Spitting Image debuted on Central Television in 1984. The title wasn’t mine: I wanted to call it Rubber News. But it transpired there’s a magazine for people who like that kind of thing, and we felt it would be wrong to raise their hopes.
At its peak, Spitting Image was number three in the ratings and getting 15 million viewers a week – 1½ million more people than it had taken to re-elect Margaret Thatcher to power in 1983. It ran for 13 years, and right from the start it ran into trouble.
Dear Sir, You are making a complete fool of yourself with your hideous caricature of our much loved and respected Royal Family they are very special to a lot of people but not to nig nogs like you. I am very surprised you are even be allowed to show your rubbish on TV for which we are paying £46 licence a year for any way the next time you make [a puppet] make it of yourself or your mother.
Sorry, I don’t watch [the programme] but we get the [Sunday] People.
This letter arrived after the second programme – there weren’t any royal puppets in the first one: the day before transmission, the channel controller had summoned us to his office and told us to take them all out. We were outraged and very nearly quit on the spot. But it turned out it wasn’t censorship. Prince Philip was to open their new Nottingham studios that week and they didn’t want to upset him. They let us put all the royal puppets back in for the second edition.
From the outset, Spitting Image caused so much worry at the highest levels that, for the first six shows, I had to go and defend it, frame by frame and line by line, to the Independent Broadcasting Authority at their HQ on the Brompton Road.
The first outing didn’t go well. ‘Now, John, you have here one of the dollies… Who is that?’
‘David Frost, sir.’
‘Ah, yes, so the Frost dolly says to the dolly next to it – I think that’s Bernard Levin, isn’t it? Looks jolly like him! Er … the Frost dolly says, “Why did you become a journalist, Bernard?” And he says, “I think it’s because I was circumcised with a pencil sharpener…”
‘Now, do you find that funny, John? You do? Well I’m afraid we don’t. Goodbye.’
Clearly, I was going to have to be more cunning at getting stuff past them.
Most of you oldies will remember that the kind of anti-hero of Spitting Image in those early years was Norman Tebbit, the then Employment Secretary, who in the programme was portrayed as a shaven-headed bovver boy in a biker jacket.
In episode three, his puppet was interviewed by the Robin Day puppet, and was asked what he proposed to do about the unemployment crisis. The semi-housetrained polecat replied, ‘If the unemployed are so hungry, why didn’t they eat their own bodies?’ He proceeded to demonstrate by grabbing the arm of a third puppet, liquidising it in a Magimix and drinking the pink soup that resulted.
Back I went to the IBA.
You can read up to 3 premium stories before you subscribe to Magzter GOLD
Log in, if you are already a subscriber
Get unlimited access to thousands of curated premium stories, newspapers and 5,000+ magazines
READ THE ENTIRE ISSUE