Thank you, Spitting Image, for the nostalgia trip! Your new series on BritBox has rekindled with almost Proustian fidelity those feelings I used to get every single time I watched the show back in my lost 1980s youth: the bathos; the disappointment; the frustration; the despair; the perpetual astonishment that puppet caricatures full of such satirical promise should so unfailingly and relentlessly be let down by such a leaden, insight-free script.
Yes, we all remember the puppets: Margaret Thatcher in her chalk-stripe business suit; Norman Tebbit in his leathers; the hacks represented by wolves. But can anyone recall a single line from any episode that made them laugh, ever? I can’t. In fact the only script I remember at all — and it sticks in my head because I hated it so much — was the one that went: ‘I’ve never met a nice South African.’
By ‘South African’, it of course meant ‘white South African’. Every one of them, it wittily, japesomely, satirically invited us to agree — comedy of recognition! — was a disgusting, hateful, racist bastard.
But I didn’t agree. I felt cheated. First it wasn’t funny — just gratuitous, unfair invective of a kind that would cause deserved outrage if applied to almost any other country or race. Second, it was arrogantly presumptuous in its assumption that every right-thinking person held this sneering view. ‘If this sketch doesn’t make you laugh, then maybe you’re part of the problem’ it seemed to be implying.
Now the series has been revived for BritBox — a joint BBC/ITV subscription channel rival to Netflix, on which you can watch all your favourite old classics, apart from the ones that, for your own good whether you like it or not, have been airbrushed from history like On the Buses, Mind Your Language, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, ’Allo ’Allo!, etc — and the satirical edge is as blunt as ever.
Take, for example, its sketch on Prince Charles. Now there are lots of worthwhile satirical points that could be made about the heir to the throne, not least his insufferable political correctness. Many of us who hitherto valued the monarchy are worried we’ll soon have to become republicans because of the variously sinister or woke causes the Prince is eagerly endorsing — everything from the World Economic Forum’s ‘Great Reset’ to the ravaging of our landscape and seascape with bird-slicing, bat-chomping eco-crucifixes.
So go on, have a guess what Spitting Image’s hot take on the Prince of Wales is. Yep: it’s that he’s mad keen on the bloodthirsty and wrong sport of foxhunting (which I don’t believe he has done for years); so much so that he insists on blooding his young, innocent grandson. As with David Hare’s dreadful, cloth-eared, woefully outdated BBC dramas, it’s as though we’re still living in the 1980s and the ensuing decades and shifting politics never happened.
One of the new series’ particular obsessions is Michael Gove, perhaps because it’s so royally amused by its cruel depiction of his cheeks as a pair of testicles. Again, though, its satirical take is weakened to the point of meaninglessness by its lazy assumptions.
At the end of a sketch about the Brexit negotiations, Gove says: ‘Maybe in my heart I want to stick to pointless rules for no good reason.’ Surely this is a severe case of projection: it’s hardly Brexiteers, after all, who are hopelessly addicted to bureaucracy and regulation. (Oh and also, much as I love the ‘C’est Govie en Paris’ theme tune, surely the correct French is ‘à Paris’?)
In another sketch, Govie is shown buying coffee in Paris using a translation app developed by Nigel Farage. ‘Could I please have a latte?’ becomes ‘Where is my milky coffee, you French wanker?’ Now, there are many criticisms you could make of Farage. But this one is pure fifth-form-level caricature. Farage is not xenophobic. He is perfectly comfortable with continental culture: he just wants it to stay in Europe, where it belongs. Maybe it’s this kind of misunderstanding which explains why blinkered chatterati — such as the bubble-enclosed scriptwriters who wrote this show — were so taken aback when they lost the Brexit vote.
About half the sketches are about US politics and, as you might expect, are even less insightful than the British ones. At one point, the Donald Trump puppet tells us: ‘I’m heavily invested in Russian oligarchs.’ Which would be razor-sharp, devastating satire if it weren’t for the fact that all the Russian complicity allegations invented by Trump’s opponents were totally made up. Not, obviously, that you’d expect the creators of a comedy show where the BBC is involved to be aware of this.