Christina Patterson: The price of freedom is the right to sneer

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The Independent Online

A few months ago, at a dinner, I sat opposite a snail. Well, actually, it was a male human being, but I'll always think of him as a snail. And so, I imagine, will everyone else. For this was Lord Baker of Dorking, former chairman of the Conservative party, historian, editor of poetry anthologies and member of the House of Lords. Most famous, however, thanks to a latex puppet which disappeared from our television screens 15 years ago, for being a snail.

Yes, Spitting Image is back. The Sunday-night series which immortalised David Steel as the pocket-sized puppet of a super-suave David Owen; and the Conservative cabinet under Margaret Thatcher as a group of Nazi youths; and John and Norma Major as a pea-eating suburban couple; and Roy Hattersley as a fountain not of wisdom, but of saliva, is preparing to hit the living rooms of Middle England and the egos of our politicians. If, poor darlings, they've got any egos left.

This time, the puppets have been left in their dusty boxes (with, presumably, the shattered reputations of their real human subjects) and replaced with super-dooper CGI animations of the kind used in Toy Story. For this is indeed Toy Story, or perhaps Toys R Us, the show where real human beings are mere fodder for a machine that sniffs them out, gobbles them up and then (yes) spits them out. If there was any ambiguity in the series' name the first time round, there certainly isn't now. It's Headcases. Geddit? You don't have to be mad here, etc.

What you do have to be, of course, is famous. Jack Straw, Ed Balls, David Davis and Vincent Cable all, apparently, failed the "public recognition test". Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty and Fabio Capello didn't. Jacqui Smith, whose huge bust expands and contracts in line with the terrorist threat to Britain, may well wish she hadn't. But if she hadn't, she would have failed at the first commandment of politics and everything else. Thou Shalt Have No Other God But Fame.

Headcases, in fact, neatly encapsulates the contemporary dilemma. Either you're a nobody, in which case you might as well top yourself, or you're a somebody, in which case you're up for grabs. Protest that you wanted to do something, actually, not be famous for fame's sake, and you're like a not particularly modestly dressed girl in a rape trial. Asking for it. Gagging for it. Come on, love, you know you want it really.

For this is how we do things in the West. We will fight for the freedom to lampoon, the freedom to sneer. Well, perhaps we won't fight for it. Perhaps, if we meet other leaders like Berlusconi, who own and control the media in their countries – and, indeed, as Sabina Guzzanti's film Viva Zapatero! demonstrated, suppress all attempts at political satire – we'll take the softly, softly approach and go and stay in their holiday homes instead.

And when we encounter the real deal; not just a little bit of media censorship, but the real one-party state caboodle, a la Mugabe or Beijing, we'll go softly, softly, too. Don't want to mess up any business opportunities.

The fact is that everything has a price. The price of political freedom, and the merciless political machine, is a certain knee-jerk cynicism – an assumption, it seems, of near-universal bad faith. Well, so be it. It keeps our politicians on their toes. It keeps us all – politicians, people and pundits – grappling with the age-old pitfalls of power. And, on wet Sunday nights, in a time of credit crunch, it makes us laugh. A gift, surely, beyond price.

Falling apart at the seams

For those of us who grew up in the Seventies, and whose history came in the form of brocaded gowns and ruffles and crinolines after a nice dose of Mike Yarwood, the news that the BBC has sold its entire costume archive can only inspire the kind of horror triggered by reports of the Taliban's destruction of thousand-year-old Buddhist statues or the looting of the Mesopotamian treasures of Baghdad.

I queued to see the costumes of The Six Wives of Henry VIII just as I queued to see the death-mask of Tutankhamun. I made collages, with scraps of curtain material, of Tudor queens. Once, I even dreamt that I had Susan Hampshire's entire wardrobe from The Pallisers. We shall not see their like again.

* It's hard to think of a more potent symbol of our solipsistic times than the little lump of beeping, buzzing plastic we all clutch to our ears and hearts.

Like some kind of umbilical cord, it offers us the assurance that in a merciless world, we matter. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that, being out of mobile-phone contact, or "nomo-phobia" as it's inevitably been dubbed, is, apparently, as stressful as breaking up with a partner or moving house.

The truth, of course, is that we created a god, which wrecked the peace of public places with our shrieked banalities and alienated us from the real people around us, and now it has become a monster. A monster which an award-winning cancer expert now believes could kill more of us than smoking.

Gosh, it's an uphill task, keeping the human species free of carcinogenic props against the void. Perhaps we should all go back to dummies.

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