There was a time during its 1980s heyday when Spitting Image was watched by 15 million people each week, when it seemed as central to British political life as Margaret Thatcher’s handbag. But by the time the programme was cancelled after more than a decade, its audiences had slumped, its brand of caustic puppetry deemed dated and out of step with the national mood.
There is nothing like a global political crisis, however, to prod a satirist out of semi-retirement. Some 23-three years after it was last broadcast, Roger Law, one of the co-creators of the groundbreaking comedy, has confirmed that Spitting Image is set to return to television screens – featuring an S&M-clad Vladimir Putin, Meghan Markle wearing a glittery "princess" T-shirt and a puppet of Donald Trump whose tweets are composed by his anus.
A pilot for a new incarnation of Spitting Image has already been filmed, Law confirmed to the Guardian, and its producers are in advanced discussions with US-based networks to bring this very British brand of satire to the wider world.
After years of hopes, hints and denials, he wanted to resurrect the programme back as a “public service satire” in response to the state of the political culture, making clear he has lost none of his antiestablishment fire. “It’s pretty chaotic out there. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better than shouting at the television set, isn’t it? So I thought, let’s give it a go.”
Unlike in the 1980s, however, when even obscure members of Thatcher’s cabinet were honoured with their own puppets, Law said he had not been tempted to turn his attentions to British politics’s lower league players this time around.
“Dominic Raab? You’ve got to be kidding. If you’re going to go after the bastards, you may as well go after the biggest bastards there are, hence America. It’s an awful lot of trouble to go to, and you want it to be effective.”
Mocking Trump, he conceded, was a challenge. “I’ve heard other satirists say that he’s un-satirisable because he’s a satire in himself. Well, with puppets you can go much, much further, because actors won’t do that for you. And by Christ, we are going to give it a go.” Their puppet Trump, he said, was “an absolute monster”.
Law, now 78, was creating plasticine caricatures with Peter Fluck for a Sunday newspaper when they were invited to devise a satirical puppet-based programme, which would go on to be steered by the legendary comedy producer John Lloyd. It debuted on ITV in 1984, just as Thatcher was hitting her stride after a second general election victory, and quickly became established as an essential part of the political and cultural conversation.
Scripts were hastily written, and even new puppets made, with only days' notice to ensure each week's episode was as topical as possible. And though some of Spitting Image's comedy has inevitably dated, in many cases – from its mannish, domineering Thatcher to its doddery Ronald Reagan, prodding his nuclear button, to its monotone John Major, painted entirely grey – its puppets' characteristics came to define their real-life counterparts in the public mind.
Since the programme’s cancellation in 1996, Law has been working as a fine artist. Has he missed it? “I can’t say I have. It’s a pig of a show to do. But I think the current situation warrants the effort.”
The British production company Avalon, which also makes Last Week Tonight with John Oliver for HBO and was behind the hugely successful Catastrophe, hopes to write the new series in the US and film it in Britain. Its show-runner, Jeff Westbrook, a former writer on The Simpsons and Futurama, said the programme was ripe for a return since "today's world does seem to have an especially large number of evil goofballs who deserve taking down".
As for exporting Spitting Image to a global audience, he said: “It’s true that Britain has a special tradition of caricature and satire, but I think that audiences around the world are sophisticated enough to enjoy it. If not, we can also put in some puppets bonking heads with a coconut sound.”
Law insisted puppetry still has an important place in the age of CGI. “Puppetry brings a sort of violence and reality, and energy to the screen. You must have been to the cinema to see these crash bang wallop films, and they bore you. [but] there’s nothing like a puppet punching a puppet.” – Guardian