The only thing I hate more than politicians is puppets: Spitting Image extras

 

Image from BFI programme guide

Image from BFI programme guide

This post has the fun extras from my interviews with some of the core Spitting Image team and one of their targets, for a British Film Institute feature, Spitting Image: Still biting after all these years, about the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking satire show. Random fact: Back in 1992, ITV received 341 complaints about a depiction of Jesus. The complaint was upheld in part.

Thanks to the co-creators  Peter Fluck, Roger Law, producer John Lloyd, actor and voice artist Steve Nallon and former Labour front bench MP, now Lord Roy Hattersley for their time and to the BFI.

ORIGINS AND EARLY DAYS

Fluck: Journalism changed its nature and newspaper ownership changed. Murdoch had taken over [The Sunday Times]  and downgraded everything. Out of the blue came a phone all from a friend of a friend: “Can anyone make puppets for a satirical programme. We didn’t know anything about TV. Roger and me were pretty bad at pitching things. But we believed in caricature.”

Law: We cut our teeth in magazines and newspapers when they mattered. TV was about talking heads. Puppets were a handicap. The audience didn’t listen. You can’t do nuance between what’s said and the expression. [Favourite puppet?] I fucking hate them all.

Lloyd: When I came from radio in 1979 to start Not The Nine O’ Clock News we had a stack of talented young writers — an establishment really. I knew a lot of people who did the voices on thing like the News Huddlines. So I had sound quality and writing quality but no idea how to make people look. So I thought we’d do puppets. I had seen Fluck and Law’s work on the covers of Newsweek and the Sunday Times. So I went to see Roger Law at Hove College of Art, where he was teaching.There was this enormous pirate standing there looking like something out of he 17th century. he said,” How much money have you got?” I said £200 for each puppet.” He laughed and said, “F*** off.”

Then I heard that Martin Nambie-Nairn had put up £10 thousand to start a Fluck and Law satire show and I got round to Roger’s so fast. I said I was literally the only person in the world with the skills and experience to do this.: “I’m the TV guy. I know about getting jokes on the box.” I said I will work for a year for nothing if you give me shares in the company.

Just before we started, Roger and I went to see Jim Henson talk about puppets. He said, “Never ever do one of a human being, because anthropomorphic humour is so much easier.”

Law: The antecedent was a French variety show with a puppet strand. They had Kermitterand, who was green. The first shows didn’t work. You could smell the fear. (Why?) because the vision Peter and I had was very hard core political satire show. And none of us knew what we were doing. Everyone was dog tired. Everything was handmade. We were working to a newsroom deadline. Sometimes worse. We would even throw away the show on a Friday and reshoot on Saturday. More than once editing the second half when the first half was airing.

Nallon: In the pilots one of the questions they asked at audience research was, “Would you as adults be prepared to laugh at puppets.”

I was very award of that tradition of Greek theatre and satire. There’s an Aristophanes play that reverses power and had the women taking over. I came at it from a more academic point of view and was able to talk to John Lloyd about Swift to give it more understanding.

Lloyd:  Though it was a terrible scramble and mess at the beginning, today it looks so raw and exciting and dangerous. We could see something important was going on. It was very badly reviewed. but only a few years later I showed a couple of early sketched at the Edinburgh TV festival expecting them to boo, but they loved them. Very occasionally you see something that doesn’t look like it was made by TV people. What Spitting Image had was an impertinent rudeness and roughness about it that made it stand out from all the other smooth acceptableness of television.

Law: If you look at James Gillray, he had ten wonderful years of drawing. Anyone making a movie of that [Georgian] period would go straight to that. The class system was perfectly portrayed and he becomes a reference to that era. Spitting Image’s legacy is years of the 80s in all its minutiae.

Nallon: People forget how long it took to get good. We learned to script edit. I would sugggest ways of saying something that was more in character. Harry Enfield wrote his own stuff. There was Steve Coogan and John Sessions. The Queen Mum began sounding like Beryl Reid but we gradually started developing her character.

Originally it was meant to be done voices and puppets together. But it was impractical. So we would pre- record the voices on Saturday and it was filmed later. We had to give a physical performance we never sat down, to get the overexaggerated physicality into the voice.

PUBLIC/POLITICAL RECEPTION:

Lloyd: I used to work 4 days in Birmingham and three days in London. I feel asleep on the train into London one day and woke up to hear the train cleaners saying, “I love that show because I hate the f***ing Queen.” As a minor public schoolboy I was horrified.

[Did you expect the programme to change anything?]

It changed my views of things. I remember driving down the Mall and looking at each of these palaces which each has one member of the Royal Family living in it.

With my BBC producer background we struggled really hard to make it as balanced as possible. We always had a labour sketch, whereas actually for a lot of those years, they were as quiet as mice. It took on a life of its own. It seems even to me it was shocking If felt so breathtakingly naughty

Law: They had a tape [of the programme sent to the House of Commons every Monday for all the layabouts who hadn't seen it on Sunday evening.

Fluck: There were two levels. If someone's in public life -- cabinet ministers and other MPs -- if they weren't caricatured they went to bed thinking they'd failed.But the power of caricature is interesting because in the power to ridicule you are back in the playground.

Any point you can make about politicians is fair. It's not exactly a kind of control because it never goes that deep into the system. The court jester was there to ridicule and poke fun and was tolerated. our culture has tolerated it for centuries. I can't think of a single English satirist who's ever gone to jail.

If you've got 18 million people watching it on TV they're watching it for a reason. They want to see the other side of the character. So much of MPs' image is generated by PR.

Lloyd: The funny thing about puppets and caricatures is if you portray someone as tough and uncompromising, no matter how nasty, they tend to be pleased.

Nallon: Because [Thatcher] was so direct and honest.. she would come out with these things that were just incredible. When she died last year I realised I’d forgotten how direct she’d been: “Only a Frenchman would think of something so stupid.”  We probably did her a service. John Selwyn Gummer said it’s the steam that’s let off. Not a bad thing from a poltician’s point of view.

EDITORIAL PRESSURE/STANDARDS

Law: With the Royal Family we portrayed them as an ordinary family and the Queen as a secret communist. When they had all these scandals and we had 12-14 million viewers we wouldn’t censor anything, but one of my ambitions was NOT to be Kelvin McKenzie. We didn’t want to be bottom feeding.

[Q: Hasn't the Royal Family appropriated that image of themselves as ordinary for very successful PR?]

When Gillray worked, he portrayed the Prince of Wales as a fat drunken debaucher. If the Prince of Wales liked a cartoon he sent a guinea round to buy the original or if he didn’t like it he would send round a couple of heavies to beat you up and destroy the plates. It was Victoria who went for the middle class image.We were the first to really make them figures of fun again.

Fluck: There’s a lot of people we didn’t do. Maybe because we liked them. We did Bob Dylan and it didn’t quite work. Politicians and celebrities became the same thing.

Lloyd: We  were having the most terrific time and spent a lot of time arguing amongst ourselves about where the line was.  Spitting Image was rude, but rarely nasty. But the time the scripts went to the head of department it had been argued out.  [On the editorial culture in TV at the time]: Nobody lost their nerve at Central. And the BBC principle, too, was it takes time and never cancelled after one series.

The team was like a federation. A good producer if not an auteur. I was, if you like, the man beating the drum on a galley ship. I’m very proud of the team work. It was very talented and diligent team who all worked so hard. Even the sound effects guy, who’d spent years just doing the doorbells on Crossroads. And suddenly he’s constructing all these complex sound effects

Hattersley: Spitting Image will give itself airs and graces it doesn’t deserve if it thinks it hsa  had an influence on politicis. Newspaper coverage of the Profumo debate was far more damaging  in encouraging a lack of respect for politicians.  It was a good evening’s fun on a Sunday. What matters is what politicians do. Not their mannerisms. Whether they spit when they speak, or look like a skinhead in a leather jacket, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

REGRETS/UNFAIRNESS?

Lloyd: There are two people I always felt we were slightly unfair to. Prince Charles who was a real contributor for his championing on the environment and the Princes Trust for young people We always said characters have to earn it. We have to go for people who deserve it. And David Steel.

Fluck: Only one thing worries me slightly. David Steel saying it ruined his career. But he’s in the House of Lords. The whole thing was accidental. We thought if we make them small they’ll be cheaper. But actually they weren’t, because the costumes were more expensive to make. And the little ones couldn’t pick up the telephone or use a food processor. he was one of the first we made and was a little one. We made David Owen later and he was a bigger one.But it was obvious that David Owen was in charge.

Law: [Q: damage to careers?] David Steel. But if you will vote for two leaders… Most of the victims did it to themselves.

The only thing I hate more than politicians is puppets. People like Edwina Currie adored being on. Jeffrey Archer sent in his photographs so we thought we’d never do him. And then he got in that scandal with a prostitute and we had to.

Nallon: Archbishop Runcie. I met several high up people who said I harmed him. We portraied him as someone completely naive, who believed in Santa Claus. The public perception of him was as an ineffectual dreamer. He wasn’t a grand man.

Hattersley:   Three were portrayed as really sinister: Gerald Kaufman, Michael Howard and Peter Mandeslon. Mandy and Gerald weren’t really sinister, and they were genial. I was the eponymous spitting hero. People who mind that sort of thing shouldn’t be politicians. I was a Punch writer for 5 years. The boardroom of Punch was decorated with Tenniel cartoons which were much more savage. In the 19th century the anti Disraeli cartoons were hideously anti-Semitic. Politicians took it in their stride then and they should. And Spitting Image was funny. I don’t want to diminish the programme because I liked it. But I can’t bring myself to say it had the slightest political importance.

I think you could still make a programme like that very easily. People always say there aren’t any personalities in politics. But Theresa May could justify a whole programme. You could do David Cameron very easily. People still talk to me about it, even very young people.

LEGACY

Fluck: One thing I treasure is how much of an audience we had. It never went below 5 or 6 million — especially for 10 O’clock on a Sunday night.That was very pleasing. This is making people laugh. I was approached at a wedding party in Cornwall and this man said , “I want to thankyou for getting us through the Thatcher years, when the economy was falling apart and things were collapsing.

Hattersley: We’re all dead, or as good as dead.

Further reading

Spitting Image: Still biting after all these years (BFI feature)

 

About Samira Ahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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