Spitting Image, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, had many working titles, including The Late Latex Show and Hands Up!. My favourite was Rubber News, but then we discovered there was already a specialist magazine of that name for people who like that sort of thing, and we didn’t want to raise their hopes.
Unlike her rubbery alter ego, the real Mrs Thatcher had a softer side. When the Royal Navy’s admirals pressed her to go to war over the Falklands, she cried. And, knowing how sensitive she was to criticism, her devoted press secretary, Bernard Ingham, used to make a digest of the newspapers every day, so she would only read nice things about herself. But when, in the evenings, in the flat at Number Ten with Denis and couple of large whiskies, she tried to relax in front of the telly, she was appalled by what she saw: Channel 4 News backing the miners’ strike, the ghastly “left-wing” Panorama droning on and, on one occasion, horror of horrors, a ghoulish travesty of current events peopled by hideous, bug-eyed puppets.
Though many politicians – including Norman Tebbit, Neil Kinnock, Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine and Roy Hattersley – are on record as saying they were amused by their doppelgangers, the Prime Minister wasn’t among them. Presumably because she hit the off-button long before the first commercial break, she formed the unshake- able view that Spitting Image, like Panorama, was a BBC show. And she determined to bring the corporation to heel. So, if the BBC is not what it was, you can blame me.
Spitting Image was, of course, an ITV programme (made by Central Television in Birmingham). But it adhered fiercely to Reithian precepts: not merely “to inform, educate and entertain”, but to stick to its principles and, above all, to struggle to reach that elusive goal of “excellence”. This is very different from “success”, which is comparative and largely a matter of ratings. Ironic, this, because viewing figures today are a shadow of what they were: “a fight between two bald men”, you might say, as Jorge Luis Borges said of the Falklands, “over a comb”.
In 1986, during its third series (the last that I produced), Spitting Image reached number three in the ratings. Aired at two minutes past ten on Sunday nights, it got as many as 15 million viewers. Given that it had taken only 13 million people to re-elect the Conservatives to power in 1983 and that the circulation of the UK’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, was then about four million, this was an astonishing figure. No one was more baffled than we were. How could something so uncompromising please so many?
The reason, I think, is this. The television that people love most of all is the stuff that the people who make it also love. Great shows are very difficult to make, and they are sustained by courage, constancy of purpose, fanatical attention to detail and, above all, joy. The extraordinarily talented team I had the honour to argue with on a daily basis at Spitting Image threw their all – and I do mean “all” – behind the programme (one series, I worked a 90-day shift with two days off in the middle). But the crew put up with the all-nighters and the mad demands because everyone believed in it – and what we found funny made it to air.
We owed this to the steely nerves of our programme controller, Charles Denton, and to the bemused enthusiasm of the then head of light entertainment at ITV, Jon Scoffield, who often howled with laughter as he reviewed the show. There were heated disagreements among the team – anger, frustration, exhaustion, despair – but, in the four years I was there, I never once lost the certainty that, however hellish it might be day to day, it was worth it in the long run.
Joy is a quality that’s been in short supply on television recently. Everything is very well made and professional, some of it is irritatingly addictive, and much of it aspires to that dreary cliché “edgy”, but it doesn’t make your heart sing. There is evidence, though, that we may be turning a corner. I would argue that the true heirs to Spitting Image are not other “satire” shows, but dramas such as The Bridge, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Bleak as these might seem, they are all suffused with joy: they say something not just about the darker side of human nature, but about the ability of people to transcend it.
There are two main reasons that I doubt Spitting Image would be commissioned today. One is fear – fear of failure, fear of what the papers might say – and the other is money. In the mid-1980s, Spitting Image cost about £300,000 per episode, an enormous sum – equivalent to around £1 million today. Our masters at Central grumbled about the price, but they stumped up the cash right from the start. It turned out to be not merely editorial courage, but shrewd business acumen.
On Sunday nights, after the crazed rush to finish the dub in time for transmission, the entire production would cram into my hotel room at the Holiday Inn to watch the show go out. We could never understand how the commercial breaks in this late-night, supposedly niche, supposedly anarchist cri de coeur were crammed with ads for BMWs and Apple Macs. It turned out that Central were auctioning the slots in the centre break for £500,000. Each edition netted a cool profit of almost £250,000.
Some people say that, in the unlikely event of a recommission, Spitting Image wouldn’t work today because our politicians are too bland and samey, but I don’t think that’s true. The genius of Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who created it, and of the brilliant impressionists like Chris Barrie, Harry Enfield and Steve Nallon who were there at its inception, was to pinpoint the weirdness that lurks in all of us. Before they were puppetised, who knew that Barry Norman had a peculiar manner of speaking or that Douglas Hurd’s hair looked like an ice-cream cone?
It may be that David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all seem to have been at school together and have three different-coloured ties that they rotate between them, but when we built the entire Tory cabinet in 1984 (Mrs T aside), most people couldn’t have named a single one of them. As Roy Hattersley has pointed out, before Spitting Image nobody had any idea who Norman Fowler was... and today they still don’t.
Arena: Whatever Happened to Splitting Image? is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4.