"The happiest five minutes of the day," beamed a jaundiced political observer last week. But the cheeky rubber figures, occupying a daily prime-time slot on private Canal Plus television, have enraged the ruling conservative Popular Party, whose spokesman complained the other day that their assaults upon the Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, had gone too far.
Mr Aznar, who admits he is not charismatic, is habitually portrayed as a moron, spouting banal platitudes. "Espana va bien" (Spain's doing well) is a typical example, repeated with po-faced intensity. Or he is shown snogging his conservative, Catholic, Catalan partner in government, Jordi Pujol, or as a crazed, spike-haired punk leading a cacophonous rock band of ministers.
The right-wing ABC newspaper devoted its front page recently to denouncing the show, saying that the PP was planning counter-puppets of its own. Despite official denials, the idea was seized upon by Noticias de Guinol which gleefully presented "counter-puppets" the same evening.
Nothing too shocking by British standards, but many Spaniards, especially conservatives, and especially from the ancient, austere central plain of Castile - the PP's heartland - find it intolerable to be held up to ridicule. They have a fine sense of irony, and a grave dignity that George Orwell admired, but will do almost anything to avoid being made to look silly.
"This unique genre of television 'humour' is the deliberate consequence of a lie put at the service of the most vulgar political propaganda," intoned the deeply unfunny ABC. The newspaper's main complaint is that the opposition Socialists are given an easy ride. Their leader, Felipe Gonzalez, is shown as a cocky Superman, whizzing around the world with his trademark polysyllabic and often incomprehensible rhetoric, or as a smug Don Corleone, soothing his former ally, Alfonso Guerra, while plotting to do him in. Unlike Spitting Image, which the newspaper lauded for its "impeccable neutrality", Noticias de Guinol was "crude socialist agitprop".
The puppets' creators insist they are neutral, and affectionate rather than cruel. Sports heroes and showbiz stars are also fair game - although not, so far, the Spanish royal family. "In spite of their defects, or perhaps because of them, none of the puppets is detestable," said the director of Canal Plus, Rafael Garcia Mediano. "They all have their charm, and this translates into the affection of the viewers."
None the less, they seem to be dividing the country in a way Spitting Image never did. The fact that Canal Plus, owned by the media empire Prisa (which owns the newspaper El Pais and has a shareholding in the Independent on Sunday), is loathed by the government for its Socialist links, has something to do with it.
But many see reflections of the country's picaresque literary tradition, which since the 16th century has satirised the rift between "red" (progressive) and "black" (conservative) Spain. More recently, in the twilight of Franco's dictatorship, the joke, particularly the cartoon, became a vehicle for political debate, an escape valve from dull and oppressive censorship. No one equates those times with Spain today, but with little political criticism in the press, the puppets are discharging a historical role in making the powerful feel uncomfortable.Reuse content