Spitting Image : Decline & Cancellation
Spitting Image was known for being not only one of the most expensive television shows ever produced but also one of the most controversial, influential and even radical.
But by the 1990s, Spitting Image changed.
Like always, it’s related to the business of the Television industry.
And such commodification ( for the real sake of keeping up the ratings )
no matter how Liberal it’s said ( aka making it more popular ) , it’s usually a clear sign of disaster for the most part.
Bill Dare appeared in documentaries such as the Comedy Connections episode relating to Spitting Image as well as Best Ever Spitting Image.
Bill Dare said the following.
“ We wanted to reduce the amount of politics and wanted Spitting Image to be a popular show and to be funny above all else. “.
Roger Law mentioned in the documentary “ Whatever Happened To Spitting Image “ as well as his book “ A Nasty Piece of Work “ that new writers came in and they weren’t particularly interested in politics. “
I’ve noticed a HUGE change in the writing of Spitting Image starting in series 11.
Series 12 did have the great political satire caricature of Peter Lilley
( John Major's Secretary of State at the Department of Social Security ) as a Nazi and Paul Simon cashing in on World Music then getting smacked down at the end during a parody of his song “Crazy Love”,
still for the most part, 1990s Spitting Image felt different.
1990s Spitting Image felt like it was just trying to be more like a parody comedy show rather than the razor sharp political satire show it was known for.
1990s Spitting Image
Occasionally 1990s Spitting Image would have something silly and funny, but for the most part, these are my general thoughts on 1990s Spitting Image.
The Slapstick Comedy Puppetry is still good
The voices don’t sound as funny and entertaining as the ones from the 1980s.
Besides people who were involved in 1980s Spitting Image started to leave starting around the late 1980s.
The jokes don’t seem as clever.
The joke delivery is still fast pace.
It’s still in a Mad Magazine written format.
Something about it just seems boring to me.
The satire doesn’t seem razor sharp.
Most of what they are lampooning is Unimportant subject matter , targets and celebrity culture.
The themes are boring.
The tone is very Saturday Night Live.
And Steve Brown’s hilarious anti-establishment satires on pop music seems like the only good thing left in the show.
Like the “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit Parody”, it does seem like the song parodies are the “GOOD BIT” we are all waiting for, but we have to get through the boring bits to get to the good bit.
1980s Spitting Image
Had faster pace dialog and humor then 1990s
More slapstick, better timing comedy
Unexpected insults, puns, wordplay and punchlines where 1990s Spitting Image relied more on running gags
1980s Spitting Image was more like and closer to Private Eye Magazine & Mad Magazine
in humor style.
strong satirical sarcasm.
It WASN’T COMMODIFIED !
It didn’t think of a target audience.
It doesn’t even talk down to an audience for the sake of ratings.
THEIR TARGET AUDIENCE WAS JUST LIKE THEM.
Just Working Class, left leaning.
And sympathy for the homeless and unemployed.
It didn’t try so hard to be popular.
It didn’t do shock value, sex, gross out humor for the sake of it.
It was QUALITY SATIRE !
The puppets didn’t look plasticy.
And the acting from the voice artists felt more believable as well as better comedic delivery , sounded human but also sounded funny and CARICATURED !
According to Steve Nallon’s blog post “Satire or Just Spit” from his website,
Steve Nallon talked about his opinions regarding the changes of Spitting Image during the 1990s.
“ SPITTING IMAGE had Thatcher sketches based on the controlling idea that she personally could do pretty much anything she wanted. And that was the prevailing political truth of the 1980s. What though of the 1990s, and what if a sketch didn’t have a controlling idea based on a political truth? Well, that’s when the show, in my opinion, got a bit rubbish. “
“ SPITTING IMAGE started to go downhill when sketches started to appear about John Major having a crush on Virginia Bottomley. Even before the Edwina Currie revelation of an actual affair there were rumours.”
“It really wasn’t true. And that was the problem also with the Virginia Bottomley sketches. It wasn’t factually true and worse there wasn’t a really bigger political truth behind it. Yes, I could see that he was the sort of accountant minded man who might have a crush on a pretty secretary or someone he worked with, but if that was the controlling idea of the sketch it was a very weak one. And these sketches ran for weeks. My view too was that they undermined the other sketches in the show. I remember seeing the writers running around very pleased with themselves that they had come up with such brilliance. I was told when I challenged them that the sketches were “just fun and what’s wrong with being a bit silly?” Er, a lot. If the political truth behind a satirical sketch is weak, or worse none existent, then it stops being a satire. For me with those sketches SPITTING IMAGE had stopped being satire. A short post-script though to the grey suburban Major.”
“Two things I think undermine satire. First, being too vicious about people who don’t deserve it and second, wasting your time attacking people who simply aren’t worth the time. One of the producers towards the end of the run rejected a sketch about Lady Diana because “it wasn’t malicious enough.” If your artistic criteria for satire becomes malice alone you might as well pack up your kit bag and go back to civvy street. Equally why waste your time on celebrity culture? This is never really an issue for SPITTING IMAGE as reality shows were only just beginning during the show’s run but there were times when I questioned why certain characters were on the show. Worse, we had a whole load of sketches about ‘Sad Man’, a mean caricature concerning a man who lived alone and who had no friends. Satire’s job is to attack up the social scale, not down. “
As Steve Nallon mentioned,
Sad Man was a weak “Controlling Idea” of the satire.
The Sad Man sketches ( besides being a parody of 1960s Batman ) was that Sad Man can’t get laid and he kept getting rejected for being sexually harassing and perverted. But still, it doesn’t even come off as the “Controlling Idea” in which in my opinion
Beavis & Butt-head & Johnny Bravo did a better job at doing which is satirizing Toxic Masculinity ignorance.
Crappy “Filler” sketches such as this was something I have noticed in the 1990s Spitting Image.
So this is what “reducing political satire and making Spitting Image a popular funny show” means ?
In series 12, there was this “album” commercial called “Real Life Love Making Moments”. Which was just a bunch of gross out sex jokes about smelly condoms and tampons.
In 1993, Spitting Image released a hour long VHS tape called “Having It Off”. Eventually I would need to get a Pal VHS player or some kind of converter in order to watch it in full.
But from what I’ve seen of it, all it is, is SEX humor featuring Spitting Image.
God watching Adam & Eve “do it”, Scottish farmers having sexual and romantic relationships with Sheep, something featuring a game show where I think Jeffery Archer is humping ( which is more satirical than the other two . )
There was sexual humor and nudity on Spitting Image, but it was still satirical.
Though the two meanest sketches that seem like
there were on the “Bullying” lines which Steve Nallon
has mentioned aka punching down that I could think of right now is
_ The “John Loves Ginny” sketches which
Steve Nallon has mentioned. But some of them went further than just that. One long sketch featured John Major
wanting to abandon his wife “ Norma” with a note that
says that he and Virginia Bottomley were in love and they were going to
run away together.
Even though John Major didn’t tell her that he loves her.
But then Norma comes home early and
finds the love letter which was really meant for Virgina. John Major panics
as he tries to find the run away note which he does and eats it.
Another was Virginia Bottomley rejecting
John Major, and the sketch ends with a close up of John Major having
tears running down his face and whimpering.
But perhaps the most irritating of all was
“ The Wildebeest “ sketches.
A series of sketches featured a
Wildebeest character who was angry ,
sad and upset at the fact that Wildebeests
such as himself are marginalized, oppressed and he just wants
the same human rights as everyone else.
One sketch involved him hoping that a woman
wouldn’t point out the fact that he wasn’t a
human but in fact, he’s a Wildebeest.
The sketches would end with the Wildebeest
saying something on the lines of
“How would you feel if everyone always stereotyped
you as this big dumb stupid animal who’s always
getting killed and eaten by lions.”
And a lion would attack him from behind
and tear him to shreds.
Another pointless series of sketches
( from the final series or so )
featured two Penguins.
They would be laughing about something or
one would make the other one look ridiculous.
And of course Spitting Image began to focus more and more on “ Celebrity Culture “.
Shows that were similar to Spitting Image featuring people who worked on Spitting Image like 2DTV, Headcases, & Newzoids did this as well. Probably due to the fact that those who worked on them , worked on 1990s Spitting Image.
Headcases was awful !
2DTV had a lot of funny moments, especially the ones featuring George W Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And Newzoids had it’s moments.
If there was any show that had a similar political satire edge that was
inspired by Spitting Image, that would be Les Guignols De L’info.
But it wasn’t until 2015 when the show was under threat of cancelation from
billionaire and new owner of Canal+ “ Vincent Bolloré“.
It has been said that as a favor to his friend Nicolas Sarkozy ( a regular target on Les Guignols De L’info for decades ) ,
Vincent wanted to cancel this overly expensive and offensive show that only got a few million viewers.
The fans protested against it.
So Vincent Bolloré decided to force Les Guignols De L’info to drop
the rest of their ratings and popularity instead.
First he fired the 3 writers, then the show runner, a slight change in the set and format,
a few non-satirical sketches including several featuring ridiculous dating apps.
And of course , celebrity puppets such as Justin Bieber, Kayne West and Kim, but let’s not forget… Trump.
The show’s name would be shortened to Les Guignols and English dubs of clips for
English speaking viewers could be seen on it’s own Dailymotion channel ( The video platform which Vincent Bollore also owns ).
The razor sharp satirical humor was still there , however it did seem a little pointless for the show to do celebrity culture.
Les Guignols would be canceled in 2018 due to low ratings. The show was on TV for 30 years
and outlived Spitting Image which originally lasted for 12 years and 3 years in development.
According to Roger Law’s Autobiography “Still Spitting At Sixty”
Roger Law became chairman of Spitting Image Productions in March 1991.
“We had almost £2 million in debt to clear, and the near certainty that the TV show, already losing some of its spark, would soon be pulled. “
Spitting Image Series 10 was broadcasted from the 14th of April - the 19th of May.
Roger Law mentioned that in order to pay off the debt, he developed the “Trash For Cash” method. Meaning how to use the Spitting Image brand irreverent satirical caricature puppetry comedy to sell out in advertising or even other television shows.
Before Bill Dare’s decision regarding the change in Spitting Image, there was another problem which was John Major.
Bill Dare mentioned in the Comedy Connections episode of Spitting Image as well as the Best Ever Spitting Image documentary special, that even though he was cheering when Thatcher resigned, he did worry about something.
“If John Major got in, what the hell were we going to do ? Because if he gets in, then we are stuffed because HE IS SUCH A BORING BLOKE ! “
John O’Farrell came up with the idea of making John Major grey and having a boring, dead marriage with his wife Norma as they are just eating peas.
Spitting Image writer Steve Punt mentioned in the Comedy Connections episode on Spitting Image that the show was doomed by the time “ Have I Got News For You “ went on the air.
The ironic thing about it, is that the most popular panelist is “ Ian Hislop “ who was one of the head satirists of the original 1980s Spitting Image until he left after series 5, the NBC specials and the other original specials.
Steve Punt mentioned that it could possibly be due to executives comparing the ratings of Have I Got News For You to Spitting Image to come to the conclusion, “Why are we paying all these people to make us a comedy show ? “ .
That could be true too. It has often been said that Spitting Image was one of the most expensive shows in television history.
Though I believe that Spitting Image & Les Guignols was doomed when the decisions were made to make the shows popular for the sake of raising the ratings as well as to be more attractive to younger generations.
And the only similar Spitting Image show that was able to stay on the air the longest was 2DTV, followed by Newzoids for having 2 series.
But what about BritBox Spitting Image ?
It started with NBC asking Roger Law to make an American Spitting Image.
Roger Law agreed to it. This developed into BritBox Spitting Image.
It’s being made by a production company and production services which I find very strange.
According to an article from BBC News from March 2020
Roger Law said the following.
"I've refused to resuscitate Spitting Image for years but when my pension ran out
and my palm was crossed with silver what could an old man do?”
In 2021, Roger Law turns 80. And for now,
he owns Spitting Image Productions.
Roger Law donated many of the original Spitting Image material to
Cambridge University ( where he went to college ).
There isn’t many pop culture icons that aren’t own by a media conglomerate.
In the situation with Spitting Image, ITV owns the other half.
BritBox Spitting Image is expected to premiere 3rd October 2020,
And based on the first couple of promo videos I’ve seen and reviewed,
It seems like a Disappointment. Commodified & Americanized.
If BritBox is just a testing ground and Roger Law sells
the rest of Spitting Image to these entertainment capitalists,
In a way, we can’t blame him.
Roger Law was ALWAYS hard working.
He mentioned in a news article once…
“ We were paid on contract by Central Television, and my initial salary
was about £400 a week. The most I was ever paid was £600 a week.”
Whenever something great in pop culture is remade and commodified,
I always hope that new generations of fans will eventually discover the originals,
because most often, the originals are the best.
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