Spitting Image: the puppet satire that captured Thatcher’s Britain

Rubberly jubbly: Roger Law with Margaret Thatcher. Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

Spitting Image: the puppet satire that captured Thatcher’s Britain

In the time-honoured practice of priceless objects being donated to the curatorial care of scholars for the benefit of posterity, the artist and satirist Roger Law has donated his Spitting Image archive to Cambridge University library.

For satire, circumstance is all. The obvious disintegration of a ruling order heralded Beyond the Fringe, on stage from 1960, Private Eye, in print from 1961, and That was The Week That Was, on screen from 1962. TW3, as it was known, lampooned the political class in general and the Conservative government in particular. On the principle that it took one to know one, Oxbridge graduates could perhaps most tellingly challenge the establishment.

The most prominent figure in the scene was Peter Cook, who appointed Roger Law as the resident artist at his Establishment Club. Law also drew for Private Eye, and soon progressed from one to three dimensions in the form of Plasticine caricature, working with cartoonist and caricaturist Peter Fluck. The pair created models – including Richard Nixon – which adorned many publications, as well as book – and even LP – covers.

It was a curious limitation of the form that those models were only viewed as photographs. The next stage would be animation. It was another curiosity that the increasingly scabrous satirical culture of the 1960s and 1970s had not produced a focused satirical TV programme – as distinct from a comedy show within which satirical elements featured. Circumstance transpired to resolve both.

Thatcher’s Britain

In 1981 – in a Britain of mass unemployment, urban rioting, an unpopular prime minister and her programme of deindustrialisation, and a ruinously divided opposition – the graphic designer Martin Lambie-Nair lunched with Fluck and Law and suggested that a puppet satire TV show should be pitched to independent television. The pilot, in June 1983, coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s landslide second election victory.

Central Television commissioned a full series which began the following year, produced, as was much else in 1980s British television comedy, by John Lloyd. After two years 15m people were watching.

With Spitting Image Productions achieving an annual turnover of £2m, Luck and Flaw, as they styled themselves, built a studio at Canary Wharf, in the heart of the iconic Thatcherite development of London’s Docklands precinct. Satirical entrepreneurs, Fluck and Law franchised the series around the world, and the fullest entrepreneurial expression of their art came with their range of squeaky dog toys.

Much in the manner of Monty Python, Spitting Image also diversified into books and music – the Chicken Song, a lampoon of holiday disco earworms, acquired a defictionalised ubiquity all of its own, reaching number one in the charts and being played throughout the summer of 1986.

Why aren’t I in it?

As it had been in 1960, much of the appeal was in the breaking of taboos. For reasons of protocol, genuflection, and the Lord Chamberlain, the monarch had rarely if ever been depicted on stage, in print, or on screen, in anything but reverential terms. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was from the outset one of the stars of Spitting Image, although, cognisant perhaps of public attitudes, the royal caricatures were mild of flavour.

Politicians were the main target. But – as is always the case – rather than being offended they were more concerned if they were overlooked by the show. Just as many had always sought to purchase the newspaper cartoons that lampooned them, so many professed to enjoy their latex manifestation, not least when it served to reinforce their political persona. And, in many cases, Spitting Image’s grotesque puppets established the way they were widely seen by the public. As for Thatcher – dining with ministers in a restaurant, she orders (raw) steak for herself and, when asked about the vegetables, she replied: “They’ll have the same as me.”

One of my cherished schoolboy memories includes the puppet of Janet Street-Porter which was itself so sidesplitting it was not possible – in those pre-streaming days – to hear what it was supposed to be saying, not to mention Jeffrey Archer merrily tapping out his next opus on a typewriter with four keys: C, R, A, and P.

Quality, in a weekly TV satire, was inevitably variable, but one highlight that sticks out was the 1987 general election special, which concluded with a re-enactment of the climax of Cabaret: a fresh-faced member of the Thatcher youth race sings Tomorrow Belongs to Me, before the leaderene whispers to the viewer “tomorrow belongs to ME.” It did.

As the Conservative government limped towards its end, so too did Spitting Image. Viewing figures fell such that the 18th series in 1996 was the last, too early for the New Labour government, though not too late for there to be a beaming model of a then-unsullied Tony Blair.

Given its roots, it is eminently appropriate for the Spitting Image archive to be given to Cambridge University, but also for it to be thought of as part of history. Law is now a ceramicist in Norfolk, Fluck an artist in Cornwall. Suggestions of reviving the show have not accompanied this flurry of interest – circumstance being all, British politics and public life in 2018 defies satire.

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