New London exhibition takes a forensic look at ITV's old Spitting Image political puppets

Acclaimed documentary photographer Anna Fox and artist Andrew Bruce were given access to collector and gallerist James Hyman's collection of some of the show's most important puppets

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The Independent Culture

With the general election looming in May, what could be more fitting than getting the old Spitting Image puppets out for a photo shoot?

This is exactly what acclaimed documentary photographer Anna Fox and artist Andrew Bruce did when they were given access to collector and gallerist James Hyman's collection of some of the show's most important puppets, which he had bought after the original series ended in 1996.

The pair collected 10 puppets from Hyman's Savile Row gallery, including Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit, which were crumbled in their cardboard boxes with orange latex poking out from underneath their clothing.

They set to work in a photographic studio rearranging the puppets on a stand or hanging them from the ceiling, which they then photographed against a brightly coloured neon background, complete with signs of the puppets' wear and tear.

"At one point Norman Tebbit's head came off just as we were about to take the photo because the foam had disintegrated," says Fox. "The glamour faded, the sheen gone. Failed characters abandoned in storage. These puppets, imbued with satire, represented our most significant politicians at their worst… Now, like all political fortunes, we are left with the remnants of a different age."

The puppet photographs include nine Tory politicians, including Cecil Parkinson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine, Norman Tebbit, Leon Brittan, Douglas Hurd and John Major with Kermit the Frog, as well as Denis Thatcher. Some of them have been undressed or hung up – in one of the images, eight Tories – including the PM and her husband – are piled up like a heap of rubbish.

 

Fox, who studied under Martin Parr and was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, shot the photographs with Bruce, her former assistant, on a 10 x 8 large-format film, which, combined with the lighting, creates the extraordinary detailing and depth of colour.

"It makes the puppets look ominous and hyper-real and there is a monstrosity to them," says Fox. "It seemed like at the time when they were on TV, it was feasible to have that level of satire in popular culture, but since then it has been missing. Part of the point of our exaggeration in the images, is that it could bring attention to the fact this had disappeared."

Photographs include a straightforward shot of Douglas Hurd with his Mr Whippy hairstyle wearing a pinstripe suit – "but he is set against a ludicrous tutti-frutti-coloured background". Edward Heath has been undressed and strung up to the ceiling with thread. "It exposes his foam arm and the unexpected construction of the bodies under the clothes," says Fox. "It explores the fact that politicians are being shamed all the time. It also reveals the ingenuity of the people who made the puppets, which were so bizarre but so believable at the time."

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The vivid pink photograph of Norman Tebbit, who was portrayed in the show as a bully and a thug, shows him wearing a biker jacket and leather hat (Andrew Bruce & Anna Fox)

There is a close-up portrait of Thatcher in blue with her Tory badge. "We also undressed her and shot her with her shirt and jacket undone to reveal foam and latex breasts and stomach. In another she has her hand on her head and mouth dropped open as if she is about to cry," says Fox.

Heseltine is perched on a stand wearing his German army shirt costume. "You can see some of the operating wires hanging out of the bottom of his shirt like his insides are falling out," says Fox. The vivid pink photograph of Norman Tebbit, who was portrayed in the show as a bully and a thug, shows him wearing a biker jacket and leather hat. "We could change the position of the eyes and the mouth could drop further open," she says. "But the puppets were meant to have hands inside them, so it was hard to arrange the faces correctly."

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Edward Heath has been undressed and strung up to the ceiling with thread (Andrew Bruce & Anna Fox)

Parkinson's head is on a monopod set against a burgundy backdrop as if he has been beheaded while Brittan looks like a monster coming out of blackness. "They were the only head-only shots – in all the photographs the puppets look deflated or as if something has gruesome happened to them," says Fox.

The British satirical show Spitting Image, with its puppet caricatures of celebrities, politicians and the royal family, was one of the most popular TV programmes of the Eighties and Nineties. The series was shelved in 1996, and nothing replaced it; however, this is all about to change.

A new six-part ITV puppet show series, Newzoids, featuring contemporary personalities including Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Simon Cowell and Russell Brand, will air later this year. It reunites a handful of people who worked on Spitting Image and promises a "biting look at the world of politics and celebrity". Other famous faces that will be lampooned include David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ant and Dec, Harry Styles, Beyoncé and Vladimir Putin.

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Cecil Parkinson's head is on a monopod set against a burgundy backdrop as if he has been beheaded (Andrew Bruce & Anna Fox)

Spitting Image fan Hyman first started buying the show's puppets from auction in 2008 – the most expensive one was the one of Margaret Thatcher, which he paid a few thousand pounds for. He suggested the idea of a photographic commission to Fox because he thought they would be such striking images and he was intrigued as to what they would do with them.

"I gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted," he says. "But I didn't expect them to undress them." One of his favourite pictures shows the puppets "dumped in a pile on the floor as though ready to be swept away as garbage".

"It is 25 years on and there is still a fascination with these politicians, in part, because of the profile they got through appearing in Spitting Image. I like it that the puppets are not in perfect condition as it gives a suggestion of political mortality," he says.

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Michael Heseltine is perched on a stand wearing his German army shirt costume (Andrew Bruce & Anna Fox)

Hyman keeps the puppets in storage and loans them out occasionally. "Newsnight had Thatcher on it recently and a Dutch film company have just borrowed all the puppets for a documentary," he says.

Hyman would like to buy the Tony Blair puppet, who was dressed in a schoolboy's uniform on Spitting Image, to complete his set of prime ministers. He also likes the idea of taking them all home and sitting them around his dining-room table as they were often positioned in Thatcher's cabinet room in the TV show.

"For me, these new photographs, often on an enormous scale, are about more than recording appearance, although they do that in extraordinary detail, but they are also about the expendability of politicians.

"We are shown that beneath the veneer there is fragility, underneath the power-dressing there is vulnerability. These photographs remind me of right-wing politician Enoch Powell's assertion that 'all political careers end in failure'."

Spitting: Photographs by Andrew Bruce & Anna Fox, James Hyman Gallery, London W1 (www.jameshymangallery.com) 22 April to 8 May

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