“Spitting mad!” screamed the tabloid headlines when news broke that Spitting Image, the 1980s satirical puppet show, was to feature the Queen Mother. It’s pretty much what I thought when I heard that the show is to return on the subscription service BritBox. Not that I disapprove of its revival — it’s just that tackling the logistical nightmare of such a complex and expensive show today seems sheer lunacy.
Back in 1984, when I was hired as a 25-year-old cartoonist to write scripts for the new ITV show, money was no object. The targets we were lampooning — Thatcher’s Tories in their heyday — had created the boom economy that allowed the show to thrive on the back of television advertising. Our co-producer, Jon Blair, once asked us if we needed a New York-style fire escape for a West Side Story parody we were writing. We said no. “I’ll buy it anyway, just in case,” he replied.
An expensive set was nothing compared with the cost of assembling caricaturists, mould-makers, writers, actors, musicians and puppeteers. One series of the show cost $3.4 million to make — double the cost of other prime-time shows. This was tolerated because it was incredibly popular, attracting more than 15 million viewers, our most outrageous sketches regularly making the front pages. A tip I’d heard from a school acquaintance about Princess Diana having a nose job featured as a line in a sketch — and a page in The Sun.
Our co-producer once asked us if we needed a New York-style fire escape for a West Side Story parody we were writing. We said no. “I’ll buy it anyway, just in case,” he replied.
We were influential. But all we, the writers, felt was that those early episodes were … disappointing.
The first series was a shambles. The script editor, Tony Hendra (who plays band-manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap), wanted the focus purely on politics and character. John Lloyd, the producer of Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder and QI, assembled the show according to his own logical rules. So in the first episode, my writing partner Ian Hislop and I wrote a sketch about the Rev Ian Paisley having an argument with God — ending up with him being hit by a thunderbolt. The sketch was a rare success, but we couldn’t repeat it in the second episode because Paisley was now dead, at least in our rubbery world.
Unexpected Dancing Anteaters
The critics hated us almost as much as we hated ourselves. Everyone agreed that the grotesque puppet caricatures, designed by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, were amazing, but the scripts were weak and hampered by the tendency of the puppeteers to overact to get laughs. Even a reasonably smart punchline could vanish behind a dancing anteater that would appear for no reason.
Tony was sacked after six episodes and replaced by the hotshot radio writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, who later created the sitcom Red Dwarf. They broke all the rules imposed by the producers, and introduced celebrities. At last we could imagine a world in which royals mixed with rock stars, politicians sang Madness songs and boring sports stars such as snooker’s Steve Davis became “interesting”. The show began to gain the approval of critics — and even politicians.
At last we could imagine a world in which royals mixed with rock stars, politicians sang Madness songs and boring sports stars became “interesting.”
A sketch we wrote about the naming of the royal baby (Harry) featured Prince Andrew suggesting Randy and Dick, and Princess Margaret favouring Gordon’s, Johnnie Walker or Theakston’s Old Peculier. It was roundly condemned by the tabloids, which nonetheless reprinted all the jokes. For the final show of the series, Sting rerecorded Every Breath You Take as Every Bomb You Make — which was sung by the Grim Reaper.
Suddenly, schoolchildren knew who the cabinet were. The Tory chairman, Norman Tebbit, was a skinhead thug. The home secretary, Douglas Hurd, had a Dalek-like voice and an ice-cream-cone head. For the opposition, Neil Kinnock was a windbag, and the shadow chancellor, Roy Hattersley, was the spitting one. David Owen and little David Steel from the newly-formed SDP-Liberal Alliance were portrayed in bed together, with little David apologising for wetting the bed. Throughout, Margaret Thatcher bullied her cabinet, used the gents’ loos, and smoked cigars.
Being pilloried was a sign of success. We began receiving voice tapes from Jeffrey Archer suggesting we make a puppet of him. Politicians tried to buy their puppets. Michael Heseltine was told he could have his in exchange for a cheque for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He declined.
“Amusing Puppety Business”
By series three, the show was a resounding success, with spin-off books and a No 1 single, The Chicken Song — and the critics decided it wasn’t as funny as it was in series one. Yet the puppets were working in sync with the voices and the writers were writing more directly for the puppets. I recall ending a sketch with the direction “amusing puppety business ensues” — because that was exactly what you would get. We were a superior, sometimes satirical, often crude, political Punch and Judy show that perfectly mirrored the times. We were even based in what was to be Thatcher’s legacy, the Canary Wharf financial hub — then a motley array of banana warehouses.
The zenith for us as writers was the 1987 election show, which went out live as the polls closed — “shortly to be followed by the rest of the hospitals, the schools, and the BBC”. We gambled on the Tories winning, and ended the show with a rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me from Cabaret. The Financial Times remarked that if it had been shown on the BBC, there would have been tanks around Broadcasting House by morning.
I left the show a couple of years later to join The Sunday Times, but Spitting Image continued until 1996 — by which time Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, Rory Bremner, Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Hugh Dennis and Alistair McGowan had all lent their many voices. I worked on the odd one-off special, but otherwise I admired the programme from afar. The writing and the puppeteering became vastly superior to the early days, yet ratings declined, advertising dried up and the show eventually disappeared.
Until now. I’ve known about the moves to resuscitate the dead latex for a while, and at last Roger Law has the green light … to relive the months of sleepless nights, hair-loss and crying in the bath (as John Lloyd was wont to do). I wish them the best of luck bringing down governments, which we singularly failed to do, and fervently hope that amusing puppety business ensues.