SPITTING IMAGE

British Puppet/Satire Program

The premiere of Spitting Image opened with a puppet caricature of Israel's prime minister Menachem Begin wearing a magician's outfit. With a flourish, he produced a dove of peace from his top hat, then announced, "For my first trick . . ."--and wrung its neck.

This was the first of many outrages perpetrated on the British public, who were either offended or delighted each Sunday evening from 1984 to 1992. Spitting Image was roundly condemned for its lampooning of the Royal family: the Queen was portrayed as a harried housewife, beset by randy, dullard children and screaming grandkids. Britain's most cherished figure, the Queen Mother, appeared as a pleasant, if somewhat boozy great-grams.

The Conservative leadership was a constant target: Margaret Thatcher's puppet was a needle-nosed Reagan groupie who consulted with Hitler on immigration policy and sold off England's infrastructure to baying packs of yuppies and her eventual successor, John Major, was portrayed as a dull, totally grey man who ate nothing but peas. The opposition Labour leaders, including Neil Kinnock as "Kinnochio," were pilloried for their inability to challenge decades of Tory rule.

In spite of its detractors, over 12 million viewers (a quarter of England's adult population) watched Spitting Image on Central Independent Television, a subsidiary of ITV. Its spin-off records, books, comics and videos sold in the million. It won an International Emmy for "Outstanding Popular Arts" program in the 1985-86 season, and a franchised edition appeared on Moscow television.

"Spitting Image" originated with Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who first met at Cambridge School of Art. They became involved in the liberal politics favored by art students, through which they met another student, Peter Cook. In 1961, Cook fronted England's flowering of political satire by starring with Dudley Moore in the revue "Beyond the Fringe," which inspired the TV program That Was the Week That Was. Cook employed Law as an illustrator for his projects such as the satire magazine Private Eye and a political comic strip in the Observer newspaper. Fluck and Law built separate careers in magazine illustration, and Law took two commissions in the music business that yielded classic album covers: The Jimi Hendrix Experience as Hindu deities for "Axis: Bold as Love," and "The Who Sell Out," for which Roger Daltrey posed sitting in a bathtub filled with baked beans.

Peter and Roger each began working with sculpted caricatures, creating several images that appeared in London's Sunday Times Magazine, where Law had become an artistic director and reporter. In 1975, they formed a partnership, spooneristically named Luck and Flaw, to turn out their 3-D portraits for outlets like the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Germany's Stern, international editions of Time, and the National Lampoon. The work proved barely profitable until 1981, when Martin

Lambie-Nairn invited them to lunch. Lambie-Nairn was a graphic designer at London Weekend Television. He thought a political television program using puppets or animation might be a good investment, and he proposed to front Fluck and Law the capital for a pilot episode (thus the credit at the end of each episode: "From an original lunch by Martin Lambie-Nairn."). The pilot took two years to complete.

The pair quickly decided the show should use puppets, which, like the Muppets, required two operators, for the face and one arm. Jim Henson, in fact, turned down an offer to collaborate on the puppet workshop. The first puppet designs were bogged down by expensive, heavy electronics needed just to make their eyes move. After several months without any film being shot, Fluck cobbled together a simple mechanism using steel cable and air bulbs. They also picked up Tony Hendra of the National Lampoon (and later of Spinal Tap) as a writer, and their producers: Jon Blair, a producer of current affairs programming, and John Lloyd of the Not the Nine O'Clock News. Spitting Image, the pilot's title, exhausted the resources of several backers, including computer executive Clive Sinclair, before it was completed at a cost of 150,000 pounds, a record for a light entertainment program.

In its first season, Spitting Image focused exclusively on politics, and played to mediocre ratings. For the next round, Fluck and Law were obliged to caricature entertainment and sports figures as well, and the show's fortunes immediately improved. They worked out a schedule in which they spent the off-season stockpiling non-topical segments such as music video parodies (in one, Barry Manilow was all nose; another showed off Madonna's singing belly button). Each episode had a window of six minutes for fresh political commentary, written and taped the night before its broadcast.

The Spitting Image parodies reached a status not unlike that of Mad magazine in the early 1960s, when many of those whom the show caricatured took it as a sign that they had "made it." While Thatcher has only commented, "I don't ever watch that program," members of the House of Commons had tapes of each show delivered to them the following Monday, and former Tory Defense Minister Michael Heseltine tried to purchase his puppet.


Spitting Image


Spitting Image

The commercial broadcaster Central Television gave Spitting Image few censorship problems. BBC radio, however, refused to play their first spin-off record, with a Prince Andrew imitator boasting "I'm Just a Prince Who Can't Say No." "The Chicken Song," however, a single that parodied the singalong ditties that infest pub jukeboxes and vacation discotheques every summer, reached number one on the charts.

The influence of American politics on the British scene was apparent in frequent lampoons of Ronald Reagan. American news outlets excerpted a video with Ron and Nancy as Leaders of the Pack, singing "Do Do Ron Ron." The befuddled Reagan also appeared in a serial thriller, "The President's Brain is Missing," and was featured prominently in the Spitting Image-produced video for Genesis' song, "Land of Illusion." In September 1986, NBC aired a two-part original Spitting Image special in which the secret arbiters of fame, including Bill Cosby and Ed McMahon, hatch a clandestine plot to have an over-muscled Sylvester Stallone elected president.

Spitting Image projects continue to appear on both sides of the Atlantic. American VCRs can play a compilation of their music videos, a puppet production of "Peter and the Wolf," and a mock documentary, "Bumbledown: the Life and Times of Ronald Reagan" (a double-feature with the musical, "The Sound of Maggie!"). Most recently, the group has collaborated with American cable channel, Comedy Central, to illustrate a book by Glenn Eichler, Bill and Hillary's 12-Step Recovery Guide. The book is promoted through a series of commercial cutaways on the cable channel, featuring the puppet Clinton family.

-Mark McDermott


Spitting Image

CAST

Puppets by............................... Peter Fluck, Roger Law
Voices by............. Chris Barrie, Steve Nallon, Enn Reitel, Cliff Taylor
............... Harry Enfield, Pamela Stephenson, Jon Glover,
.................... Jan Ravens, Jessica Martin, Rory Bremner,
.......................................... Kate Robbins, Hugh Dennis

PRODUCERS David Frost, Jon Blair, John Lloyd, Geoffrey Perkins, David Tyler, Bill Dare

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 89 30-minute episodes 3 Specials

ITV
26 February 1984-17 June 1984
6 January 1985-24 March 1985
5 January 1986-9 February 1986
30 March 1986-4 May 1986
14 September 1986
28 September 1986-2 November 1986
1 November 1987-6 December 1987
17 April 1988 29 October 1988
6 November 1988-11 December 1988
6 May 1989 11
June 1989-16 July 1989
12 November 1989-17 December 1989
13 May 1990-24 June 1990
11 November 1990-16 December 1990
10 November 1991-15 December 1991
8 April 1992
12 April 1992-17 May 1992
4 October 1992-8 November 1992

FURTHER READING

Heller, Steven. "Spitting Images." Print (New York), May-June, 1986.

Iyer, Pico, and John Wright. "Stringing Along." Time (New York), 28 April 1986.

Law, Roger, with Lewis Chester, and Alex Evans. A Nasty Piece Of Work: The Art and Graft of Spitting Image. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1992.

"Major Threat." The Nation (New York), 5 April 1985.

O'Neil, Thomas. The Emmys: Star Wars, Showdowns, and The Supreme Test of TV's Best. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Robinson, Andrew. "Spitting Image: Lampoon from Limehouse." Sight & Sound (London), Spring 1984.

Waters, Harry F. "Stringing Up the Celebrated." Newsweek (New York), 1 September 1986.

Wolf, Matt. "Ace Puppeteers Pull No Punches with Clintons." Chicago Tribune, 30 August 1995.

 

See also British Programming