Roger Law hasn’t mellowed, at least judging by his T-shirts. When Spitting Image launched in 1984, he and co-creator Peter Fluck had ones made with the slogan: “If we all spit together, we’ll drown the bastards.” When we speak via Zoom, Law appears in a white number inscribed: “If you can read this, you’re too fucking close!”
The return of Spitting Image is not just close, it’s finally here. One of the most influential British satirical shows of all time, it kicked off with Ronald Reagan’s brain rolling around his bedroom, and became more irreverent from there. It disappeared 24 years ago when the politicians had become bland and the programme-makers had lost the plot.
Now Spitting Image is returning to Britbox, the new streaming platform created by ITV and the BBC, in the belief that grotesque puppets can still bite parts of politicians’ egos that flesh-based satirists cannot reach. As Law puts it: “Puppets are great. You can do things that no actor is going to do because they’ve got a career.”
Among more than 100 new foamed latex models are home secretary Priti Patel as a vampire and Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings as a kind of glam-rock Mekon. Vladimir Putin wears a studded dog collar, Xi Jinping has a bat on his shoulder, and Donald Trump has an elongated colon so that he can literally send tweets using, in Law’s words, “a pink, pouting asshole with a few yellow hairs”. Judging by some of the early reactions on social media, the puppets have not lost their power to offend.
Spitting Image has the same fertile ground that it had in the mid-1980s — rightwing governments on both sides of the Atlantic that are very unpopular with some people (and very popular with others); economic malaise; and Prince Andrew embarrassing the monarchy. “If you can’t take the piss out of this lot, what are you playing at?” says Matt Forde, who voices the puppets of Trump, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer.
Yet the context has changed. The original Spitting Image helped break the reverence for politicians and the royal family. It punctured a bubble: when it first aired, TV cameras weren’t allowed in the House of Commons.
Now satire is everywhere online — the US comedian Sarah Cooper’s lip-syncs of Trump’s monologues are the tip of an iceberg of content. Before any politician has finished an interview, their words have been twisted in a thousand irreverent tweets.
Is there room for more satire? Is there a need for more? “Social media is fierce, but it’s limited,” says Forde. “If you’re creating art, you’re doing more than just being rude.”
Art or not, satire can feel like the main way we consume news. That trend was evident with Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in the US, but has become more pronounced with social media. The court jesters are doubling as the town criers.
Ted Heath, the former prime minister, could dismiss Spitting Image as “the prerogative of those who are jealous, who haven’t been able to achieve anything in public life themselves, who have no sense of responsibility.” But in 2010, a Brazilian clown called Tiririca was elected to the Congress; last year a Ukrainian comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected president. It’s sometimes hard to know who’s the satirist and who’s the politician.
“I feel like comedy and politics have been put in a blender,” says Sally Phillips, one of the stars of the sketch show Smack the Pony. As satirists’ fame has grown, perhaps it’s inevitable that they would receive the same scrutiny they have traditionally heaped on others.
A lot of old and not-so-old comedy has aged badly. After the Black Lives Matter protests this year, episodes of Fawlty Towers and The League of Gentlemen were pulled from streaming platforms (“The Germans” from Fawlty Towers was later reinstated with a warning). The makers of Little Britain (2003-07) apologised for their use of blackface. It’s now less acceptable to make fun of people’s weight, speech impediments or accents — let alone to lean on gender or racial stereotypes.
Many comedians who came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s feel the space for comedy has shrunk. Harry Enfield has lamented a scenario in which he, as a white man, would not be able to impersonate chancellor Rishi Sunak were he to become prime minister. Rowan Atkinson recently criticised the Scottish government’s hate crime bill, which would criminalise the “stirring up of hatred”.
Is it OK to tell a joke about an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman? No. What if the butt of the joke is a Scotsman and so is the person telling the joke? Maybe. What if the characters are substituted for three politicians? Yes.
This is why Spitting Image was better placed than some comedy shows. It mainly satirised white men, and it mainly took aim at politicians, rather than societal stereotypes. The funniest bits remain funny.
There’s Margaret Thatcher ordering food for her cabinet (“What about the vegetables?” “They’ll have the same as me”). There’s Norman Tebbit, her enforcer, who, when asked how his children are, licks his lips and replies: “Delicious.” There’s Robert Maxwell, arriving in Heaven, only to be caught picking God’s pocket. “Er, that’s right. Your wallet is being invested in my new Paradise Pension Scheme,” says the Bouncing Czech.
Of course there is stuff that wouldn’t be broadcast now. And there are dilemmas for those reimagining the show. “Should only a black actor voice a black character? . . . Should only black writers write for black puppets?” ITV’s director of television Kevin Lygo has wondered aloud about the new Spitting Image. (The answer is not a simple yes, but to replace the white, male writers’ room of the 1980s with a more representative group.)
You can see how the inadvertent possibility of causing offence would constrain creativity. But judging by the new Spitting Image puppets, you can make people grotesque without resorting to base stereotypes.
I did find a few people on Twitter outraged by the nose of Mark Zuckerberg’s puppet. Was this an anti-Semitic trope? I sincerely doubt it. As a 79-year old, Law is wary of mocking Trump and Joe Biden’s age. “It’s not very funny being old,” he says. “It takes about two hours to get things together in the morning.”
The durability of Spitting Image makes sense if, like Law, you draw a line back to the political caricatures of James Gillray in the late 1700s. Throwing the caricatures forward a few decades should therefore be simple. Law vetoed a previous rerun circa 2006. At the time, he was said to be furious at ITV’s decision to create their own puppets of presenters Ant and Dec for an anniversary programme.
In hindsight, he says he was “sick of” the show. “It’s a terrible thing to say, but if you’re lucky enough to have some success, that’s all they want you to do,” he says. He spent many years making porcelain in workshops in China. “There was no health and safety, which was fantastic. You could try all sorts of things,” he says.
What tempted him back to Spitting Image was his outrage at the current crop of politicians. “It's the situation out there,” he says. Not all of the old collaborators wanted in. “I asked [producer] John Lloyd if he wanted to come back. He said, ‘I don’t think so, Rog, I have quite a nice life’,” says Law. Steve Coogan, Rory Bremner, and Ian Hislop, who started out on the show, are not involved either. In their place comes a raft of writers and voice-artists from shows such as The Simpsons, The Tracey Ullman Show and Killing Eve.
Audience tastes may not have changed all that much: BBC panel show Have I Got News for You this week celebrated 30 years on air, with Hislop a regular since the start. Events can keep satirical formats fresh.
It’s new formulas that have struggled. Britain has a severe lack of sketch shows, successors to The Fast Show and Smack the Pony, because they are seen as too expensive. It’s 20 years since The 11 O’Clock Show, which launched the careers of Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, went off air. Attempts to replicate US late-night talk shows, such as 10 O’Clock Live and The Mash Report, have underwhelmed. Newzoids, an ITV puppet show created by some of the Spitting Image team, failed to catch fire in 2015, partly because its caricatures lacked the hideousness of the original.
In Britain, satire is also facing political blowback. Conservative MPs and newspapers accuse the BBC’s comedy output of being too leftwing. A recent target is Frankie Boyle’s New World Order, a discussion show that recently included a segment on Black Lives Matter where a comedian joked about wanting to “kill whitey”.
Sarah Vine, a Daily Mail columnist, said that the joke put the BBC in the “last-chance saloon”. “The only reason Boyle gets away with it is, I suspect,
the fact that almost no one watches it,” she wrote.
Here’s the context of the “kill whitey” line by comedian Sophie Duker: “When we say we want to kill whitey, we don’t really mean we want to kill whitey — [aside] we do — But when we say we want to kill whitey . . . whiteness is a capitalist structure. It benefits itself. It hurts white people, it hurts non-black people, it hurts black people.”
Are many people really offended by that? Personally I found the segment unfunny and monotone. But all satire occasionally hits duff notes. A lot of the original Spitting Image was “appalling”, says Law. People complained it wasn’t as good as That Was The Week That Was, which aired in the early 1960s.
The real reason that Spitting Image got away with it is the same reason that Boyle gets away with it — the bad moments are outweighed by the dark comedic brilliance. He pushes the limits, in ways you cannot anticipate, to a late-night audience who can handle that sort of thing.
In the US, Cooper, tormentor of Trump, appeared at the Democratic National Convention to endorse Joe Biden. In Britain, where broadcasters have a duty of impartiality, comedy leans left more implicitly. You can pick your own explanation — for example, the demographic of comedians (young and university educated), or the nature of who’s in power.
Phillips argues that the failure to invest in sketch shows has left comedy in the hands of panel shows, where “you’re just going to get comedians
saying what they think”. One answer to perceived leftwing bias would therefore be to pay for more scripted comedy.
Michael Spicer, a British comedian, has gone viral with his The Room Next Door sketches, in which he plays a PR adviser gently despairing during politicians’ interviews. Spicer describes himself as “politically homeless”, but argues: “There aren’t the big, outlandish figures on the left that there are on the right. From a purely comedic perspective, I can’t do anything with that.”
The original Spitting Image targeted Thatcher. But it “whacked the left, as well as the right,” says Forde, a self-described centrist. Roy Hattersley, the Labour deputy leader, was portrayed as slobbering (and nonetheless said he enjoyed the show). David Steel, the former Liberal leader, was literally in the pocket of his supposed ally SDP leader, David Owen — and arguably his public image never recovered.
There are now puppets of Greta Thunberg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jürgen Klopp. As for Starmer, the Labour leader, he might be a less obvious butt of comedy than Johnson, but Forde points out that the potential is greater, because Spitting Image can shape how people see him.
Does satire change much? Up to 15m people watched Spitting Image on Sunday nights; the show gripped young people. Britain still re-elected Thatcher in 1987, and elected her successor John Major in 1992.
“I was stupid enough to think we might change things,” says Law. “This time I don’t think we will change anything.” That helps him not to worry about offending anyone. “We’re a piss in the ocean.”
No amount of well-scripted mockery — including from Saturday Night Live and Barack Obama himself — could stop Trump’s election. Johnson himself seems to feed off satirists’ bumbling impressions. This may be nothing new: in the late 1700s, Whig politician Charles James Fox used his depiction as a fox to his advantage. Even so, satire can sometimes seem redundant. In March, the website The Onion ran a story: “Man Just Buying One Of Every Cleaning Product In Case Trump Announces It’s Coronavirus Cure”. A month later, Trump speculated whether drinking detergent could cure the virus.
“A lot of the time it is beyond parody,” says Spicer. Spicer, like Cooper, thrives by putting politicians’ words centre stage — rather than trying to think up something even more absurd.
Spitting Image will be different for many reasons this time. Social distancing means Law has had to oversee the production of puppets via video from his home in north Norfolk. “The only fuck-up we’ve had is scale,” he says. That, and name recognition. “A lot of the people we’re doing I don’t know who they are.”
Even just before it was cancelled, Spitting Image was watched by 6m people an episode. TV viewing has fragmented since. A million viewers will be unattainable on Britbox, a subscription platform that is still in the foothills of competing with Netflix in the UK (although the puppets are likely to reach a wider audience through YouTube).
Spitting Image is Britbox’s highest-profile original commission so far. If it doesn’t offend anyone, the programme will probably have failed. Ditto if the puppets’ caricatures don’t shape how we see some politicians.
I feel slightly guilty about the amount of satire I consume, in the way that some people feel guilty about how much true crime or reality TV they watch. But on balance, I still think there is still room for more, if it’s done well.
What matters most isn’t whether satire leans too far to the left or the right, whether it occasionally oversteps the line or fails to amuse. It’s whether it helps get us through. “Comedy’s primary purpose is to dispel fear,” says Phillips. “You make jokes to make the dark go away.”
Satire is dead. Satire is everywhere. Satire is too leftwing. Satire failed to stop rightwing populists. Can’t we just laugh?
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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