Are the new Spitting Image puppets too tame?

    6 August 2020

    Given Donald Trump’s penchant for bling, love of taco bowls and mixed record with women, it seems strange nobody has really bothered to caricature him as the Latino gangster stereotype he was so keen to peddle as an immigration threat when he first ran for office.

    Now, I’m not saying this idea is a zinger. I don’t write comedy for a living (not deliberately, at least). But just off the top of my head, in the space of about a minute, I’ve managed to come up with something marginally more left-field than the overwhelming majority of barbs aimed at Trump, Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings in the past few years by professional jokers, most of whom are on the left of the field themselves.

    Instead, the bulk of what we are given boils down to what has become a meme in the US: ‘Orange man bad, please clap.’ In the UK, where people have a famously refined sense of humour, it’s more succinct. The joke is just the words ‘Trump’ or ‘Boris’, followed by the word ‘moron,’ at which point everyone loses their mind.

    Photo: Mark Harrison/Britbox/Avalon

    Comedy in the UK today is almost always awful, and any good jokes result in calls to the police for violating hate crime legislation. The sorry state of affairs has not gone unnoticed by the general public — and amid it all, the most frequent lament revolves around the absence of a TV puppet show that wasn’t the Muppets, but did portray them.

    Well, now Spitting Image is making its return. The programme that foretold the later rumblings of the gender debate by addressing Margaret Thatcher as ‘sir’ and had Norman Tebbit seig heiling in the Commons’ chamber enters a new age in which everything to the right of Hugo Chavez is a literal fascist, and the very milk the Tory government once snatched from working class children is a symbol of white supremacy.

    A lot of people look at this world — at Trump, at Johnson, at Joe Biden (a man who can barely remember who he is, running on a platform where he hopes everyone else forgets, too) — and say that satire is dead; that this is all too absurd to parody. But that is the argument of people who are lazy, and far from the irreverent characters required to make cutting satire in the first place.

    I have my doubts over whether or not the new Spitting Image will be that irreverent. Having released pictures of their new puppets, including all the aforementioned, as well as Prince Andrew, it appears a bit… Obvious. Cummings looks like Nosferatu, and Johnson the village idiot. How incisive. In the old edition, Kenneth Baker was portrayed as a slug, and Tony Blair as Dorian Gray, with a serpentine Peter Mandelson to set on his enemies. But in these increasingly sensitive times, are satirists prepared to push limits and get creative, when their patrons are so sensitive to outrage?

    Would Spitting Image dare parody Dianne Abbott or David Lammy, given the inevitable accusations of racism that would follow no matter how tamely done? Surely someone must have noticed that Greta Thunberg has a propensity for sailing around the world to bend foreign people to her will, upending their way of life, shaking them down for their cash and promising fire and destruction if they don’t pay her Danegeld. But would portraying her as such be considered a step too far given her age? Would the show be accused of bullying, or of climate change denial, if it picked up on these themes? And if so, what would a network like ITV, the broadcaster behind Spitting Image, do? Apologise? Tell the writers to tone the show down? Threaten to cancel it if they didn’t? Or risk the serious repercussions from the terminally unamused to keep it on the road?

    The Harry formerly known as Prince and Meghan Markle, too, are set to appear on the revamped show. The TikTok phenomenon Meggie Foster recently released a video portraying Harry as Meghan’s shackled prisoner. It was brilliantly done. But if Spitting Image were to try it, how long would it be before they were accused of trivializing domestic coercion and violence, or of offending the victims of real hostage situations? Would Britbox get cold feet, given how keen the couple are to sue all and sundry for besmirching their good names?

    The truth is, we already know the sort of thing we are about to be served up. The original show made its name bashing Tories, and they just happen to be in power again. But the people doing the satirising have become permanently outraged at the world around them – one need only look at the Twitter output of former writers to understand. And they know better than anybody the fury of their own side when something is said that challenges their worldview.

    If Spitting Image has even a globule of its original phlegm, it will be a welcome return. But in a world where masks are mandatory, a sneeze is assault and a cough is a microaggression, what hope is there, really, of that?