WHEN "SPITTING IMAGE", a satirical sketch show featuring puppets of the great and the not-so-good, first aired in 1984, Britain’s tabloids were outraged. How dare they “take a swipe” at the Queen Mother, the Daily Mirror wanted to know. Lev Parshin, an official at the Soviet Embassy in London, was agog—and rather envious—at the licence the satirists afforded themselves. Tony Benn, a Labour MP, recorded in his diary that “Parshin said he would like [it] to be available in the Soviet Union, because it makes fun of Soviet leaders”.
What was once shocking is now pretty tame. The team behind the reincarnation of the show—which left screens in 1996 and has now returned, courtesy of BritBox, a streaming service—must win over generations for whom scepticism not deference is the default mode. Today, everybody is a satirist, from the amateur impressionists of TikTok to the president of America, whose dismissive epithets—“Crooked Hillary”, “Sleepy Joe”—read like pen-portraits of "Spitting Image" characters. In an era of cynicism and conspiracy theories, the radical act would be to make a show that celebrated public life.
There are few laughs in that, of course. But nor are there many in this reboot. The portrayal of Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist, as a TV weather presenter (the forecast is always “HOT!”) raises a smile. So does a skit lampooning businesses rushing to become woke. “Unlike 2019, it’s time for us to acknowledge the suffering of black people in America,” says a film-industry boss at “Bizney”. But the gags mostly fall flat. A sketch that has Mr Trump literally talking out of his backside is as clichéd as it is crude.
As with the original incarnation, the grotesque puppets are much stronger than the material written for them. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has his face crumpled in permanent moderation; Angela Merkel is jowly and dour; Michael Gove, a cabinet minister, is a swollen-cheeked Tory boy, aroused by the harshest possible rhetoric. The royal family are the best, perhaps because this most literal form of lèse-majesté is still relatively unusual. The queen as a graffiti artist, hoody jammed over her crown, is a delight. Puppet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be in high demand.
Politicians will love it. No matter how cruel the caricature, the mere fact of having one means you’ve made it. According to the journalist Charles Moore, Norman Tebbit relished his puppet, a skinhead loyal to Margaret Thatcher. So will Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, portrayed as a mad (and unsackable) scientist from outer space.
Whether others will be as keen on these puppets depends on the show’s writers finding them something funnier to say. As the world beds down for a long winter of fractious politics and covid-19, it could do with a laugh.