Politicians beware! 'Spitting Image' set to return

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Indy Politics

When it was first screened in 1984, Spitting Image's cruel satire and painfully accurate latex caricatures provoked public condemnation and angry letters from its many victims.

But by the time ITV announced its demise 12 years later, it could boast peak audiences of 15 million.

Now Central Television's most successful satire is set for a return. Filming has begun on a documentary featuring some of the best moments from the series and interviews with some of those who were lampooned.

If audience figures for the documentary hold up, ITV says there is no reason why there can't be a new series savaging the foibles of New Labour and all those who seek to live their lives in the public limelight.

It was during the 1980s and 1990s that the latex puppets created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law charted the rise and fall of the Thatcher and Major governments.

The show's most famous puppet was Margaret Thatcher, who was portrayed as a man in a pinstripe suit, violently assaulting members of her cabinet.

With one or two exceptions, such as Michael Heseltine as Tarzan and Norman Tebbit as an East End "bovver boy", Tory ministers were depicted as craven.

This relationship between the premier and her ministers was summed up in a sketch where they are all seated in a restaurant. After Mrs Thatcher proclaims "steak, I'll have the steak", the waitress asks: "And what about the vegetables?", to which Mrs Thatcher replies: "Oh, they'll have the same as me."

No one escaped the writers' biting satire and it was said that the puppets could make or break politicians' careers.

David Steel, the former leader of the Liberal party, is known to have blamed the show in part for the failure of his alliance with the SDP. Mr Steel, now Lord Steel, was depicted as a squeaky-voiced midget, literally in the pocket of his SDP counterpart, David Owen.

Lord Owen, who is to be interviewed this week for the documentary, believes it may have done his colleague political harm: "Because it caused him problems it caused me problems. But at least we were being talked about and it showed we were relevant where usually centre-ground parties are ignored and being ignored is the worst thing possible for a political party."

Some of the most savage imagery was reserved for the Royal Family. Prince Charles was shown as a blundering crackpot, Diana as a vain airhead and the Queen Mother as a horse racing-obsessed alcoholic. There were also the playboy Prince Andrew, the horsey Princess Anne, the petulant Prince Edward, the tipsy Princess Margaret and the truffle-snuffling Fergie. The Royal Family has been conspicuously silent about their treatment on Spitting Image.

But not everyone was unhappy with their depiction. After the show was axed some victims tried to buy their puppets.

Even Mary Whitehouse, television's self-appointed morals watchdog, who was usually shown taking tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cliff Richard, said: "If the Archbishop and I cannot take a bit of a joke, then it's a poor state of affairs."

Power of puppetry: the show's most famous victims

* Sir David Steel, the former leader of the Liberal Party, is known to have partly blamed the show for the failure of his alliance with the SDP. He was depicted as a squeaky-voiced midget, literally in the pocket of his SDP counterpart, David Owen.

Lord Owen has said: "I think David was damaged by it ... although I don't think it was accurate."

* Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman who was depicted as a skinhead, said after the series ended: "They intended it to be harmful, but in fact it was extremely helpful. It made me a recognisable and not unsympathetic figure."

* Baroness Thatcher has never made public her thoughts on her depiction as a bullying businessman in a pinstripe suit.

* Michael Heseltine said in 2000 that he owed everything to Spitting Image. "What was I in the 1980s? An obscure member of government and suddenly - Hezza! Tarzan! Hello Michael! Everywhere I went - it was a bloody miracle." His portrayal as a loin-clothed lion-maned Tarzan or as a uniformed stormtrooper left his family rolling on the floor in hysterics, he said.

* Labour's former deputy leader Roy Hattersley was shown spraying anyone who came near him with his saliva: He said after the show was axed: "I was a sort of bumbling old uncle who comes to fix the train set and fuses the lights."

* At the height of his fame in the 1980s, the world snooker champion Steve Davis had a puppet called Steve "Interesting" Davis. He has since gone on to work on a book with the scriptwriter of Spitting Image. The book is called How To Be Really Interesting.

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