Who else thinks Spitting Image needs to make a comeback?
- Credit: Archant
The week marks 21 years since satirical puppet show Spitting Image ended and satire is all the worse for it.
Quentin Crisp is quoted as saying if you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic. If you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist. Spitting Image was definitely the latter.
Created by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn, it ran for 18 series from February 1984-February 1996; picking up nominations and awards including BAFTAs and Emmys along the way.
One of the most-watched shows of the time - 15million tuned in at its peak - it was must-see Sunday night viewing. Especially for a young teen already decided on a career in journalism. I remember my high school sports teaching raising an eyebrow when I emerged from the changing room wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the programme’s trademark caricatures of the royal family.
A milestone in British TV comedy, the establishment feared its influence over the public’s view of politics and politicians. Although it was rumoured to be popular among celebs, who saw being immortalised in Latex as the moment they’d “arrived”.
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It’s believed the 1987 election special aired after the polls closed because of its sway. It’s portrayal of the two Davids (Owen and Steel) is often cited as causing the dissolution of the SDP. It’s hard to see current satirical series having that affect. In a time of post-truth politics and fake news fake outs, perhaps we’re too used to the world satirising itself.
Spitting Image nearly returned in the Noughties. Our enthusiasm and affection for it remained and ex-producer John Lloyd reportedly met ITV executives and previous performers. Describing it as scrappy and uneven, he was quoted as likening it to a newspaper - “you don’t expect it to be brilliant every time, but there’s something delicious in every edition”.
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It was just a question of making it affordable. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
“It would (thrive now), but the problem is you’ve got this management decision culture, creative people aren’t left alone; nobody is left alone in the world now to do what they know how to do,” Lloyd told me when we spoke a few years back.
“It’s not just in television... I went to somebody’s birthday party and there were two guys there. One was a cardiologist, the other was an army officer and they both said it’s exactly the same. There’s some guy with a degree in management who could’ve been working for Fyffes’ Bananas or BP who’s suddenly telling heart surgeons how to do their job.
“I don’t think anyone would take the risk, because Not the Nine O’Clock News (which he also produced) was a fantastic risk. Nobody knew what they were doing, we were all making it up as we went along; Spitting Image? That was even more true...”
ITV tried to fill the gap with Spitting Image clone Newzoids in 2015-2016. Reactions were mixed, with only two series airing so far. Instead, we’ve been force fed a diet of panel shows which have become as grey as John Major’s infamous puppet, awkwardly pushing peas around his plate during dinner with wife Norma.
“There’s been some pale shadows, I’ll say that, recently,” Spitting Image puppeteer Nigel Plaskitt told me while lending the Ipswich-based Co-op Juniors Theatre Company a hand late last year. “I was asked if I would do (one) this year but I don’t think I could go back and do something that was not as good.”
In Spitting Image’s heyday, you had companies willing to put their money where the show’s mouth was.
“It was a very expensive show to produce (nearly double the price of other prime time series). That was it’s downfall in the end. Clive James sitting in front of a monitor was cheaper, didn’t get the figures we got...”
Plaskitt agreed there’s nothing now that really goes in there with the knife like they did.
“We did have Margaret Thatcher on the throne (presented as a cross-dressing, cigar chomping tyrant who always used the urinals) and that kind of was very grist to our mill.
“I’m still in touch with all my colleagues. Many of us thought from George Bush on really it would have been a perfect time to do it (again) and there have been people trying to revisit it. I think the climate has changed now too, people are much more litigious.
“We were only ever threatened with prosecution twice in the whole 13 years sadly, because we wanted the publicity - not that we needed it. I think people are all too ready to jump into the cause and it would be quite difficult to get away with some of the stuff we did get away with.”
Sadly, I think he’s right.
• Jesus - a recycled puppet of Mike Rutherford - appeared in a sketch about God searching for a copy of the Bible. Jesus suggested he follow in JR Hartley’s footsteps and try Yellow Pages. There were hundreds of complaints before it aired, hardly any after though. Even Mary Whitehouse didn’t bother.
• Rumours The Queen Mother was getting the Spitting Image treatment upset people. They felt she was too old to be mocked and deserved more respect for toughing out The Blitz with her fellow Londoners during the Second World War. The running gag was The Queen Mother, often seen with a bottle of gin and the Racing Post, had a Birmingham accent which is why you hardly heard her speak on TV.
• The biggest upset didn’t happen on screen but in a Spitting Image annual, when the grinning Prince Andrew puppet was portrayed as a naked centrefold using Cumberland sausage as a prop.
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