I guess if your idea of satire is ‘The Mash Report’ or BBC ‘comedy’ panel shows, you’re never going to get what the remit behind ‘Spitting Image’ was/is. Satire? That means laughing at everyone with the wrong opinions, yeah? – y’know, the other side AKA the dark side, the ones who think differently from us and are therefore evil, thick and racist, yeah? In satire, you reserve all your venom for them and you don’t so much ring-fence your own side – the morally superior side beyond reproach and above criticism – as exempt it to the point whereby to even contemplate a dig in the shape of a gag is tantamount to heresy. Because genuine satire has been absent from our mainstream screens for so long, allowing the gap to be filled by humourless partisan tribalism via a very different medium, it’s no wonder a revival of the most acerbic satirical TV show of the 1980s has provoked instant outrage from a generation that has grown up ignorant of the fact no prisoners are taken in satire.
Anyone old enough to remember the fuss first time round will recall what fuss there was emanated largely from the right, as was the norm back then. When ‘Spitting Image’ originally aired in 1984, veteran clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse was still active and still the go-to voice of moral outrage whenever something ‘controversial’ was broadcast on television. A programme screened in ITV’s post-watershed Sunday night slot then reserved for ‘edgy’ comedy – the exceedingly black and bleak ‘Whoops, Apocalypse’ had preceded it – was bound to attract attention. What made ‘Spitting Image’ something of an ingenious Trojan Horse was the puppets themselves, a factor that perhaps enabled the show to get away with more than it would’ve managed had the cast consisted of actors and comedians as in ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’. Still, making fun of the Royal Family and assorted National Treasures in 1984 was guaranteed to stir the ire of those easily offended.
The novelty of using puppets as a vehicle for digs at the great and the good of the day probably helped ‘Spitting Image’ maintain its position as the most razor-sharp of satirical rapiers until the early 90s. There was quite simply nothing else like it on TV, and the show’s heyday was at a time when the viewing options were still pretty limited, guaranteeing it a huge audience. Being immortalised in foam and latex soon became recognised as the litmus test of whether or not a public figure had made it, the 80s equivalent of being ‘done’ by Mike Yarwood in the 70s. Politicians apparently not paying attention to the lines being spoken by their puppets professed to be big fans of the way they were portrayed; Norman Tebbit as a sinister, leather-jacketed cockney hard-man was one thing, however – little David Steel sat on the shoulder of David Owen was another. The latter claimed this damaging caricature of the two men leading the SDP-Liberal Alliance played a part in the party’s failure to breakthrough at the 1987 General Election.
I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed when I heard the series was being revived; I’m not into high-school reunions and this to me felt like an admission that there were no new ideas anymore – as though it was comedy’s own version of ‘Heritage Rock’, whereby musicians with a 50-year + vintage fill the more cavernous music venues because no musicians young enough to be their grandchildren are good enough to do likewise. After all, nobody would’ve considered resurrecting ‘That Was The Week That Was’ in the 1990s and passing it off as cutting-edge satire, not in the age of Chris Morris & co. However, it can probably be viewed as a sign of today’s times that, rather than commission a completely fresh satirical series, ‘Spitting Image’ is regarded as a safe option. The motivators behind the revival maybe figured the nature of what passes for satire in 2020 would mean none of the over-sensitive Woke mafia would fall within the firing line, surely not with the likes of Boris and Trump to target, eh?
How refreshing, then, that one of the prospective puppets unveiled as a character in the resurrected series is of Greta Thunberg. As a product of satire as it used to be, the co-creator of ‘Spitting Image’, Roger Law denied the new version would avoid taking the piss out of anyone on the left; after all, as much as Margaret Thatcher was the prime target of the original series, Neil Kinnock was hardly spared a regular evisceration. If a new ‘Spitting Image’ is to be true to the spirit of the old, it has to have a go at all sides; otherwise, it’ll be no more effective than ‘Mock the Week’. The idea of the team behind the programme being issued with a check-list of public figures beyond parody is anathema and would have rendered a revival a non-starter from the off.
Let’s face it – we’re not short of public figures in 2020 who are asking for the kind of kicking ‘Spitting Image’ would dish out to anyone and everyone back in the 1980s. In a world with a pair of patronising, privileged preachers as far up their own arses as the Duke and Duchess of Neverland routinely lecturing the proles from a mansion or a private jet with such a staggering lack of self-awareness, for ‘Spitting Image’ to leave them be would be a complete abdication of the programme’s raison d’être. If people are prepared to push themselves forward and put themselves in the public eye, fair enough; but if they then start to express a sense of superiority born of their fame and fortune by starting to tell us all how to live our lives with a permanently wagging finger, they deserve everything ‘Spitting Image’ can throw at them.
As one of the deities of the Woke world, Saint Greta has been elevated to such a rarefied stratosphere that she should be utterly impervious to criticism, yet as was once the case with having a go at the Pope, it would appear that daring to take a dig at her is no better than aiming at the favourite target of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ – and we all know what happened there. But today’s teenage and twenty-something heirs to the Whitehouse mantle are not amused. ‘The fact Spitting Image have decided it’s acceptable to mock a 17 year-old with autism is disgusting in itself,’ cried one ‘disgusted of Islington’ on social media. Another wailed ‘Greta Thunberg is 17 years-old and has autism. You think attacking an autistic kid is satire? You’ve lost the plot, Spitting Image!’ Funny, but you can almost read those comments in one of those exasperated voices they used to employ on ‘Points of View’.
If Greta Thunberg was an unknown adolescent who had featured in a documentary on autism and that was the sole reason she had any kind of public profile, it would then of course be utterly unforgivable for anyone posing as a satirist to ridicule her for having an unpleasant medical condition, just as it would be for them to mock someone dying of cancer. But autism is not the reason why Greta Thunberg is included amongst the grotesques comprising the cast of a new ‘Spitting Image’; and surely if her autism is such a crucial factor in her rise to prominence, perhaps there should be a tad more attention given to her parents, who have allowed her to hog the spotlight with very little apparent restraint or thought for her mental wellbeing. No, let’s not beat about the bush; her presence in latex and foam – or whatever form today’s puppets take – has no more to do with autism than autism has to do with her fame. Not that I’d expect the outraged to acknowledge this. Their concept of satire is so removed from the real thing that they don’t realise no cows should be sacred. And if they are, it ain’t satire.
© The Editor