Nipper Lives On! An Interview with Trish Saunders

  • 15th May 201715/05/17
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Interview by Callum Galbraith 

Jobs within the media can be busy enough at the best of times, but in July 1981, things became very eventful indeed for HMV Events and Marketing Manager, Trish Saunders. Working with Tony Brainsby Publicity, Trish embarked on a hunt for a real life canine lookalike of our much loved Nipper, who would be the star of the show at promotional events up and down the UK.

With the idea cemented and the Centenary of the real Nipper’s birth in sight, the team brought famous dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse on board to judge the original auditionees. Trish said, “Everybody followed the Barbara Woodhouse way and she was on every television programme you could think of, telling dogs how to sit and that sort of thing. It was quite a coup for us to get her to judge the final winners.”

Of those that entered the Daily Mirror supported competition, 12 dogs were brought to HMV’s 363 Oxford Street store in London for the final judgement from Woodhouse. The dog they chose, Trish explained, was a perfect match. “The competition was won by a dog called Toby, owned by Jackie and Peter Pritchard. Toby was their family pet and he looked like Francis Barraud’s original painting of Nipper. He was well behaved, he sat, he never barked. He was the ideal dog.”

Toby in 1981 with Barbara Woodhouse, HMV MD James Tyrell (Left) and Peter Pritchard (Right)

Toby in 1981 with Barbara Woodhouse, HMV MD James Tyrell (Left) and Peter Pritchard (Right)

One of Toby’s first jobs was opening HMV’s 21 Market Street store in Manchester in June 1981, on what turned out to be quite an eventful day. “We had an open-top Rolls Royce driving down Market Street, which you could still drive on at the time,” noted Trish. “There was a brass band and the Lord Mayor was in the car with Toby. Barbara Dixon was there doing the ribbon cutting. There were about three or four bands, too. That was just the first of many events, we were opening a lot of stores around that time. There was lots happening.”

Another event that saw Toby embrace his new role was part of the aforementioned Centenary of Nipper’s birth. To commemorate Nipper, Trish said that a plaque was unveiled in an unusual place. “Toby helped to unveil a plaque in a Lloyds Bank car park in Kingston, which is meant to be the last resting place of Nipper. It used to be somebody’s back garden.”

Toby with the Nipper Plaque, 1984

Toby with the Nipper Plaque, 1984

The plaque itself reads: “This plaque was laid on 15th August 1984 by Mr D.F. Johnson, Chairman of HMV Shops Limited at the last known resting place of Nipper the famous HMV dog born 1884, died 1895.”

Things ramped up a gear in 1989, when the search for Toby’s successor took place on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life television programme. “When we did it with That’s Life, there were thousands who auditioned,” Trish pointed out. “Everything from a Chihuahua, to a Great Dane, to K-9 – the Dr. Who dog!”

In June 1989, 80 hopeful dogs went to a theatre in Hammersmith and from these, 12 dogs were picked. For Trish, this involved getting to know the owners just as well as the dogs. “They had to be available to travel around the country, because we were opening stores everywhere from Aberdeen to Torquay. We had to make sure that they were all aware of the commitment that we expected of them. That’s why when we got the shortlist down to 12, I drove around the country and interviewed all the owners, explaining what they had to do.”

The winner was announced on That’s Life in 1990. Quite unbelievably, the dog was called Nipper. Hailing from Warrington, Nipper was owned by David and Mary Leigh. Alongside store openings, Nipper was part of such fantastic events as the art exhibition launch of the EMI Centenary celebration, which took place in Edinburgh in 1997.

Nipper (third from left), with other finalists from the That’s Life competition

Nipper (third from left), with other finalists from the That’s Life competition

Following nine years of loyal service, Nipper was then replaced by Meg in 1999. If you’re thinking, ‘was Meg a female?’, you would be correct. Trish’s insight on this change may or may not come as a surprise… “Having female dogs made it much easier, as male dogs were prone to cocking their legs up at anything stationary.”

Meg was found through yet another grand scale nationwide search, this time via This Morning with Richard and Judy. Unfortunately, Meg didn’t take to the limelight quite like her predecessors. “With poor Meg, we ended up with lots of ‘puddles’,” Trish remembered. “She did do a few store openings, though we used to get the store managers to hold her because we didn’t want her to wee on the artists!”

Meg as Nipper, 1999

Meg as Nipper, 1999

After just six short months, Meg was succeeded by another female named Nippey, who came second in the This Morning competition, owned by Steve and Lynn Dickens. “Nippey loved doing it, she was very friendly,” said Trish of the latest mascot. “Steve and Lynn have four children too and they also had a wonderful time. They came to a lot of the store openings and met everyone from Ronan Keating to Peter Andre.” The Ronan Keating event in particular, was a huge success. “When we opened on Oxford Street, London in 2000, there was a big stage built outside. Ronan came along to do the opening and Nippey was there. It was quite an event.”

And it wasn’t just store openings. In addition to meeting the stars of the day, Nippey also got to walk in the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday parade in 2000, a memory Steve and Lynn are very proud of. “There were loads of things that we used to drag them along to, but they loved it,” Trish reminisced. “We also took them to Abbey Road Studios as they were doing a feature that they needed a Nipper for. They were all very happy.”

Nippey with Ronan Keating at the HMV Oxford Street opening in 2000

Nippey with Ronan Keating at the HMV Oxford Street opening in 2000

From the stories told, it seems amazing that Trish had time to do anything else. “It was quite time intensive,” she observed. “Some years, we were opening 12 to 15 stores. The dogs and the owners would have to be in the town or city the night before because we usually opened early in the morning. They were long days. Luckily all the owners we worked with were all self-employed, so they could take time off when they liked.”

As well as being put up in nice hotels, you would think that the mascots would get a luxury ‘rider’, however there were some restrictions. “The dogs got very well looked after, but it was more like ‘don’t feed the dog!’ People love giving pets treats, but we had to be careful that the Nipper’s didn’t have too many, because we didn’t want them putting on too much weight!”

The Nipper mascots were firm favourites nationwide and Trish looks back on her time in charge warmly. “I was extremely proud of the mascots, it was a great achievement. It was really good fun and very enjoyable. It got me all around the country to places I’d never seen before and it was nice meeting all the dog owners, they were lovely people. You could have worked with any of them, it was great.”

In recent years, there hasn’t been an official Nipper mascot, but if there were to be one again in the future, Trish had this advice to offer: “Make sure it’s a calm and friendly dog. It will be handled by lots of people, so it’s got to be confident. Get to know the owners and enjoy working with them as it’s just as much the owners that you’re working with as the dogs. Happy owners, happy dogs.”


All images provided by Trish Saunders 

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