UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump are pictured in this panel. Caricatures of politicians on large advertisement board for satirical television puppet show Spitting Image inside Westminster Tube Station. (Photo by Keith Mayhew/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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Latex memories

Spitting Image (BritBox)

The first thing to say about the revived Spitting Image is that it works. This will come as a relief to those, including your reviewer, for whom the original show was a vital part of the 1980s and 90s.

There is in fact, in these times of constant change, something a little comforting about seeing the big latex puppets back up screen. They’re new characters, of course, but immediately recognisable both for who they’re supposed to be and as, well, Spitting Image puppets, bouncing onto the set, hands waving a little strangely.

And the format, essentially unchanged, still works too: the mix of character-driven sketches that could have been written at any point in the last six months and quicker hits that play off the news.

Nor has the show mellowed with age. The opening sketch, which reveals that Donald Trump’s tweets are in fact written by his anus, feels like a statement of intent to offer, sometimes, gratuitously bad taste. It continues to not be something you’d want to watch with your granny.

The more subtle statement of intent in the first episode was the musical number, featuring Jacinda Ardern as a smug, fascist Mary Poppins. Perhaps that reflects the more international focus of Britbox, for whom the new Spitting Image is a flagship show, but it reveals an expectation that viewers will laugh along to a joke about the New Zealand prime minister’s self-satisfaction. It’s unlikely the makers would have tried that in the 1980s.

And there’s a willingness to speak truth to power. Priti Patel is portrayed as a dominatrix, uttering “unpopular Conservative opinions” while Michael Gove pleasures himself. “Oh! You can say it because you’re Asian,” he gasps, as she attacks immigration. As I said, probably not a show to watch with gran.

Spitting Image continues to not be something you’d want to watch with your granny

For all that, Boris Johnson probably won’t be too troubled by his portrayal as an amiable buffoon: this is after all the image he’s always tried to cultivate. Neither will Dominic Cummings mind being portrayed as an evil alien overlord. There are other approaches the show could have taken towards both men: Johnson has both a vindictive streak and a need to be loved; and let’s just say there are hints here and there that Cummings might not, after all, be a genius.

Keir Starmer, too, will be happy to be shown as a serious man in these serious times. After the rich comic seam that was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership stint, Labour is determined to make life hard for satirists.

The least funny character is probably Trump, and the least funny sketch definitely the mock-up of last week’s debate: in the end, the puppet version was simply less shocking than the reality.

In the past, Spitting Image created many of its most enjoyable moments from seeming to reveal the hidden lives of its characters: the scenes that I recall at a distance of thirty years are John Major, pushing his peas around his plate, nursing an unspoken yearning for Virginia Bottomley. How do you create the hidden life of Trump, a man who speaks or tweets his every thought without filter? It’s interesting that two comedians who have succeeded in satirising the president, America’s Sara Cooper and Britain’s Michael Spicer, have used recordings of his actual words to highlight just how strange they are. But spare a thought for writing satire in an age where Gavin Williamson has an Instagram account and almost certainly writes the captions himself.

These kinds of problem can be worked out over time, however, and the new Spitting Image’s first episode is promising enough that the makers probably will. Welcome back.

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