Spitting Image returns to our screens on Saturday. We are promised grotesque new latex puppets of, among many others, Donald Trump, Meghan and Harry, Kim Kardashian, Boris Johnson, Taylor Swift and Angela Merkel.
Ed Sheeran is to be portrayed as a turnip, with a root growing from his chin, and Dominic Cummings as an evil genius, bent on world domination.
It will certainly liven up Saturday night television, which is currently the preserve of gameshows, Strictly Come Dancing, and two never-ending hours of Britain’s Got Talent.
Reactions to the original Spitting Image, which ran from 1984 to 1996, were many and varied. Most of us would be horrified at being portrayed as slugs or thugs or turnips, and one or two people did indeed object.
We are promised grotesque new latex puppets of, among many others, Donald Trump, Meghan and Harry, Kim Kardashian, Boris Johnson, Taylor Swift and Angela Merkel
Diana Brittan, wife of the Conservative cabinet minister Leon Brittan, once approached the show’s producer, John Lloyd, complaining, ‘It’s so unfair! You’ve given poor Leon five warts on his face, where in fact he’s only got three!’
Judy Steel, the wife of the then Liberal leader David Steel, could hardly bear to watch the show, and would often leave the room when it was on. She thought the portrayal of her husband as a tiny little puppet, perched in the pocket of Dr David Owen, had a devastating impact. ‘David was almost fatally wounded as a political figure.’
In these two instances, the savage satire of Spitting Image hit home, though its impact was felt by the wives of the politicians rather than the politicians themselves.
By and large, MPs seem to have relished seeing themselves on Spitting Image. The deputy Labour leader Roy Hattersley kept a photograph of his dummy on his office wall, and would have bought the original, had he been able to afford it.
Others splashed out. Michael Heseltine bought his dummy, and Edwina Currie, portrayed as a hideous Cruella de Vil figure, still has hers.
‘As far as I was concerned the fact that they were lampooning me on the programme was fine,’ recalled Currie, ‘because I was a very junior minister, and to get noticed was great — it suggested I was getting my little message across. Members of the Cabinet who weren’t in it, really wanted to be in it. You felt that you had made it on to the top satirical programme, which meant that you were recognised.’
It will certainly liven up Saturday night television, which is currently the preserve of gameshows, Strictly Come Dancing, and two never-ending hours of Britain’s Got Talent
Satirists often forget that narcissists just love being noticed.
In the early days, Jeffrey Archer was so keen to be on the show that he took to lobbying its creators.
‘We resisted doing Jeffrey Archer for a very long time,’ recalled Peter Fluck, the caricaturist. ‘He used to send photographs and voice tapes with letters asking when his puppet would be ready.’
Norman Tebbit found that his popularity soared after he was portrayed as a skinhead thug, clad in a leather jacket, wearing knuckle-dusters.
During the 1992 General Election, I spent a morning with him in Chingford, and was surprised by the warmth with which he was greeted by skinheads. Cheery cries of ‘Where’s your leathers, Norm?’ followed him everywhere.
In last month’s issue of the Oldie magazine, Lord Tebbit credited a surge in his popularity to his Spitting Image puppet. ‘It was that combination of being willing to use violence and emerging the winner that made him appealing to the bovver boys.’ This all suggests that, despite all its efforts, satire changes very little.
The sad truth is that, if it has any effect, it undermines the weak, and boosts the powerful.
The former Tory Chancellor George Osborne recently confessed to being happy when cartoonists portrayed him as a powerful monster, less so when they portrayed him as weakling.
‘At least people think you’re in control of events and people think you can add up … The political cartoons at the time helped me — they always portrayed me as wielding axes, and as a tough figure.’
On these grounds, Dominic Cummings and Vladimir Putin are set to benefit from the revival of Spitting Image. That great satirist, the late Peter Cook once jokingly praised ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.’
I’m sure he would be laughing at the new Spitting Image, but he would also recognise its impotence.