Posted 5 months ago
(Neil Morrissey with Ava - Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC and Rollem Productions)
Written by Susan Griffin, PA
Neil Morrissey might be a household name, but he’s definitely outshone by his scene-stealing canine co-star who makes her acting debut in The Syndicate.
You may already have seen her winning ways as Duke in the new BBC One series, but this charming Irish Wolfhound is actually a girl named Ava who lives near Blackpool.
Owner Helen Bligh couldn’t be prouder of Ava, who won her category at Crufts in 2019 but has no previous acting experience.
The seven-and-a-half-year-old gentle giant (she comes in at a no-nonsense nine stone) has proven to be a real star of the small screen, winning over the audience, just as easily as she did the cast and crew on set.
Here, Helen reveals how her role on the show came about, Ava’s diva-like arrival in Monaco for location filming and what it’s like to live in a house with nine dogs.
Did Ava have much time to bond with Neil Morrissey?
No, she didn’t have a lot of time. When they first met, he asked whether I thought she’d like him. I said she really likes sausages, so if you’ve got any of those you stand a really good chance. From that point on, he regularly had some sausages in his pocket. But Wolfhounds are very kind, calm and gentle, they like people a lot and he was very kind to her and friendly, so she took to him straight away.
How did the show come about?
(Ava with writer Kay Mellor and actress Katherine Rose Morley (Keeley) during filming. Credit BBC Rollem Productions)
Someone I know who’s known Ava since she was a puppy, asked if TV was something we might be interested in, as she’s friends with Cindy Morris who runs Creature Casting. I got a call last August to ask if we could come along that afternoon to meet with [the show’s creator] Kay Mellor and others on set. It was a bit of a last-minute situation. They asked if Ava could do different things, like jumping in and out of cars, sit, stay, walk, so we showed what she could do. Ava was happy, they liked her and she looked the part, and the next thing, we were in, doing it. There are some wonderful scenes that are really quite funny.
It looks like she really enjoyed herself on set.
(Ava with Helen - credit Helen Bligh)
Yeah, she did. She really loves attention and being stroked and loved. She literally thrives on it. Ava was my first Wolfhound and the way she looks at you, it’s a bit unnerving because it’s like she looks inside you, into your soul. I’ve never got this from any other breed of dog. They’re not like normal dogs, at all, and she’s very intelligent and perceptive. If you’re upset, she knows. She’ll come and sit on you basically, all nine stone of her.
Were they any challenging scenes?
(Co-star Katherine Rose Morley with Ava on location - Credit Ben Blackall/BBC and Rollem Productions)
Not really, but she is quite food-orientated so did steal one of the crew’s breakfast sandwiches once she got a whiff of it, and there was another incident with some cake. I always made sure she could see me, but she was confident with the people we were working with and she absolutely adored Kay Mellor because she always had biscuits in her pocket as she’s got a little Shih-tzu called Happy. Kay loves animals and was so considerate. I was really impressed by them because she was treated like a VIP.
Did Ava arrive in suitable style when you filmed in Monaco?
(credit Helen Bligh)
Yes, the lady who bred her at Bonaforte Kennels in Derbyshire had insisted I get a going-away present for Ava on her behalf and it’s fab. It was a mini pink suitcase with Ava’s picture and stars on it. I thought, ‘Ooh, I think I’ll get the matching bedspread’. Every time we went on set, I took this case with her picture on it, and everyone loved it. We were also given a family room and had a king-size bed for me and one for Ava. It was her first trip abroad and because she was too big to fly, we drove all the way through France, stopping off at hotels on the way, so it was quite an adventure.
There was no chance to get homesick then?
Actually, I think when we were away Ava did miss her family. I naively thought she’d be quite happy because she was with me, but she’s used to living with her pack. My husband and I have nine dogs in total. Ava, her daughter Elsie, three Flat Coated Retrievers, two Border Collies, a Chocolate Labrador who’s 15 - a proper creaking gate - and then a Lurcher. They’ve got their own room in the house, although they’re all over the house to be honest!
Have you always been passionate about dogs?
(Ava and her daughter Elsie)
Yeah, fanatical. I was obsessed with dogs as soon as I knew what one was. As a child, there were no dolls, everything had to have fur and four legs. When I met my husband, he’d never owned a dog, so it was baptism by fire. We live five minutes from the beach, so we go there virtually every day and they’ve got miles and miles to run. We tour the country doing Flyball, which is like a travelling circus. We go to Anglesey for two weeks every year in the caravan to give the dogs a holiday. Everything we do revolves around the dogs. They have an absolute great life.
You can watch The Syndicate on Tuesdays on BBC One