Spitting Image - Series 9

Monday, 22 July 2013 15:31
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Spitting Image - Series 9 out on DVD nowThe close of 1990 was not only a turning point for the UK, it was also a turning point for Spitting Image.  The Sunday night satire had started out in February 1984, and as a consequence had never been produced at a time when a certain Margaret Thatcher was NOT the Prime Minister of the country. In fact, she was well into her second term when the show began. With the timing of this series being what it was, screened from 11 November to 16 December 1990, the show was witness to Thatcher being overthrown, and a certain John Major taking over the reins.

Spitting Image briefly touches on why Thatcher was removed from office, by the shadow people who control such agendas, in a single sketch in this ninth series. She had realised what the European Economic Community was really all about, a little late in the day, admittedly. However, one has to raise questions about anyone’s judgement of whom would have Jimmy Savile as a ‘house guest’ for 11 Christmases in a row.

She rumbled that a European Union was being hatched, political union being one of the foundations of the scheme for financial union, military union, and the demolition of all European borders. Thatcher knew this was against the will of the people throughout not only the UK but the whole of Europe, too. Her opposition to the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), a first-run at preparing the ground for the Euro currency, would see her vindicated in the years that followed. Indeed, this series is a historical signpost, with sketches revealing that the ERM was baffling to everyone, not just the comedy writers putting words in the mouths of these TV puppets.

Political history is put into perspective where we see that Michael Heseltine MP was very much a front-runner to take over as Prime Minister, here portrayed as some bizarre superhero-style long-haired narcissist, which would not have done his image in Westminster much good. All this was rolling on just as John Major seemed to appear from nowhere.

Geoffrey Howe is still remembered today as the MP who did the most damage to Mrs Thatcher, when he infamously turned on her in a Westminster resignation speech. This came in the aftermath of her stating her position at the Rome European Council meeting in October 1990 where she declared, for the first time, that Britain would never enter a single currency. Those who really control the levers of power decided, on this basis, that she had to go. Howe, inadvertently or not, lit the blue touch paper for Thatcher’s downfall, something which is captured within this run of episodes.

One sketch details the “European Banana Unit” – at the time the British public were only just coming to terms with the monolithic bureaucracy that was going to be emerging from Brussels over the intervening years. These days, given what has happened in terms of various fruit and veg not being the right size or shape for some of the Mullahs making decisions for us all, the Banana Unit is a quaint reminder that we really didn’t fully appreciate what we were letting ourselves in for.

Rupert Murdoch is also present, parodied here at the time of the Sky takeover of rival satellite service BSB, which had entered the broadcasting race far too late in the day to be a serious rival. Whether there are any lessons for BT today, just revving up to take on Murdoch’s Sky TV from next month, is an intriguing question. Could they learn from how Sky demolished its rival in 1990, and not make the same mistakes? I remember being told a couple of years ago that BT could easily put all its phone rivals out of business by the end of any given year, if it wasn’t for regulators keeping them in check. However, none of their telecoms competitors are anywhere near the size of Sky, so things could get very interesting. In the broadcasting scenario, one wonders if the regulators would have the power to intervene, given how many ‘friends’ the Sky conglomerate seem to have in the current political class.

Perhaps the most shocking thing from a historical context is how much of the material in these six shows can easily be transferred to our modern day.  It is simply the cast of characters that has changed, not the subject matter. Cameron remains as out-of-touch with reality as Thatcher and Major ever were, and should a Spitting Image be in production today, you could quite imagine the characterisation of Major remote-controlled via a small satellite dish on his head being applied to Cameron and his simply-baffling policy decisions.

It has always been the contention that Spitting Image helped sink Labour as an effective opposition, thanks to its portrayal of its-then leader Neil Kinnock. Whereas Thatcher was portrayed as a psychopath who could, by the end of the decade, be a man in drag, topping her credentials were always he leadership qualities. Kinnock, meanwhile, was seen as incompetent and unable to keep his Ministers in line, which on a subconscious level was very damning for a prospective leader of the country.

The portrayals of the Royal Family fall under that Douglas-Adams-esque category of “Mostly Harmless”. Their music video in ‘Techno’ style is cute but not really biting. There was much fuss at the time over the portrayal of The Queen Mother, but today we see this is simply Thora Hird with a broad Northern accent, who likes a flutter and plenty of fruit on her hats.  

A regular vignette in this run is “Let’s See Who’s In the Bin”, which reflects how many people had faded into obscurity in the nigh-on seven years since Spitting Image had made its debut. Puppets unseen for a couple of years would pop their head out of a bin, quickly lamenting about whatever happened to them and their fame. For instance, Bros wonder why they're not famous anymore (a play on the fact one of their hit songs was “When Will I Be Famous?” - something I feel I need to state for those who weren’t around, or paying attention, at the time). However, quite why Michael Caine was thought a has-been in one of these sketches may baffle many.

The writers would probably be amazed at how much this cycle of ‘celebrity’ has accelerated in the 23 years since this season was first on-air. Such a cycle has quickened with the gamut of reality shows which parade a series of “one-trick-ponies” – actually, that’s quite an insult to such thoroughbreds – in most cases these days we are dealing with “no-trick-ponies”.

“Some of our Puppets are Missing” is another serial sketch, although again this is one that doesn’t live up to its promise – David Steel, Mr Spock and an Anteater find themselves accidentally dropped off the back of a lorry in a shipping basket. They decide to go on-the-run, trying to avoid the dreaded “Puppet Catcher”. And that’s about it. A shame really, as on paper this looks hilarious. The puppets are joined by real life talent Nick Hancock and Mark Billingham as a pair of thugs. Even a cameo from former newsreader Gordon Honeycombe cannot save this concept from being in the category “Ho Hum”.

At the time, Channel 4 was courting controversy once more with a series called Sex Talk.  The Spitting Image take on this was to throw Rod Stewart, Steven Fry and Cliff Richard together into a parody of the format. It’s a good idea which lacks any sting in its execution.  Meanwhile, Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne is elevated to centre stage, in a damnation of the way the press were putting his life on public display (and making much of his 1990 World Cup semi-final tears, which of course have become the stuff of legend).

Episode three contains images of real people who were homeless at the time of the show’s production. Network can be applauded for their decision of blurring out faces during this sketch “so as not to cause any distress to those people depicted onscreen”. There is also a disclaimer on the back of the DVD case which says “For contractual reasons, some episodes differ from their transmitted versions”. In the last 20-plus years, personal image rights have come to the fore, so there may also have been an issue with having not secured releases signed by these people at the time. I will be asking the question as to whether anything apart from this stated blurring-out has been amended in any of these episodes. This article will be updated accordingly.

Voices on this season were provided by Steve Coogan, Steve Nallon, Kate Robins, John Thomson, Roger Blake, Hugh Dennis and Sharon Mayer.

Writers on these episodes were Pete Sinclair, Mark Burton & John O’Farrell, Stuart Silver, Barry Atkins, Geoff Atkinson, Mike Coleman, Ray Harris, Paul Simpkin, Malcolm Williamson, Barfield & Parsons, John Finch, Mark Brisenden, Paul Lewis & Keith Rees, Tim Goldstone, and Dix, Gibson & Measures.

All in all, the humour transfers well to the 21st Century. The beauty of quick-fire sketch shows such as this is that when there are misfires in the mirth department, we move on quickly to something else which is likely to be far more rib-tickling. If anything, when you look at what was achieved by the series up until its final run in 1996, this set is perfect for making the case that we really need a new series of Spitting Image on our screens, right here, right now. We have reached the point where our politicians and celebrities are once more so grotesque that they merit some serious lampooning.

SPITTING IMAGE SERIES 9 is out now on DVD from Network. It has a ‘12’ certificate, a running time of 150 mins, and a RRP of £12.99, or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com


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