The satirical puppet show Spitting Image was first broadcast on ITV in 1984. Two years later, it was being watched, or so people like to say today, by fifteen million people per week. This was admittedly during a period when most households had only one television and half the population had wanted to watch a different channel. We might better get the cut of Spitting Image’s jib if we contemplate the execrable “Chicken Song,” which the programme had issued as a novelty single in May 1986. Such was Spitting Image’s influence back then that the pure pain of this would spend three weeks as the UK’s bestselling record.
A decade later and the Spitting Image juggernaut was lost down a byroad and clean out of petrol. When the show was cancelled, in the final year of eighteen years of Tory rule, it had perhaps seemed that the satire was incapable of renewing itself. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the two biggest totems of the 1980s, had been the politicians dearest to the programme’s heart. By contrast, most people probably cannot even today mentally picture the Tony Blair puppet.
With this, though, we have to ask whether Spitting Image was worn out or whether its work was done. Did the following years of New Labour and “compassionate” Conservatism represent a chastened politics that was now careful to never repeat any of the ghastliness that Spitting Image had once feasted upon? Is the chronic blandness and risk-aversion of today’s political class what we have all ultimately inherited from Spitting Image?
The trouble was that the satire behind Spitting Image was fundamentally insincere or it had never truly known what it had wanted. Its Margaret Thatcher was always merry and rather cheeky and Spitting Image had enjoyed having fun with her. If the circumstances had ever arisen in which an autocrat had seized power in the UK, one could imagine Spitting Image being implicitly tolerated or, if it was a decadent autocrat, even welcomed. Edwina Currie, who was in Thatcher’s cabinet, has since reported that the PM had taken Spitting Image seriously and seriously enough to model her own behaviour upon that of her puppet. She had approved of its masculine virility and she had judged it to be a vote-winner. She had thus contrived to resemble a “spitting image” that had not yet wholly looked like her.
It might be that our current politicians are so lavishly dreadful that we finally deserve Spitting Image again. Donald Trump is as near to being insane as is possible in an elected politician, whilst lower down politics teems prolifically with populists, cranks and adventurers. Yet the danger of reviving the show in 2020 is that it looks like it has picked a side before it has even started. That it is part of a middle-class nostalgia for the supposedly sensible, managerial Third Way politics that it had left in charge after it had retired in 1996.
The curse of nostalgia rattles the very warp and weft of Spitting Image. The original show had used puppets because that was what they had had for technology back in the 1980s. Today, however, anybody who was not an adult in that period is likely to be bewildered or repulsed by the jerky gestures of the puppetry. The BBC satire Have I Got News For You similarly makes no sense now that all of the panel shows that it parodies had expired decades ago. Attempts to sell the new Spitting Image to American television networks have doubtless foundered due to a lack of enthusiasm for the show’s defiant datedness.
The nostalgia also entails a hankering for satire to be as authoritative as it had been prior to the internet. Rather as with access to university, there had been only a tiny elite making satire during the 1980s, whereas satire is today as ubiquitous as bog-standard degrees from market-town universities. It is lately possible for somebody to get up at six in the morning and go to bed at ten at night and in between consume only satirical content on social media. In such a large and democratic landscape, Spitting Image’s hereditary kingship looks doomed from the get-go. It no longer has the elevated platform or the sheer uniqueness to stand apart from the mass.
It nonetheless works surprisingly well online. Whilst it is gasping somewhere out on BritBox, a nostalgia channel that is monopolised by the BBC and ITV, it has set up an outpost on YouTube as well. Here, it may well secure a more faithful audience. I am often checking up on what the channel is doing. There is already satire on YouTube from such diverse sources as Epic Rap Battles of History, Jonathan Pie and Cassetteboy. ERB has fourteen million subscribers, whereas the others are in the hundreds of thousands, but each of these channels has honed a single, very specific novelty format. By contrast, Spitting Image has only around three hundred thousand subscribers but it is far more of a magazine.
Like the longstanding satirical staple Saturday Night Live, Spitting Image has a wide breadth of targets and an ambitious flexibility of application. It has also responded very nimbly to the recent US election, whereas satirists without the same televisual resources can take days or even weeks to organise comparable material.
Presumably, though, the channel will cease to be updated once its season on BritBox has ended. I am not sure that a YouTube channel can ever support the twenty writers, including comedians of such renown as Al Murray and Phil Wang, who are on the show’s payroll. But maybe there is still an argument for Spitting Image slimming down and continuing to man a base on YouTube.
The new Spitting Image is already down on its luck, in that some of its splendidest firecrackers have spluttered out prematurely. Whereas it had been accorded many happy years in the company of Thatcher and Reagan, Donald Trump, who is evidently its favourite character this time around, has gone AWOL, dumped by the electorate. The show has been reduced to pointlessly mocking the age and alleged dementia of his replacement, Joe Biden. Dominic Cummings, the most notorious villain in Downing Street, went missing at around the same time and we are left with Boris Johnson, who the show largely finds to be shambolically likeable. In another stroke of bad luck, Labour’s funky Jeremy Corbyn has been switched for the boring Sir Keir Starmer.
For a show that so prizes villainy, Spitting Image’s most promising character is presently an anthropomorphised coronavirus. But even the outgoing villains feel like they are getting away without being adequately digested by the satire. If it is now an almost routine failing for satirists to graft Homer Simpson’s personality onto Trump, Spitting Image undertakes this with Trump and Boris alike. In truth, neither of these politicians are really blissfully gaffe-prone clowns. The satire might menace Trump more effectively if it conceded that he was dangerous and calculating, even though the resulting picture of him might be an altogether less joyful one to experience.
Spitting Image’s take on the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, seems particularly incomplete. It unimaginatively fixes her up as a dominatrix, in keeping with the conventional liberal suspicion of her as being a vicious right-winger. It is nonetheless in itself tremendously amusing that Patel can conform so faithfully to the left’s model of an empowered, ethnic-minority female politician and still possess the same personality and politics as Norman Tebbit. Rather than exploring such an interesting ideological calamity, Spitting Image is happier to stick with the easiest, most energyless clichés about the right.
It is curious that the “woke” mentality that is potentially such an opening for satirists has never found any expression in a leading politician. There is nobody to pin the target to. Corbyn and Biden, who the “woke” have recently supported, are hardly “woke” themselves. When in the process of ridiculing the “woke,” Spitting Image has been obliged to sculpt the puppets of two nameless students. Meanwhile, the show has expended several seconds mildly mocking the environmentalist Greta Thunberg and the producers have no doubt spent much longer afterwards cringing before enraged, virtue-signalling insects on social media.
Spitting Image would like to attack both the left and right from the centre, but the centre is a perilous and precarious place to end up in these days. The left are immediately offended if there is even the tiniest carelessness towards respecting identity; the right are angry if the satire agrees to be tied up complicatedly in the sensitivities of identity politics. Disgruntlement from the right had culminated in the spectacle of the new Spitting Image being criticised for being too tame in the UK’s most conservative newspaper, the Daily Mail. With this, the 1980s are surely over for good.
Where Spitting Image has got an arm free is in a certain rampant whimsicality, which is actually what is most enjoyable about the clips on YouTube. In the Trump White House, the President’s hair is a wild animal, his arsehole is a monster, his son-in-law is a mannequin, his Vice-President is a gargoyle, and in this way the show is busy juggling armfuls of zany nonsense.
This is political rather as some nursery rhymes are claimed to have once possessed a political content. It is nice to fantasise about somebody who has no knowledge of Trump at all – a hypothetical newcomer from a remote Mongolian settlement – being able to enjoy the surrealism without recognising any of the bitterness of the politics that is its point of entry. For such a personage, the show would be entirely cartoonish, though one has to wonder at a satire that can function at its sharpest where it is most irrelevant.