Cats not pictured

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Lily, Phoenix, Pixie, Layla, Missy, Tilly, Harry, Mittens, Percy, Fish “Bean” Bandito, Spike, Tank, Charlie, Genie, Nala, Felix, Lunar and Sadie Ellenore – these were the stars of the show, but none of them were actually at the Savoy in London to bask in their own glory, as they are all cats. The National Cat Awards 2017 took place yesterday lunchtime – my second time as a judge, this time part of the panel judging the overall Cat of the Year from the five individual category winners – and it was another glorious occasion. It’s quite something to be in a ballroom of 200-plus people who you can guarantee are all cat lovers. John Challis, aka Boycie, announced from the stage that he had not previously been one, but was now “a cat person”. He received a massive cheer, as if perhaps this was a religious meeting and he had converted!

Cats Protection, celebrating its 90th year in 2017, is my favourite charity that I am not a patron of. (This is my favourite charity I am a patron of.) I am, however, a tireless supporter of their good works in rescuing, re-homing, neutering and raising awareness about the welfare of cats. Cats Protection helps around 190,000 cats and kittens per year through a national network of 250 volunteer-run branches and 34 adoption centres. These amazing volunteers rehome around 46,000 cats a year, more than 100 cats per day. (They even offer emotional support to owners going through the loss of a pet.)

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I support them by helping to raise money and by promoting them. I helped launch this year’s awards in March by speaking to every radio station in the UK with genial chief exec Peter Hepburn.

Last year, I was thrilled to be a part of the judging process for the first time, which involves watching the individual films made by the charity of the shortlisted owners and their cats, whose stories are generally heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, usually involving debilitating illness on the part of the humans, and sometimes the cats, too. You can watch all the films and meet the nominees here, but be prepared to get something in your eye. There is something counterintuitive about a huge gathering of cat people and no cats, but cat people know that cats don’t much like crowds, or being unecessarily coerced into cat carriers, or smelling other cats they don’t know. It would be counterintuitive to a cat welfare charity to puts cats into a stressful situation. I think it speaks of the general positive attitude and bottomless optimism that Cats Protection sends a film crew to the houses of cats and expects the cats to perform for the camera! What they mostly do is sit and look imperious, or hide. You cannot herd cats.

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You can, however, herd cat owners. Here we are, four of the judges with the impossible task of choosing top cat (and by extension top cat owner), flanking winner 11-year-old Evie and her mum Tina. Evie is coping with bone cancer, and doing so thanks to Genie, pictured on the screen behind us. From left to right: ever-reliable master of ceremonies Alan Dedicoat – the National Lottery’s “voice of the balls” and longtime sideman of the late Terry Wogan – me, Evie, Tina, Anita Dobson, who needs no introduction, TV psychologist Jo Hemmings and fine actor Paul Copley, with whom I used to share an agent, and who is ubiquitous in top TV drama (Downton, Last Tango, Broken). Other celebs this year included the impressive Steven Dixon – co-host of Sunrise on Sky News, which I rarely miss – committed animal activist Peter Egan (Egan the Vegan!), Tim Vincent, Ali Bastion, Deborah Meaden (who, in a cruel twist of fate, couldn’t be there because her cat was poorly) and Anthony Head (another who couldn’t make it).

Here’s a fun pic of the judging lineup from last year, which, as you’ll see, contains a rock icon, and yes, he is a bit taller than me, although I am making myself smaller to match the height of Saffron from Republica.

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This is me trying to say something witty yesterday when we presented the final award. (We designated Anita as the one who would announce the winner and hand over the trophy as she is the most famous.)

A splendid time was had by all. The volunteers of Deeside Cats Protection were on my table, and when they won the Star Team Award for their selfless work rescuing 25 cats after Storm Frank hit the village of Ballater, their coordinator, Liz Robinson, was in bits. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed at seeing herself on the big screen, or just emotional because of the general mood of heightened empathy and cat-love in the ballroom and the tension every Oscar nominee must also experience before the envelope is opened. Anyway, she held up well once on the stage, as did all the winners.

I’ll be back next year, if they’ll have me. Here’s a cat.

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All awards photos: Charlotte Fielding Photography

 

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A few sentences

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To the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on the first balmy evening of 2013 for an event laid on by the actor David Morrissey (who I can’t pretend I haven’t recently befriended) and his wife, the writer Esther Freud, to promote the good works of the charity Reprieve.

I’m not really used to these things, but the idea is to assemble a roomful of media and arts folk who find “a social” hard to resist and shamelessly talk up a charity with a view to either financial assistance, or some other payment in kind. I consider myself neither a mover nor a shaker, but the guest list turned out to include one or two affable giants of comedy whom I have the pleasure to know – Al Murray, Sean Hughes – as well as other familiar faces like Simon Mayo, Tracey MacLeod, Dan Maier and James Brown, so the terror of walking into a room on my own was quickly salved.

Also present: Olivia Colman, Polly Harvey, Peter Capaldi, Sam West, Tom Goodman-Hill, Sinead Cusack, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hollander, Mariella Frostrup, Alain de Botton … here are some pics.

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Reprieve’s aim is simple enough: to deliver justice and save lives. You shouldn’t really need a charity to cover those two things. But then, neither should you need a charity to prevent cruelty to animals or save the children, but that is the world we live in. Reprieve, founded by unstoppably energetic and courageous human-rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, describes itself as “a vibrant legal action charity … that punches well above its weight.” It only has 28 full-time staff, and yet its lawyers were among the first into Guantánamo Bay, a cause that has come to define the charity. They have acted for 83 prisoners there in total, 66 of whom have now been freed and 21 of whom are being assisted by Reprieve’s Life After Guantánamo (LAG) team.

Reprieve hates the death penalty. It hates drones. It does not believe in killing people, full stop. It also hates secret prisons and rendition, whether ordinary or extraordinary. (You’re getting the feeling that Reprieve has its work cut out in a post 9/11 world, and you’re right to.) The charity’s death penalty team have assisted hundreds of prisoners sentenced to death around the world and it knows how to use the media to the advantage of its various causes.

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Let’s not be coy, it attracts a lot of celeb supporters, including the aforementioned, and David and Esther – who hosted the evening from behind the lectern and gave impassioned speeches; they also corralled actor chums to read out shocking statistics – and a number of big-name patrons including Vivienne Westwood, Alan Bennett and Jon Snow – and none of this glad-handing hurts.

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It’s a serious business, of course. Clive Stafford Smith’s self-effacing but involving presentation was simply to describe his “average day”, which starts early and ends late, and often criss-crosses continents. Most of the trouble Reprieve seeks out is abroad, for self-evident reasons. We may live in a country whose compassion has been trampled underfoot by market-led politicians, but at least we don’t put prisoners to death. Our American cousins do. Although I learned last night that Pakistan has the most prisoners awaiting death in the world.

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You can read more about Reprieve’s work here. It’s ongoing, it’s endless, and their to-do list isn’t going to get shorter any time soon. When the HOPE-defined President Obama reneges on his promise to close Guantánamo Bay, what HOPE is there? Well, it resides with Clive and his team.

Only this week I have been reading about waterboarding in two separate places: in the New Yorker, and a long article (“The Spy Who Said Too Much”) about John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who spoke to the press about the torture used, specifically, on “high-value detainee” at Guantánamo Abu Zubaydah, a suspected Al-Qaeda lieutenant who was waterboarded 83 times, among other nasty “interrogation” techniques, and has never been charged with anything; and in Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, which I’m still ploughing through and which has reached “the Surge” in 2007, by which time George W Bush was in the process of handing over power to his successor, who, to his credit, banned waterboarding. (If only that was the whole picture.)

I spend my days trying to write funny scripts. It’s what I was doing yesterday, and it’s what I’ll be doing today. But I think very seriously about serious matters, and I’m constantly haunted by the wickedness that men do, whether it’s leaving a nail bomb in a bin in Boston, setting fire to a house your own children are asleep in, or signing off on the torture of individuals from behind a desk. Obama is no angel. Blair was a warmonger. If leaders on the left can’t deliver us from evil, where do we turn?

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Well, we turn to people like Clive Stafford Smith, whose selfless campaigning and tireless publicising are as much weapons in his peaceful armoury as his legal fleet-footedness. If I can pass on some of his sentiments, then I won’t have wasted another day on writing jokes.

Reprieve links:
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