“And though you hate this song, you’ll be humming it for weeks”
In the good-old bad-old days of Thatcher’s Britain, there was no shortage of pop coverage in the media to inspire conversation in the playground, whether it was Boy George’s first “is that a boy or a girl?” appearance on Top Of The Pops, Michael Jackson’s Thriller late night video premiere or, most excitingly, seeing Five Star and Matt Bianco being verbally abused live on children’s TV.
Of course it really helped that there were only four terrestrial channels to choose from (just the three before Channel 4’s introduction in November 1982), breeding a feeling of community and a certain sense of occasion.
But one television show absolutely guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing and rescue many a depressing Sunday evening from Songs of Praise was Spitting Image. Pretty groundbreaking at the time, it still holds up as a genuinely hilarious caricature of the politics, entertainment, sport and general UK culture of the era.
Just a cursory look at a show from its mid-’80s peak leaves one a little in awe at its craftsmanship and production values, especially as they only had a few days to write, build and shoot each episode.
For those of you not from the UK, or simply not old enough to remember it, Spitting Image was a satirical puppet show which was fearless – and often gleefully tasteless – when it came to mocking the topical figures of the day.
As it was news-based, celebrities, politicians and even the blessed Royal Family were targets. The then leaders of the UK and US’s oh-so ‘special relationship’, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, were two of the most memorable characters featured in the show.
Amongst those who provided voices for the puppets were Chris Barrie (who is now best remembered for his role as Rimmer in Red Dwarf), comedian Harry Enfield, oh and my rum chum Steve Nallon, who’s still playing Thatcher quite brilliantly three decades on.
The scripts were by a combination of up and coming and established satire and comedy writers of the time, including creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, Ian Hislop, Jo Brand and Steve Punt among many others.
There were some pretty bang-on musical spoofs too, composed by Philip Pope, fresh from UK comedy classic Not The Nine O’Clock News and his Angus Deayton-fronting parody band The Hee Bee Gee Bees, who even managed a few hits in the early part of the decade.
Spitting Image also featured some memorable skits featuring David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Prince, Phil Collins, and, of course, Madonna’s singing belly button. They even managed to rope Sting in to re-sing this Police parody.
One of their most pertinent/impertinent spoofs, We’re Scared Of Bob, was created under the not exactly surprising revelation that ‘Sir’ Bob Geldof bullied many of the acts into performing on the Band Aid charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? and at the Live Aid concert in 1985. For instance, take this comment to The Observer in 2004 about a certain Roxy Music frontman from the Boomtown Rat himself:
“When I announced Live Aid, the only one who was dithering, as ever, was Bryan Ferry. So I just said, ‘ … and Bryan Ferry.’ And he rang to say, ‘I didn’t say “yeah”.’ I said, ‘Well, say “no”, then. You’re the one who can announce it though.’”
That sheer force of will — usually accompanied by a rash of expletives — is how he operated, how he got things done. Nonetheless, the sheer potency of We’re Scared Of Bob satirising Michael Jackson’s slush puppy answer to the Band Aid 45, USA For Africa’s We Are The World, is still a shock to the system. You also suspect that Sir Gandalf was watching, so unmissable was the programme in the mid Eighties.
In 1986, Spitting Image even started releasing records. The first novelty single, The Chicken Song, was deliberately irritating parody of summer holiday disco ditties such as the godawful Agadoo and Do The Conga, by Black Lace (“those two wet gits with their girly curly hair” in the lyrics).
The single entered the British charts on Tuesday 6 May at a pretty flabbergasting No.11, perfectly placedto pounce on a Top 10 stuffed with powerhouse names: Marvin Gaye, George Michael, Queen, Madonna et al.
Just seven days later it leapfrogged over them all and knocked Falco’s almost as irritating Rock Me Amadeus off the top spot, where it stayed for three very long weeks. The rubber people even performed the comedy choon on Top of the Pops, so if you’ve never wanted to see Thatch and Rod Stewart in a band together look away now.
Spitting Image ran on the ITV network between 1984 and 1996 – that’s a whopping 18 series and 132 episodes in total. Why isn’t there anything like it around now? Oh, lack of money and talent, most probably.
A show like Spitting Image also highlights the paucity of genuinely interesting public figures these days. As John Lloyd said himself a while back, “It’s interesting you don’t get either now. There are very few conviction politicians it seems to me and very little conviction television.”
Say goodnight to the folks, Gracie.
Steve Pafford, Boston MA, USA
BONUS: After Phil Collins saw a disfigured version of himself on Spitting Image, he commissioned the show’s creators, Fluck and Law, to create puppets of the other members of Genesis, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, for their single Land of Confusion, released at the (trick of the) tail end of 1986. The film drew controversy for its portrayal of Ronald Reagan as being physically and cognitively inept. Pretty accurate so far.
And if you’ve ever wanted to see an ape throw a huge bone in the air, knocking out David Bowie and Bob Dylan in the process, 3:50 is your marker.
Land of Confusion won the award for Best Concept Music Video at the 1988 Grammys. The clip was also nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for Best Video of the Year in 1987, but lost, with delicious irony, to their former frontman, Peter Gabriel, for the groundbreaking Sledgehammer.