Puppets of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan from the television show 'Spitting Image', appearing at the Montreux Festival, May 13th 1985. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What Spitting Image did to British politics

As Spitting Image returns to our screens, its original impact has not been forgotten

It’s February 1984 and English television is still ruled by just four stations. Regular political programming consists of the evening news, Panorama and a new debate show called Question Time, while television cameras are not yet allowed into the House of Commons.

Into this world burst a show that would add an alternative dimension to the political discourse of the 1980s. At its peak it claimed to have more viewers (fifteen million) than it took to elect the Thatcher Government (thirteen million). That show was Spitting Image and this week it finally returns after a twenty-four-year absence.

No politician could claim to have ‘made it’ in Westminster without being parodied on the show

Politicos have long clamoured for the return of Spitting Image, which established itself as a permanent fixture of Sunday night television between 1984 and 1996. Becoming a cultural institution, the show even spent three weeks at number one with the “Chicken Song”. No politician could claim to have “made it” in Westminster without being parodied on the show. Jeffrey Archer even went to the trouble of sending the producers a videotape of his voice to ensure an appearance.

Whether it will manage to make the same impact on today’s market is the question looming over its return. The initial controversies over the exaggeration of Kanye West’s lips and Mark Zuckerberg’s nose, (in addition to the ethical debate over parodying Greta Thunberg) suggests it will be heavily scrutinised.

Anybody who believes “cancel culture” is a uniquely modern phenomenon should, however, revisit the furore generated by the very first episode of the show in February 1984. Back then it was the Daily Mirror who spearheaded a tabloid campaign to ban a puppet of the Queen Mother because it plunged “new depths of bad taste”.

Fearing a backlash, the producers cut her from the first episode. It was only when the show grew in confidence that it recast her as the infamous gin-drinking northern grandma, obsessed with gambling on the horses that the public came to know and love.

Nevertheless, the show still managed to offend on its first outing. On the BBC review show Did You See?, the art critic Jan Murray was “almost affronted by its savagery” at the “upsetting” behaviour of its central characters.

A patchy first outing included President Reagan having his brain opened up to reveal a golf ball while the Cabinet paid their respects to Her Royal Highness (Margaret Thatcher). The old guard of British comedy also failed to see the funny side. Jimmy Tarbuck dismissed it as “undergraduate humour” that “goes too far”. “It is an insult”, he declared, “I am disgusted”.

The show’s creators believed it could act as a counter to the rise of spin and political marketing

Early reviews were confused about the purpose of the show. Initially it hoped to play a more satirical role, in the mould of That Was the Week That Was, in holding the government to account. Peter Fluck and Roger Law, the show’s creators, believed it could act as a counter to the rise of spin and political marketing: “People say we’re too savage, but you never hear of anyone going to Saatchi and Saatchi to complain that they’re grossly benevolent.” So, when it was suggested that Arthur Scargill should be satirised as harshly as Mrs Thatcher, the creators pushed back, arguing that it would trivialise the miners’ cause.

Had it continued as an overtly political, anti-Conservative programme it may not have thrived as it later did. Instead it focussed as much on pop culture, charting the rise of celebrities and the ongoing sagas in the Royal Family. Politically, it excelled by merely exaggerating the characteristics of front-line politicians and offering a critique on the often-bizarre nature of British politics.

Thatcher was the undoubted star from 1984 up to her resignation in 1990. Sceptics often point to the Conservative General Election victories as proof that the show did little to turn the public against the government. On the contrary, it is felt that it strengthened her image, with the public enjoying the weekly spectacle of her bashing Cabinet Ministers over the head, alongside her loveable henchman: the thuggish, leather-clad biker Norman Tebbit.

To counter accusations of bias, the opposition parties suffered just as greatly, perhaps even more so

Less impactful were the various attempts by the show to draw comparisons between the Conservative Government and the Nazi Party. In one early episode, Thatcher is seen taking advice from her next-door neighbour, Adolf Hitler, on how to “invade the union of mineworkers”. Another clip depicted the Conservative Party Conference morphing into a Nazi Rally as the puppets sang Jerusalem in homage to their recreation of a Victorian England. The 1987 General Election special – which could only be screened after polls had closed – ended with a parody of the Cabinet singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, the Hitler Youth anthem from the film Cabaret.

To counter accusations of bias, the opposition parties suffered just as greatly, perhaps even more so. In the 1980s, the Labour Party’s increasingly desperate attempts to appear relevant and modern were channelled via the antics of the double act of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley. Each week viewers were treated to their bungling attempts to present themselves as electable, only to be undone by their own incompetence and lack of belief in their message.

Perhaps the pair who suffered the most were David Steel and David Owen as leaders of the SDP/Alliance. In the week that Spitting Image was first aired, the SDP were still talked of as a major threat to the Labour Party’s future. Steel’s depiction, as a small child sat in the pocket of David Owen, resonated with the public and some in the party claim that it destroyed their election chances.

It was the rise of New Labour which would eventually prove the death knell for the show

The extent to which the show reaffirmed political images in the minds of the voter or created them has been the subject of much debate. In the early 1990s, Spitting Image was credited with developing John Major’s persona as the “grey man”. In one memorable scene, Major subjected his wife Norma to a dinner conversation about the quality of the peas. As his premiership wore on, and the government became embroiled in scandal after scandal, the puppet appeared to symbolise the disconnect between him and the party. When Major urged the country to return “Back to Basics” the tabloids were quick to declare the Prime Minister as dull as his puppet.

Such imagery was a gift to a Labour Party hoping to portray itself as a modern and dynamic organisation. In 1996 the architects of New Labour even secured the use of Major’s puppet for a party-political broadcast, which depicted the Prime Minister as the Captain of the Titanic. As the ship sank, Major asked “Where are the lifeboats?” to which the Chancellor Ken Clarke replied, “We sold them off”. Labour strategists heralded it as a triumph: “We think that humour is a very effective communication medium.”

It was the rise of New Labour which would eventually prove the death knell for the show. When it was axed by Carlton in 1996 it was seen as “boring and predictable” and unable to find an effective counter to the professionalised political world. Part of the problem was that over the course of the 1990s real-life events would take over. A succession of Royal scandals – from Sarah Ferguson’s toe sucking to Prince Charles’ desire to be Camilla’s tampon – gave the public a glimpse into the private world of public figures. The Spitting Image world seemed tame by comparison.

Cancellation meant that the New Labour’s years were subject to a different type of scrutiny. Tony Blair’s puppet did not have enough time to embed itself within the political culture of the day as Thatcher, Major and Kinnock’s had. However, in the one series in which it did satirise Blair, the show appeared to be ahead of the mainstream orthodoxy. With Blair at the peak of his early popularity, he found talking to a portrait of himself in an attic – Dorian Gray style – as his mask fell and his true side emerged.

Peter Mandelson was lampooned as a slippery snake on his shoulder, pouring spin into Blair’s ears; a caricature which would become dominant over the course of his premiership.

In Spitting Image’s place came the panel shows such as Have I Got News for You, which provided a cheaper, if not more cynical, view of politics. In the early 00s, Rory Bremner was credited with bringing Alastair Campbell to public consciousness through his sketches while The Thick of It further cemented the image of spin in public consciousness. ITV’s attempts to bring back the Spitting Image formula, in 2DTV and Newzoids, proved unsuccessful.

Whether there is room for Spitting Image in the era of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Megan and Harry remains to be seen. Covid-19 has arguably put this Conservative Government back at the centre of cultural life, as millions tune in to watch Boris Johnson’s broadcasts and Matt Hancock’s press briefings. Few could have missed the Dominic Cummings saga, while Rishi Sunak’s association with “Eat Out to Help Out” appears to have transcended normal government policies.

All of which means that the show has the potential – via social media shares – to reach audiences as big as those it hit in its 1980s heyday. Far from entering a politics beyond parody, it arrives when the conditions are just right. Its success will depend on how close the comedy sticks to the reality.

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