Spitting Image is a British satirical television puppet show, created by Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Nairn. The series was produced by ‘Spitting Image Productions’ for Central Independent Television over 18 series which aired on the ITV network. The series was nominated and won numerous awards during its run including ten BAFTA Television Awards, one for editing in 1989 and two Emmy Awards in 1985 and 1986 in the Popular Arts Category.
The series features puppet caricatures of celebrities prominent during the 1980s and 1990s, including British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major and other politicians, US president Ronald Reagan, and the British Royal Family; the series was the first to caricature Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (as an elderly gin-drinker with a Beryl Reid voice).
One of the most-watched shows of the 1980s and early 1990s, the series is a satire of politics, entertainment, sport and British culture of the era, and at its peak it was watched by 15 million people. The series was cancelled in 1996, after viewing figures declined. ITV had plans for a new series in 2006, but these were scrapped after a dispute over Ant & Dec puppets used to host Best Ever Spitting Image, which were created against Roger Law’s wishes. In 2018, Law donated his entire archive – including original scripts, puppet moulds, drawings and recordings – to Cambridge University.
Martin Lambie-Nairn proposed a satirical television show featuring caricature puppets created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law. Fluck and Law, who had both attended the Cambridge School of Art, had no previous television experience, but had, for several years, constructed plasticine caricatures in order to illustrate articles in The Sunday Times Magazine.
The idea for the series was rejected by many in the industry, who thought it would only be suitable for children, but the series was finally accepted for development and first broadcast in 1984.
English comedy writer and National Lampoon editor Tony Hendra, was brought in as a writer; Fluck and Law had met him while they were working in the US. Hendra brought in John Lloyd, producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News. They were joined by Jon Blair, a documentary producer. They then hired Muppet puppeteer Louise Gold. Development was funded by Clive Sinclair.
The puppets, based on public figures, were designed by Fluck and Law, assisted by caricaturists that included David Stoten, Pablo Bach, Steve Bendelack and Tim Watts. The episodes included musical parodies by Philip Pope (former member of Who Dares Wins and The Hee Bee Gee Bees) and later Steve Brown.
The first episode of Spitting Image, in 1984, aired with a laugh track, apparently at the insistence of Central Television. This episode was shown to a preview audience before transmission.
In the early years of the show, Spitting Image was filmed and based in the enterprise zone at London Docklands at the Limehouse Studios, where scriptwriters convened and puppets were manufactured. Impressionist Steve Nallon recalls that “they were able to get away with no health and safety, so all of the building of the puppets with all the toxic waste from the foam was just in a warehouse. There were no extractor fans; it was quite Dickensian.”
In later series, Spitting Image was recorded at Central’s studios in Nottingham with last minute additions being recorded at the Limehouse Studios at Canary Wharf, London.
Before the first episode was broadcast, the parodies of the Royal Family were cut, as a courtesy to the Duke of Edinburgh, who opened the East Midlands television centre a few days later. The scenes were however all reinstated in later episodes.
The first episode had an audience of 7.9 million, but numbers rapidly dropped, which meant economies had to be introduced since the series cost £2.6 million, which was nearly double the price of other prime time series.
The series had been scheduled to have 13 episodes but was cut back to 12, after the series was nearly cancelled. Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were then brought in as head writers to save the show.
By 1986, under their supervision, Spitting Image had become popular, producing a number one song on the UK Singles Chart (“The Chicken Song“). However, Grant and Naylor subsequently left to create Red Dwarf for BBC2. Spitting Image had a short-running dispute with the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 1985, over the use of subliminal images.
When Margaret Thatcher resigned as both Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party in November 1990, her successor was Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major. This marked a shift in the show’s style, with the writers moving from the Punch and Judy style to more subtle and atmospheric sketches, notably a series in which an awkward Major and wife Norma ate peas for dinner. The producers dressed Major, skin and all, in shades of grey, and invented an affair between him and Virginia Bottomley.
The show added animated sketches from 1989 and again from 1994 (with short, animated segments before 1989). For the 1992 Election Special, a studio audience was used; this format was revisited for two episodes in late 1993. A spoof Question Time took questions from the audience. The 1992 show was fronted by a puppet Robin Day, a puppet Jeremy Paxman filling the role in the episodes broadcast on 14 November 1993 and 12 December 1993.
All episodes and specials were broadcast on Sunday, usually at 10pm. The programme was also picked up overseas. It aired on Canada’s CBC Television on Sunday nights in the late 1980s. The American network NBC aired several prime-time specials in the same period. Austrian public broadcaster ORF broadcast Spitting Image in English with German subtitles late on Friday nights in approximately four-week intervals in the late 1980s and early 1990s, introducing it to the German-speaking world (where foreign programming is usually dubbed into German). Spitting Image was also briefly shown in France on the private TV channel M6 in English with French subtitles. The show was also aired in New Zealand on TVNZ in the 1980s.
Many British politicians in parliament during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure were parodied. By far the most prominent was Thatcher herself, portrayed as an abusive tyrant and cross-dresser (she wore suits, shaved, used the urinals, was portrayed as a cigar-chomper and addressed by her Cabinet as “Sir”). The Thatcher puppet had a strong dislike of anything French (agreeing with Hitler about ‘teaching those Frenchies where to go’ and throwing an apple out of the window because it was French).
In the first series, Thatcher sought advice from her enraptured neighbour Herr Jeremy Von Wilcox (who is actually an elderly Adolf Hitler, living at 9 Downing Street) about the unions and the unemployed. Mr. Wilcox/Hitler compares the Trade unions with the Soviet Union and advises not to attack in winter. Regarding unemployment, he says that people out of work should be put in the army, and tells Thatcher that he thinks the SS (meaning SAS) are a “great bunch of guys”.
Alongside Thatcher were her Cabinet, which included:
- Willie Whitelaw, with fluffy eyebrows and wearing a tartan dressing gown to cabinet meetings.
- Nigel Lawson, panicking about a financial crisis he had apparently caused. A real-life recession caused Lawson to step down in 1989. He is by far the worst of all the cabinet being completely unable to count to seventeen.
- Geoffrey Howe, boring, bland and talked to sheep.
- Douglas Hurd, famous for his Dalek-style voice and his hair shaped like a “Mr Whippy” ice cream. Hurd seems also the most competent and humane one in the cabinet. Opposing the usage of torture and stopping the dumping of nuclear waste in Scotland.
- Norman Tebbit, appearing as a leather-clad skinhead loyal to Thatcher, referring to her as “Leader” and often beating up other politicians.
- Michael Heseltine, growing more manic with every series (and wearing a flak jacket as Defence Secretary).
- Leon Brittan, constantly fawning towards Thatcher and often seen eating.
- Norman Fowler, portrayed during his time as Health Secretary as a hospital-murdering Jack the Ripper-style lunatic.
- Cecil Parkinson, having a sexual interest in every woman he sees.
- Edwina Currie, portrayed as a vampire.
- Paul Channon, childish.
- Kenneth Baker, transforming into a slug over the series.
- Nicholas Ridley, smoking and developing the countryside for houses.
- Kenneth Clarke, obese and drunk despite being Minister for Health.
- Peter Walker, spineless wimp
- David Waddington, Fast talking and creepy
- Francis Pym and James Prior, Wets who swam in swimming pools
- Colin Moynihan, minuscule and childlike, called “miniature for sport”
- Tom King, portrayed while Employment Secretary as The Invisible Man
Thatcher’s Cabinet were often depicted as bickering schoolchildren, with Thatcher acting as teacher.
Thatcher’s successor John Major was portrayed as a dull, boring grey character who enjoyed a meal of peas with his wife Norma and was constantly mocked by Humphrey, the Downing Street cat. Before Thatcher’s resignation, Major had been portrayed as wearing a leopard print suit and swinging in on a trapeze, referencing his background as the son of a circus acrobat (which he would frequently remind everyone about). Upon his appointment to Prime Minister, Major was initially portrayed as robotic with a spinning antenna on his head (it was explained in a sketch that Thatcher used it to control Major, standing behind Thatcher in the crowd of sycophantic cabinet members, eager to repeat whatever the Thatcher puppet screeched).
The Opposition (Labour Party) politicians included:
- Neil Kinnock, the ‘Welsh Windbag’, talking for hours about anything other than policies.
- Roy Hattersley, spitting with every word because of his lisp (on ‘Best Ever Spitting Image’, Hattersley praised his puppet for ‘putting the spit into Spitting Image’).
- Michael Foot, aged and senile, ending sentences with “Yes! Argh!”.
- Tony Benn, a rampant socialist with eyes that never looked in the same direction.
- Ken Livingstone, whose living room was filled with salamanders and snakes.
- Denis Healey, with giant eyebrows, who helped to make Kinnock look foolish (the real Healey appeared in the programme in 1984).
- Gerald Kaufman, portrayed as a Hannibal Lecter-style maniac.
Arthur Scargill, who was a member of the Labour Party until 1997, appeared as head of the National Union of Mineworkers, and was portrayed as a big-nosed egotist who was ignorant about mining.
In 1994, a puppet of Tony Blair made his appearance. He was originally a public school boy, wearing grey shorts, blazer and cap. His catchphrase was “I’M THE LEADER” in reference to his attempt to lead the Labour Party. When Blair did become Labour leader, the puppet changed and he was portrayed with his grin replaced with an even bigger smile if he said something of importance. The deputy leader, John Prescott, was portrayed as a fat bumbling assistant, along with a squeaky voiced Robin Cook, and an enormous glasses-wearing Jack Straw.
The SDP-Liberal Alliance was portrayed by the election-losing, populist, arrogant and undecided David Owen, with whining, bedwetting David Steel in his pocket. They were soon replaced by Paddy Ashdown, whose “equidistance” from the larger parties was satirised by his frequent appearance at the side of the screen during unrelated sketches, saying: “I am neither in this sketch nor not in it, but somewhere in-between”. This running gag was used when Ashdown’s extramarital affair was revealed, and his puppet commented that “I didn’t touch her on the left leg, or the right leg, but somewhere in-between.” Former liberal MP Cyril Smith also made a few appearances depicted as a morbidly obese giant.
In the first series, Former Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home were depicted as living in a highly restrictive retirement home named Exchequers, where they were frequently abused by Queen Victoria. Wilson constantly attempted escape, whilst Callaghan took delight in tormenting him. Edward Heath was also said to have resided there, but he was not seen on screen, later he would appear as a naked piano player.
The main characters were:
- The Queen: wears a CND badge, always seemed slightly mad and picked clothes from rubbish bins
- The Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen’s husband; was a blunderbuss-toting Greek-obsessed buffoon in naval uniform
- Charles, Prince of Wales was a pseudo-hippie, then a taxi driver in later episodes
- Diana, Princess of Wales was a publicity-hungry Sloane Ranger
- Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who was generally seen with a bottle of Gordon’s Gin, a copy of the Racing Post, and a Beryl Reid voice; this was a running joke from a sketch in which the Royal Family’s desire to conceal her Birmingham accent was the reason she was very seldom heard speaking on television. In the series she is seen with jockey Lester Piggott with whom she has an affair.
Other members who were parodied include: Prince Andrew, Duke of York, The Duchess of York, The Princess Royal, Prince Edward, Princess Michael of Kent and Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, who was always tipsy.
Spitting Image lampooned US President Ronald Reagan as a bumbling, nuke-obsessed fool in comparison with his advisors Edwin Meese and Caspar Weinberger. Next to his bed were red buttons labelled ‘Nuke’ and ‘Nurse’. His wife Nancy was the butt of cosmetic surgery jokes.
Mikhail Gorbachev had his forehead birthmark in the shape of hammer and sickle. All other Russians looked like Leonid Brezhnev, often said “da” (“yes”) and talked about potatoes. In Russia it was snowing even indoors and the Soviet television had extremely low-tech visual effects. Yitzhak Shamir often appeared wearing a hard hat with the Star of David on it, holding a brick and referring to building on a ‘legitimate Israeli Settlement’ (referring to the practice of building houses on the West Bank for Israeli people). François Mitterrand was wearing a beret and a garlic wreath. P. W. Botha was shown as a racist cleverly disguising his views (once he had a badge “anti-anti-apartheid”). Adolf Hitler incognito had a house at 9 Downing Street. Some appearances were also made by Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
Other international caricatures included Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger; George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle; Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, Konstantin Chernenko, Raisa Gorbachova and Boris Yeltsin.
David Coleman had a very loud ear prompter and sometimes did not know what he was commentating on. Frank Bough was portrayed as being a drug user. Bruce Forsyth spoke every sentence as though it was a catchphrase. Celebrity chef Keith Floyd was always getting drunk on wine. Film critic Barry Norman was not a fan of his puppet, because it had a wart on its forehead. Paul Daniels did not mind jokes about his toupée but took offence to a sketch depicting him nuzzling his assistant Debbie McGee’s breasts.
Comedian Billy Connolly was portrayed as a jester, and Jimmy Tarbuck was said to use old jokes and always take part in Royal Variety Performance. Bernard Manning was an obese racist, Ben Elton was always shown with a microphone. Writer and MP Jeffrey Archer appeared as an annoying, self-commenting writer whose books were not read by anyone. Kenneth Williams was depicted with a large nose and big teeth. Harry Secombe was depicted as overly religious. Alan Bennett was shown at home as watching Spitting Image on TV.
A Mick Jagger character seemed perpetually high, and Keith Richards so old and haggard that he thought he was dead. Ringo Starr was a drunkard, and Paul McCartney was always releasing albums and films that flopped. Madonna changed her hair and clothes with every episode, and Michael Jackson‘s skin turned lighter. Kylie Minogue was depicted as a vain robot. Luciano Pavarotti was hugely overweight and ate everything he saw. Matt and Luke Goss of the band Bros were depicted as children wanting to grow up. Esther Rantzen always had a permanent grin. Cilla Black had large teeth and a thick Scouse accent.
Actor Dustin Hoffman spoke nasally and was parodied for his method acting. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier were lamenting their friends, even their own death. Roger Moore was shown as an actor “with a wooden delivery” – only his eyebrows moved. Arnold Schwarzenegger was muscle-bound but insecure about the size of his genitals. Donald Sinden was parodied as also trying to become the greatest Shakespearian actor and get a knighthood. Clint Eastwood was frequently portrayed as a badass tough guy. Sylvester Stallone nearly always appeared dressed up as John Rambo.
In 1986, the Spitting Image puppets had a number one hit in the UK charts with “The Chicken Song”, parodying “Agadoo” by Black Lace – one of several parodies to have featured in the programme, mimicking moronic holiday songs with an annoyingly unforgettable tune and completely nonsensical lyrics. The Chicken Song hit number 1 in the charts for 3 weeks from 17 May 1986 – 3 June 1986 and VH1 US named it as one of the worst number 1 nominations.
“The Chicken Song” was by far the most successful of all of their music and not-so-subtle references were made to it in subsequent sketches in the show itself. In 1986, a compilation LP “Spit In Your Ear” was produced, featuring some of their sketches over time along with a few of their songs, followed in 1990 by “20 Great Golden Gobs”, a songs-only collection from the 1986-1990 series.
In 1986, the Spitting Image team experienced some real musical success when they created the video for “Land of Confusion” by Genesis, a song which implied that Thatcher and Reagan were about to bring the world to a nuclear war. Phil Collins saw a disfigured version of himself on the show and contacted the show’s producers with the idea to produce the video. Three new puppets were created depicting all members of Genesis (including a less exaggerated version of Collins), which also appear on the sleeve of the 45 (and later CD) single. The video was depicted as a nightmare Reagan was having, which left him completely immersed in sweat from worrying. It won a 1987 Grammy Award.
The end of the 1987 election featured a young boy, dressed as a city banker, singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”, a parody of the film Cabaret, when a member of the Hitler Youth starts singing the same song. In a series 5 episode, Labour leader Neil Kinnock is portrayed singing a self-parody to the tune “My eyes are fully open” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, supported by members of his shadow cabinet.
Spitting Image launched the careers of and featured many then-unknown British comedians and actors, most notably Hugh Dennis, Steve Coogan and Harry Enfield.
The programme was first released on video in 1986 in a series of three collections, each a compilation of material from the first two series: Spit – With Polish!, A Floppy Mass Of Blubber & Rubber Thingies. All carried a 15 certificate and were reissued in 1988, also as a box set. 1989 saw the release by Central Video of two complete specials, Bumbledown: The Life & Times Of Ronald Reagan and The Sound Of Maggie. Next was a video containing a collection of the music videos from the programme, titled “The Klassik Music Video Vol 1”, released in 1991 by Central Video under The Video Collection Ltd (VCI or 2entertain); there was never a Volume 2.