The Heckler

The Heckler: how funny really was Spitting Image?

As ITV attempts to resurrect the 80s satire, William Cook wonders whether it was actually any good

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Hold the front page! Spitting Image is back! Well, sort of. A new six-part series, from (some of) the team behind Fluck and Law’s puppetry satire show, will be broadcast on ITV this spring. Called Newzoids, it promises to provide a ‘biting look at the world of politics and celebrity’. Cue ecstatic reports in all the papers about how hilarious the original was, and how much we’ve all missed it. There’s only one problem with this analysis. Whisper it on Wardour Street, but Spitting Image wasn’t actually all that funny.

Yes, the voices were pin-sharp (shout-outs for Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan, Hugh Dennis, Harry Enfield, Alistair McGowan and a host of others) but, despite the input of writers like Ian Hislop and Richard Curtis, the breathless scripts reflected the frantic deadlines that the show’s topicality required. Yes, the puppets were works of art (take a bow, Peter Fluck and Roger Law, and all the puppet-makers who served under them) but for much of its 12-year run Spitting Image was often far funnier with the sound turned down.

Contrary to popular opinion, Spitting Image wasn’t remotely subversive. Depicting Margaret Thatcher as a bossy man surrounded by spineless Tory wets merely bolstered her carefully cultivated public image. Tony Benn? Mad. Michael Foot? A doddery old man in a donkey jacket. This wasn’t fearless satire. It was more like the front page of the Sun.

The songs were especially cringeworthy. ‘I’ve Never Met A Nice South African’ achieved the almost impossible feat of out-stereotyping the white architects of apartheid. Even at the time, the slobbering Roy Hattersley puppet was embarrassing. Either Hattersley didn’t have a speech impediment (in which case the joke made no sense) or he did (in which case it was about as witty as impersonating Stephen Hawking). Roger Law readily admitted that the show didn’t change a thing. Its only killer blow was depicting David Steel as David Owen’s silly sidekick. Yet even this sight gag merely reinforced the status quo.

So will the new show be any better? I doubt it, and here’s why. Satirising politicians has always worked in print, all the way back to Gillray, but it simply doesn’t work on television. For a politician, appearing on the one-eyed god, in any guise, is a form of self-aggrandisement. Viewers don’t remember what you did or what you said, simply that you were on telly. For any aspiring politician, being sent up on Spitting Image was a sign that you’d arrived. Nigel Farage should be delighted to have his very own Newzoids puppet. The only attack he ought to fear is if they dared to leave him out. ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them,’ ran an old anarchist proverb, a popular button badge and graffiti tag during the Thatcherite heyday of Spitting Image. Much the same could be said of putting political satire on TV.

For all its Punch and Judy slapstick, there was something uncannily prophetic about Spitting Image. Unwittingly, it anticipated the growing power of celebrity, the growing importance of style over substance and the consequent merging of politics and showbiz. Like Spitting Image, Newzoids promises to lampoon celebs and politicians. In the 1980s and 1990s, those were still two separate entities. Now, they’re much the same. Caricature has become reality. When we tune in to watch Boris Johnson and Russell Brand on Newzoids, their new puppets will already feel far more familiar than the real thing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Miss Darkside

    Perhaps it’s because I was a teenager when Spitting Image was at its height, but I found it hilarious. “The President’s Brain is Missing!” was utterly inspired, the Queen Mother as a chirpy Cockney always slightly tipsy and with a copy of The Racing Post close at hand, Norman Tebbit’s sinister leather jacketed “Yes Leader” and David Steele’s obsequious “Oh yes David” as he cosied up to David Owen. Genuinely funny. I doubt the new version with it’s inevitable 21st century smug, lefty sneering will be a patch on it.

    • Dunstan

      What??!! Instead of 21st century smug, lefty sneering all the original ever gave us was smug 80’s lefty sneering. Garbage then and now.

      • I was going to say — sounds like the usual Leftist smear show. Conservative liberals could spoof the Royal Family in an entertaining, not-too-far way, but I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it. Also, the Left mocks my cherished democracy and I don’t believe that’s anything to support — especially as they don’t do it even-handedly.

        • Ed  

          Much of the value in Spitting Image lay in how it revealed the extent to which Thatcherism touched a nerve on the left.

          • Perhaps you missed the many unflattering portrayals of KInnock and his lefty pals in Labour, Dennis Healey’s eybrows, Hattersly’s slavering spitting speeches. Nobody was spared as I recall, from politicians, to prelates and pop stars. All were fair game. Your right wing blinkers are obstructing your memory. By the way, lest you think otherwise, I’m a Conservative.

          • Ed  

            Ah, I see.

            It’s good to know that while Conservative you’re not a right-wing blinker. Glad we have that sorted out…..

          • Tron

            Labour figures were usually portrayed as nice but dim, silly but their hearts in the right place.
            Tories were aggressive and nasty.
            It’s the same on TV now.

          • Zander

            This is fair comment.

        • Maybe you didn’t actually see Spitting Image. It was incredibly catholic in its derision of public figures and image conscious politicians, media personalities and cant of all kinds. Neither the left nor the right escaped unscathed. Nothing pompous or pretentious or manipulative escaped its mockery. We have a long and honourable tradition of mocking the ‘worthy’ and the ‘sacred cows’. It goes from Gilray and others to Spitting Image and beyond. I would post links to Spitting Image, Youtube clips, but as it was thirty years ago, it probably looks a bit dated and unless you were living here at the time, most of the lampooned individuals might not be known to you.

          • Helen of Troy

            Fair enough.

    • CatholicSatan

      Waiter to Maggie (with her cabinet at dinner): “And the vegetables?”
      Maggie: “They’ll have the same as me.”

      Summed up her reign for me!

  • paulthorgan

    The author of this article is clearly a miserable killjoy. ‘Spitting Image’ blended the best of Britain’s satire talent and came up with something great until Blair put the bland into politics.

    The author is also mistaken. Foot was gone from the scene by the time the programme debuted and barely appeared in the show. The same is the case for Benn, who was absent from mainstream politics after the 1983 Tory landslide.

    The main targets were Reagan and Thatcher. The Royal family also featured and there was controversy of the depiction of the Queen Mother who spoke like Beryl Reid. The homo-eroticism of the two Davids was also a highlight.

    It was required watching on Sunday nights on ITV and its songs were very popular, especially its take on ‘Every Breath You Take’ and also ‘The Chicken Song’, which topped the charts.

    William Cook comes across as someone who was either too old or, more likely, too young to appreciate its humour.

    ‘Spitting Image’ was heckling by puppetry. You don’t heckle a heckler.

    Trivia moment: There was a rather good 6-issue series of ‘The Heckler’ put out by DC Comics in the 1990s. It was rather good but didn’t catch on.

  • Isn’t there also the consideration that this is now the Internet Age and not the TV Age? Is for me, anyway.

  • Gwangi

    Even at its height in the 80s, the scripts for Spitting Image were utterly dire – really really weak.
    The caricature puppets carried the show. Maybe 2 funny sketches per show, if that. The actual lines were feeble and unfunny, and often crude (though these days it’d be worse, I am sure).
    But I did used to watch it every week and I really enjoyed the way it annoyed people – esp the deeply conservative po-faced women I worked with aged 17 in 1985.

  • Dukeofplazatoro

    “Week Ending” which preceded Spitting Image on the radio, and which relied less on stereotypes and more on the jokes was far wittier and funnier. I have recently come across some of these programmes which I taped as a teenager. As an example, how about this song from about 1975, sung by Harold Wilson to the Modern Major General tune:

    I am the very model of a socialist prime minister
    My policies are dexterous and sometimes rather sinister
    I’ve solved the economic mess with plans procrastinatory
    And making obvious statements which are recapitulatory
    I don’t believe in striking, – but do in striking attitudes
    I’m fighting off inflation with a fusilade of platitudes,
    My latest plans will make this nation one and indivisible
    But please don’t criticise me if my plans are quite invisible

    (acknowledgements to BBC)

    • little islander

      hahaha! only the english, only the english. in any other country, you’d be lucky if you get only a slap on the wrist. only don’t get too smug about it.

    • grimm

      I remember Week Ending very well. I used to listen to it regularly. Inevitably with such a headlines based show the humour was patchy to say the least. I finally got fed up with the programme when, as with much Radio 4 comedy, it started to sound as though it had been written by po-faced left wing activists.

      The best sketch I can remember was broadcast at the time of the “winter of discontent”. It involved a Denis Healey impersonation with the actor reading an exact transcript of part of one of Healey’s speeches but played as though Healey were a stand up comic in front of a nightclub audience. The speech was punctuated with canned laughter and exposed how ridiculous his original statements had been.

  • Dogsnob

    Very good in very brief phases. Much trudging in-between.

  • Seldom Seen

    Funny? Probably. Actually, make that sometimes. But it captured the zeitgeist and it was different – and that counted for a lot in them days

  • Lady Magdalene

    Spitting Image wasn’t always funny, but it frequently hit the target in a biting, amusing and highly memorable way.

    Remember Major and the skit about peas. Mrs Thatcher calling her cabinet “vegetables.” The Queen Mother permanently on the G & Ts. Ronald Reagan and the missing brain.

    ITV attempted something similar about 5 years ago – minus puppets. It was childish, and not remotely funny. And I expect the same will be true of the latest resurrection in spades. It will be left-wing and promoting the luvvies usual PC agenda.

    The difference is that back in the 1980s, before Political Correctness had been imposed on the nation and before “hate” legislation was passed, we actually did have something approaching FREE SPEECH.

  • grimm

    Perhaps it is now time to reassess another legendary and sainted satirist – David Frost.

  • Men control the media

    Why are strong women always depicted as men and weak men called women?
    Not the reality, all our strongest leaders have been female: Boudica, Elizabeth 1st, Victoria, Elizabeth 2nd, Margaret Thatcher. Same true across the world.

  • JMckechnie

    One of the funniest scenes in Spitting Image was where they had David Owen and David Steel discussing how to make there joint party venture appear a little less complicated to the Electorate. So David Owen suggested that they take the first name of Mr Steel, and the surname of Dr Owen; which of course read “David Owen”; which David Steel agreed to as quite a good idea. I think much of this programme was fairly good-natured. Could today’s comedy be as objective as I remember that one being? I seriously doubt it; so perhaps they should just leave it be.