TV Shows We Used To Watch - Spitting Image 1984-96
I miss Spitting Image as it gave us the weeks news with far more honesty than we see in other media formats.
Best show on telly for quite a while. It is a tragedy that it was off the air in the Blair years.
As a show that is heavily reliant on topical news of the week in which it aired, it is probably fair to say that Spitting Image hasn't aged brilliantly over the years. While a lot of the content can still be relatable or iconic enough for first-time viewers today to enjoy, there are some elements - especially regarding politics - that could easily go over the heads of people who aren't clued up on the 1980s government. This is probably why you don't see Spitting Image repeats very often, which is a shame, as it is a great document of how satirists saw the world at the time, rather than a retrospective look back decades later.
As an Arena documentary about Spitting Image airs on BBC Four, Dominic Cavendish argues that we should be fighting to get the latex puppets back.
I call them the “lost generation”. Many of those reaching voting-age this year will have been born after the last episode of Spitting Image aired on February 18th 1996. These tragic teens have emerged into political consciousness in the absence of the finest and funniest TV satire series this country has ever seen. What hope can the poor lambs have of being clued up about who’s running the show and pulling the strings?
OK, I jest. A bit. But the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Spitting Image’s first broadcast on February 26th 1984 brings home not only how instructive and entertaining it consistently was but what a wilderness followed its departure.
True, Have I Got News for You continues to rumble on – 23 years it’s been going. Mock the Week makes useful topical swipes. And in the digital sphere, abundant Twitter gags and viral YouTube pranks such as the 2012 Nick Clegg Apology Song suggest that the masses are newly empowered to cock a snook at their “masters”. Yet ITV’s Spitting Image garnered audiences of millions, aimed to rally the widest constituency on mainstream terrestrial TV and could be truly, madly, memorably horrible.
Politicians of the time have often said that they were actually pleased when they were given their own puppet, as it turned them into a household name when normally they would fade into the background (like a lot of MPs today). In the mid-1980s, a regular Spitting Image viewer could probably name Margaret Thatcher's entire cabinet. You'd be forgiven for only knowing about four of David Cameron's team.
Thatcher was probably the most iconic puppet from the series, and the classic "vegetable" sketch is perhaps its most well known moment. John Major, the royal family, Ronald Reagan and celebrities including Jeremy Paxman and Paul Daniels were just some of the best puppets on show in the series on a regular basis.
Spitting Image is a British satirical puppet show, created by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn. The series was produced by 'Spitting Image Productions' for Central Independent Television over 18 series which aired on the ITV network. The series was nominated and won numerous awards during its run including 10 BAFTA Television Awards, including one for editing in 1989, and even won two Emmy Awards in 1985 and 1986 in the Popular Arts Category.
The series featured puppet caricatures of celebrities prominent during the 1980s and 1990s, including British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major and other politicians, American president Ronald Reagan, and the British Royal Family; the series was the first to caricature Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
The series was cancelled in 1996, after viewing figures declined. ITV had plans for a new series in 2006, but these were scrapped after a dispute over Ant & Dec puppets used to host the reviews "Best Ever Spitting Image", which were created against Roger Law's wishes.
Blessed with Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s ingeniously cruel caricature puppets, it combined knockabout Punch and Judy visuals with gobby verbals. It refused to treat its audience as dummies, reacting quickly and cleverly to the news. And while it was unafraid of the richest, most famous and powerful – even making contentious fun of the Royal Family - it didn’t baulk at shining a light on the lesser-known for fear of seeming obscure. Indeed obscurity could even become a running-gag – witness the damning representation of Employment Secretary (1983-85) Tom King as “The Invisible Man”.
Before the first episode was broadcast, the parodies of the Royal Family were cut, as a courtesy to the Duke of Edinburgh, who opened the East Midlands television centre a few days later. The scenes were however all reinstated in later episodes.
The first episode had an audience of 7.9 million, but numbers rapidly dropped, which meant economies had to be introduced since the series cost £2.6 million, which was nearly double the price of other prime time series.
The series had been scheduled to have 13 episodes but was cut back to 12, after the series was nearly cancelled. Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were then brought in as head writers to save the show.
By 1986, under their supervision, Spitting Image had become popular, producing a number one song on the UK Singles Chart ("The Chicken Song"). However, Grant and Naylor subsequently left to create Red Dwarf for BBC2. Spitting Image had a short-running dispute with the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 1985, over the use of subliminal images.
When Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990, her successor was John Major. This marked a shift in the show's style, with the writers moving from the Punch and Judy style to more subtle and atmospheric sketches, notably a series in which an awkward John and Norma Major ate peas for dinner. The producers dressed Major, skin and all, in shades of grey. They invented an affair between him and Virginia Bottomley.
The show added animated sketches from 1989 and again from 1994 (with short, animated segments before 1989). For the 1992 Election Special, a studio audience was used; this format was revisited for two episodes in late 1993. A spoof Question Time took questions from the audience. The 1992 show was fronted by a puppet Robin Day, a puppet Jeremy Paxman filling the role in the episodes broadcast on 14 November 1993 and 12 December 1993.
The writers, Mark Burton, John O'Farrell, Pete Sinclair, Stuart Silver, and Ray Harris quit the show in 1993 and in 1995, and with viewing figures in decline, production was cancelled. The final series was in January and February 1996, with the final episode featuring "The Last Prophecies of Spitting Image" in which Labour moved into Number 10.
A few years later, most of the puppets were sold at an auction hosted by Sotheby's, including a puppet of Osama Bin Laden never used in the series.
During 2004, the idea of the series coming back started to appear after John Lloyd held talks with ITV executives about the show's return. John Lloyd also held talks with a number of people who voiced the Spitting Image puppets, including John Sessions, Harry Enfield and Rory Bremner, with all responding positively.
Mr Lloyd commented, "There's enormous enthusiasm from ITV to do it. We're just trying to work out how it would be affordable. The budget is about to go off to ITV," he said. Everybody seems to have residual affection for Spitting Image. It could be scrappy and uneven, but it's rather like a newspaper. You don't expect it to be brilliant every time, but there's something delicious in every edition," Mr Lloyd said.
By early 2006, ITV were producing a documentary celebrating the series and if the audience figures were good a full series might have been produced. On 25 June 2006, ITV transmitted Best Ever Spitting Image as a one-off special of Spitting Image which took a nostalgic look back at the programme's highlights. This special actually prevented ITV directly resurrecting the famous satire as they had planned, because it featured new puppets of Ant and Dec - a move which was against the wishes of Roger Law, who owns the rights to the Spitting Image brand.
In 2007 ITV created a CGI version to caricature and lampoon the famous, called Headcases.