I was born a year and a half too late to see the original Spitting Image when it aired on television. My first encounter with the series was, if I recall correctly, in late 2013 when I discovered clips from it on YouTube (a great many of which have recently been purged). Occasionally a clip show would include snippets of it, or there would be a nostalgic documentary, but watching the series properly was unfeasible.
Over my lifetime there have been a few attempts to provide a spiritual successor, but none had the staying power – or indeed the cultural weight – of the original. 2DTV (2001-2004) with its crude animation, was eventually cancelled due to low viewing figures. Headcases (2008) ran for just eight episodes. Newzoids, which used physical puppets with CG faces, appeared in advance of the 2015 general election and returned for a second series in late 2016, but then unceremoniously faded away.
Just over a year ago news broke that Spitting Image itself would be returning. Three weeks ago, it finally did. However, as before, I haven’t actually seen it. As with so many new productions, the creators have opted to bypass standard television and go directly to a streaming service. In this instance, the satirical puppet show will be the first original commission on BritBox, which was set up in 2017. It seems that Spitting Image is intended to be the “flagship” of the service which will tempt new viewers aboard. From what I have seen on various forums, there is some skepticism of this approach, with many expressing fatigue at having to juggle so many online subscriptions to get what they previously would have done from broadcast television.
The upshot of all this is that, as with the classic series, I must rely on the clips that are steadily dribbled out on the series’ YouTube channel. I had mixed views about the first few clips – while the visual design was on form, many of the vocal impressions felt lackluster and forgettable, with the action and dialogue not quite having the energy of the original. Still, it was nice to see a few nods to the older series, such as the giant portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Priti Patel reprising Edwina Currie’s role vampire portrayal, or Mike Pence copying John Major’s grey face aesthetic.
Many question now whether political satire is even possible nowadays, when public figures are rarely granted any dignity in the first place and various sectors of society are so offense-prone that any seriously biting comedy is liable to be swiftly shut down. We will have to wait and see whether this franchise is able to weather that storm. Already there is one instance of a sketch being withdrawn – whereas the original dropped a parody of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” from its 1987 election special, the new one has quickly removed a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious parody about Jacinda Ardern because the sketch ended with her decapitating a COVID patient, shortly before a real beheading took place in France. A similar incident befell the Doctor Who episode Robot of Sherwood due to the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Can the new Spitting Image succeed? Only time will tell.