“I’ll tell you a nice story about China,” says Roger Law, who spent his post-Spitting Image years working on ceramics in Jingdezhen and is currently sporting a red-starred Mao skullcap, possibly in tribute. “I gave a talk at the university about the show, and there was complete silence afterwards. I said, ‘I’m not f***ing going unless you ask some questions.’ There were just two. One was: ‘Why do you hate everybody?’ The other question was very Chinese, very practical: ‘Who would pay you to do this?’”
Lots of people, it turns out, would pay him to do it — The Sunday Times, for one. Law served as in-house caricaturist for most of the decade between 1965 and 1975, building life-size satirical puppets for magazine shoots. “Getting them down the spiral staircase was a problem,” he recalls with grim humor. But it was television that really paid him the big bucks, commissioning his satirical puppet show Spitting Image for 18 series between 1984 and 1996, and now paying him again for Spitting Image mark II, which launches on Britbox today.
“I was out of it for 20 years making ceramics and traveling and basically having a nice life — God knows why I decided to get back in the barrel,” Law grimaces. “There’s so much noise out there, and social media’s always ready to take offense. But then, to quote Clint Eastwood, opinions are like arseholes, everybody’s got one. I’m not aware of what’s ‘woke’ and what isn’t, but it’s a bit late for me to change my ways, mate, I’m nearly 80. I just want to produce a few things that make people have a sharp intake of breath.”
He’s delighted to find that his new production team has risen to the challenge. The lead writer, Jeff Westbrook, comes from The Simpsons and Futurama. “One of the first things he wrote for the pilot had Trump’s arsehole tweeting,” Law grins. “I was worried you only get to shock people first time around, but he’ll do just fine.”
“One of the first things he wrote for the pilot had Trump’s arsehole tweeting.”
It’s hard to explain just how shocking Spitting Image was first time around — though Law’s story of franchising the show in Russia is instructive. “I went over there to work with these young men, who were terrific. Then one day I got a phone call. ‘Please, Roger, you must leave to airport now. We have been arrested.’ ‘What for?’ ‘For holding our leaders up to ridicule and humiliation.’ I said, ‘Well, I thought that was rather the point.’”
For the original, that was the point. Episodes cost some $385,000, proving twice as expensive as other prime-time shows, and the team had an unholy amount of freedom. “The good news was that ITV had never really dealt with what is basically a political cartoon before,” Law says, cackling. “So they didn’t know what the rules were.” He pauses and grins. “But we did.”
The rules were: Law, his creative partner, Peter Fluck, and the collective of writers, voice artists and technicians from the motor industry helping to build the puppets would try to get away with anything they wanted, and the producer John Lloyd would go to meetings and reassure management that everything was fine. Thus the Queen Mother was portrayed swigging gin, the Tory chairman Norman Tebbit as a skinhead thug, the home secretary Douglas Hurd as half-Dalek, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock broke into No 10 to see what it was like, the shadow chancellor Roy Hattersley covered everyone in spit, while David Owen and a little David Steel from the newly formed SDP-Liberal alliance were usually in bed together, with little David apologizing for wetting himself.
“I got a phone call. ‘Please, Roger, you must leave to airport now. We have been arrested.’ ‘What for?’ ‘For holding our leaders up to ridicule and humiliation.’”
Margaret Thatcher, whose reign turned out to be essential to the show, which withered after her resignation, used the gents’ loos, smoked cigars and, in one of the best-remembered sketches, sat with her cabinet in a restaurant, ordered raw steak and, when asked, “What about the vegetables?” replied, “They’ll have the same as me.”
“People really hated her,” says Law. “When she went, the producer rang me up and said satirically down the phone, ‘We finally got rid of her, Roger.’ But you knew what you were dealing with, that’s for sure. When we did the books, WH Smith objected to something in them about her, so we wrote to 10 Downing Street and said, ‘We’re going to do this, how do you feel about it?’ This letter came back saying: ‘How very enterprising, good luck.’ Meanwhile Boris can’t make his own bloody breakfast.”
The new Spitting Image intends to be as cruel to No 10 as the old one was, but with American cofunding and some American writers it will be much more of a global offender. This time Law and team have made puppets of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, Brad Pitt, Elon Musk, Emmanuel Macron, Greta Thunberg, Jacinda Ardern, Jeff Bezos, Joe Biden, Jürgen Klopp, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Mark Zuckerberg, Narendra Modi, RuPaul, Taylor Swift, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, among many others. They’ve even made a Covid puppet. And a Mrs Covid. “It talks, it spits, it coughs.” Law cracks up laughing. “It’s completely revolting.”
The genius of Spitting Image, as with all good caricature and sharp satire, came in the truth it told. When we saw a gray John Major eating peas in gray underpants, we didn’t need anything explained to us. So when creating characters such as Trump, Johnson and Keir Starmer, says the stand-up and impressionist Matt Forde — who provides all three voices and writes for the show — the mockery has to come from reality.
They’ve even made a Covid puppet. And a Mrs Covid. “It talks, it spits, it coughs.”
“Boris is so obviously not in control — he’s no Mrs T or Blair — and you can see this real sadness in his eyes,” Forde says, slipping briefly into a hint of Johnson’s bluster. “He looks tired. You can tell he’s desperate to be loved and craves approval in a way that’s unnatural even among politicians. The puppet captures that tragedy, and that’s how we’ve shown him: reckless, not good enough and a bit of a sad bastard who’s terrified Cummings will leave him.”
Trump, on the other hand, is grotesque. “He’s disgusting — they’ve made a puppet of his soul,” Forde chuckles. “They’ve captured the demon inside the guy. He’s very naive, malign, nasty — a cunning mid-ranking school bully who’s in awe of really strong bullies like Putin. People say Trump’s too extreme to mock, but this is a show with limitless boundaries: you can take him into space and have him shag aliens. Puppet Starmer, conversely, is so well mannered, lawyerly and frightfully polite that he thanks the ‘honorable gentleman’ even if he’s just having a chat in the street.”
Forde, Law and Westbrook head a team of writers and performers including Al Murray, Phil Wang, Richard Herring, Sophie Duker, writers from The Simpsons, The Tracey Ullman Show, Family Guy, Man Like Mobeen, Killing Eve, Famalam and Dead Ringers. You probably haven’t heard of half of them, but if Spitting Image delivers, you will. The first outing launched the TV careers of Steve Coogan, Rory Bremner, Alistair McGowan, Ian Hislop, John O’Farrell and Harry Enfield, while Ade Edmondson, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Stewart Lee contributed material.
Trump, on the other hand, is grotesque. “He’s disgusting — they’ve made a puppet of his soul. They’ve captured the demon inside the guy.”
“It feels like we’re the new generation, which is an exciting and terrifying precipice to be on,” says Jess Robinson, the stand-up voicing Thunberg, Kardashian, Swift, Merkel, Ivanka and Melania Trump and the female coronavirus. “Exciting because, like the first show, it might at least teach people my age the names of the cabinet. And terrifying because when I tweeted I was involved, there were some people saying, ‘This is going to be shit,’ even before we’d started filming.”
There will, she expects, be two kinds of comments on Twitter: those saying it’s not as good as it used to be, and those who are offended by it. The show has already rattled the Offended Cage with a publicity shot of Zuckerberg’s puppet, which Twitter dubbed antisemitic. “I’m Jewish and I’m not offended,” Robinson shrugs. “It’s a caricature. Get over it.”
People were offended by the first series, Law confirms, but he just ignored them. “People are always offended, and always by the same things, funnily enough,” he muses. “You can see the same ideas done in Georgian times by Gillray, and the same offense caused. Human nature doesn’t change. Some things are always the same.”
And there is, of course, one thing that absolutely hasn’t changed between Spitting Images One and Two: the Queen is still the Queen. Indeed, the royal family are the only people to be mocked by both versions of the show. Painfully, one of the running jokes first time around was Charles wistfully dreaming of the time he would be king.
“Poor old Charles, his mum still looks absolutely fine and even his son is getting on a bit now,” Forde laughs. “And Prince Andrew always used to be shown as this lecherous shagger. The royal family: if it was true back then, it’s true now. That’s almost beyond satire.”
Spitting Image is on Britbox in the U.K. beginning today, October 3