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Spitting Image was a British satirical puppet show which ran on ITV from 1984 to 1996. It was produced by Spitting Image Productions for Central. The series was nominated for 10 BAFTA Awards, winning only one, for editing, in 1989.
It could possibly be one of the most influential shows in British television history. By virtue of using puppets they could get away with things that other shows could not.
For the entirety of the show's run, Britain was ruled by the Conservative Party, so the government (and especially Margaret Thatcher) was the show's favourite target. However, it did not spare the opposition parties, or other countries' leaders, or celebrities outside politics. Probably the most acerbically targeted country was apartheid South Africa.
The show ultimately ended due to the fact that they couldn't afford the new puppets they would need for a change of government; that, and the relatively bland composition of the John Major government, which lacked the epic grandeur of the Thatcher years and - with the notable exception of Major himself - almost defied satire. Budgetary reasons make a revival too expensive.
The show has had several Spiritual Successors such as the traditional animation 2DTV and CGI Headcases, but none have ever matched its popularity. The concept was brought overseas and foreign remakes have been made in France, the USA, India, Russia and Israel among others, with varying degrees of popularity--some bombed, others have outlasted the British original.
The show's team is also responsible for the famous video for "Land of Confusion" by Genesis, which features puppets of noted personalities (and the three members of the band) similar to those featured on the show.
Famous sketches/themes include:
- The Chicken Song: A parody of annoyingly catchy summer hits like Agadoo, which naturally underwent Defictionalization and itself became a number one single.
- I've Never Met A Nice South African: Musical number about the apartheid regime's abuses (and the West cosying up to it). The B side of The Chicken Song.
- Go Now: A cover of The Moody Blues hit, sung by the entire House of Commons, The Queen and eventually the entire country to Margeret Thatcher to tell her that she should resign. (It wasn't long before the real Thatcher did)
- Every Bomb You Drop, to the tune of Every Breath You Take by The Police (and actually featuring Sting on vocals) served as a massive "The Reason You Suck" Speech to the major political figures of the era.
- Thatcher's Cabinet at the Restaurant: Mrs Thatcher's cabinet eat at a restaurant; she orders a raw steak, and when asked "What about the vegetables?" replies "They'll have the same as I'm having." (This line entered her legend, and people later thought she had really said it.)
- The President's Brain is Missing: A series in which Ronald Reagan's tiny brain makes a bid for freedom, at one point crawling into the dead Premier Chernenko's head and reanimating him to try and run the Soviet Union on American Republican lines. Half the jokes it coined were later lazily recycled by Spiritual Successor 2DTV for George W. Bush.
- John Major and the Peas: Captured the public vision of John Major as dull and boring by literally giving him grey skin and having him indulge in inane conversations over peas with his wife Norma. It was also suggested that he had a crush on Virginia Bottomley, the writers proceeding to kick themselves for not choosing Edwina Currie instead.
- The Two Davids: The Liberal-SDP Alliance was portrayed as an unequal partnership between the dominating SDP leader David Owen and the shy, literally smaller Liberal leader David Steel. Steel later blamed his depiction for ruining his career- Steel was taller!
- In fact, this was subverted in real life as most historical sources confirm Steel was the more influential of the two (he also maintained a longer career in the House).
- David Owen was also portrayed as a cynical opportunist, to the extent that he was sometimes seen on both sides of the House of Commons at the same time.
- Herr von Willcox: Margaret Thatcher's neighbour is an aged Adolf Hitler living under the alias "Herr von Willcox", who gives her advice on governance.
"Wiz you zere, I feel like I already run ze place."
"von Willcox": "First you need ze SS."
Thatcher: "Don't you mean SAS?"
"von Willcox": "I know vat I mean."
- Home for Retired PMs: All the living retired Prime Ministers (such as Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson) live in a retirement home which they view as a prison camp and plot to escape from.
- Paul Daniels: "One Man and His Wig".
- Mary Whitehouse: often seen in early episodes watching the show and simultaneously writing in to complain, overtly disgusted and yet secretly fascinated by it.
- The Royal Family: Portrayed as a dysfunctional and yet somehow very relatable family:
- The Queen: seemed to be the most "normal" one of the bunch. Wore a rainmate and a tiara. Enjoys winding up Thatcher. Experiences occasional bouts of absentmindedness e.g forgetting to Troop the Colour or rifling through dustbins.
- Prince Philip: Prone to public gaffes. Perpetually in uniform and loves hunting. It appears that he and the Queen are quite Happily Married - he helps her to fake her own death and Troops the Colour for her in exchange for kebabs for breakfast.
- Prince Charles: Unpopular with the public and fond of New-Age. Seen talking to his vegetables at dinner.
- Prince Andrew: A womanizer, often seen winding up Charles.
- Princess Anne: Rarely seen - generally a bit down in the mouth. Likes her horses.
- Prince Edward: A wimpy student.
- The Queen Mother: A stereotypical drunken grandma with a Birmingham accent. Also fond of the horses, but more on the Ladbrokes side of things.
Tropes of Spitting Image
- Bad Cop, Incompetent Cop: If you replace the words 'cop' with 'politician', you have the show's general portrayal of the Conservatives and Labour. To be exact, they portray the conservatives as evil money-hungry people with victorian values (and empathy), but point out that Labour was too incompetent to be worth voting for, so no-one did.
- Bilingual Bonus: You can hear President Mitterrand call Margaret a cow at one point. Plus the other puppet in the Ian Paisley Night Thoughts sketch is actually doing proper sign language.
- In the Derek Jameson sketch about German television, Chris Barrie is speaking real German.
- Blackface: Parodied with the "The White & White Minstrel Show". Black people with whitefaces singing about Apartheid South Africa where "blackfaces don't belong with blacks".
- Bland-Name Product: Fauna Lo-cal Spread anyone?
- Reptiles Bland Blend Coffee, tastes more like Donald Sinden than ever before!
- British Newspapers: Frequently parodied the adverts used to sell these:
"The Daily Telegraph - for Boring Old Toads."
- British Stuffiness: In the 'British Revolution' arc, the 'people power' revolutions that brought down communism in Eastern Europe finally reach Britain - but are carried out in a far more...refined manner.
Newsreader: "Elsewhere, there are sporadic clashes between the army and the police..."
Policeman (pointing at tank): "Excuse me sir, is this your vehicle?"
Soldier: "Look, I can explain, there's been a revolution!"
Policeman: "I can't help that sir. You're on a double yellow."
- Butt Monkey: Sir Geoffrey Howe.
- Conspiracy Theorist: HAROLD ANGRYPERSON.
- Cross-Dressing Voices: Steve Nallon as Margaret Thatcher.
- Enfant Terrible: Prince William in the early series.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The first season pales compared to later seasons. The pilot episode had a laugh track (which was abandoned quickly from the next episode on). Certain puppets look and sound different because the voice actors didn't always comically exaggarate the voices of the lampooned celebrities in the first season. Many episodes in the first season follow plot lines that are continued like a chronological series, while later seasons were always stand alone episodes.the early series.
- Fan Disservice: A surprising amount of sketches depict Maggie with her shirt off.
- Flanderization: Arguably, as the years progressed the show became less about political satire per se, and more about the antics of absurdist caricatures of politicians, which had evolved in rather extreme ways. Thatcher, for instance, increasingly became a run-of-the-mill tyrant, whose extreme brand of supervillian evil stopped being much of a commentary on British conservatism. Many other politicians similarly evolved into various stock characters that eclipsed their original politicized roots, for example Norman Tebbit as a gang banger, Cecil Parkinson as the Cabinet's resident Casanova, John Major as a dullard, and Kenneth Baker, originally depicted as an oozing sycophant, who literally became a slug in later episodes.
- Gag Boobs: Claire Rayner.
- Glass-Shattering Sound: Thatcher's voice in one sketch. Then she got voice coaching... and ended up sounding like Hitler.
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: Neil Kinnock has Michael Foot as his angel and Jim Callaghan as his devil while he wrestles over whether or not to reappear on The Tube. He compromises by saying that he can't as he is rehearsing for Last of the Summer Wine, which pleases them both.
- Henpecked Husband: Denis Thatcher.
- Homage: Several. The most famous one was probably their tribute to Cabaret with the Tory parties singing Tomorrrow Belongs to Me.
- Homoerotic Subtext: The Two Davids. Played for laughs.
- Insult Backfire: Norman Tebbit reportedly enjoyed his portrayal as a leather-clad bovver boy.
- Kavorka Man: Henry Kissenger.
- Large Ham: John Geilgud and Laurence Olivier.
- Lyrical Dissonance: "What a Wonderful World" becomes "We've Ruined the World."
- Spitting Image did this a lot, though, from a cheerful Paul McCartney-esque folk song about murdering estate agents (complete with violent, bloody non-slapstick visuals), the Four Horsemen singing about how "every silver lining has a cloud, and it won't be alright on the night" and General Pinochet singing a Chas-&-Dave style number about the joys of nuclear war. Probably freaked out a few kids.
- Multi National Shows: Three "Spitting Image" specials produced for the American Market and aired on NBC, one taking aim at the White House, one at Hollywood, and one at Ronnie Reagan in a parody of 50s sitcoms. Spitting Image has also inspired many international equivalents: Sid and Marty Kroff's D.C. Follies, France's Les Guignols De L Info, Germany's Hurra Deutschland and Italy's Gommapiuma as well as Gli Sgommati.
- No Indoor Voice:
- HAROLD ANGRYPERSON
- AND BRIAN BLESSED TOO. HOW PREDICTABLE!!
- Of Corpse He's Alive: The Soviets try to pretend Premier Chernenko is still alive and prop up his corpse at the negotiating table with Ronald Reagan. Reagan finds him 'a tough negotiator' and calls for Henry Kissinger, who also fails at the negotiations, before Reagan finally resorts to Bonzo the chimpanzee.
- Playing Against Type: Leonard Nimoy fails horribly at this in spite of himself.
- Refuge in Audacity: Frequently, but most notably Thatcher taking advice from an elderly Hitler and the entire Conservative cabinet singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Any sketch with Jonathan Miller.
- Shout-Out: One to both Dallas and Psycho which takes place in alternate reality where Margaret dreamed being in power and Edward Heath was still prime minister. She then stabs him in the shower, spraying the walls with blue blood.
- Sketch Comedy
- Spiritual Successor: Arguably the successor to Not the Nine O'Clock News. The spiritual successors to Spitting Image itself were the traditionally animated 2DTV, the live action Dead Ringers and the CGI Headcases (the latter was the only one which was actually advertised as a successor Spitting Image, but it was probably the least successful).
- The Starscream: Michael Heseltine, by the end of Thatcher's tenure. Not that he ever got to be Prime Minister, even after he helped force her out.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Margaret on Cruise missiles being deployed in Britain:
"How many times do we have to go through this? All it takes is the right attitude and you can withstand anything."
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: All variations of the chorus for "I've Never Met a Nice South African"
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "I've Never Met a Nice South African"
- And Every Bomb You Make
- Throw It In: The only reason Geoffrey Howe missed out on the dancing in In the Mood was that the puppeteer got too tired since Howe was one of the heavier puppets and decided that he really needed to take a break.
- Trans Atlantic Equivalent: The US's much less biting D.C. Follies
- Truck Driver's Gear Change: Parodied to death in "The Chicken Song."
- Unusual Euphemism: "Mr. Wobble Hides his Helmet".
- What Do You Mean It's Not Heinous?: One sketch, parodying American cop drama, has a guy arrested for not cleaning his shoes, taking leaflets from a bank with no intention of opening an account and breaking the spines of books he borrows.
- Your Head Asplode: David Coleman's head explodes as a result of hyperactive commentating.
- So did Norma Major's head in one of the "pea dinner" sketches.