In this modern world of political distrust, a reliance of technology that seemingly alienates people from one another and a popular culture that is more preoccupied with emulating the past than breaking new ground, many look back on the 1980s through a romanticised and somewhat misguided nostalgia. It was a decade of excess, of innovation and of celebration following the negativity of the 1970s, yet it was also one rife with mass unemployment, poverty, draconian censorship and AIDS, a worldwide epidemic that would finally bring the free love of the 1960s to an abrupt end. And with art imitating life it was inevitable that popular culture would find a way to reflect and satirise the ills of society and nowhere was this more prevalent than with the adult-themed puppet show Spitting Image.
First emerging in the mid-1980s at the height of the miners’ strike that almost brought the British coal industry to its knees, the long-running satirical show would boast the cream of the country’s young up-and-coming comedians and would target both the politicians and celebrities of the day, often exaggerating certain characteristics of their personalities to such ridiculous degrees that the then-current prime minister Margaret Thatcher was portrayed as a demonic psychotic, something that had the show still been on air some thirty years later would no doubt have been resurrected for the recently-resigned PM Theresa May. From 1984 until Great Britain was set to embrace the promises of optimism and prosperity that New Labour’s arrival a decade later Spitting Image remained an uncompromising force of nature that would reflect the ridiculous social and political climate of the day.
‘Donald Trump would have been a gift to Spitting Image,’ admitted producer John Lloyd in an interview with the Telegraph in 2016 when as the controversial tycoon and television personality won the presidential election against former first lady Hilary Clinton. ‘Watching him, you do think you’re watching the Muppets,’ he added. ‘It doesn’t seem to matter what he says, it doesn’t make any difference.’ There is so much of the modern world that would lend itself to a show such as Spitting Image, from the political disaster that was Brexit to the sensitive and politically correct society of 2019 and so perhaps it was inevitable and arguably necessary that it would finally make a return after over two decades off the air.
Despite its biting humour and often offensive sensibilities, when Spitting Image was first pitched to television networks it was dismissed by various executives as little more than a children’s puppet show, akin to other family-oriented programmes like Fraggle Rock or the Muppet Show. Yet it may have occasionally devolved into crass toilet humour, at its heart it would help to make some kind of sense of a world that had become misguided and blinded by capitalism and commercialism. ‘We went to almost every TV company and everyone said, ‘No, we don’t want it, it’s kids’ stuff,’ Lloyd would later confess on his numerous failed attempts to find the concept a home on the small screen. ‘I remember spending most of the first year writing myself letters begging to be fired from this complete disaster. And of course it turned out to be this extraordinary, iconic thing.’
Before long, however, the rejected show soon became a cultural zeitgeist, much in the same way as South Park would take the world by storm a decade later and as the viewing figures rose and the critical reaction improved and by the spring of 1986 they had climbed to the top of the British charts with their novelty theme The Chicken Song, an irreverent spoof of the party hit Agadoo, released two years earlier. Co-written by future Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, the song would become such a sensation that the puppets made a live appearance on the weekly music show Top of the Pops, performing to an enthusiastic young crowd. Ironically, its source material, Black Lace‘s Agadoo, would only reach number two on the charts, failing to match the commercial success of its detractor.
‘People say Spitting Image was a cult thing but we had eighteen million viewers at our highest point,’ claimed co-creator Peter Fluck when highlighting the impact the show had on British culture in the late 1980s. ‘Those audience figures at 10pm on a Sunday night were unusual even then. A wonderful thing was the small amount of really vicious hate mail that would come in on Monday morning. We also had a lot of abuse from the red tops, saying how dare we criticise the royal family. It would have been rather regrettable if we hadn’t. Little things made me laugh, like hearing that Westminster always had a video of the programme for the MPs to look at and a special room for them to watch it in. Mainly, I suppose, to see if they were in it or not. I think they thought there was something wrong with their political career if there wasn’t a puppet of them on TV.’
There would be some, it would seem, who even revelled in their newfound status as a satirical puppet. ‘Margaret Thatcher loved Spitting Image as well, because she realised very quickly that their image of her as the best man in the cabinet was one to pursue,’ Thatcher’s junior health minister Edwina Currie recently stated. ‘From then on, she deepened her voice, she wore dark suits – basically she conformed to the image that Spitting Image had broadcast. She was very pleased with it.’ When Thatcher finally stepped down as prime minister in 1990 her successor John Major was portrayed on the show as boring and lifeless, displaying an all-grey visage and often sat around the dinner table with his wife commenting on how subjecting her to mundane conversations. The message of the show was clear: the Conservative Party lacked the humanity to lead the country to prosperity.
There has never been more material for political satirists
Plans to revive Spitting Image for the twenty-first century was first announced in April 2017, mere months after Trump had taken over as the commander-in-chief and almost a year after May had succeeded from David Cameron as prime minister. Yet one significant difference between the new incarnation and its 1980s counterpart was that the reboot was intended to target the American political climate. ‘There has never been more material for political satirists. It’s a huge project by HBO,’ claimed an individual close to the project. But it would be two years before further details would be revealed, by which point Boris Johnson had replaced May as prime minister, prompting the show-runners of Spitting Image to focus on both American and British politics, both of which in 2019 seem tailor-made for satire.
‘When Boris was elected Tory leader and they realised they had the Boris Johnson and Donald Trump show on their hands, there was a real injection of enthusiasm and things started to happen,’ an unnamed source for the show’s production company Avalon Television revealed to the Mail on Sunday. ‘There isn’t a broadcast date as yet and, while it was primarily aimed at the US market because of the Trump factor, Boris Johnson’s election has put it right back in the frame for the UK. There is a fantastic vibe around the production because of the legendary status of the show, even though it is early days.’ In the years since Spitting Image was last on air the world has changed significantly: the internet and mobile phones have become an integral part of everyday life, social networks and dating apps are the most common way for people to meet, fear of terrorism and mass shootings dominate the headlines and political correctness has resulted in freedom of speech being policed by moral watchdogs and the access media.
It has now been revealed that more than two decades after its final episode had aired Spitting Image is set to make its much-needed return to television. ‘There is nothing like a global political crisis, however, to prod a satirist out of semi-retirement. Twenty-three years after it was last broadcast Roger Law, one of the co-creators of the groundbreaking comedy, has confirmed that Spitting Image is set to return to television screens – featuring an S&M-clad Vladimir Putin, Meghan Markle wearing a glittery ‘princess’ T-shirt and a puppet of Donald Trump whose tweets are composed by his anus,’ the Guardian has announced. ‘A pilot for a new incarnation of Spitting Image has already been filmed…and its producers are in advanced discussions with US-based networks to bring this very British brand of satire to the wider world.’
For this new American interpretation of Spitting Image the show-runner chosen to resurrect the programme is Jeff Westbrook, whose prior work in the world of satire was on the animated shows The Simpsons and Futurama. The original cast had included a host of British comedians that over the following decade would become household names, including Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield and Chris Barrie, the latter finding fame after reuniting with Grant and Naylor for Red Dwarf, but it has yet to be revealed which actors will lend their vocal talents for the new series. ‘It’s true that Britain has a special tradition of caricature and satire, but I think that audiences around the world are sophisticated enough to enjoy it. If not, we can also put in some puppets bonking heads with a coconut sound,’ Westbrook told the Guardian.