall goths Evanescence at last year’s Crufts. It also happens that this week, the BBC has chosen to air its big new dog grooming reality series Pooch Perfect. Coincidence? Completely, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact both clip and show are continuing evidence that we are absolutely, utterly, completely, totally mad for canines. Most of us grow out of the melodramatic music (“Bring Me To Life” was a song I thought was deeply cool and grown-up when it first came out, even if the actual members of Evanescence scared me a little bit; I was nine). But our love for dogs is never-ending. So it’s perhaps inevitable that the BBC would come up with a pretext to air footage of little fluffy balls of joy and those who love them unconditionally for an hour each week. In 2021, “warm, pastel escapism” has shot to the top of the list of what we want from our TV.
The Great British Bake-Off, which is the grande dame of this genre of British TV, hangs over Pooch Perfect. In fact, most questions about the programme’s format could be answered, “Like Bake-Off, but with dogs, and Paul Hollywood sadly doesn’t eat them at the end.” Like Bake-Off, we are in a big house in the country, a luxury spa of some sort. And, like Bake-Off, we have a whimsical comic presenter, in this case Sheridan Smith. Pooch Perfect was originally an Australian production hosted by Rebel Wilson, hence the name, but Smith is as good a substitute as you could ever wish for; her cohost is literally a dog called Stanley and – I can’t quite believe I’m writing this – the pair actually have quite good chemistry, with Smith gamely delivering one-sided human banter and Stanley barking merrily on cue. In the series’ press notes, Smith is described as “dog fanatic Sheridan Smith”, which is quite full-on. Dog lover might make her sound less like she’d be willing to kill anyone who admitted to being anti-dog, but anyway, there’s definitely something there.
The premise is thus: 16 of the nation’s best dog groomers (side note: imagine being the nation’s 15th best dog groomer. Would you put that on your CV?) will attempt to take dogs “from ruff to ravishing”. Four groomers appear in each episode in the first round, taking on two challenges each. The first challenge sees all the groomers get to work on the same breed. The second is a more creative challenge involving different breeds. Each week, two groomers go through to a quarter final, and two go home. There’s a golden statue of Stanley as a prize for the whole series.
This week’s contestants include builder turned groomer Thomas, from County Tyrone, who took up grooming after being let go from his job in 2008. In a strong Northern Irish brogue he tells us: “I have five kids, six dogs and three cats. My house is manic.” Then there’s Abbie, a punky type from Leicestershire whose childhood nickname was apparently “Ab The Lab” and whose childhood aspiration was to be a dalmatian. Confident Kara, from Cambridgeshire, who at 26 has already owned her own salon for five years, announces, with no sense of irony: “Anyone that doesn’t have a dog, I think, is weird.” And Kelly, a groomer from Somerset with 18 years of experience, seems like the most normal one, until she reveals she also sometimes grooms cockerels and chickens. Nonetheless, over the course of the episode, all four come across as very, very competent groomers.
Kelly seems like the most normal one, until she reveals she also sometimes grooms chickens
Our judges are crinkly-eyed, tattooed Colin Taylor, Pooch Perfect’s answer to the gruff, goateed perfectionism of Paul Hollywood, and Verity Hardcastle, who someone has styled to give off serious Kate Middleton/Sam Cam vibes. I’ve never heard of them either, but apparently they’re big names in the dog grooming world. (Fancy taking a guess at Verity’s speciality on the basis of her name alone? Yes, it is poodles. Well done.) There’s also a vet. To Pooch Perfect’s credit, they go a long way to explain how well cared for the dogs are on set and the dogs seem totally relaxed throughout.
The week’s first challenge focuses on grooming shih tzus, because as a nation we’re all still trying to return our brains to a solid state of matter post-Christmas and so, the producers have correctly surmised, we will either find the breed cute, the name funny or both. Most of us are still in a basic fugue state after spending last year submerged in a stagnant pool of our own dread, anyway. The shih tzus look more like candyfloss than dogs and are immediately a welcome distraction from the long, dark lockdown. These particular shih tzus are called Princess, Bourbon, Magic and Fizz, and the people who named them deserve their own special haircuts, courtesy of Madame La Guillotine. Magic is apparently a “professional stud dog”. We’re given no info on the other dogs who, presumably, are on the dole.
Obviously, we won’t spoil the ending for you, but you can broadly imagine how the drama unfolds. Conflict – Pooch Perfect’s own melting ice cream cakes and soggy bottoms, as it were – comes when Bourbon refuses to stand up as Thomas tries to trim his or her legs and he ends up giving the dog what everyone authoritatively and slightly bewilderingly describes as “an Austin Powers look”. Otherwise, the dogs are so well behaved you wonder whether the producers are slipping them something and the two judges are smart at keeping us guessing what they’re going to say during their feedback. There’s some praise and some constructive criticism.
Pooch Perfect is pure lockdown soma. Frankly, if you’re even considering watching this programme, you already know you’ll enjoy it. At the end of the second challenge, the groomers are given totally free rein to give any breed they like a “teddy bear trim”. Between them, they style a cavapoo, a bichon frise, a poochon and a cockapoo. At the end, the dogs are introduced back to their real-life owners and there are some very sweet, heartfelt reunions. It’s enough to warm the heart of even the most determined cynic. Sit and watch it and know that at least if the world is going to end this year, it will be with a bark, not a whimper.
Pooch Perfect is on BBC One tonight at 8pm.
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