SPITTING IMAGE had been going about a month or so and I was having lunch with the producer John Lloyd. John was rarely cross and even when he was it came out more as exasperation. That day John was very exasperated. “I do wish they wouldn’t say SPITTING IMAGE is satirical. It’s not satirical,” John then raised his thumb to his nose, spread out his four fingers, stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry, “it’s thhhubbbbbb to the rich and famous!” That remains for me the best ever description of SPITTING IMAGE. John’s argument that he then developed at length was that SPITTING IMAGE was there for the people who worked hard all week and had to get up at six o’clock on a Monday morning who wanted a bit of a laugh at people who were richer and in their eyes didn’t have to work as hard as they did. He had a point.
Satire is one of those awkward terms that suffers from being designated willy-nilly to all kinds of work and yet remains annoyingly illusive and imprecise as to its actual meaning. It’s thrown around like the proverbial drunken sailor with money at anything that is vaguely political, or trying to make a point or just simply not liking something. So, in the year of the Thirtieth Anniversary of SPITTING IMAGE and the celebration at the BFI (The British Film Institute) I thought it would be appropriate to have a closer look at this ‘satire’ thing, exploring its origins, its techniques, its weaknesses and its role in society. Tom Lehrer said that he gave up satire the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the basis that such a world was now beyond satirizing which in a roundabout way leads to the Final Question, where is satire today?
What is ‘Satire’? Or, Etymology, Here I Come!
Let’s get the word origin of ‘satire’ out of the way early. Just to warn you, it’s a bit confused. There is an understandable misconception that it is Greek in origin, though those who know these things say the etymology of the word is emphatically Latin. But hey, let’s look at the Greek case if only, in a satirical way, to remind ourselves of the sheer pointlessness of academic discourse. In Greek times there were short skittish plays put on called ‘satyr plays’, named after satyrs who were beastly creatures, woodland demons, half-man and half-goat. A satyr play was presented after a trilogy of three usually heavy going tragedies. The hero of the ‘satyr play’ would be mythical, often the same hero who had appeared in the tragedies, and in the play he would be put into some sort of ludicrous burlesque scenario alongside a chorus of satyrs, dressed in indecent costumes. The theory is that this play was performed in order to bring theatre goers back down to earth with a few laughs after experiencing the spiritual heights of tragedy. For this reason Elizabethan scholars guessed that the word ‘satire’ derived from ‘satyr’. It turned out though they guessed wrong. In fact our word ‘satire’ really comes from the Latin word ‘satura’, which is of all things is a cooking term that very roughly translates as a ‘dog’s breakfast’, a kinder translation though might be ‘mish-mash’ or ‘medley’. This term was applied to the kind of poem written by a chap called Lucilius on various and diverse themes (hence the ‘dog’s breakfast’ or ‘mish-mash’). The tone of these poems was usually similar to those of Horace, another Roman poet known for his gentle but derisory ridicule of people and ideas. Later the word ‘satire’ was used just to describe works that were written in that satirical tone of Mr Horace rather than the mish-mash element. So now you know. Except you don’t, because technically ‘satire’ was only a noun and like all nouns it was ambitious to be developed into an adverbial or adjectival forms. But its etymological origin was ‘satura’, which, being Latin was so minded not to have an adverbial or adjectival form and so anyone who wanted to be adverbial or adjectival, had to appropriate the Greek word for ‘satyr’ (satyros) and its derivatives with the bizarre result that the English word ‘satire’ comes from the Latin ‘satura’ but ‘satirize’ and ‘satiric’ are Greek in origin. Well, now you do know but have probably stopped caring, so I’ll stop. Except to say that even if the Elizabethans got the wrong end of the stick with those ‘satyr’ men you can at least see why. Audiences having a laugh at a hero in a silly situation surrounded by men dressed up as goats with their willies hanging out is much more my thing.
Later definitions though of the word ‘satire’ are slightly more defined, which, by definition, you’d expect. When in doubt begin with Dr Johnson. He said a ‘satire’ was a work, or, in his day, a poem, “in which wickedness or folly is censured”. A good start but limiting. John Dryden looked more at the aim of satire to find a definition and came up with “the amendment of vices”. Certainly we’re getting a sense of purpose now. Pope praised satire thus: “O sacred Weapon! Left for Truth’s defence, / Sole dread of Folly, Vice and Insolence!” Nicely put and it rhymes. Best though with satire to give Jonathan Swift the last word. He wrote “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders go generally to discover everyone’s face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few people are offended with it”. The Dean as so often with satire is absolutely right. No matter how you define it at the end of the day it turns out to be a complete waste of time.
Academics like boxes they can put things in or divide things up with. With ‘satire’ the Profs were a bit lazy and came up with only two (actually three but we’ll get to that Menippean satire later). The two basic styles of satire are said to be Horatian and Juvenalian. First the Horatian satirist. Horatian satire is conveniently enough named after the Roman poet Horace I mentioned earlier. Mr Horace, full name Quintus Horatius Flaccus, which for some reason puts me in CARRY ON giggle mode, wrote in a style that was wry, elegant and clever. Think THE NEW YORKER. Think Matt. Think Waugh. Think Thurber. This contrasts sharply with Juvenalian satire tradition, named after another Roman poet, called, you’ve guessed it, Juvenal. His style was far more biting and splenetic than Horace. Think PRIVATE EYE. Think Scarfe. Think Sharpe. Think Wolfe. Juvenal’s aim was to denounce and censor the moral vices of ancient Rome in no uncertain terms, with portraits, as one critic said, ‘etched in vitriol’. Arguably his most famous line though is one of his terse little proverbs: ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ ‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’ There are some who might shout out ‘The Satirist!’ at this stage but I’d rather they kept their mouths shut for now because I’m going to look at the purpose of satire later. So for now let’s just ask are these distinctions in style any use? Let’s be positive, not usually a characteristic of the satirist, and say ‘yes’. You can see a divide in the history of satire right up to the present day between the urbane wit of the Horatian tradition and the vitriol of the Juvenalian style. Also, and forgive me for telling this story, but an understanding of the differing styles of satire was quite useful when confronted by those people who liked to criticize SPITTING IMAGE for being ‘juvenile’. “Oh no,” I would say, “I think you mean ‘Juvenal’. The Roman poet, have you read him? Such a hoot! If you haven’t, you simply must!” I would then walk away leaving the poor souls very confused.
Satire’s ‘Big Idea’ and ‘Moral Viewpoint’
Anyway, well done for getting this far. There are quite a few people who gave up this article when I started mentioning men dressed up as goats with their knobs hanging out but you didn’t. You stayed with it. Thank you. So, now then… we’ve done etymology, had a look at a few definitions and even had a go at putting satire into different boxes with posh names. Like vaccinations always a good idea to get those things out the way early. But now it’s time for the good stuff you’ve been waiting for: the techniques and methods of satire. Let’s start with ‘The Big One’: The Controlling Idea.
‘The Controlling Idea’
The Controlling Idea is simply what the satire is all about, in a nutshell. The phrase belongs to story guru Robert McKee, and in my view is a good one, in that you should be able to express in one sentence the essence of what you are trying to say. For satire I think it is a prerequisite. Without the premise of a controlling idea, satire will be a very empty vessel. The breadth or scale of the idea or theme can be as big or as little as you like, but what matters is it must be there. It’s a useful exercise for all creatives to see if they can come up with a sentence that expresses the controlling idea of their work or indeed anyone else’s. Let’s take a look at a specific and famous satire, George Orwell’s 1984. Put in a simple sentence I’d say the controlling idea is that ‘Totalitarianism is the boot stamped on the face of man but it’s true power comes when that man learns to love it.’ You can see then its continued relevance for today as anyone who has watched the documentary THE ACT OF KILLING about the political life past and present of Indonesia will verify. Orwell recognised in his satire the true scale and horror of the might of any totalitarian system, right or left. I doubt if copies of 1984 are readily available either in North Korea or Burma. Can I at this point digress and pay tribute to what I think is a great joke from the Burmese comedian Zarganar. “A man goes from Burma on a one-day visa visit to India. He walks off the plane and makes his way straight to the nearest dentist. The dentist is confused. He says to the man, ‘Surely you have dentists in Burma?’ ‘Oh yes,’ says the man, ‘of course we have dentists. The only problem is we’re not allowed to open our mouths.’” The Burmese locked him up for that.
Another controlling idea from another great satire can be found in the anti-war book and later film CATCH-22. I would say the essence of that story is the paradox that “To believe that war is insane is no way of escaping it since war needs those sane people who say such things to fight it!” Pretty much everything that happens in a story comes from the controlling idea, for it is the story’s root. It should be a truth, not the truth, for in narrative we have many truths. So how does SPITTING IMAGE fit into this highfaluting concept? Personally I think that even a simple little comedy sketch should have a controlling idea of some sort; however small, however simple. The most famous of all SPITTING IMAGE sketches has the central premise that ‘Mrs Thatcher was a dominant leader who always managed to get her way because those who surrounded her were weak and fearful’ – Come along, say it with me… WAITRESS: “What about the vegetables?” THATCHER: “Oh, they’ll have the same as me”. To be brutally honest this was the controlling idea of pretty much every Cabinet sketch up to about 1989! After that it changed to ‘Mrs Thatcher is mad and out of touch but she still gets her own way because those who surround her are still weak and fearful. This is not a criticism. Far from it. These satirical sketches did had an important political truth behind them that was based on real politics and that truth only stopped being true when all those fearful and weak Conservative MPs had the opportunity of a secret ballot to get rid of her. Would she have been voted down on a show or hands? I doubt it. But that’s another story. She got booted out, the nation cheered, my income went down and I had to spend an extra ten years paying off the mortgage. Hoist by my own petard. Oh satire, why did you do that to me?
Anyway, even if somewhat repetitious, 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. To be fair I liked the peas. I liked the grey John Major. There was a personal truth in this portrayal of Major which reflected a greater political truth too, and that was that he was a suburban thinker unable to deal with the global ideas that politics requires. Mending broken pavements may get Liberal Democrats elected as councillors but for realpolitik you need bigger thinking. Poor Major just didn’t have it. Major was a retail mind working in what is really a wholesale business. Major’s civil servant apparently dreaded going with the PM on cultural trips with other world leaders to places such as the great art galleries of Europe. Major wasn’t particularly cultured and had, to say the least, a bit of an inferiority complex. Apparently he would look at a magnificent Botticelli or Picasso and suddenly change the subject and become ‘Suburban Man’ by saying things like “I’m very worried about my goldfish, you know. Oh yes, the inclement weather in England has been quite a concern of mine for their welfare”. The SPITTING IMAGE obsession with peas came directly from this suburban mentality. And it was a palpable hit. But for me 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 actually affair there were rumours. The writer and producer of the Channel Four shows featuring Rory Bremner, Geoff Atkinson, said, “We’ve heard he’s had an affair with one of the cleaners or catering staff in Parliament.” Not true, as it turned out. I’m not just saying that for the lawyers, 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. I met Edwina Currie after her affair. I said, “So then, what was he like in bed?” She pursed her lips and said, “Well, all I’ll say is, with John, you chose the most appropriate colour.”
Sorry to bang on about ‘The Controlling Idea’ thing but without it you might as well not even bother. The next step though is where it really gets complicated and that is to make the leap from the controlling idea to understanding the moral viewpoint that is behind it. In other words, to what degree can you extract from the satire the moral position of its creator? I’d say that a moral viewpoint of some sort is a necessary part of what makes a satire a satire. Dryden said that the true end of satire is ‘the amendment of vices’, in essence what that means is that for a satire to be a satire it must have a purpose. What is it that the satirist wishes to correct? This though inevitably leads to the perennial criticism aimed at the satirist, that is, that they are, as one MP put it to me, ‘just a load of useless againsters’. Bluntly put, but his point was that satirists are fine when telling us what they don’t like but less good in showing us what they are for. And sometimes even their targets are unclear. Take Orwell’s 1984. Undoubtedly it is one of our great satires. It is against totalitarianism. Very easy to spot, that. But in the year that it was published, 1948 (the reversing of the numbers gave the book its title), it wasn’t that clear what Orwell, a socialist, was really saying. Was it an attack on the Soviet system? Was there a suggestion that Soviet philosophy would somehow take over from our democracy? Was Orwell even suggesting the post-war Atlee Labour Government was putting in place a political system that would lead to a totalitarian Britain? The 1945 ANIMAL FARM also lends itself to numerous interpretations. For the moment I would just say that if satire is truly corrective then it should be understandable what it is that the satirist wants to be corrected but that historically the satirist hasn’t always made that so easy to determine.
Lifting the Bonnet to See How the Engine Works: The Techniques and Methods of Satire
Let’s move on to look at some of the techniques and methods of the satirist. What drives the engine and gives power to the satirist? Let’s kick off this section with the strongest and more commonly used weapon in the satirist’s armoury: mockery.
A primary aim of the satirist is to diminish or to derogate a subject by making it, or more usually him, look ridiculous to the point that it evokes scorn and contempt. Politicians say they welcome mockery as it proves they are worth being made fun of, but I have my doubts. I offer this little anecdote in repost. Friends of Nigel Lawson say that the occasion that pushed him over the edge to make the decision to resign was not some comment made by Margaret Thatcher, or her own personal economic adviser at the time Alan Walters, who was then a major rival for her affection. No, what made Lawson resign was being laughed at. The then Leader of the Opposition John Smith made a very funny speech in the House of Commons. I remember it, it was quite brilliant. The convention of the House was that Nigel Lawson had to sit all the way through it and take it. His friends said that he hated, hated, hated being laughed at more than anything else, especially when he was being mocked and laughed at by his political opponents in a public arena. He wasn’t going to stand, or rather sit, for that. So he threw his rattle from his large and well-suspensioned pram and then marched off. When I heard that story I thought, ‘Oh, if only we had been able to bring the traditions of ancient Greek theatre to the experience of watching SPITTING IMAGE!’ (Yes, I’m afraid that is the sort of guy I am.) It was, you see, the Greek theatre tradition that is was part of your civic duty to be in the audience at a performance and so if you were mentioned specifically in a comedy, as was Socrates, it meant you were there amongst your fellow citizens to face the ridicule. Dear God! Can you imagine a world where Thatcher’s Cabinet would have been made to sit and watch SPITTING IMAGE with a public audience in front of them pointing a deriding mocking finger? Yes, the great strength of television is that it is a mass public event, but its great weakness is that it takes place in a closeted private arena. As Jeffery Archer watched the sketch where he was on Mastermind and his chosen subject was himself, and he got all the answers to his questions wrong because he had repeatedly lied in his own CV, he may well have been alone, but imagine had he been made to watch it with an audience in front of him with every squirm of his face plain to see. That is the stuff of which the satirist’s dreams are made of.
‘Carnival of the Animals’
Another of the satirists’ techniques is anthropomorphism, beast-fables and animal imagery. As a general principle animals are particularly useful for the caricaturists for caricaturists often morph together the face or body of an animal and those of a political figure. Peter Fluck and Roger Law introduced me to a fascinating little illustrated book called THE ANIMALS WHO GOVERN US. In it three French caricaturists Jean-Claude Morchoisne, Jean Mulatier and Patrice Ricord work within the tradition of portrait-change or ‘loaded likeness’ where the features of animals are borrowed and added to the general look of a human person to create a sort of hybrid. Often the animal features are very subtle and work for the viewer at an almost subliminal way. Only when you see the transformation can you fully recognize the original. The caricature of Arafat from a camel, Mao from a termite, Reagan borrows from the rooster, and so on. Thatcher is made from chicken features, appropriate enough perhaps as her nick-name in Whitehall was ‘Attila the Hen’. Animals though have always been useful tools to the satirist. Yes, it’s back to those Greeks again. The chorus of an Aristophanes comedy was often an animal of some sort, be it bird, or wasp, or frog, and their characteristics became part of the satire. Ben Johnson of course also used the technique in his plays, the full title of VOLPONE after all is VOLPONE, OR THE FOXE. In modern times it was Orwell who, in the beast-fable tradition, made ANIMAL FARM one of the great satires of the twentieth century. I always thought that one of the reasons no one in Britain watching SPITTING IMAGE ever thought twice about having pigs and vultures as press men was because everyone had read ANIMAL FARM at school. And also, of course, because journos are pigs and vultures. I know from what Peter and Roger have told me that for many years they tried to get the rights to the story of ANIMAL FARM to do their version. A true lost opportunity. SPITTING IMAGE artists though both metaphorically and literally drew from the anthropomorphic and animal imagery tradition. Visually the SPITTING IMAGE caricaturists certainly used the portrait-change technique to great effect. Mitterand had the look of a frog, with a peculiarly wide amphibian mouth and the playboy image of Rod Stewart was certainly in mind when his nose was created to resemble a giant penis (obvious when it you see it but quite a few needed it pointing out!) Janet Street Porter though as a germ never really caught on but not to worry, because the one that worked the best of all of the animal hybrids was Kenneth Baker as a slug. Roy Hattersley told me that he thought SPITTING IMAGE had got it spot on with Baker. Hattersley said, “Facing Kenneth Baker across the dispatch box is much like looking at a squirmy slug, oozing disingenuous utterances with his every breath”. Kenneth Baker oddly enough collected antique political caricature drawings and very much considered himself an expert in the field. He even made a BBC documentary on the subject, for which I did some voices. But guess what, he didn’t want mention of his own SPITTING IMAGE puppet. Oh no. I in part put that right in a very small way. The BBC production team told me they were planning a private special screening of the programme, which would include out-takes. I offered to film a special message from the Thatcher puppet. I said, as Thatcher, that politics was a tough game and sometimes you had to fight tough like a boxer, “And you, Kenneth, you are a great fighter! Yes, in a fight you SLUG it out, really SLUG it out. That’s your image, isn’t it, SLUGGING it out!” I doubt this film still survives and I’ve no idea if this back-handed insult was even shown to Kenneth Baker, but I like to think it was. I hope too those oozing antennae of his drooped a little as he watched.
“And now for my next trick,” says the satirist, “‘The Inverse!’”. The inverse is when the satirist somehow turns upside down or inside out some aspect of this world but in doing so highlights and reveals a greater truth about the nature of the world as it is. The novel MONKEY PLANET by Pierre Boulle, later made into the film and TV franchise PLANET OF THE APES, offers a simple but highly effective inverse by making Monkeys and not Man the intelligent and dominant creature. Seeing Man as a subservient creature and how he is treated makes you see human behavior very differently. It is this ability to highlight what is wrong with this world by inverting it that makes it such a popular weapon of the satirist. The famous example we are often introduced to as children is ALICE’S ADVENTURES IS WONDERLAND. Pretty much everything there is inverted in some way. Indeed it has become a sort of proverbial shorthand for claiming we live in a mad world of doing things. Sadly though some of the comic inversions have a serious resonance that make them still prescient today. In the court of the Queen of Hearts the order isn’t verdict then sentence, but “sentence first, verdict after”, an absurd idea if only it weren’t so true of many political dictatorships around the world today. I always felt SPITTING IMAGE never did quite enough inverting but with one character a simple swap round summed up the whole persona. When SPITTING IMAGE started dressing Thatcher as a man you sort of felt that at last the show had found its feet. Women and men swapping power roles in satire or comedy is hardly new. Yes, those Greeks got there first again with Aristophanes and his comedy ASSEMBLY WOMEN (Joe Orton, incidentally, wrote an unproduced modernised version). Back though to SPITTING IMAGE. Very few people remember the actually subject of the sketch but everyone remembers the setting. I’m talking about the sketch where Thatcher went into the male toilet and stood next to her fellow Cabinet Ministers at the urinal. Credit to Anthony Asbury the puppeteer who made it look as if Thatcher was actually taking her penis out to pee and standing there in that very open way that certain men do who have been amply blest by nature. He even managed to give Thatcher that special little shake and readjustment men do that comes at the end. Credit too to the writers who put in a great final line: “I can never seem to go when she comes in.”
One inversion though on SPITTING IMAGE happened more by accident. In GULLIVER TRAVELS what is big must become small and what is small must become big. Swift in inverting size was able to make satirical points about, among other things, human pride and pretentiousness, for when you are small next to someone very big you can see in close-up all their true faults. We had our own Swiftian image of inverse proportion with the puppets of David Owen and David Steel. Small puppets were cheaper than their bigger brothers, they rarely had any eye mechanism or proper wigs. Originally it was intended that the big puppets and little puppets would never actually mix but this soon became totally impractical. What surprised everyone was how well big and little worked side by side. Again though perhaps we may have in our sub-consciousness childhood memories of Alice and Gulliver in the respective worlds of reverse proportions. But even if it was by accident, the little David Steel set against the large David Owen was a stroke of fortuitous genius. If any image on SPITTING IMAGE did a politician real harm it was the two sizes of the two Davids. In the doggy chews version David Steel was literally in the pocket of David Owen. The two leaders of course claimed an almost Trinity like equality, rightly or wrongly, the SPITTING IMAGE image that Owen was the dominant of the two did lasting political damage to poor little David Steel. That and the fact that little David always surged too early.
“Weird, But I Love It!”
Leading from the idea of the inverse is the general point that one of the advantages for the satirist is that satire is far more accepting of unrealities than basic comedy. Satire’s threshold or boundary for suspension of disbelief is very wide indeed. Again this goes back as far as Aristophanes. His plays often begin in the real world with a real world problem but from that situation his main character comes up with an absurdist fantasy solution, the premise of which then becomes the basis of the play. A famous example is THE BIRDS. In the play birds are encouraged to organise themselves and create a bird city in the air, giving us the term we still use today for absurdist thinking, namely ‘cloud cuckoo-land’. The problem then arises in the play that the birds have in effect created a blockade between man and the gods. The poor gods end up starving because the sacrifices can’t get through. The play, it should be said, took place against the background of Athens starving the island of Melos into submission and compliance. Bit of politics for you there! These kinds of plots are open to interpretation, a problem for any satire that uses fantasy or allegory, and the debate as to what THE BIRDS is really about continues among academics over three thousand years later. SPITTING IMAGE though in my view never quite took advantage of the allowances on reality that satire gave them. FAMILY GUY on US TV today, for example, is far more playful with its absurdist scenarios than was ever SPITTING IMAGE. That said, the devotees of the first SPITTING IMAGE will fondly remember the ‘President’s Brain is Missing’ sketches, where Ronald Reagan’s brain escaped from his head and took on a life of its own, including sex with a tortoise. Or the several sketches where an aged Hitler was shown living next door to Thatcher and passing on his political tips. SPITTING IMAGE though generally never quite took up fantasy in a way that I had hoped it might from those early shows. There were parodies certainly but putting characters into sketches that involved dressing them up is not the same as a fantasy premise that accepts an unreality at face value. Perhaps though the grotesqueness of the caricatures was fantasy enough. I don’t want to be quoted out of context, but can I just say, for the record, as time went on, I missed Hitler.
“In a World Where Latex Lives…”
In a way all satirical worlds are alternate or parallel whether they are real, fantasy, allegorical or inversions. The premise from the very first episode of SPITTING IMAGE was that all the world’s famous people lived in their own parallel world. And all the people who lived in that world all knew each other – and only each other. For this reason one of the first puppets ever made was Jackie Onassis, who, of course, knew everybody. I don’t actually remember though an actual Jackie Onassis sketch and so she was a bit of a waste. I do remember clearly though Tony Hendra, one of the co-founders of SPITTING IMAGE, being very insistent that this rule about only having famous people should not be broken. But there was a problem with this alternate world: there were no ordinary people in it. Ordinary people are a bit of a problem for satirists. They don’t really ‘do’ ordinary. The creators of the show thought they could get round this problem by building Lord Lucan, a British lord who had famously done a bunk and disappeared. The theory was that since Lord Lucan had probably taken on a new identity somewhere in the world the show could have him as the barman or the hairdresser. This kept the rule that all the characters in SPITTING IMAGE would be famous but it would still allow them someone to play the waiter and so on. It was brilliantly clever but like many brilliantly clever ideas it was completely impractical. ‘Generics’ soon had to be made to cover secretaries and newspaper sellers, though I was always pleased that the original idea of having only famous people inhabiting the SPITTING IMAGE world did carry on with the royal flunkies, who was always Sir Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld Institute, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and, by then revealed, as a Soviet spy.
The principle of a parallel world though is a key feature of much satire from Thomas More’s UTOPIA to George Orwell’s 1984. What was unique though about SPITTING IMAGE was the ability of the SPITTING IMAGE world of the puppets to interact with our real world of people. It wasn’t though until we went on THE TUBE, an 80s music show mixing pop and anarchic comedy, that the true potential was realised. There was a worry the puppets would somehow because less real when put alongside humans. I’m not sure why this was a worry as pretty much every generation in Britain had been brought up with a real person talking to puppets, whether it was Sheri Lewis with Lamb Chop or Derek Fowlds with Basil Brush. Some humans didn’t want to get involved with SPITTING IMAGE. I was there when Arthur Scargill was offered by John Lloyd the chance to appear on the show and poke Ian MacGregor, head of the national Coal Board, in the eye. “The miners’ strike,” said Scargill, “is far too important for that.” Very few real people appeared on the show. One was Denis Healey, whose presence did him no harm but I don’t think it did the show any good. My opinion was that although it was possible for the puppets to go into the real world it was not such a good idea for real people to venture into the world of SPITTING IMAGE. This is because I think SPITTING IMAGE had brilliantly created a reality of its own with its own parallel existence. I think John Lloyd was wrong in way to ask Arthur Scargill onto the show, though he would have been castigated had he forgone the opportunity. I was the puppeteer on Comic Relief when David Coleman met his puppet (he really didn’t like it). And I was the puppeteer and voice of David Frost at an event where the interviewer, somehow thinking it was the puppet that was talking, insisted on putting the microphone in front of the mouth of the puppet. That interviewer was none other than David Frost himself.
Let’s continue to look under the bonnet and see how the satire engine works with a couple more useful but in truth not entirely essential techniques and devices.
“And We’ll All Go Together When We Go!”
When looking at the early definitions of satire, on the whole, the works being referred to are those were in verse. Dr Johnson specifically defines satire as “a poem in which wickedness or folly is censored”. Well add music and you suddenly have the great British tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan! Or Jake Thackray. Or across the pond, Tom Lehrer. Satire in song was an essential part too of THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS and also, of course, of SPITTING IMAGE itself with original songs such as I’VE NEVER MET A NICE SOUTH AFRICICAN and NOT QUITE FREE, NELSON MANDELA plus reinventions of EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE and TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME. The only time I ever really got goosebumps from doing Mrs Thatcher was when I sang the final line… “Tomorrow belongs to me.”
‘The Very Final Frontier’
Black comedy is also often a strong element or tool in satire, hardly surprising giving the amount of killing human beings do to each other. At the more refined end of the scale can be found Evelyn Waugh’s THE LOVED ONE, at the other, the more visceral anti-war M.A.S.H. and CATCH-22. DR STANGELOVE is a fascinating combination of the two styles. It’s a clever satire on the Cold War but it is also as much about the technological age as it is about politics. The film opens with the refuelling of a plane in mid-air by another plane, an image that looks, intentionally I’m sure, like aeroplanes having sex. The technology in DR STRANGELOVE almost seems to have a mind of its own, and indeed that is how the satire plays as out as even though the two sides don’t want a conflict the technology cannot be reversed once the button is pressed. Game over. We’re all dead. SPITTING IMAGE rarely used black comedy in that sense, though the Grim Reaper was a semi-regular character for a while. I suppose our emphasis was more on the living, even if quite a few of the living we portrayed spent a lot of their time making sure other people weren’t.
“That’s the What to Do It!”
Violence. Brutality. Misrule. Feed a child all the organic yogurt and muesli you like but it won’t stop them liking PUNCH AND JUDY. SPITTING IMAGE was much criticized for being too violent. Yeah, tell it to the Marines. On set we always seemed to laugh loudest when the truncheon came out. And since the puppets’ expression rarely changed they could take the pain. A short digression. When Buster Keaton was a boy he had a vaudeville act with his father where the young Buster was passed physically round the audience, rock-star style. Not surprising he could get hurt. But his father said it will only be funny if he didn’t show pain. Dead-pan = Dead-face. That was one of the great advantages for the puppets in the very physical Commedia dell’arte tradition in which SPITTING IMAGE was working, puppets don’t show pain. That’s one of the reasons it’s funny.
‘A Complete Travesty!’
Another key tool at the satirist’s disposal is burlesque. Burlesque in its widest sense is any form of incongruous imitation of a genre where there is a ridiculous disparity between the style of the presentation and the content. This essentially covers parody but also includes travesty and lampoon. Parody refers to an imitation of the characteristics of a genre but usually deflates the original by applying the imitation to an incongruous or inappropriate subject. Travesty is a more extreme form of burlesque in that a genre is mocked by treating its lofty subject in a grotesque and undignified manner. Lampoon is more subject specific and has the aim of describing the appearance or character of a person in such a way that makes them look ridiculous or foolish. In sketch shows like SPITTING IMAGE the use of burlesque or parody was more a means of attacking those who were its participants than the actual genre itself. There was a fun send-up of the Labour Party using a Gilbert and Sullivan parody. The presentation had a look of a ‘Tacky Tours’ mounting of a G and S operetta but the joke was more on Kinnock and Hattersley than Gilbert and Sullivan. SPITTING IMAGE could sometimes rely too heavily on parody in that there were shows where nearly every single sketch was a parody of another TV programme. The best burlesques for me were those that were more off the wall and inventive. A particular favourite was Sir John Gielgud reading Bye-bye Blackbird, a perfect incongruous imitation with a supremely comic disparity between style and content. Such additions to the show, including Alan Bennett and Thora Hird, leavened the heavier elements of the show and acted as a sort of breathing space.
“How Did You Get Away With It?”
One often repeated question was “How did you get away with it?” Well, the simple answer is – we never asked! It’s the old adage about what makes a good producer: one who would rather offer an apology than ask permission. Yes, there were lawyers (I never actually met one, lawyers never turned up to the parties) but apart from technical issues such as avoiding saying in a sketch ‘So-and-so said “The PM is a crazed assassin of infants”’ as quoting someone, even if ridiculous, legally put you on very thin ice. On the whole though one big advantage that satire has it that once you call it ‘satire’ you seem to have more of a licence to go that bit further than you would with normal comedy. It’s that phrase that is used in KING LEAR of his ‘all-licensed fool’. The Fool has permission to say and do things that an ordinary subject would never even dream of. In wider sense society gives the satirist the same permission and wide berth. Much comedy works by somehow being given permission to say the things it does. This can happen depending on the physical environment in which the comedy is performed. Many people who never normally openly laugh at ribald humour change when they walk down to the end-of-the-pier and somehow give the comedian permission to tell rude gags and themselves permission to laugh. Likewise an underground cellar bar is the best venue in which to risk your most cutting edge material. In days of yore, time was set aside for the ‘Day of Fools’. The world could be mocked but only on those special days. SPITTING IMAGE benefited from this principle and way of thinking. When at 10 o’clock on a Sunday the announcer said, “And now it’s time for SPITTING IMAGE” it was almost as though what he was really saying was ‘Right, lads. It’s Sunday. It’s 10 o’clock. You’re up at six in the morning working but just for the next half hour we’re gonna let you laugh as hard as you like at the great and good. Enjoy it while it lasts!’ It was John Lloyd’s point as to what SPITTING IMAGE was really about. The early SPITTING IMAGE shows were supervised by the IBA (the old but now defunct Independent Broadcasting Authority). I remember John Lloyd telling me a fascinating story about one of their conversations. That week we had a sketch where the hand of Sir Robin Day, the bow-tied BBC interviewer, had been forced into a food blender and got all mushed up in a sketch where MRs Thatcher said that if the employed were so hungry they should eat their own bodies. I told John I had performed Swift’s MODEST PROPOSAL as a staged presentation at University. I said I thought the sketch we had done had “strong Swiftian undertones”. When it was shown to the top guys at the IBA they wanted it cut. It’s quite disgusting, they said. Going far too far. John said in reply, “Don’t you think though it’s very Swiftian. You must know his famous MODEST PROPOSAL. Well, this sketch is very much based on that.” Well, apparently any mention of Swift operated like that weird psycho-suggestive paper that allows Dr Who to get past guards: all resistance and criticism faded to naught.
One other point here. SPITTING IMAGE was a huge commercial success and British export. It was difficult for Thatcher to attack the company that made the show as it was in the independent commercial sector which she in part had created. It wasn’t on the BBC Pinko Channel, it was hard-nosed business to put SPITTING IMAGE on the air. Advertisers loved it because opinion formers and people who liked expensive cars watched it. And guess what, it was born in the Dockland Enterprise Zone where Health and Safety rules were lax. It simply could not have been made elsewhere. Thank you, thank you, thank you Mrs T! If it weren’t for you, your despotic snarling puppet would never have been born.
One form of satire I haven’t mentioned yet is Menippean satire. It is the third form of satire following on from the Horatian and Juvenalian styles. Menippean satire was modeled on a Greek from of satire developed by the philosopher Menippus. The major characteristic of this form is extended dialogues or debates, often at a banquet, where the exponents of a particular point of view make ludicrous the attitudes they support by the arguments they urge in their support. Lewis Carroll played with this tradition all the way through ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, especially in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene. The best example though of Menippean satire in recent years can be found in THE LONG JOHNS, with John Bird and John Fortune. In a series of spoof interviews the two Johns engaged in rambling exchanges where one or the other would play ‘George Parr’, some sort of Establishment crony who was usually a banker, politician or businessman. The comedy came, as Fortune said, by getting Parr “either to tell the truth or defend the indefensible. Like British defence policy. Then you don’t have to make up jokes. You just say it.” The long tongue-twisting policy descriptions of Government policy by Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby in YES, MINISTER and YES, PRIME MINISTER were also examples of this satirical style. SPITTING IMAGE never really went in for this more eloquent form of Menippean satire as its style was more the short sharp shock. The series after the 1987 election began with the Cabinet deciding what they were going to do in the next term. Discussion ended pretty pronto when Thatcher simply said, “Whatever we like!” Graffiti television at its best.
What makes a satirist a satirist?
As any small boy with coloured crayons knows any public image of an important looking person is incomplete without the addition of a silly moustache and funny glasses. Even those who catch the boy in the act and chastise him for defacing the great and the good are just as likely to snigger at the image when the boy has been sent off with a flea in his ear. Satire taps into the urge to get out the crayon in all of us. But there is more to it than that. There is an old joke among Conservatives that the problem with Liberals is that their parents never explained to them that life isn’t fair. Conservatives accept the unfairness of life as part of the way of the world. That is why Conservatives never make good satirists because somewhere in the satirist’s heart there must be an anger about the way the world is. Or should that be how people are? Hard-line Socialists are little better, though for the different reason that most of them in my experience have had a sense of humour by-pass. The targets of satire are often seen to be of political systems, institutions or class structures but equally there are of the human failings of hypocrisy, greed, piety, pride and pretension. The satirist isn’t a cynic, but a disillusioned romantic who deep down wants the world to be better than it is and is pretty pissed off that it isn’t. The creative forces of the satirist come from a sublimation of anger and indignation refined and combined with a talent for the comic or caricature. But sometimes the anger isn’t too far below the surface. Indeed, on a personal level, the weakness of the satirist is often how easily he is riled. Satirists are rarely nice people. I’m not ‘nice’ and I wouldn’t want to be called nice. How can you be nice when you spend most of your time trying to work out how to be unpleasant about someone? But that’s the point, life isn’t nice, and it isn’t fair. Perhaps society, yes, I know ‘there is no such thing’, but anyway, perhaps society needs both the smug looking leader and the boy with the crayon. Perhaps too they both need each other.
The Case Against the Satirist
The standard criticism of the satirist is that which has already been presented and that is we know what they are against, but are they for? The next stage of the criticism gets a bit more personal. ‘What right have you, Mr Clever Satirist, to point the finger?’ Satirists are, the argument goes, part of a self-appointed elite without the slightest moral authority to point the finger at anyone. The criticism on this point comes just as much from the Left as from the Right. A Marxist critique might say that satirists are merely part of the bourgeois problem in that they seek to correct the culture around them that threatens their own values rather than the prevailing ideology. The very fact that satirists are allowed to say the things they do within the framework of a dominant socio-economic capitalist structure merely proves they are ultimately servants of the system rather than its enemy. Instead of just making puppets of decadent leaders in a failing class system they should man the barricades and kill all the fascist dog-pigs. This general criticism of the satirist, even if you’re not a card carrying Marxist, has been around for a while. Juvenal was surrounded by slavery, poverty and murderous suppression but his satires aren’t against any of those things but instead against those vices that threaten his own narrow social class. This criticism of the limited focus of the satirist especially applies to those writing in the so-called Golden Age of Satire in the eighteenth century. Pope attacked bad writing, Voltaire mocked credulity and religious humbug and Swift ridiculed pride and hypocrisy. Where though was their pen on issues of poor living conditions and poverty? The modern equivalent I suppose is the chattering classes who get very uptight about something Paul Johnson wrote in THE MAIL but are less concerned about the homeless prostitute in Doncaster whose only way of surviving the day is to take drugs. Pope’s THE DUNCIAD isn’t going to do her much good.
Satirists in my experience do usually come from a privileged background. Nowadays Oxbridge churns them out on a conveyor belt that leads from the Dreaming Spires to a BBC series via the Edinburgh Fringe whether the British public want them or not. Since most have never had to worry about the price of carrots it’s hard to see where their authority to tell us what’s wrong with the world actually comes from. Worse, several of these ribald mockers of the week’s news even put on a working class accent to try and give themselves a bit of credibility. I wouldn’t push this put too far but I can’t help but be impressed by those satirists who face the real dilemma of silence or punishment when they write. For example, the Burmese Zarganar comedian faced many bans and imprisonment and worse the poet Osip Mandelstam was sent to a concentration camp and his death for composing a satirical poem about Stalin.
A more mundane criticism of the satirist is that most satires aren’t actually all that funny. Not many laughs in 1984 and as someone who once performed Swift’s A MODEST PROPOSAL as an adapted stage piece I can vouch for its inability to get the chuckle muscles going. This is a tad unfair as satire it its purest form has never claimed to be comedy. There is an argument that SPITTING IMAGE was at its best when it wasn’t funny, or to be more explanatory, when it was intending to make a serious point.
I mentioned Nigel Lawson earlier resigning in part as a result of being laughed at. But that success, if success it was, was not the result of SPITTING IMAGE. A major criticism then of satire is that it doesn’t make an ha’penny’s difference. If satire is defined by its corrective nature then it pretty much fails every time. Further, the ‘letting off steam’ theory of laughter, where comedy acts as a sort of safety valve, could be said to have even helped Thatcher and co. John Wells, creator of his own wonderful ‘Denis Thatcher’, was the most realistic of satirists. John told me “You can’t change anyone’s mind but you can rearrange the furniture.”
Swift always claimed writing about himself with regard to his own satire “Yet malice was never his aim; / He lashed the vice, but spared the name.” In footballing terms, he went for the ball, not the man. Can this always be said of SPITTING IMAGE? Surely it was the other way round, they went for the man, not the ball. I read one critic say that he gave up on SPITTING IMAGE when we started doing sketches about Roy Hattersley spitting. Well we had those pretty much from day one. I could offer the defence, m’lord, that what we were doing was using the spitting to illustrate the bluster of Hattesley at time when all he really had was bluster as real power was a distance dream that ultimately never came about. Not much of a defence, I admit. The truth was we all thought that as a politician he pretty much deserved whatever he got. Hattersley himself agreed. But then again, he would have been politically naïve not to.
Much is said about the need for satire to be ‘hard hitting’. “Up to a point, Lord Copper”. 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.
I mentioned the two Davids earlier, Steel and Owen. SPITTING IMAGE did Steel a great deal of political harm but it was David Owen who proved the greater political failure. His SDP in a by-election polled fewer votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party and Owen knew the game was up when the said Monster Raving Loonys offered him an Alliance. SPITTING IMAGE in other words got it wrong in their assessment of the ultimate political strength of the two men. I’m slightly playing Devil’s Advocate here but it’s worth making the point that the perception SPITTING IMAGE presented didn’t always match the behind the scenes mechanisms of House of Commons political intrigue. On a practical level one of the big problems of satire is time, in that satire is often of its times. John Dryden is usually referred to as a great satirist but try reading ABSALOM AND ACHITOPHEL without notes. Even repeats of SPITTING IMAGE would now require footnotes for viewers under forty.
Why is There So Very Little Satire Today?
When in doubt quote Marshall McLuchan and say “The medium is the message.” So symbiotic is the relationship of medium and message that the main television satire of our day is THE THICK OF IT doesn’t even need a PM as an on-screen character. Spin is the only ideology worth discussing. There are other reasons too. We live in recessionary times. Incomes are down and costs are up. Perhaps the traditional targets of satire such as pretentiousness and hypocrisy just aren’t the priority they would be if we were living in times that were more prosperous. ‘Bread first, ethics second’ as someone once said. Aside from the recession perhaps we are just living through a time when the world is not conducive for being satirised. Put another way, the 1980s was a time of polarities in politics, from Thatcher to Foot, from the US to the USSR. Those polarities no longer exist. Miliband and his lot are distancing themselves from Cameron and Clegg but we are talking tiny percentages not fundamental ideologies. Also perhaps it’s a generational thing. The satirists I worked with, Cook, Bird, Fortune, Wells, were from the post-war generation of the 1950s. They lived though war and maybe there was something in their nature that never wanted to see that happen again and saw satire as their means, in part, of making sure it didn’t. Maybe the lack of satire is simply that the present generation simply don’t want it. Or that that boy with the crayon now has an ipad and his graffiti can be ‘posted’ and shared on thousands of walls in a few seconds. Maybe we’re all satirists now.
SPITTING IMAGE: ‘A Raspberry to the Rich and Famous’ or ‘Hard Biting Satire’?
Well, can’t it be a bit of both? Some of SPITTING IMAGE was raspberry blowing but there were also times when I felt the show was making a strong point that would be well remembered. I would offer TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME as a good example, with its foreshadowing in an historical context the inherent dangers of absolute power. As I’ve shown ‘satire’ is sometimes a catch all term. Bernard Shaw claimed to be a satirist. He even compared the country’s morals to having bad teeth. He was the dentist, obliged to bring pain in the long term interests of better health. The idea that Shaw was satirist now though would bring puzzled faces to most people. But if Shaw can call himself a satirist surely SPITTING IMAGE ticks the box too. And even if SPITTING IMAGE was only a poke in the eye, well it really was a pretty damn good poke!
Tags: 1984, Adolf Hitler, Alan Bennett, Alexander Pope, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Animal Farm, Anthony Asbury, anthropomorphism, Aristophanes, Arthur Scargill, Basil Brush, Ben Johnson, Black Comedy, Buster Keaton, Catch-22, Conservatives, David Cameron, David Coleman, David Frost, David Owen, David Steel, Denis Thatcher, Derek Fowlds, Dr Samuel Johnson, Dr Strangelove, Ed Miliband, Edwina Currie, Evelyn Waugh, Familly Guy, Geoff Atkinson, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Geroge Parr, Gilbert and Sullivan, Gulliver's Travels, Henry Kissinger, Horace (poet), Horatian Satire, IBA (Indepenant Broadcasting Authority), Jackie Onassis, Jake Thackray, Jeffery Archer, Joe Orton, John Dryden, John Fortune, John Lloyd, John Major, John Smith, John Wells, Jonathan Swift, Juvenal (poet), Kenneth Baker, Lady Diana, Lamp Chop, Liberal Democrats, Lord Copper, Margaret Thatcher, Menippean Satire, mockery, Modest Proposal, Monster Raving Loony Party, Nigel Lawson, Osip Mandelstam, Paul Johnson, Peter Cook, Peter Fluck, Planet of the Apes, Private Eye, Punch and Judy, Queen of hearts, Robert McKee, Roger Law, Ronald Reagan, Rory Bremner, Roy Hattersley, Satire, Satyr play, Sheri Lewis, Sir Anthony Blunt, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Robin Day, SPITTING IMAGE, The Act of Killing, The BFI (British Film Institute), Thomas More, Thora Hird, Tom Lehrer, Virginia Bottomley, Volpone or the Foxe, Zarganar