Before I sat down to write this, I tried to remember, without recourse to Google, what Spitting Image was like the first time around. Mostly, I saw, as if in a nightmare, various members of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet: Douglas Hurd, with Mr Whippy hair; Norman Tebbit, leather queen; Kenneth Baker, a slug in glasses; the miniature Colin Moynihan. It will give you some idea of how influential the series was if I say that before Spitting Image got to him, most of us couldn’t have identified Moynihan even if we’d been paid (he was the sports minister).
Why was it so talked about? Hmm. The voices were great (Steve Coogan did some), but it was about as funny as a Punch and Judy show, in the tradition of which it determinedly clumped along. Then again, when it began in 1984, it was competing in the hilarity stakes with the likes of Terry and June and ‘Allo ‘Allo (also, briefly, with Cockles, a sitcom set in a faded seaside town starring Joan Sims of Carry On fame). British telly was then still weirdly end-of-the-pier retro, and its audiences more grateful and deferential than now, and thanks to this, Peter Luck and Roger Flaw’s rubbery puppets felt like a revolution. Simply by turning it on, you were giving the establishment the finger.
[See also: The blood and guts of BBC One’s Roadkill]
Anyway, now Spitting Image has returned, courtesy of BritBox, the BBC/ITV streaming service that also has a weirdly retro feel (on offer to subscribers are episodes of Dr Who going back to 1963): new episodes are released each Saturday. I know why those involved were tempted by the idea of its revival: the show’s Donald Trump puppet, with its anus that extends like a hairy periscope from beneath the Presidential eiderdown in order to tap out his tweets, is the personification of a disgust that anyone even remotely sane experiences daily at the moment – and yes, I would love to watch Trump watching this, his KFC Colonel meal turning to dust in his mouth as he registers his own hideousness (imagine a bloke who used to be very small in Las Vegas who’s had a terrible accident involving a facial peel and a gas-fired barbecue, and you’re halfway there).
But ultimately, I don’t know why they bothered. Leaving aside that there are other places for this kind of stuff nowadays – for Harry and Meghan lols, you’re better off watching The Windsors or even, to be honest, their own videos. If satire is to hit its mark, it requires a certain mutual superiority: a cleverness that embraces a knowing audience, and in doing so makes the behaviour being sent up only look the more dumbly grotesque. It’s not enough merely to exaggerate what we already know. Take Dominic Raab, who likes judo in real life. He is depicted as a martial arts obsessive, when it would have been sharper if, say, they’d made him secretly into reiki.
Spitting Image 2.0 is all crudeness. Its writers are nuts about masturbation (no pun intended), and genitals more generally. Michael Gove’s cheeks, for instance, are a pair of testicles separated by a nose of a penis and a sphincter of a mouth (arsehole number two in a show that’s only 25 minutes long), a caricature that’s not only unfunny – OK, it’s a bit funny – but contains not even a whiff of revelation. On form, the old Spitting Image made you see things in a new and indelible way; the Queen Mother’s clandestine Brummie accent spoke not only to her own snobbishness, but to the ghastly peculiarities of a class system in which some aristos think the royals awfully common. The new Spitting Image just shouts “bum” a lot, and hopes its audience is desperate enough to titter.
Keir Starmer is meaty of face but irredeemably boring (in the last show, God knows why, Elton John lent him a wig). Mike Pence is grey all over, just as the Spitting Image John Major once was, and Priti Patel, like Edwina Currie before her, is a dominatrix. Jacinda Ardern stars in a musical number as Mary Poppins. Greta Thunberg reads the weather, furiously. Joe Biden is semi-senile, Dominic Cummings is an alien, and Boris Johnson is a sex maniac party boy. If these weren’t puppets, in other words, we might almost be watching Newsnight.
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning