If Margaret Thatcher is remembered by many more as a caricature than as her actual self, then blame Spitting Image. The show, which ran from 1984 to 1996, portrayed her variously as a cross-dresser, a fascist and a bully but, to her credit, she never complained. Or, if she did, there’s no record of it. Of course it wasn’t just politicians who were targeted; anyone in the public eye was also ripe for a takedown, from Kylie to the Queen. Deference — what’s that?
To mark the programme’s 30th anniversary, BBC4 has created an Arena documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes of the Spitting Image process; introducing us to the people who made the programme come to life, and the hellish hours they worked keeping the show on the road. But if the idea were pitched today, it’s unlikely that it would get off the ground. In its prime it was watched by 15 million viewers, but each episode cost £300,000 to make — about £1 million today.
Spitting Image might have been criticised for its left-wing politics — but the programme’s run coincided with three consecutive terms of Conservative rule. Whatever else the programme might have done, it wasn’t enough to turn people off voting blue. And it certainly introduced a new audience to the world of politics. Just think what the show would make of today’s politicians. Boris, Farage, Salmond…the list goes on. Perhaps it’s time for a comeback.
Arena: Whatever Happened to Spitting Image? is on BBC4 on 20 March.