The Return of Spitting Image

23 years on: “There’s nothing like a puppet punching a puppet”

The political satire Spitting Image, which first launched in Britain in 1984, is returning to our screens this year – and this time, it’s going after the big guys.

In its heyday, Spitting Image was watched by 15 million people each week on ITV, its caustic puppets featuring the faces of those such as Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. The show aimed to be as topical as possible throughout its 12-year stint, with puppeteer Roger Law stating that at times puppets were made overnight in order for a quick turnaround on the show. However, journalist Adam Sherwin claimed in an article in I-News that by the end of its run in the early 2000s, the jokes used during Spitting Image’s prime-time slot “had been reduced to the back-of-a-cigarette-packet material”, its ratings following suit.

So why is it making its grand return to the screen now? Well, as the show’s original comedy producer, John Lloyd, argues, society was very divided in the 80s, “people were fiercely one way or the other – not unlike now”. With both Brexit and the current Coronavirus pandemic meaning that politicians have been in the spotlight and on our screens more than ever this year, it seems like now is the perfect time for the show’s return. Mr. Law, now 78, stated that the function of the program is to be a “public service satire”, which seems appropriate considering the state of our current political culture.

But will Spitting Image be as successful in today’s age of social media and on-demand TV?

Law told The Guardian that whilst the programme’s previous spin addressed a deeper world of politics, including targeting the lesser known members of Thatcher’s cabinet, the return of Spitting Image intends this time to go after the “biggest bastards out there”, including Steve Jobs, Vladimir Putin and a certain orange figure from across the pond.

Whilst the series will be streamed on BritBox, BBC and ITV’s newest video subscription service currently reaching 600,000 UK households, the show’s focus on world-wide politics is hoping to attract a wider audience and has been in discussions with US-based networks.

BritBox’s audience seems currently aimed at older viewers who want to re-watch classic episodes of Fawlty Towers and Inspector Morse. However, the revamped show is hoping to attract a larger audience, expecting that its success will come from clips going viral and an uptake in BritBox subscriptions. Like our parents before us, who were most likely around our age when Spitting Image first hit the screens, there is nothing to suggest that the relaunched Spitting Image won’t find success among a younger, more politically active audience.

However, writer Adam Sherwin claims that in our world of social media, where what’s “hot” in news can change from hour to hour, satire will simply not stand on TV anymore. With the instant gratification of rolling news, researchers have argued that TV surely will not be able to keep up with topical news enough to have an impact on its viewers. And, as Ben Lawrence writes for The Telegraph, oversharing is now a celebrity norm, thus, the “mystique and the possibilities for parody therein have all but disappeared”.

As well as this, in an era of reactive comment the Spitting Image puppets caricature their characters in a way that may not survive in today’s climate, especially considering sensitivities over portrayals of gender and race. The puppets rely on exaggerated facial features which will potentially bring scrutiny for traces of racial stereotypes when reproducing the likes of Kanye West and Meghan Markle.

However, Roger Law insists that puppetry still has an important place in the age of CGI and social media, stating that “puppetry brings a sort of violence and reality, and energy to the screen”.

Maybe there really is nothing like, in Mr. Law’s words, “a puppet punching a puppet”, but I guess we’ll have to see for ourselves.

-Molly Rymer

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