Culture notes

Behind the scenes at Spitting Image

BBC4’s Arena documentary shows just how biting – and tricky to make – the classic satirical series was

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

If Margaret Thatcher is remembered by many more as a caricature than as her actual self, then blame Spitting Image. The show, which ran from 1984 to 1996, portrayed her variously as a cross-dresser, a fascist and a bully but, to her credit, she never complained. Or, if she did, there’s no record of it. Of course it wasn’t just politicians who were targeted; anyone in the public eye was also ripe for a takedown, from Kylie to the Queen. Deference — what’s that?

To mark the programme’s 30th anniversary, BBC4 has created an Arena documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes of the Spitting Image process; introducing us to the people who made the programme come to life, and the hellish hours they worked keeping the show on the road. But if the idea were pitched today, it’s unlikely that it would get off the ground. In its prime it was watched by 15 million viewers, but each episode cost £300,000 to make — about £1 million today.

Spitting Image might have been criticised for its left-wing politics — but the programme’s run coincided with three consecutive terms of Conservative rule. Whatever else the programme might have done, it wasn’t enough to turn people off voting blue. And it certainly introduced a new audience to the world of politics. Just think what the show would make of today’s politicians. Boris, Farage, Salmond…the list goes on. Perhaps it’s time for a comeback.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Arena: Whatever Happened to Spitting Image? is on BBC4 on 20 March.

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  • John Brindle

    Yes, absolutely. I remember it being politically balanced with Hattersley, Kinnock and the rest of the 80s Labour party being lampooned without mercy.

  • crosscop

    I recall the Jesus character they had. Christians complained. Nothing happened and the puppet Christ continued to appear. Then a vicar mentioned it at an inter-faith meeting. An imam picked up on this and decided that this was blasphemy – as JC is a Muslim prophet – and wrote to the programme’s makers.
    The puppet did appear several times after that but never again in the role of Jesus Christ. I see that the new film “Noah” is now casing upset. Noah’s a Muslim prophet, too…

    • Rocksy

      I wonder what would have happened if Christians had demanded that Jesus be given equal time to be lampooned on air. I expect ‘Son of God’ takes precedence over a mere prophet.

  • Gwangi

    My memory of Spitting Image was that the puppets were great, but the scripts often as limp as one of Maggie’s vegetables. One or two good gags per programme, if that. The satire was often solely in the caricature puppets rather than their unfunny lines.
    Probably scuppered the careers of Davids Steel and Owen; mocked Kinnock etc mercilessly; unfairly portrayed Tebbit (with that skeletal face, reminiscent of Roald Dahl actually) as a bovver boy neo-fascist, though that maybe helped him too – and Thatcher.
    Some really rubbish songs too.
    Having said that, I do miss it! What is the equivalent now? ‘Have I Got News for You’? Purrlease. I gave up watching that over a decade ago because I couldn’t stand the noisy show-offs gurning any more.

  • Gnaeus-Julius Agricola

    They never did a Tony of Toad Hall sequel.
    I wonder why?
    Could have been the story of what happened after he chased all the weasels and stoats out of the ancestral (Westminster) hall with the help of his friends, plenty of scope there…

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