Saturday, 17 December 2016

Spitting Image

The rest of the classic TV blogosphere is gearing up for Christmas, so in true form, I am going to write about Spitting Image. In fact I can't think how I have never written about it here before, but I am watching my way through all the series of Spitting Image, now that I am feeling the need to give Are You Being Served a rest. Oh - perhaps I had better mention that the paucity of posts here has been because my new job is taking up quite a lot of my energy, but I am glad I jumped ship and should have done so years ago.
My perception is that this most cult of all cult TV shows has been rather ignored by we who write about these things on the internet. This is surprising, because it was prominent throughout its run from 1984 to 1996. Even I, never a political animal, tuned in regualrly and enjoyed its ridicule of the great and the good who run this country, and in fact the world. Perhaps it has rather been ignored because it was so much of its time, and it naturally loses much of its humour if you don't remember the characters and events it satirises.
That said, some of the figures are so well-known that Spitting Image has matured to provide a particular historical take on the news stories of the time. I suppose the classic example of that is the show's treatment of the royal family. I love the way the Queen Mother walks with a Birmingham accent. Incidentally, on the subject of Birmingham, the show was initially made at the Central TV studios here in the Second City. In case any non-Birmingham readers wonder why Brummies are so keen on calling their city the Second one, is not because we want to be Second, but it is because Manchester thinks it is the Second City of England. They are of course wrong, and the point is actually that every time we say it, we are also saying that Manchester is not the Second City. So there.
Spitting Image was actually an incredibly brave programme at the time. Literally nothing was safe from its parody. I remember an illustration of Prince Andrew in the spin-off book of the series, which showed him in the nude with a sausage covering his notional genitals. The Queen was not impressed and sought legal advice. Luck and Flaw, the company responsible for Spitting Image, made it clear that they would happily turn up to court with the puppet and the sausage and heard no more. As I am writing this I am watching an episode from the ninth series which shows the Queen rapping!
Mrs Thatcher was of course a natural target for Spitting Image. She is portrayed variously as a school marm, a dangerous lunatic in a strait jacket, and a butcher. Of course none of these portrayals would be slanderous, since they were simple depictions of Mrs Thatcher as she was.

One thing which does cast a shadow over the show at this length of time is that some of the hints Spitting Image gives that people in public life weren't right, have been proved right beyond most people's wildest dreams. Of course Spitting Image was an ITV production, but as we now know, the BBC at the time was a cess pit of corruption and paedophilia. The irony of this is shown in Spitting Image's portrayal of Jimmy Savile. In the light of the subsequent revelations about his prolific paedophilia, Spitting Image's portrayal of him as a danger to others who should be locked up, becomes frankly chilling. The way he talks about 'my friend Mr Cigar' makes me laugh out loud to this day. Lucky he never replied to my letter asking him to fix it for me, isn't it?
I would be very interested to hear from non-UK readers who have seen the show, what they make of it, because I think that the problem for Spitting Image in retaining a presence in the cult TV blogosphere, is that if you are not British and do not remember the events parodied, the show's impact on you would naturally be much different. That said, I would recommend this show to, well, anyone, really. My favourite parts are the sketches about apartheid South Africa, especially the one where PW Botha turns black overnight and rushes off to his independent homeland!


Grant Goggans said...

The impact on me, an American, is certainly different, but I can absolutely get behind the comedy from the limited selection of clips I've seen. I had read about Spitting Image somewhere in the mid-80s, probably from girlfriends who had British pop music mags like No 1 I guess, before seeing the Genesis video and one of the specials, "The Ronnie and Nancy Show," that NBC aired. I've seen only bits since, but I loved the music video parodies over the closing credits of the 1993-94(?) series, especially the Pet Shop Boys one.

You included the "vegetables" clip, which I saw in the Ant & Dec special and I just about choked from laughing. I have no idea who Thatcher's chancellor of the exchequer was, or what a chancellor of the exchequer even is, but good lord, that's funny.

I think some really accurate and successful parodies don't really require all that much in-depth knowledge of the politicians anyway. Did British viewers need to be all that familiar with Caspar Weinberger and Ed Meese for "The Ronnie and Nancy Show" to be so funny?

I think that sometimes Spitting Image was unfair, and because it was so darn mean, sometimes those unfair parodies sting. There's a bit that shows Bryan Ferry as a mumbling boob who only wants to release greatest hits albums, and that would have been so much funnier, and more accurate, if it had depicted him as a mumbling boob helplessly trapped by an evil *record company* that only wants to release greatest hits albums, and then pay him in hair gel. Still pretty funny, though.

DC Follies was a very similar show made in this country. It was also pretty funny, though nowhere nearly as merciless in its satire. It was too gentle and respectful of its targets, which is why it has dated so badly and will always be thought of as a poor cousin, assuming it's remembered at all.

--Grant Goggans

John said...

Grant, thank you for exactly the transatlantic viewpoint I wanted! I quite take your point that it isn't always necessary that you know the originals to understand parody, and will look up the US shows you mention.