Spitting Image series 6 DVD review

A chunky slice of comedy pie, with some lingering satirical sauce, but a bit too much rubber gristle…

Spitting Image series 6

1989 was a pivotal year. The Berlin Wall crumbled, Bush Senior entered the White House, the Poll Tax was debuted in Scotland, human rights protests culminated in a massacre in Tiananmen Square, Frederick De Klerk became President of South Africa, Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile was on the brink, and the Guildford Four were freed after 14 years. Rave exploded in the second Summer of Love, and Tim Burton’s Batman mopped up at the box office. The Stone Roses, De La Soul, Madonna and, erm, Tina Turner released career-defining albums. We saw the launch of Microsoft Office, the 486 microprocessor, the Sky satellite TV service and the blue Smartie. For half a year, you couldn’t switch on the radio for fear of defenestration at the hands of Jive Bunny. Coronation Street super-villain Alan Bradley got flattened under a tram in Blackpool, and Dirty Den found out the hard way that you should never trust a man carrying a large bunch of daffodils. 

Given all this fodder, the sixth series of Spitting Image should have been fit to bursting with inventive scripts and latex parodies. Bafflingly, a lot doesn’t make it on to this meagre five-episode series. The fact that there are only five episodes is staggering in itself, but there were reasons for the parody prolapse. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman left in 1989 and, for many, the high watermark of writing had already been reached. Early visionary John Lloyd was working on Blackadder, and Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had moved on to Red Dwarf. New talent was brought in, and the likes of Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield and Steve Nallon truly shine, but one can’t help feeling the writers were struggling to keep the momentum going.

The puppets are still a feast for the eyes, but you don’t get the sense that the creative team is gunning for taboos with the same gusto. It’s hard not to feel that things were becoming a little jaundiced and formulaic, and much of the show’s satirical punch seems to have devolved into variations on a theme. Perhaps this is an understandable and honest account of the times. Still, things are moving on from the early days of shock and awe, to increasingly desperate and occasionally hackneyed territory. It’s still amusing, but it’s not as lacerating as one remembers. Many obvious targets for ridicule just don’t seem to get the drubbings they deserve. 

The class of ’89 does include some delightful turns. On fine form are Dustin Hoffman as Rainman, trying to put a fresh spin on Shakespeare with the help of a handbag, a gargantuan Kylie with enormous mannish hands, Barry Norman doing Parliament ‘89 (Who cares? I do. Or do I?”), and omnipresent reporter Nicholas Witchell, single-handedly keeping the BBC afloat during a series of staff shortages. Alastair Burnet’s nose inflates as he waxes rhapsodic about the Queen Mum, Andrew Lloyd Webber shrinks before your eyes as he plans his next masterpiece, and Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis takes ‘boring’ to the edges of the execrable.

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Regrettably, beloved caricatures such as Sir Roger Moore have been put to pasture while others, such as the banjo-strumming Pope John Paul II, knighthood-crazed Donald Sinden, Paul Daniels and his pet wig, make only brief appearances. Peremptory turns by Jacko and Madonna are ineffectual at best.

Other appearances, such as the Gold Blend couple and Mandy Smith, draw attention to their own shelf-life (although Smith’s latex visage does bring Jordan to mind). One of the tangible successes of earlier Spitting Image was its ballsy take on life at Buckingham Palace. Sadly, this aspect of the show is treading water, with few ideas beyond one surreal moment where Charles and Diana appear as Noddy and Big Ears. Some celebs (such as Ulrika Jonsson and Tony Slattery) are noticeable by their absence. Maybe it was too early to fully comprehend the horrors perpetrated by Bette Midler in 1989. But Cliff Richard gets off unforgivably lightly for his crimes to both music and Christmas.

The real gift of Spitting Image was always Margaret Thatcher. Along with the usual gaggle of decrepit tagalongs (a haggard Nigel Lawson, vampiric Edwina Currie and otherworldly Michael Howard), the show’s take on Maggie as dehumanised fascistic tyrant is as fascinating as ever.

In one scene, she is electrocuted by her cabinet. As Heseltine et al gloat that she will be totally bonkers and unfit for office, she starts babbling about how people want to pay for eye tests and how the poll tax is a good idea, and the message is clear: “She’s exactly the same!”.

Elsewhere, Labour leader Kinnock is portrayed with increased pathos, while Davids Owen and Steel are still trying to figure out the name of their party. Ronald Reagan and his literally missing brain receive short shrift, as he gets pummelled to maintain his putative vegetative state, and George Bush Senior is practically invisible. Instead, the show focuses on Dan Quayle as spaceman, a sketch that feels increasingly like a waste of space. Still, we do get the classic: “In space, no-one can hear you wet yourself.”

When the focus is tilted towards politics, there are some excellent ideas. In the Plonkers sequence (based on The Clangers), we meet the strangest of creatures “who live in a world of their own, thinking up silly ideas”, and Maggie as Soup Dragon is a stroke of genius. Stephen Fry hosts Parliamentary Masterclass with “the moist, pink and fluffy” Kinnock, an advertisement for board game Riddopoly ridicules the poll tax with aplomb, and the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is announced in suitably grave fashion (“His condition is said to be satisfactory”).

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The fallout from the collapse of the Cold War is somewhat skimmed over, with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin memorable only for a nightclub sequence, and although Tiananmen does get a mention, the show plays it safe. Still, many subjects are curiously timely two decades on, as the show tackles student loans, Britain’s beleaguered railways, the EU and the chances of finding an honourable merchant banker. Elsewhere, the classic Flake ad (featuring a woman with large latex lips fellating a stick of chocolate) becomes a beautiful dig at British Telecom when a ringing phone is unanswered.  Musically, there’s nothing to rival the haunting menace of Every Bomb you Make, the Black Lace pastiche of The Chicken Song or the unapologetic slap-down of Never Met a Nice South African. Still, The Monkees get their come-uppance for attempting a comeback: “We’re the old generation, and we’ve got nothing to say. We’re just trying to make money!” and talk of various Elvis sightings produces one of the series’ money shots, as a life-size King shimmies and shakes in a Las Vegas-style jumpsuit. Pity the poor sod who had to carry that off. Sadly, the DVD extras are non-existent. Even allowing for the possibility that The Powers That Be don’t have reams of outtakes or endless footage about how latex creations were operated, this is a singularly mean omission and a real missed opportunity. 

It’s hard not to think of the dying throes of the 1980s without regret (and relief), so perhaps it is appropriate that this DVD rakes up as many bum notes as wry smiles. Clearly, much of the value of the show (and other topical satires such as Drop the Dead Donkey and The New Statesman) is entrenched in the spirit of the times. Arguably, from this remove, the success of the DVDs relies on the power of nostalgia and one’s capacity to overlook the disconnects in writing and vision. One year later, it would be trumped by Have I Got News For You, which probably wouldn’t have existed without it. But decades later, its taut critique continues to resonate. Much of the subject matter is still relevant and eerily prescient today. Depressingly, the Eighties comes off well in comparison. 

Its golden age of invective may well have been fading at this point. But despite the misfires and formulaic tendencies, this amusing collection of rubber thingies still delivers a punch in the comparatively timid and non-committal Noughties.

Show:

3 stars
Extras: None

Spitting Image series 6 is out now.

Rating:

3 out of 5