August 21, 2005
Why Dumped Dog is Such a Lucky Hound
By David Wigg
No one wanted greyhound Pal after he was abandoned for not being fast enough on the track - until an animal trainer was asked to find a dog to star in a film.
David Wigg tells how the renamed Celt so nearly lost out again - before finding a new home and some much-needed love.
As Celt the greyhound comes bounding over to me on green fields overlooking the picturesque Weald of Kent, he obviously knows he is a dog in a million. Once abandoned, he is now about to appear as the star of a heartwarming film.
Celt, with his distinctive golden fawn markings, is one of many unwanted greyhounds in Britain that are dumped if they don't come up to racing standards. He had ended up being abandoned at a greyhound rescue centre in Derwentside. As the weeks went by, no one came to adopt Celt as a family pet but then something even more exciting happened to him.
Animal handler Sue Potter had been asked to find an appealing greyhound to star in a new British film entitled The Mighty Celt, a touching story about a boy and his love and devotion for a dog he desperately wants to own. Sue had the almost impossible task of choosing one greyhound from more than 100 at the kennels. But when she saw Celt, or Pal, as he was then known, Sue immediately knew he was the one she could train for the film. So what was so special about Celt?
"His colouring was perfect, he had to be fawn with some white markings, " says Sue. "He also had to be obedient and compatible with people and other animals. "I tested his reaction to sound and that was fine. There couldn't be anything wrong with him - he had to be an entire dog."
In the film, shot on location in the Belfast hills, 14-year-old Donal, expressively played by newcomer Tyrone McKenna, feels sure he is on to a winner with Celt.
Donal works at a kennels in Belfast and convinces his ruthless and cruel boss "Good Joe" (Ken Stott) that he can turn the dog into a champion "ball of speed" - and, if he wins three races, then the dog that the boy idolises so much will belong to him. As the lad trains the dog, the bond between Celt and Donal grows, just like the bond between his mother Kate (Gillian Anderson, formerly of The X Files) and estranged father O (Robert Carlyle), who has returned home after many years away.
All Donal wants is to keep Celt and restore family life but he is forced to learn some grim and harsh lessons about life on the way.
Sue trained Celt for two weeks at her home in County Durham, in preparation for his starring role. Celt then spent eight weeks filming in Northern Ireland with the cast and crew.
From all accounts, Celt excelled himself on set and everyone fell in love with him, but after the filming there was one big question remaining - what was to become of Celt? After all the attention he had received, it didn't seem right that he should go back to being alone and unwanted once again at the kennels, but Sue felt she couldn't keep him as she already owned five dogs.
Urgent inquiries were made among the crew and cast but it seemed no one was able to take him on from the film set where he had been thoroughly pampered.
On hearing of the young dog's plight, Kent landowner and farmer Philip Daubeny came to the rescue. Philip is a trustee and chairman of the London-based charity Dogs Trust, which cares for more than 12,500 strays each year. He had recently lost his own pet greyhound Tocki, another rescued dog. To everyone's relief he agreed to adopt Celt and take him to his lovely country home surrounded by 500 acres of open hills and farmland near Maidstone. Here Celt now enjoys long walks and romps with Philip's other pets - corgis Dusty and Yehudi and five cats.
With Celt looking a picture of contentment, fully spread out in an armchair, Philip recalls: "The first I heard of him was through a fellow trustee of Dogs Trust, a vet in Northern Ireland called Rose McIlrath. One of her friends, Claire Millar, was working as tutor to the children on the film. When it turned out that no real provision had been made for what was going to happen to Celt, Claire asked Rose if she had any ideas. Rose immediately thought of me because I had recently lost Tocki, who had been with me for seven years."
Eton-educated and having served in the Life Guards before running his own successful catering business, Philip felt there was one important question that had to be asked before he agreed to take on Celt.
How did the greyhound get on with cats?
"I was concerned because, on the whole, greyhounds are well known for chasing small furry animals, either cats or small dogs, often mistaking them for the hare on the track. I didn't want some terrible tragedy to happen with my five cats. I was assured that, after coming back to this country, that Celt had been living with cats in a temporary home with another animal trainer but he couldn't keep him on a permanent basis. So, really, I took him on sight unseen. I'd seen a photograph of him and he looked much like an English greyhound but I was assured of his character and that he would make a wonderful pet."
It was then arranged for Celt to be shipped over to the Dogs Trust Kenilworth Rehoming Centre, in Warwickshire. There he was thoroughly checked over and tested with cats. "Thankfully it turned out Celt was good with them, " recalls Philip.
Celt was driven down in an animal ambulance from Warwickshire to his new home in Kent in July last year.
"He was slightly anxious but he quickly settled down. We let him out in the field to meet the other dogs. He got on immediately with them and was keener to play with them than they were with him. He fitted in very easily and quickly, and made himself at home by sitting on every chair he could. He also wanted to jump on the beds as well, but there isn't much room to sleep if you have a greyhound on board. People think greyhounds need a lot of exercise but, actually, there's nothing they like more than curling up in an armchair and watching television."
I couldn't help wondering if, having been pampered on set, Celt acted like a film star. The response was laughter as Philip recalls: "He was very active and bursting with energy. At first, he rushed around as if he were on a greyhound track but, otherwise, he was among the more likeable and less affected film stars. Most affectionate, very beautiful and a genuine, kind, loving dog, that is marvellous with children."
Dog trainer Sue Potter adds: "I didn't want to take Celt back to the kennels because he had had a life of luxury on the film. I asked around if anyone would like to adopt him. The young boy in the film, Tyrone, fancied having him, but his father was moving house so he said no. I wanted him to go to a nice home - and he couldn't have gone to a better one. He was very lucky because he really has fallen on his feet."
The Mighty Celt was launched at the Cannes Film Festival this year by BBC Films. It is written and directed by 34-year-old Pearse Elliott, who was one of five children growing up on a West Belfast housing estate.
It is his first film as writer/director, although he also wrote the very successful Man About Dog, which played in cinemas last year.
Pearse first made his mark by winning the BBC Playwright Of The Year Award in 1996 for his radio play, The Seduction And Demise Of Joseph Loughran. Since then, he has written for both radio and television.
Pearse admits that his moving story of The Mighty Celt, which is the first post-conflict film to come out of Northern Ireland, is based on an episode in his early life as a 14-year-old boy living Belfast.
It was during the time he was working on a greyhound farm and he found the whole experience extremely tough. "Growing up in Belfast, I did play football and play around but my main thing was going up the mountains with the dogs, " he says. "I've always been obsessed with dogs. There was something about them and landscapes that always appealed to me. I found a great sort of freedom with them because a greyhound and a lurcher always want to chase, always want to run."
The director, who keeps three lurchers himself, admitted it was quite a handful dealing with a hundred greyhounds on location. "But they make the most amazing pets, " Pearse says. "They are very affectionate. They would let you pat them all day. And it's great that Celt has found a fine, new home."
The Mighty Celt opens nationwide on Friday. For information about Dogs Trust, call 020 7837 0006.