Every other day, for the last five years or so, my parents have said something along the lines of, “They should bring back Spitting Image one of these days.” Based on what I could find of it on YouTube, I was inclined to agree – the original series, a sketch show featuring puppet caricatures of the biggest names in 1980s politics and pop culture, eviscerated everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to Paul Gascoigne, ushering in a new kind of biting satire. You can imagine, therefore, their delight when a revival was announced this year. Since the mid-2010s we’ve seen a chain of crises and an increasingly turbulent political landscape – a stream of inept Conservative prime ministers, Brexit, Trump, climate change, coronavirus – each one a goldmine for satire.
The question of censorship of comedy and its relation to satire has become an increasingly hot topic this year. In the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Little Britain and Come Fly With Me were removed from streaming platforms due to its racist and classist depictions of a number of characters. More recently, Graham Linehan has vowed to never work with Channel 4 again until they reupload an episode of the IT Crowd which has attracted controversy due to a transphobic storyline. Other sitcoms such as 30 Rock and Community have removed episodes featuring blackface from streaming sites. All these decisions have provoked outrage online, much of which is along the lines of “the PC brigade/woke police/left (delete as appropriate) are killing comedy”. However, this isn’t quite as simple as enraged Twitter users seem to think it is. Linehan has not only defended the episode that was removed from All 4, but hit the headlines once again after harassing transgender individuals and activists on Twitter, having fallen swiftly from a venerated comedian to an Internet troll. While David Walliams and Matt Lucas’ depiction of iconic characters such as Vicky Pollard and Precious Little had a considerable cultural impact, the thought of rich, white, privately educated men belittling people of colour, transgender women and so-called “chavs” now leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. When writers and performers in positions of privilege put marginalised groups on blast, we can no longer create excuses for discrimination in comedy by disguising it as “satire”.
Now, it appears that the Spitting Image reboot has gone down the same path of punching down without any kind of decipherable message. A scene featuring Thunberg badgering a brother with incessant questions about a football match seems to be little more than a dig at autistic people, and Mark Zuckerberg’s puppet has a prominent, hooked nose, nothing like the real Zuckerberg, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why that might be. Interestingly enough, the showrunners still removed carrot leaves from Ed Sheeran’s puppet – make of that what you will. Granted, some of the puppets are rather good – Dominic Cummings as an alien set on eating baby Wilfred Johnson springs to mind. Aside from this, however, the series is quite simply not funny. From the episodes available, barely any jokes have elicited more than a snort. The script is tedious and uninspired, with jokes worthy of Titania McGrath or Jonathan Pie at his worst. While digs made at easy targets such as Thunberg feel cruel, the jibes made at Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are uninspired and have been done to death for years, barely skimming the surface of satire. In short, the misses easily outnumber the hits. Spitting Image’s idea of satire is merely a matter of box-ticking and buzzwords. For example, one sketch ends with Boris Johnson trying to incite shenanigans with students only to be met with accusations of cultural appropriation. “Woke Disney” tries to flog a baby Yoda doll with the catchphrase “matter black lives do”. A “covfefe” joke is made barely a minute into the first episode. Despite its delight in seemingly offending anyone and everyone, the Spitting Image revival is an example of the most predictably bland “satire” imaginable.
I will always refer back to the words of Brass Eye’s Chris Morris regarding satire – “Are you doing some kind of exotic display for the court, to be patted on the head by the court, or are you trying to say something?” The Spitting Image revival is little more than an “exotic display” for the court, an attempt to be “patted on the head” by those who remember its glory days in the 1980s. Comedy does not always need to make a statement – in fact, some of the greatest comedies of all time have been entirely apolitical. However, this series does not contain even a hint of subversion. Satire is a potent weapon of resistance in times of political turbulence when used to put the enactors of such injustices on blast when they are not being held to account by those in power. This series simply lacks any kind of bite for the most part, what little there is, is reserved for those attempting to enact social change. In its refusal to punch up, Spitting Image largely fails to punch at all, fizzling quietly rather than going off with a bang.