August 21, 2020

You can actually tell a lot from first reactions, yours and other people’s. The news that rancorous puppet satire Spitting Image is returning to television (though not in its original 80s/90s home on prime time ITV, but on subscription streaming channel BritBox) has been greeted by an identical response from almost everybody: how is that going to be possible in a culture that’s so spooked and sweaty-palmed about what people look like?’

It now turns out that it’s not just the putative audience of the show that’s thinking this. ITV’s director of television Kevin Lygo (ITV have the controlling stake in BritBox) this week told a TV diversity session  that the makers of the new version have volunteered for advice from executives about how to portray non-white public figures, and whether non-white puppets should be voiced by white actors. Amusingly, Lygo caveated his remarks about these ‘surreal’ meetings with the customary nervous trickle of cancellation terror, apologising for the past sins of ITV and its lack of diversity

So, we have a general atmosphere of apprehension and doubt all round. This is just the kind of worry that’s famous for producing rambunctious, devil-may-care satire. One pictures Jonathan Swift sat immobile at his desk with his quill drying up, head in hands, wailing “Gadzooks, what if I sayeth the wrong thing?!”

Some background for the young. The original Spitting Image was the televisual incarnation of staggeringly cruel puppets, beautiful in their grotesqueness, designed and built by sculptors Peter Fluck and Roger Law. These were often seen in the press, illustrating articles in the Sunday colour supplements of the day, from the mid-1970s. They were political cartoons come to three dimensional life, and these were not kind cartoons or fond exaggerations. They are horrible in the same way as a George Cruikshank caricature of the 19th century. You’re certainly never in any doubt who the person is meant to be. The first reaction to a new one was always a visceral OH MY GOD and a nervous guffaw (a nervous guffaw is possible).

Spitting Image began a few years later, in 1983. On tv and in motion the puppets became even more extreme. They farted and wept, sweated, belched and vomited. Labour’s thoughtful and cultured deputy Roy Hattersley became an incoherent windbag, constantly spraying jets of saliva. Tory education minister Kenneth Baker became an oleaginous head on the body of a snail, Liberal leader David Steel a tiny, piping-voiced nothing. 

The scripts (more hit-and-miss than we tend to remember these days) and their depictions of the targets’ characters were equally cruel — Princess Diana was a sharp-nosed airhead, and the mocking of her anorexia was a key joke. (In one sketch she is offered her ‘favourite food’ — a cloche is pulled off to reveal an empty plate.) Such rough-and-tumble moments weren’t unusual. This was constant.

People often call satire savage but it hardly ever is. Spitting Image was savage — a carnival of human frailty, in which people are little more than animals with delusions of political or celebrity grandeur. Nobody is worthy of respect or consideration. Everybody, of all political persuasions, is just awful. 

Can you see the problem with reviving this in 2020, when we are so much more sensitive and mindful of medical conditions, mental health and unfortunate physical flaws? The year when The League Of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh were pulled off the BBC iPlayer, and the stars of Little Britain and Bo Selecta have had to make repeated disavowals of their work?

Yes, every joke offends or disquiets someone, and in a sane world we would all accept that, tut and sigh, and move on.

But I find it uneasy to see non-white people portrayed in extreme physical caricature, and I’m a conservative in my fifties who finds identity politics nauseating. God alone knows what will happen when and if middle-class Millennials see this.

The history of cartoon depictions of ethnic minorities in the western world and the exaggeration of their facial features is a repulsive one, and you don’t have to go very far back in time to find it. In the days of the original Spitting Image there were simply no ethnic prominent politicians. The only ethnic puppets from the original that I can recall were Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank, Trevor McDonald and Prince — all of whom were sculpted with thick lips they did not possess in life. 

Now we have Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and Dawn Butler and Diane Abbot as major ‘characters’ on the Opposition, and the Duchess of Sussex as the most highly contentious public figure of all.

If the new Spitting Image follows the lead of the original, what will their puppets look and sound like? By the old rules, Labour’s current deputy Angela Rayner would have to be depicted as a drooling moron that can’t get a coherent sentence out. (Interestingly, Margaret Thatcher, the undoubted star turn of the original, was never given any quarter — but then, she never asked for or expected any. Our current crop of politicians is a far less hardy breed.)

There is humour to be found in discomfort like mine, sure. A lot of comedy is at the edge of acceptability, and plays with our anxieties to release tension. But is fledgling channel BritBox really going to take the plunge, in a hyper-conscious racially charged atmosphere, to make the new Spitting Image, in the words of Roger Law, “more outrageous, audacious and salacious” than ever? And God alone knows what will happen if and when they should ever unveil a trans puppet.

We are at a sticky, transitional point in social history, with women and minorities taking much more of a role in public life; while at the same time we are still very antsy about the legacy of how they’ve been portrayed in the fairly recent past. It feels unhealthy, especially when people with those characteristics are in positions of power, but we have arrived at a point where there are people we simply can’t poke fun at.

So my advice, if I’d been in those ITV meetings, would have been “Don’t even try to make this. Stop immediately!” Because Spitting Image in 2020, if it were to retain its original nihilism and scabrousness, would cause absolute meltdown. It would be a succès de scandale requiring balls of adamantine from BritBox and its backers at ITV and BBC Studios (which, to say the least, is very unlikely).

So my secondary advice would to be to do something else, find another way. BBC Three’s much missed and inexplicably cancelled Mongrels used puppets cleverly to be satirical, very naughty and very funny. We definitely need something to defuse and diffuse our tensions, and heated, angry Spitting Image ain’t it.

It is coming anyway. The new series will need to be written to an incredibly high standard with surprises and unforeseen quirks. It must make you gasp in horror at its nerve and cleverness, and ignore both old worrywarts like me and the woke cultural establishment. Its license to offend must be defended to the hilt. But let’s face it, it won’t. Much more probably, it will be timid and pull its punches, and follow 2DTV and Newzoids (no, me neither) into oblivion. Satire just doesn’t work if you’re afraid.