COVID, Brexit, Donald Trump, the climate crisis, doomsters, gloomsters, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Dilyn the Downing Street dog. You may either laugh or cry. Which is why, in the annus horribilis that is 2020, there has never been a better time for the return of Spitting Image.
“What’s going on, it’s just terrifying when you stop to think about it,” says Roger Law, one half of the original creative pair that made Spitting Image the benchmark for wrecking-ball satire in the 1980s and 90s. “I suppose that’s the reason I wanted to go back to it. The time is definitely right.”
It’s been 24 years since Law and co-creator Peter Fluck saw their latex puppets with the podgy fingers and fabulously foul mouths waddled off stage by ITV. At its peak, Spitting Image was watched by 15 million viewers, and it was still managing around half that when it was axed in 1996. Now, in a different time and wielding the same satirical sledgehammer, Spitting Image is back. But this time, Fluck isn’t involved.
“Flucky?” says Law. “Ha! He’s a fine artist now. Does he want any more of this? No, he doesn’t. He made it clear years ago.” But Law, in his Mao hat and swearing like a trooper throughout our chat, now wants more himself. “I was asked all the time, but I just turned it down for ages. It took 13, 14 years of my life. It was like a production line. I did it for so long… I’d had a gutful.”
Law moved to Australia with his wife Deirdre to start a new life. Then he moved to China to start a new career as a ceramicist and then back to Australia. They were away for 20 years.
“Jolly interesting it was, too. But I got to the point where I had to decide whether to stay in Australia or come home – I’ve got eight grandchildren that I’m curious about on occasion, so I came back.”
Needless to say, the political scene he found on his return to Britain was not to his liking. “You realise what a nest it all is. And I sort of wanted to do it again.”
Revitalised, Law met with Avalon, the production company behind Not Going Out, Catastrophe, Breeders and Taskmaster. They recruited Jeff Westbrook, an award-winning comic writer of 15 years standing on The Simpsons, and a team of British and American scribes, and then they made a pilot. This was also, in Law’s words, “jolly interesting”.
“In it, Donald Trump is in bed with Melania, his phone keeps ringing and at the same time he’s tweeting people with his a***hole – he’s got an extended colon. It wasn’t hilarious but it was the sort of thing the Brits like, where there’s a sharp intake of breath.”
That “sharp intake of breath” was the hallmark of Spitting Image at its peak. With a grey John Major, Douglas Hurd with a Mr Whippy hairdo and a gin-swilling Queen Mother, it was crude, pugnacious and proud – just the tonic for a nation divided by Thatcherite politics.
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Rock legend John Lennon is on our Radio Times cover this week. We celebrate his life and legacy with Paul McCartney, Elton John and Julian Lennon, see inside the magazine for the full feature. Also inside this week's issue, Prince William on healing the world as his duty to his children, Spitting Image is back after 24 years and we speak to creator Roger Law, and a look at the new Covid-secure drive-in Top Gear! All this and much more in this week's Radio Times, on sale now! Click the link in our bio for information on how to get your copy. . . . #radiotimes #radiotimescover #johnlennon #johnlennonat80 #thebeatles #eltonjohn #paulmccartney #topgear #princewilliam #royalfamily #spittingimage
“I remember watching some market research focus groups about the show,” says Law. “All that was interesting about the results was that we had two audiences. One was people that went around in fast cars, drank lager and had a university education, and the others were bright, working-class people.”
If Spitting Image crossed a national divide back then, today it will have to reach across a chasm. “Boris and the boys are totally illogical and very, very right wing,” says Law. “They are far to the right of Thatcher.”
Spitting Image, Law says, is able to land punches on the vainglorious because it depicts them as puppets. “Armando Iannucci said you can’t satirise Trump because he satirises himself,” says Law. “And I thought, ‘Sod that. You can.’ Because with puppets you can do stuff you can’t possibly do otherwise.”
John Lloyd was the show’s original producer. He had just come from working on Not the Nine o’Clock News, the BBC’s “alternative comedy” sketch show that lampooned the great and the good.
“Lloydy said he had wanted to do some things on NTNON with Mel [Smith] and Griff [Rhys Jones] and they’d say, ‘We don’t want to do that – we met them at a party. Really nice chaps. He’s great. She’s lovely.’ Well, puppets don’t talk to you at parties; they don’t have agents and you can put them in a cupboard when you’ve finished with them. That’s the difference.”
With a combination of the old muckers – Law, production designer Scott Brooker and wardrobe designer Helen McGrother – and a new, young writing staff, the revived Spitting Image should be just as relentlessly ribald as its predecessor. But will it find an audience?
The series is going out exclusively on BritBox, the combined BBC/ITV subscription service – there’s no way it will reach the 15 million of its 80s peak on a national channel. Law, however, sees the show’s new home as a bonus, not a constraint. “BritBox is subscription, so you’re not going to have the kind of nonsense that you get with the regular channels.”
By “nonsense”, he means television executives trying to censor his output. He tells a story of how a US version of the show was pulled in its entirety when they ran a sketch featuring Ronald Reagan with a plaster on his nose, when the president had recently announced he had skin cancer (Law says it was written by a young Ian Hislop, then part of the Spitting Image writing team). There have already been some rumours that BritBox executives didn’t like a trailer that featured a naked Boris Johnson.
“We’ll get some nonsense,” says Law, “but in the main with BritBox you have more freedom. We’ve done several things which we couldn’t have done with ITV. You can’t have people tweeting with their bum on regular television, for example.”
Law is 79 now, and regularly bemoans his age, but over several Zoom calls he is still incorrigible and deliciously potty-mouthed. He has said that he fell out with everyone on the original show, bar John Lloyd. Has he mellowed? “All I can tell you is I haven’t fallen out with Avalon. Yet.”
But even as he talks about the difficulties overseeing the workshop and the caricatures from afar, there’s a glint in his eye. He’s palpably excited about the new show – “The production values are a knockout. I have never seen puppets looking this good” – and he grants RT exclusive permission to visit the Spitting Image workshop in north London, before watching filming.
There’s an anarchic, roguish, distinctly Law-ish glee to the whole operation. And it is an operation – hundreds of puppets, heads lolling lifelessly as they await the puppeteers’ hands stuck up their windpipes – Dilyn the Downing Street dog is there, with goggle eyes and a lolling tongue; Donald Trump’s tiny hands sit on stands on a workbench; Michael Gove’s bulbous cheeks sit next to Ed Sheeran’s carrot head.
Filming – in this case a sketch about Kanye West trying to “grow” trainers – involves three puppeteers working on each body (one controlling the head and left arm, one the right arm, and a third the eyes, using a cable release for blinking). You’re reminded that puppets done well, even before they say a word, are very, very funny.
“It’s a different show but I think it’s a very good show,” says Law. “Jeff [Westbrook] has done things with this show that we never did. The scripts are smarter – the original was so crude. This is cool in places, there are little sitcoms that run across episodes and you don’t want to turn it off – in the original the only thing that lasted more than a minute and a half was John Major eating peas with his missus.”
The show may be different, but the cultural climate in which Spitting Image returns is different, too. There were, of course, no hashtags, social media, Black Lives Matter or cancel culture back then. Predictably, Law has little time for Twitter storms or trolling: “All that nonsense on social media? I mean, get a life. There are bigger things to worry about, especially now.”
But he has already experienced some controversy around the new show. An image was released of the puppet of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which has a large, hooked nose. Zuckerberg is Jewish and so, even before its launch, Spitting Image v2.0 found itself being accused of anti-Semitism.
“Well, screw it, you know,” says Law. “People sit around looking for things to complain about, and I do big noses and big ears. It’s personal – it’s not a racist thing.”
Personal parody, he says, “has more effect on individuals than waxing lyrical about their policies. Everybody cares about how they look. I’m wearing my hat now because I’m virtually bald – we’re all at it.”
Law concedes that “some of the things we did in the 80s might now be called racist. But you can’t do that now, we’re not and we wouldn’t.” Instead, he says, the aim is “to lance the boil”, where “the boil” is politics, politicians and the powerful. People who need taking down a peg. “I’ve got pictures of Dominic Cummings outside Buckingham Palace, posing when he was about 35, smoking a cigarette and being a rebel: he’s a loser. He’s not this magician that’s running everything. You don’t hang around in cheap clothes and a nylon hat trying to look like a rebel when you’re meant to be doing something quite serious.”
As for our prime minister? “Boris is exactly what you thought he was. He’s a journo buffoon and I understand this because part of me is exactly the same. [Law started out as an illustrator and cartoonist on the Observer and The Sunday Times.] Boris has the attention span of a gnat. And would I put someone like me in charge of anything? No.”