Later than you always should, you realise how responsible your parents are for the person you become. My dad’s renting a collection of “The Goon Show,” on cassette from the local library, sent me down a surreal road through British comedy, and I remember watching an episode of “Have I Got News for You” with my parents in 1993, when Roy Hattersley failed to appear, and was replaced with a tub of lard. However, I had finished watching the first episode of “The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer,” in 1994, thinking, “well, I don’t know what that was about.
After coming across episodes of the satirical puppet sketch show “Spitting Image” online, I remembered my parents taping this show, at 10pm on a Sunday night, for me to watch after school the following day. This first episode I saw turned out to be the first of the eleventh series, broadcast on 10th November 1991 - I was eight years old at the time.
“Spitting Image,” which ran from 1984 to 1996 really was the right show at the right time. Its sculpted latex costumes, each requiring two people to operate, numerous sets and army of writers meant it costed more to produce than a drama series. However, its unexpected home, the major mainstream network ITV, could afford to provide a place, in prime-time, for proper Hogarth-like satire. ITV has tried to capture the magic since, with “2DTV” (hand-drawn animation), “Headcases” (3D animation) and “Newzoids” (3D-printed hand puppets with CGI mouth movement) coming off as ever paler in comparison, lacking the bite of the original’s scripts. Mind you, "Spitting Image" was also the programme that decided to parody bad holiday songs in 1986, but "The Chicken Song" sounded so authentic, it backfired itself to number 1 in the charts for three weeks.
With 1991 seeing the end of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, continued conflict across the Middle East, and infighting within the Conservative Party at home, there was much to take in, and spew out again – “Spitting Image” kept me informed in ways we now rely on people like John Oliver, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to continue for us.
Watching it back, the episode I remember is a great crystallisation of where we thought we were at that particular time, so no wonder it’s also been released on DVD:
Starting this series, joke news stories, not unlike those in “The Two Ronnies” and “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” were delivered by a new puppet of “News at Ten” anchor Trevor McDonald ordering the now-retired Alistair Burnet out of his chair, having taken over the bulletin in real life. One sample line: “The newspaper world is reeling from the news that the millionaire publisher Rupert Murdoch is alive and well.”
John Major, recast in grey rubber after becoming Prime Minister, and his wife Norma, eating peas with their dinner, was as much a tonal shift as the move from the show’s masculine, aggressive Margaret Thatcher could cause, the Punch and Judy atmosphere being retained in the show’s opening titles. Meanwhile, the Government is so anonymous, they forgot which one of themselves was Malcolm Rifkind – John Major distinguishes himself by deciding to be the boring, anonymous one.
Elsewhere, new Labour MP Glenda Jackson is doing a drama therapy workshop with the Labour Party; the Queen plays a prank on Prince Charles, playing dead to make him think he has become King (“I always fall for that one”); and a reminder that anything crap becomes brilliant with a piece of lime stuck in it, like “Mex” lager, a used car, Jeffery Archer’s latest novel, London’s Docklands and, finally, “Spitting Image” itself. The “yeeeesss” of Jeremy Paxman is a big memory, and I now know the puppet’s voice was done by, at this point in time, Steve Coogan. There was also a line, from Chancellor Norman Lamont, where, “if you repeat something often enough, people will believe it,” repeated until John Major agrees with it – that sounds like a certain US president on Twitter to me.
Oh, and everywhere is now a legitimate Israeli settlement.
Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger sang a lament about how small his penis was in comparison to the rest of his body.
I definitely understood satire, “Spitting Image” and “Have I Got News for You,” before the more surrealist kind of comedy. At eleven years old, I was allowed to stay up until 10.30pm, and had “Shooting Stars,” “The Day Today,” Alan Partridge, “Brass Eye” and “The Fast Show” ahead of me.
British TV wasn’t half bad in the 1990s.