In a time of unprecedented political turmoil in this country and others, satire has never been more necessary. Enter, after a twenty-five-year hiatus, a famous puppet show. Gary Raymond takes a look at the new Spitting Image, and asks if it was worth the wait.
I wasn’t a politically engaged child. In the eighties and nineties, I’d say that was normal. We were still several decades away from the flames and floods of the climate crisis licking at our doormats, a few decades away from the obvious truths that capitalism was in the early stages of robbing future generations of opportunities to live their lives to their fullest potential. So, now we have a politically engaged movement in the younger generation, embodied in the icon of Greta Thunberg. But in the eighties and nineties, politics was for grown-ups, and not even them sometimes. Growing up in a typical working-class family in a typical Welsh working-class town I knew two things: the Tories were the enemy, and Spitting Image was on our side. The former has never stopped being true and is perhaps even more true now than it was then. But there is a new iteration of Spitting Image, the New Spitting Image, no less, and it is no longer what it once was. It’s not on our side. I don’t think it’s on anyone’s side.
Almost since the moment it dropped off British television screens in 1996, after twelve years of skewering the political and celebrity classes of the country, there have been rumours of its return. There has frequently been a need, some have said, for its Hogarthian irreverence, its satirical wit and often coruscating take downs. And now, seemingly as a branding exercise for BritBox, the international platform for a conglomerate of British television’s major bodies, it is back, pertaining to be satire, but is actually nothing of the sort. This new iteration, too long in the making for anybody to really care about, is a pale imitation of the original. The puppets remain top drawer, the targets are instantly recognisable at the same time as being creative and Steadmanesque; but the impersonations are uniformly weak, the jokes are not funny, and the satire is flaccid.
The disappointment, if that’s what it is, of Spitting Image begins immediately. The first sketch of the first episode presents us with a Prince Andrew puppet, facing the camera, as if in prime-time interview mode. This is the new breed setting out their stall, an opportunity for them to announce that they will take no prisoners, respect no boundaries, and as an ITV production, will not be hobbled by the middle-class timidity of modern BBC political comedy. Surely what the world needs now is a puppet show that starts by addressing Prince Andrew’s relationship with convicted paedophile and sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Let’s parody the Emily Maitlis interview. Let’s eviscerate this entitled cretin who allegedly refuses to help the FBI with their enquiries into a paedophilic trafficking industry. When Spitting Image comes on the screen, we should be baying for blood. There is any number of ways this can go, and the establishment, the royal family, must be quaking in their boots. But, no. What we do get is the puppet being coshed round the back of the head with a rubber 2×4. It’s not just unfunny, it’s unforgivable.
Next, onto Trump’s tweets, the comedy equivalent in 2020 of the mother-in-law joke (“Take Trump’s tweets… no, please, I mean it, take them.”). That this Trump knocks out his tweets using his prolapsed anus as a stylus is the type of gross-out joke that only really works if the humour around it has already done some heavy lifting, and this Cronenberg-esque moment doesn’t sit well. The skit that sees what will surely become a long-running duo in Spitting Image, that of Boris Johnson and his chief aid Dominic Cummings is more promising. Cummings is well cast as an alien infiltrator, pushing crisps into his ear, asking Johnson if he’d sack him if he ate his baby. “I don’t think that would be necessary,” Johnson says. This is what I’m talking about when I refer to the old Spitting Image tapping into a relevant truth in the target they aim for. Johnson is bumbling and ineffectual, but the writers here have created a strong metaphor for the apparent lack of empathy and abject dissociating arrogance of Cummings – he is an alien. The sketch is a soft start, but it’s the funniest thing so far and offers hope. It’s a shame that most of what comes after it is so remedial.
When Thatcher was on occasion depicted as a dominatrix, it spoke of the hold she had over her cabinet of Tory establishment men, it played into the satirical cliché that men of this class all have secret debauched sex lives predicated on kink and perversion and that those kinks and perversions spoke themselves of the brazen hypocrisy of these conservative family values Tories. Thatcher’s brood were eventually to topple under the stewardship of John Major precisely because of the sleaze this cliché played upon – brothels and S&M, sordid affairs and toe sucking etc. When the new Spitting Image plays Priti Patel as a dominatrix, whose role in the Tory party, and whose cultural background is entirely different to the one the original series riffed on with Thatcher, it just comes across as, at best, lazy, and, at worst, humming a misogynistic tune.
On the other end of the political spectrum, it’s odd to see Greta Thunberg crop up, and particularly odd to see her caricatured in the way she is. The recent arguments about why the BBC platforms so many left-leaning comedians opened the doors to suggestions that right wing comedy isn’t funny enough to get commissioned. Well, it doesn’t seem to bother ITV quite so much. Taking the piss out of an autistic teenage girl made famous for her activism aimed at saving the world from human-enforced destruction seems an odd target. It certainly feels like punching down, the benchmark of failure for any decent comedy. And it certainly isn’t funny. It’s probably bullying. Soon after, a jibe at Joe Biden, who is snoozing at the dais of the Presidential Debate. Maybe I’m being sniffy, but I don’t think it’s a good look to have your writers nicking material from Donald Trump who, during this election campaign, has labelled his opponent “Sleepy Joe”.
That’s not to say there isn’t some hope in these opening episodes. There are some chinks of light in the sketches where the targets feel they’ve been well-chosen; Harry and Megan adjusting to new life has some decent ideas, such as when the prince visits a job centre. Dominic Raab as an internet martial arts instructor seems to tap into something, and a bollock-faced Michael Gove seems the closest to the genius of Kenneth Baker’s slug of the original as we’re likely to get. There is also a promising skit where Trump positions the Coronavirus as his new VP. But these are pretty light, vaguely positive feelings about a poor show, and never raise more than a half-smile. We’re clutching at straws.
The original series declined just before Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997, and I’m sure there was a sigh of relief at Labour HQ when that happened. Nobody will be worried about this new series. Blair had already been depicted as all grin when he was leader of the Opposition. Previous Labour leaders had been lambasted ruthlessly; but the real ire was saved for the Tory government that ruled for the entire run of Spitting Image’s first existence. Thatcher with her demon eyes and rasping voice that came down much lower than its public register; Heseltine as Tarzan, Norman Tebbit as an ashen-faced Hells Angel. As a child I knew who politicians were because of their puppets. The makers of the original series seemed able to tap into an essence of a public figure’s character and draw from it something we could all already see, only we didn’t know it. It was satire, by people who knew what satire was. Many of them had relationships with Private Eye, producer John Lloyd had made Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, and had been a member of the Cambridge Footlights, the training ground of genius satirists like Peter Cook and half of Monty Python; but the writers and performers too were also part of the new wave of British comedy – people like Harry Enfield, Kate Robbins, Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Rory Bremner and many others. This new series has no such pedigree, and if the best you can come up with is biteless and barkless comedians like Blair fanboy Matt Forde then you have to wonder what you’re even doing here in the first place.
Spitting Image is available to stream now on BritBox.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.