Saturday 5 April 2014

Why Spitting Image Won't Be Coming Back

Ah, Spitting Image. It was a reet larf. Norman Tebbit. The Chicken Song. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turds. For large numbers of young(ish) people of a certain vintage, Spitting Image was our first exposure to satire and alternative comedy. And for older folk of whatever political stripe it lampooned our ridiculous ruling clique of politicians and royals. It was irreverent, biting and (occasionally) funny. They certainly don't make them like that any more, nor are they likely to ever again. Yes, as the 30th anniversary of the first transmission has been and gone there are very good reasons why Spitting Image won't be coming back.

There's the practical question of costs. Back in the day it cost £5,000 for every puppet. Adjusting for inflation and the fact they were all handcrafted with dedicated molds, it's reasonable to assume costs have risen. And since then, overall, ITV's audiences have fallen. Would our latex chums reverse that trend? Highly doubtful. Secondly, apart from nostalgic old farts like, um, me, who would watch it? People don't like politics. The Thick Of It only pulled down about two million viewers. Satire in the form of rubbery puppets could well be so much old hat.

There's something swimming among the flows and hidden currents of the cultural murk. Our society is a strange beast. Whatever label you stick on it - postmodern, liquid modern, late modern, late capitalist - it's a massive, kicking heap of swirling antagonism and contradiction. Marx was the first to note that capitalism tore down the old and constantly made and remade the world in its image. It has thrown untold hundreds of millions off the land and made them dependent on their ability to sell their labour power to an employer. Capital has successively thrown those millions together in massive enterprises and economic sectors, and works to individuate, disaggregate and atomise simultaneously constantly. This churn is replicated in everyday life in a shifting, slippy culture and a diffuse sense of unfixity, anxiety and fear. Unsurprisingly (pl)attitudes that offer some sort of anchor are dredged up and find fresh audiences, particularly among those who came of age under a different political economy. It's why older people are more likely to be scared of immigration. It's why the 50+ find UKIP so alluring.

What has this got to do with our plastic pals and Sunday night television? Stay with me. The post-war period was never a golden age. In many ways it was a less kinder time to live in. But it afforded many millions of people a stable sense of place and station. The idea you could leave the school gates on a Friday and walk in to a job on the Monday morning was true enough. However, in the 1960s three parallel and intertwined forces gathered momentum - frustrated youth cultures kicking against the status quo, the libertarian impulse of counterculture, and the solidification of consumerism. For different reasons founded on different dynamics these gave rise to a rebirth of the individual, of the self as sovereign. Fired already by the combustive engine-workings of commodified culture, and the turbo-charge given it in the 1980s saw old hierarchies and old values obliterated. The reverence that prevailing power structures depended on in a previous time now served the opposite function. Satday morning kids' cartoons hang plot twists on heroes' abilities to reverse the polarity, and so it happened here. Magnets for reverence upended their poles and attracted to them irreverence.

Spitting Image was part of this movement. Starting a few short weeks before the the Miners' Strike - the strike that changed everything - politicians, celebrities, royals, all were sent up mercilessly. The satire worked because it played with reverence/irreverence. On the conventional level there was the standard satirical observations of, in the case of the politicians, showing them up to be self-serving and stupid and, for the royals, clueless but normal. And then there was the caricaturist's pen made latex, of the puppetry that was often sharply observed and utterly devastating. Diminutive David Steel against David Owen. Kenneth Baker the slug. Grey John Major. A rather serpentine Peter Mandelson. Part of the show's undoubted appeal was how grotesque a facsimile could be. It's why I started watching it when I was still in junior school.

But as with all things, the tide ebbed. Spitting Image and the alternative comedy movement of which it was part once broke mighty boulders and washed away coastlines. By the time of its 1996 cancellation, it could barely toss about a few sea-worn pebbles. What was once the cutting edge of alternative comedy became passé. Irreverence stopped being biting because it and its twin, cynicism, was the cultural grammar of our time. And so it has remained. Royalty, bizarrely (sadly) has calcified a new reverent shell to curl up in, but they are very much the exception. Institutions are profaned. Celebrities are here today, gone tomorrow, and politicians, if anything, are even more craven, stupid and out-of-touch than their latex depictions had them. In times when 'aspiration nation' is a political slogan, the Conservative Party tries to place itself as the party for workers by lopping a penny of a pint and reducing tax on bingo, and when a minister manages to keep his job and his seat after "erroneously" claiming taxpayer subsidies for heating his stables, you know satire is dead.

Spitting Image worked because it came along on the cusp of social change. Old hierarchies and deference still had just enough purchase in people's perceptions of social life for them to be excellent comedy fodder. But now, the show would be a fish out of water, a puppet without a string - or a hand up its tradesman's. If it came back it would be a poor replica of what really goes on. Irreverence is dead because it is embedded in the everyday. And with no niche for it, there is no chance any ITV company, Channel 5, Sky, Dave or some other bobbins of a cable channel will bring it back. For those of you with a nostalgic need there's always YouTube. But in some cases, as in this, the past can never be anything but the past.


Anonymous said...

"Celebrities are here today, gone tomorrow, and politicians, if anything, are even more craven, stupid and out-of-touch than their latex depictions had them."

interesting point. the real thing is more grotesque than the puppet, and certainly more awkward. of course, the real always has some ragged edge to it. and, you're right, since celebrity now always carries with some crucial element of self-parody, why bother reduplicating that in a puppet show. i mean, what else is tv news for?


howard fuller said...

Such a pity, I would love to see their renditions of George Galloway and Nigel Farage!

Alex Dawson said...

In many ways, given the anti politics of our age, we don't need a Spitting Image to parody and make fun of politicians.

The default position of "everyone in politics is a scumbag" means the job of satire is done. The only think satire doesn't do is present a solution to this all pervading antipathy, unless politicians and commentators embrace the theatre of farce, as appears to now be happening.

Farage himself acts and looks like a puppet from Spitting Image with his pint drinking, fag smoking public schoolboy rebel in tweed act. That channel 4 documentary last week will have done enough to secure him all the votes he needs to make UKIP the biggest British representation in Europe for the next five years.

Because they agree with his politics? No. The public LIKE a "ballsy" character. In the same way they will vote for Boris to be Prime Minister if Cameron manages to fuck it up in 2015.

Given the general antipathy of the public towards all politicians, we are in an age where the ludicrous, rude, obnoxious and deliberately offensive...once the preserve of satire like Spitting Image...has become a cherished characteristic for a politician.

It's dangerous times. Being a polite, intelligent and thoughtful democratic socialist is about as popular as cancer. You need to be a vile, obnoxious and offensive right winger to get anywhere.

Gary Elsby said...

I thought the sketch of Thatcher leaning over her back garden fence asking Mr. Hytler (a dead ringer for Adolph) for advice on his 'scorched earth policies'.

Matt Wardman said...

>Back in the day it cost £5,000 for every puppet. Adjusting for inflation and the fact they were all handcrafted with dedicated molds, it's reasonable to assume costs have risen.

Not sure about that.

If they are handcrafted then it is mainly labour, and aren't the socialist lot (!) always demanding that pay for the lower quartiles has been going backwards?

The creative industries are - for the vast majority - a low paid activity done for love not money. Full time artists are often heavily supported by a spouse.

Unless you become a rentier in the popstar-living-off-the-royalties style.

Illustration: one of the cheapest ways to get OK picture frames is to frequent local art exhibitions and throw away the paintings, should one choose. Cruel but true.