Last of the latex laffs

POLEMIC Spitting Image is dead. Long live political comedy, says David Tyler

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So Spitting Image is ceasing to be, to the great relief of all the TV preview journalists who have been reduced to writing the words "latex lampoonery" in their columns for the past seven years.

This demise will, no doubt, be seen as the end of an era, the last nail in the coffin of political satire, and that dreadful, tired, boring, repetitive, unfunny, PC rubbish known as Alternative Comedy. At last we can roll on to a new dawn of New Lad new comedy, which seems to be based on watching the football when we should be doing the washing-up.

But for me the great untold secret of Spitting Image is that, by and large, it wasn't satirical. Hold the front page, roll it up and then hit Eric Cantona with it, but most of the show was preoccupied with idiot TV presenters, ailing British sportsmen and, latterly, young comedians, many of whom had done a turn on the show doing the voices.

As we discovered, most of our viewers didn't know (or care) who was who in the Cabinet, the Opposition, Nato, the Warsaw Pact or any television programme on BBC2.

No matter how complex the sketch on Douglas Hurd's hypocrisy towards Vietnamese boat people, or Lord Young's dealings with Rolls-Royce, you still had to end up with them nutting each other to get a laff. Occasionally it helped to damage a politician's career by accurate physical lampooning - David Steel as a sycophantic child, Kenneth Baker as a slug - and for this we must be grateful.

But for real satire, look to the stand-up comedians - Jeremy Hardy, Mark Thomas, Mark Hurst and, yes, Ben Elton, who week after week would write fresh, shocking and funny stuff, and make a real audience laugh. Julian Clary's "outburst" about Norman Lamont (and its rarely-quoted punchline, "How's that for a red box?") was a far sharper comment on the idiocy of ex-ministers preening themselves at awards ceremonies than countless dull budget sketches.

So is political comedy dead? After 16 years of the Tories in power, is there anything left to satirise? Jokes in the early 1980s about privatising water, for instance, look a bit creaky now in these days of that massive water authority executive pay-packet breaking away from the coast of Greenland. I remember being frozen into immobility at one writing meeting by the fear that one of our fantasies might crop up in next year's Tory party manifesto. And after we'd made four Thatcher puppets each with progressively more frightening faces, done her with lighting-up red eyes, Medusa hair (powered by compressed air), as Caligula, Frankenstein's monster, Hannibal Lecter and Jack Nicholson from The Shining ("Here's Maggie!!"), there was really nowhere to go short of having God blowing her up with a thunderbolt. Which we did at the end of series seven.

But I have faith in the ability of our leaders to go on making the news funny. A quote from Spitting Image said that in these days of PR and spin doctors, politicians can avoid trouble. True, you may not get George Brown throwing up over Khrushchev any more, but there's not much spin to be put on the Stephen Milligan affair, short of pretending he was supporting the amyl nitrate and citrus industries. And, with imagination, you can always satirise the PR men, even if not many people know what Max Clifford actually looks like (and we all sleep easier at night because of it).

So until everything is completely lovely, and everyone is nice to everyone else, and nobody's starving to death anywhere in the world, we'd better go on having satire. After all, we've got to use Jeffrey Archer for something.

David Tyler, a former stand-up comedian, produced two series of `Spitting Image'. He is now working on a new comedy series for BBC2.

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