This review was written for Animations Online
Your chance to go beyond the grave and meet Princess Di, Osama Bin Laden, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mum in the flesh! Sort of. 30 years after its first broadcast, the stars of Spitting Image have made a welcome, temporary return. A flurry of anniversary events – including starry screenings at the BFI and an Arena documentary for BBC 4 – are joined by a humbler but just as entertaining and insightful exhibition at London’s tiny Cartoon Museum.
Spitting Image – From Start to Finish charts Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s progress from caricaturists in the 1960s, through their heady, hectic telly days when their irreverent puppet show pulled in millions of viewers, to the show’s slow demise after the fall of the Iron Curtain. There are a select few of the original puppets on show but the majority of the exhibition is made up of hilarious pencil sketches and glossy colour photographs, which feature an all-star motley crew including Ronald Reagan, Kate Moss, Trevor McDonald, Bjork and Saddam Hussein. The usual hush of any exhibition is punctuated here by the hiss and snigger of private laughter as people delight in the wild, occasionally cruel portraits.
Puppetry enthusiasts may be a little disappointed that so few of the actual puppets are on display – most were sold at auction in 2001 and have disappeared into private collections. Safely stowed in glass cases, you won’t be able to get intimate with the puppets that are on show either. But you will get the chance to witness a rubbery Maggie, Diana and Queen puppet up close. A larger case offers an unlikely grouping of Osama Bin Laden, Alan Bennett and his cat, the Queen Mother and another Princess Di, this time as a Punch and Judy style glove puppet. There’s also a life size spitting Roy Hattersley, complete with blinking eye mechanism and saliva producing tubes.
The behind the scenes reflections dotted through the exhibition are a treat. We learn how the puppets were made, from writers’ room and preliminary sketches, through modelling and moulding, to injecting foam latex, baking and constructing fibre glass skulls. “The challenge was that the caricatures had to work in three dimensions as puppets, the mouth open and close properly, and the heads to be done, from drawing to finished clay, in two and a half days” Pablo Bach, one of the makers, is quoted as saying.
As the operation grew, production moved to the Docklands, where puppets were produced on a grand scale in an old rum and banana factory. “This is the first caricature sweatshop in the world” Law said in an interview in 1985, which is included in the Arena documentary, while Fluck reflected they were never short of puppeteers – “find one puppeteer and ten will come knocking on your door.”
It wasn’t the easiest show to work for. Most of the puppets were heavy and needed three to four operators; the pace was fast and the hours stretched long into the night. The large team produced an impressive body of work – 18 series, broadcast over 12 years. If you have the time, you can watch the shows playing back-to-back in the exhibition.
The long list of now famous comic talents associated with Spitting Image includes Ian Hislop, Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan, Rory Bremner, Hugh Dennis and Alistair McGowan. But neither UK comedy or puppetry have continued to be so satirical. The show’s original creators felt that times changed and their work lost its impact. “Politicians have become more bland and the Royals out satired us – they made us redundant” said Roger Law in 1996.
Is UK puppetry political any more? It certainly can be, although it will perhaps never again reach such huge audiences. But elsewhere the Spitting Image legacy lives a little larger, with programmes like the XYZ Show in Kenya and ZANEWS in South Africa, and Top Goon, a finger puppet series about the Syrian president.