Long Runners: No 34: Spitting image

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The Independent Culture
Age: 10. It is now in its fifteenth series.

Ratings: peaked at 12m in 1985, in the wake of the bombing of Libya. Now the audience hovers around the 7.5m- mark. Roger Law, co-creator with Peter Fluck, says the figures always rocket in the aftermath of a scandal: 'The nightmare is having a series when very little is happening.'

Formula: latex puppets of famous people - everyone from the Queen to Queen - perform in a series of short- sharp-shock sketches. The puppets consist of legless, 21 2 ft-tall bodies, topped with larger than life-size heads. The puppeteer uses one arm to operate the mouth and the other - with the help of a latex glove - as the puppet's arm. The voices are done by impressionists with varying degrees of accuracy: Douglas Hurd is over-the- top, Loyd Grossman is not over-the- top enough. Most programmes end with a 'show-stopping' number.

Origins: Spitting Image was the brattish offspring of the marriage between newspaper caricaturists Law and Fluck and comedy producer John Lloyd. Initially, Law and Fluck were keen to do pure political satire ('People queued up to turn it off,' says Law). The show only hit its stride in the 1987 General Election programme, which culminated in a platoon of Brown Shirts singing 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' to celebrate Mrs Thatcher's third victory.

How many puppets are there, then? About 800, 250 of which are used in each show. The technicians must constitute one of the longest credit-lists on television - the workshop can manufacture up to 14 new puppets each week. And the puppet-makers are adept at recycling: Richard Nixon's ears were used for Mrs Thatcher's nose.

Which are the best puppets? Often, the most surreal: Mrs Thatcher in a gentleman's suit or Roman emperor's toga and laurels, a totally grey John Major, Edwina Currie as Cruella de Vil, or Norman Tebbit as a thuggish, leather-clad biker. Can anyone now think of Kenneth Baker as anything other than a slug? The depth of its political influence is debatable - although David Steel is said to have complained about being portrayed in the pocket of David Owen. 'The way politicians have been presented for the last 20 years with millions of pounds spent on their image,' Law argues, 'you can make a case for the other side of the coin - which is us.'

Theme tune: annoyingly catchy.

Good points? Subtle satire - such as the recent sketch in which Barry Norman, in bowler hat and pencil moustache, presented a black-and-white, silent-movie version of Film '15. Mrs Thatcher weeping alone in the House of Commons after her resignation was another memorable moment.

Bad points? Unsubtle satire. Often the viewer feels as if he / she is being hit over the head with a large rubber puppet. Take the 1986 pop single 'The Chicken Song' (please take it). What started as a send-up of annoying summer-holiday novelty hits soon became the very thing it satirised. A more serious storm was stirred up by a puppet depiction of Christ, which was withdrawn after complaints by the UK Action Committee for Islamic Affairs (Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet).

Graduates: Ben Elton worked on the pilot, Ian Hislop was one of the original writers (for which he was rewarded with being called 'a smug little squirt' on a recent show) and Harry Enfield, John Sessions and Steve Coogan have all graduated from the Spitting Image Academy of Voices.

Little-known fact: Spitting Image is franchised around the world - in Russia, Japan, Greece (where it has a daunting 98 per cent political content) . . . and Hungary. Here, the programme is filmed in the country's real parliament building, but only in the winter months because during the summer the chief caricaturist can make more money sketching tourists in the main square.

The bottom line - how good is it? Like readers of Viz, viewers of Spitting Image tend to think 'it's not as good as it used to be' (a feeling echoed in last week's Independent Television Commission annual review). But the truth is that it's just as good - and as bad - as it ever was. As Law himself admits: 'It was patchy when it started, and it's patchy now.'

(Photograph omitted)

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