The new “Spitting Image” will please the puppets more than the public
WHEN “SPITING IMAGE”, a satirical sketch show featuring puppets of great and not-so-great people, first aired in 1984, British tabloids were outraged. How dare they “wipe out” the Queen Mother, the Daily Mirror wanted to know. Lev Parshin, an official at the Soviet embassy in London, was long – and rather jealous – of the license that the satirists gave themselves. Labor MP Tony Benn recorded in his diary that “Parshin said he would like to [it] to be available in the Soviet Union, because it mocks Soviet leaders”.
What was once shocking is now very meaningful. The team behind the reunion of the show – which left the screens in 1996 and has now returned, courtesy of BritBox, a streaming service – will have to win over generations who have no doubts as the mode basic. Today, everyone is a satirist, from amateur TikTok influencers to the American president, whose negative statements – “Crooked Hillary”, “Sleepy Joe” – are read as pen drawings of “Spitting Image” characters. In an era of cynical and conspiracy theories, the radical act was to make a show that marked public life.
Not much of a laugh in that, of course. But there is not much in this resume either. The picture of Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist, as a TV weather presenter (the forecast is always “HOT!”) raises a laugh. That’s how a skit makes businesses hurry to wake up. “Unlike 2019, it’s time for us to acknowledge the suffering of black people in America,” says a film industry executive at “Bizney”. But the gags usually fall flat. A sketch featuring Mr. Trump literally talking out of his back as clichéd as he is crude.
Like the first incarnation, the grotesque puppets are much stronger than the material written for them. Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, faces a permanent review; Angela Merkel is cheerful and dour; Michael Gove, a cabinet minister, is a smiling Tory boy, imbued with the harshest rhetoric possible. The royal family is the best, perhaps because this most literal form of lèse-majesté is still very uncommon. The queen is a graffiti artist, a hoody draped over her crown, a delight. The puppet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be in great demand.
Politicians love it. No matter how hard the picture is, the fact that you have one means you’ve made it. According to journalist Charles Moore, Norman Tebbit liked his puppet, a skinhead loyal to Margaret Thatcher. So Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s top adviser, will be portrayed as a mad (and unscathed) scientist from outer space.
Whether other people like these puppets as much will depend on the show’s writers finding something funnier to say. As the world lays down for a long winter of fake politics and covid-19, it could smile.