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Let the Spitting Image rubber rot Will the new version really dare to be more outrageous than the original?

More outrageous, audacious and salacious: Kanye West, Meghan Merkel and Harry Windsor. Credit: ITV/BBC

More outrageous, audacious and salacious: Kanye West, Meghan Merkel and Harry Windsor. Credit: ITV/BBC


August 21, 2020   4 mins

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 succĂšs 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.


Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

OldRoberts953

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
3 years ago

Satire doesn’t need to be savage – but it needs to be fearless and it should be willing to poke fun at ALL sides of an issue. The biggest problem with the current state of British satire is that it has taken sides.

Pick any topical satire/comedy show – be it HIGNFY, Mock the Week, The Now Show, Last Leg, any terrestrial channel comedy panel show, and try and find any that goes against the ‘liberal’ orthodoxy. There isn’t a single one.

One or two individual comedians dare to kick against the traces – but only in stand-up and only once they’ve made an unassailable name for themselves, because they know it comes at the cost of a lucrative TV career. You can only build a successful stand-up career at the moment by establishing your name on such comedy panel programmes.

If any booker actually had the balls to book a comedian who came out with a whole anti-EU schtick, or possibly mocked any aspect of identity politics or the current accommodations towards “woke” culture wars – they would guarantee firstly that that the comedian never got booked again for that show and secondly that the booker would be hauled in front of the commissioning editor the next morning for an interview without coffee.

Neither the booker, nor the guest – if they value their careers – dares to step outside the liberal consensus. To do so would be to get a flavour of what it would be like to be accused of heresy.

The strangest strange thing is that we all still refer to this woke orthodoxy as the “liberal consensus”. It is, surely, the very antithesis of “liberal” thought. What could possibly be more authoritarian than promoting a narrow worldview and punishing and shaming anyone who dares to think outside it? One of the favourite insults when castigating the right is “Orwellian”, do they honestly not see that the tag could be far better applied to this insistence we all adhere to the orthodoxy or face the consequences?

Geoff Norcott is always wheeled out as the comedian that disproves that all BBC comedy is leftist – but GN, as funny as he is, is essentially playing a character. The audience is invited to laugh at (not with) his observations because he is depicted as an unreconstructed Faragiste, a cartoon Brexit untermensch, a figure of fun because his opinions are SO outrageous (despite them actually being the majority view the last time we asked).

Even a man like Ian Hislop, who made a career out of having a dig at the establishment, has become – since the referendum – the sneering face of on-air remoanerism. Once a satirist has picked sides and only attacks the ‘Other’ he ceases to be in any way relevant. It has made HIGNFY unwatchable and Private Eye unreadable.

The satirists of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would hang their heads at the neo-puritanism, the homogeneity of today’s crop of comics. Actually none of those people would even get the gig nowadays. The head of BBC comedy commissioning proudly stated that the Python crew would never be hired today, because who wants more Oxbridge educated white men? Right on! Who cares if they’re funny, just don’t let them be well educated and white!

The current panel show regulars who infest our screens may tick all the right boxes, might fulfil all the right quotas, might make fun of all the approved targets and avoid making fun of all the ‘protected victim groups’, but some of these ‘comedians’ (to stretch the definition almost to breaking point) fail in one rather important area – THEY ARE NOT FUNNY. (Has anyone, honestly, ever actually belly-laughed at anything Nish Kumar or Holly Walsh have ever said? Or a hatful of – evidently forgettable – others)

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty who are talented, plenty who are funny, but for all their supposed “edginess” there isn’t one who’d dare admit to an unapproved political viewpoint.

I have very little doubt that the new incarnation of Spitting Image will gleefully attack all the ‘approved’ targets but will they have the balls to go after the rest? Very unlikely.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I think most of us gave up on BBC comedy/satire years ago in terms of its bias. And, as you say, the defining characteristic of many comedians these days is that they are not funny.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Mention the F….Tories and get a laugh…..(yawn)

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Agreed – you need satire to take on everything. Currently it just goes after easy targets.

To be fair to Hislop, he still has a pop at both sides, but I do understand what you mean.

When I really didn’t expect to be – I was really impressed with Russell Kane actually (live) on a side note*. His routine trod a line very deftly (being neither explicitly woke nor-anti woke for example) and he was genuinely sharp to boot.

*at some random gig at the Comedy Store in support of mental health. He had just lost his close friend (Caroline Flack) 2 days prior, but he really stole the show

Andrew Crisp
Andrew Crisp
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Spot on. So many of these “acceptable” comedians are just lecturing on their “right-on” viewpoints and unfortunately they are VERY similar to each other – not funny.

Ian Manning
Ian Manning
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

There is a lot in what you say, particularly about ‘safe’ comedians like Nish Kumar, etc, but I have to disagree with you on Geoff Norcott about whom you say: ‘his opinions are SO outrageous (despite them actually being the majority view the last time we asked). As you specifically highlighted Brexit and, additionally, described Ian Hislop as an ‘on-air Remoanerist’, I think you may find that you are way out of date compared to ‘ the last time we asked’. Combined polls tracking opinion on Brexit since June 2017 has shown a clear and increasing majority against Brexit. Even if it was a small majority view in June 2016, it certainly isn’t now and as the car crash awaiting us in Jan 2021 impacts, the decision to accept Brexit will be seen by an increasing majority as merely a sad of example of how a population can be manipulated by powerful media forces. And the fact that polls showed a 45% to 40% majority against Brexit in Dec 2019 whilst Johnson won with a crude ‘Get Brexit Done’ message, simply underlines the ludicrously undemocratic nature of our First Past The Post voting system. (However, I do agree with you about Geoff Norcott in that he is indeed just playing a contrary character.)

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Manning

Hello Nish.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Manning

In the 2017 election 84% of the vote went to parties whose manifestos committed to leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union.

The elections for the European parliament saw the Brexit party, from a standing start, garner more votes than any other party.

The 2019 election saw Boris get a stonking majority, on the back of a promise to Get Brexit Done.

At that point, anyone who is still pretending the mandate to Leave is somehow invalid is really clutching at straws.

markmusoke
markmusoke
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

The 2016 vote was relatively close and swathes of young people didn’t cast a vote… The UK still has quite poor turnout at elections! If 10% of original ‘Leave’ voters will be dead in 5 years it is quite a millstone to hang round the necks of our children and grandchildren. Ă°ĆžÂ€â€

Valerie Killick
Valerie Killick
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Manning

You must be moving in different circles to me. Or is this just wishful thinking on your part?

Paul Copp
Paul Copp
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Manning

When will you accept the result and move on, the world will keep turning, and life is too short. There was a democratic vote and a result was obtained. You are espousing the very problem that the article addresses. Remainers are a classic example of a group who have decided that they are right and any other viewpoint is wrong, this is the issue being addressed whereby no one dare speak a viewpoint that the liberal left has decided is wrong, thus we only get to see comedians that fit a certain profile, and those that don’t are doomed to failure, even if their views represent a large group of the population.
Many of the polls you quote are worthless, as when asked, people are minded to give the ‘correct’ answer, and not their actual viewpoint, as its just not with the hassle that will ensue. When they reach the privacy of the ballot box however, their true view is registered. We are on a dangerous path of censorship of what you are allowed to express or even think.

Benjamin Barr
Benjamin Barr
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Copp

The moment you start accepting evidence, instead of ignoring it.

Acting as though no fraud occurred.

Acting as though there wasn’t some orchestrated effort on the Left, to rig the Election.

Acting as there wasn’t no collusion or conspiracy going on to interfere & influence the Election.

Understand this, Barr’s statement was an omission to wide spread fraud. That’s what he said. That’s not conjecture. That’s a statement of fact. Leftwing media outlets, intentionally mischaracterizes what he said & desperately tried twisting the narrative.

Barr stated: They didn’t see “Wide Spread Fraud” on a “Scale” that would have impacted providing a different outcome, or overturn the Election. The problem with this “Statement,” other than that it’s an admission to “fraud,” & not just any “fraud,” but that of “WIDE SPREAD FRAUD. But the real issues are that Barr, couldn’t have possibly known that it wouldn’t have impacted the Election, or would’ve overturned the Election.

Why, you might ask?

Because Election Officials & the (BOS), Board Of Supervisors, in several Counties & States, refused to cooperate during audits & investigations. On top of that, Election Officials & Democrat Officials violated strict Election Laws in place to preserve Election data, taking it upon themselves to scrub, erase & remove data from the Machines & drives, making it virtually impossible to conduct an accurate & thorough investigation.

Bill Barr, blatantly lied to everyone. Which is why he was forced to resign, or be fired. Trump, still had a heart to protect his legacy instead of tarnishing it. Yet, Barr still continues to lie about it, because ultimately he, was in fact negligent in his duties. He could’ve been honest, or threatened legal action against those not willing to cooperate, but he didn’t. It was too much of a task and he chose to bow out by ignoring the mountain of evidence.

The only reason he ignored the 2000Mules Documentary, was because it again exposed his negligence. He had access to that information, long before the Documentary was released. It again showed his unwillingness to explore all avenues & actually do some hard work for once.

There’s also reason to believe that Barr, could’ve been paid off & became an Undercover Operative for the DNC & the Left. In that he was actively coordinating with Democrats, to infiltrate Trump’s Presidency the entire time. Which was another reason Trump grew suspicious & truly began to believe Barr’s position became compromised. Therefore, was a serious liability. Turns out Trump was right on just about everything. You don’t find that strange. Go figure.

Valerie Killick
Valerie Killick
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

And most of the current comedians have replaced humour with swearing. Although occasionally a loud expletive is funny, mostly true humour doesn’t require bad language to be funny. Today’s comedians seem not to be able to see the difference.

Dean Barwell
Dean Barwell
3 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I used to be a regular at a local comedy club that was truly excellent. They encouraged quality heckling, and every show someone was awarded a Wanker Of The week certificate for best heckle. The heckling was superb and the brutal put downs from the pros left you with open mouth gasp face. I recall one show where I heckled a couple of acts. Unbeknownst to me the final act ( A Scottish lady) had watched all of this. No self respecting Scott comedienne was going to let some snotty Southern male Englander heckle her. She pretty much ad libbed the first half of her act from the get go to brutalise me to the delight of the whole crowd including me.
As the acts became more and more lefty rants, and less and less comedy, I just drifted away and then stopped going altogether.
You couldn’t be more right about the likes of Nish kumar and Holly Walsh. I find that some of the Yanks are the best at f**k PC type humour now. The mighty Bill Burr and very sadly Missed Ralphie May are/were truly funny and at times brutally so. If you want complete no holds barred then without Frankie Boyle, Anthony Jeselnik is as dark as it gets now.
I have no TV these days, but a true to form return of Spitting Image would be the sort of great TV I grew up with, that would have me reconsider.
I am pretty darned confident that I won’t be needing to make a trip to Currys any time soon.

Benjamin Barr
Benjamin Barr
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I don’t find anything they’ve ever done remotely funny. The bias definitely shows & it’s all geared in protecting the Left, while castrating the right. No one dares to take on both sides, standing on equal ground. The sad thing is, this show could be amazing. It just lacks unbridled comedy, in which has an ability to call out both sides without fear of repercussion and consequence.

Being politically compromised & extremely bias, it just ruins it for me. I have yet to laugh, therefore I cannot say it’s entertaining in the slightest. Yes, satire & sarcasm is equally important, but if there’s no accountability, what’s the point. It’s hard to see where we’re at in today’s society, being mislead & misrepresented by those we’ve Elected into a position, to serve the best interest of the people.

Instead, they abuse that position for a fabricated power they’ll never wield. Because absolute power has always been vested in the strength & courage of “We The People.” These Officials have forgotten their place, amongst us, the People. The time for laughter is over. Have you taken a look at what’s going outside? We’re being eradicated by those who seek to strip us from humanity itself.

It’s time to wake up & realize we’ve been lied to about everything. What you are watching, is not satire, or comedy entertainment. It’s propaganda & indoctrination, to project an image that goes against everything we stand for. It’s all about public perception & manipulation, to coerce & corrupt the minds of the people & most can’t even see it. They’re against you. They’re against us, the will of the People.

jim payne
jim payne
3 years ago

Who is it that almost feints at comments/shows likened to Spitting Image? My family, sensible, aware of racism, split between Brexit and Remainers, would all be “mainly” amused by the “Old Show”. In my local, almost without exception, it would be acceptable. It would seem to me at least, those screaming offence, would be our liberal elites. Ordinary Joe would laugh and forget. It’s about time we took the rise out of our leaders and so-called celebs. Bring it on!

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago
Reply to  jim payne

“Celebrities” need satirising out of our faces and out of existence.

Valerie Killick
Valerie Killick
3 years ago
Reply to  jim payne

And the list of individuals around now who would make good puppets is huge. A friend and I were recently in tears of laughter just coming up with suggestions for a revived Spitting Image.

Stephen Tye
Stephen Tye
3 years ago

“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”

So by inference, it’s OK for white people to be portrayed in extreme physical caricature? I question your description of yourself as a conservative 50 something.

Valerie Killick
Valerie Killick
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Tye

!!

mark96
mark96
3 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Tye

You only have to look at advertising to notice this. White men are fair game for ridicule and humiliation, and not many other demographics, to say the least.

David Probert
David Probert
3 years ago

It will become like ‘Private Eye ‘- a mutated from of its former, iconoclastic, fearless self – constantly looking over its shoulder and paying apologetic lip service to Wokeness on every page or in every sketch. Subscription cancelled for Private Eye – it is now finished as a satirical magazine.

Private Eye is over and I suspect that the inevitable focus of attacks on the Tories and kid gloves for the Woke and ‘minorities ‘ we can expect from the “Spitting Image” makeover will make it a magnet for leftists and yet another example of BBC/ITV sponsored pc ‘Institutional Leftism.’ for conservatives to reject !

It takes a mature and ultimately deeply tolerant society to laugh at itself with a touch of cruelty – we are sadly no longer either today.

Best leave “Spitting Image” alone in the grave of British alternative comedy.

David J
David J
3 years ago

I was yawning about the prospect of this old blast from the past.
But your voicing the terrors makes me think it might be worth a go (tho’ not a sub to Britbox) if only to see what sort of sorry hash they make of it in this pathetically sensitive age.
I just hope they don’t bore us with the wearisome anti-Trump, anti-Brexit knee-jerk scripts of current BBC comedy shows.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

‘I just hope they don’t bore us with the wearisome anti-Trump, anti-Brexit knee-jerk scripts of current BBC comedy shows.’

Prepare to be very disappointed…

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Wish they would bring back Monkey Dust. Brilliant, cutting and bleak.

Though understandably without the creator (the Controller?) Harry Thompson, it wouldn’t be the same. RIP

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Yes, Monkey Dust was truly excellent.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

I hope Spitting Image go the full beans in their old style taking the “p|ss” out of everyone. But I fear the program would be the first casualty of the new SNP legislation on offence!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Apparently they are more worried about offending ‘puppets of colour’ than making it funny. As such, it will probably be crap. To be fair to 2DTV (on which I was a minor, contributing writer) it never aimed to be vicious satire or ‘end someone’s career’, as the producer put it so me. it merely aimed to entertain. And it did that quite well.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You guys have no idea what ‘tight-ass’ is. You should be this side of the pond.

William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

If it is fearless thats fine- but if it is afraid to tread in some areas then dont even bother to put it on .

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

2DTV could be quite funny. Trinny and Susanna with a 1970s Dalek. “Accessorise!”

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson
3 years ago

“You’re certainly never in any doubt who the person is meant to be.”
Can’t agree. I often couldn’t work out who the puppets were meant to represent. Fluck and Law were in the same school of caricature as Scarfe, giving everybody big noses and big ears whether that was a defining characteristic or not – and even if it wasn’t a characteristic at all.
You say the humour was hit and miss. Actually much more miss than hit. The Princess Diana `joke’ you quote is a pretty good example of the kindergarten humour.
They were also cowards. They once had a puppet portraying Christ as a kind of hippy figure but some Muslims complained on the grounds that He was one of their prophets. Spitting Image issued a grovelling apology faster than you could say “puerile public school humour”. They should have had a sketch with puppets of the script writers pooing their pants

Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Jackson

Well said – but the original Spitting Image and other satire is worse than that as it gives people who take little or no interest in politics / economics / show biz to suddenly have a pub opinion on any subject (covered by Spitting Image). So suddenly a middle of the road type politician like David Steele became the no hope loser of Spitting Image. In other words, there were/are real world, unfair consequences. I wouldn’t want to be without satire, but In my view, extreme, relentless satire does civil society more harm than good.

David Illingworth
David Illingworth
3 years ago

Gags are like tennis shots, the best gags are only just inside the line. The worst gags are only 0.000001mm outside the line.

keith Smith
keith Smith
3 years ago

Sensitivity in how none BAME people are portrayed should also be required as well. What is good for the goose……