Sunday, 5 March 2017


23. “The newspaper world is reeling from the news that the millionaire publisher Rupert Murdoch is alive and well.”


As ever, you realise, later than you should, 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 that particular surreal road of British comedy, and I watched a particular 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, after coming across episodes of “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. The first episode I saw turned out to be the first of the eleventh series, which I now know was broadcast on 10th November 1991, meaning I was eight years old at the time.

“Spitting Image” really was the right show at the right time. Costing more to produce than a drama series, but enough for its unexpected home, the mainstream ITV, the show was already a hallowed place for proper Hogarth-like satire -  ITV has tried again since, with “2DTV,” “Headcases” and “Newzoids,” coming off as ever paler in comparison. 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 expect people like John Oliver, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to carry on 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 Trevor McDonald, having ordered the now-retired Alistair Burnet out of his chair.

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 by 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 – I do remember getting  to the end of the first episode of “The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer,” when it appeared in 1994, and had no idea what I just saw. However, at eleven years old, I was allowed to stay up until 10.30pm, and had “Father Ted,” “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.  

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