Best Ever Spitting Image
ITV1, 25 June 2006
(c) May 2011
Watching this documentary I am surprised and delighted to find that it’s title is very accurate. Six months earlier, I had very much enjoyed the documentary Spitting Image Must See TV, and I thought that was the best documentary around on Spitting Image (far superior to Comedy Connection’s Spitting Image episode). However, this documentary Best Ever Spitting Image completely triumphs even over that. For a start it is nearly twice as long, lasting as it does the best part of an hour (with advertising breaks). There is an absolute wealth of people taking part in it, and an amazing variety of people whose lives were in some way shape or form touched by Spitting Image. There are as one might expect: Writers, voice-artistes, and, Puppet builders. While the puppeteers, and as well as the programme’s producers are certainly not forgotten either. More surprisingly we also have a large smattering of celebrities who were themselves caricatures on the programme, and this not only includes newsreaders, TV presenters, and sportsmen, but also a surprisingly large number of politicians. Many speak kind of affectionately about the programme and how they were portrayed on it, while some clearly found it very amusing (not least because they knew things the scriptwriters could only guess at).
The documentary starts off
with a look at the programme’s portrayal of politicians. Producer John Lloyd
among others point out that the programme actually educated its viewers into
knowing who was who among the MPs. For once people actually knew who was
secretary of state for this that and the other, and things like that. Several
politicians get a look in at this point, notably Neil Kinnock, Edwina
Currie, Roy Hattersley and Norman Tebbitt. The latter
mentions that he rather liked that fact that on Spitting Image he
was the little guy who got the better of the bullies in the cabinet. The
programme then goes into explaining a little about the celebrities who were
caricatures, such as television presenters. Here we see not only clips of
archive footage, but also have some of the actual people: Trevor MacDonald,
The documentary has already interspersed information about the work of the voice-artistes, but now we move onto more technical stuff, the puppets themselves. First we have a few comments from the puppet builders Peter Fluck and Roger Law. Then it’s on to the highly interesting (well interesting to me) subject of how the puppets were operated. As narrator Simon Chadwick explains “One of the stars of the show tells us how its done”. Watching the show for the first time, little did we know just who that star would turn out to be, although it’s not quite clear if he is referring to the show’s original leading puppeteer, or the puppet she is using to demonstrate with. Either way, the camera cuts to a scene which in my humble opinion is one of the best in the entire documentary, and certainly the best written scene in the documentary. The Queen puppet is on camera, and says to the camera “People are always asking how one operates. Obviously you don’t run a country on your own and I have a lot of staff. But there’s one person whom I rely on more than any other”. At this moment the puppet bows her head to look down (or rather the puppeteer bends her left wrist). The camera pans down following the puppet’s gaze, to reveal that doyenne of Spitting Image puppeteers Louise Gold (although at this point she is not credited), with her strong clever left arm up The Queen puppet, while her right arm is in the sleeve of the puppet’s jacket, performing it’s right arm (this being a live hands puppet). Louise of course is not just puppeteering, she is also voicing the puppet. The camera is now showing us both The Queen puppet, and Louise performing her. So, grasping the puppet’s eye mechanism in her right hand (Peter Fluck has apparently mended it, like he said he would six months earlier at the BFI event), still in character, she continues “Now back in the days of Spitting Image there would have been more staff. I would have had someone to work my eyes. But now I have to do it myself”. At this point the newly mended eye mechanism fails to work, which Louise can presumably see on her monitor, prompting her to have The Queen adlib in character “Oh dear, and the bloody thing’s stuck”. This scene is a true gem in the history of Spitting Image documentaries. At this point, although Louise Gold is un-credited. The way she is introduced (with lines spoken by herself) is so totally accurate, with little of her usual self-effacement. For in the early days on Spitting Image, Louise not only frequently performed, and very often voiced The Queen, so that yes it is totally true to say that The Queen puppet did indeed rely very much on Louise’s skills as both a puppeteer and voice-artiste. Indeed in those early days The Queen puppet came across very strongly on Spitting Image, and that could well be partly due to Louise giving the character some of her own magnificent stage presence (a stage presence remarkably similar to one powerful Unity Theatre actress of a generation earlier). It is also fair to say that nowadays, this particular puppet still does rely very much on Louise, since she was reunited with her legendary puppeteer in the year 2000). However, in those early days of Spitting Image, it wasn’t just The Queen puppet who relied on Louise Gold. Although not mentioned in this documentary, it has to be remembered that until making Spitting Image, many of the founder members of the team did not have much experience of puppets (Fluck and Law started out as model makers, not puppet builders), which is why they hired ‘The English Muppet’ in the first place. Henson-trained puppeteer Louise Gold was after all the puppeteering consultant for the pilot episodes of Spitting Image, and Leading Puppeteer for the first series. Originally many of the show’s puppeteers were rather inexperienced, so in a sense in those early days they rather relied on Louise’s skills and experience as a television puppeteer.
However, this documentary does not just have one Leading Puppeteer, we have two, as Nigel Plaskitt is also featured, although not actually puppeteering on this occasion, he does do the classic thing that so many great puppeteers have to do on documentaries like this one, of demonstrating with his hands how they would be positioned when puppeteering. He is credited as ‘Nigel Plaskitt, Spitting Image Puppeteer 1984-1996)’. Nigel describes how a puppeteer’s primary hand (he says right hand) would do the head. He also describes the duties of the second and third puppeteers.
The documentary then cuts back to Louise, this time she is credited (and credited very properly as ‘Louise Gold, Spitting Image Puppeteer 1984-1996’). She is still wearing The Queen puppet on her left arm, and here we have what I think is the second best piece of script writing in the entire documentary. Louise, speaking as herself, says to the camera “It’s very hard work being a puppeteer. It’s quite hard physical work, back problems, shoulder problems...” At this point, she very quickly switches accents, as bang on cue she has her puppet look at her, and interrupt her with the words “You moaning old git. You were paid well weren’t you. Shut your face.” One really can’t help laughing, it’s very well scripted, and funny. Louise calling herself a moaning old git!
The documentary starts to move with some interludes from the voice artists Alistair McGowen and Jon Culshaw, but soon it’s time for another commercial break (the second of three). However, just before the break, we get one more interlude from Louise performing The Queen puppet (this time we can’t see Louise), The Queen puppet faces camera and says “Coming up after the break. Lots more of meeee...” She squeals the last bit. Louise has a very distinctive squeal, here she’s using an English accent, but she can also do that cute squeal in American (as she may have done with Annie Sue Pig, and she certainly did it as Trixie Flynn in a radio broadcast of Let ‘Em Eat Cake).
The third segment starts off on the subject of Spitting Image’s tendency to offend. Several people have a few things to say about that, including Louise Gold (not credited), but now appearing simply as herself, without wearing her puppet. She says “I know that right at the beginning John Lloyd was of the opinion that if we didn’t get lots of letters to complaint, then we weren’t doing a good job.” At which the documentary promptly cuts to John Lloyd himself on the subject.
The documentary then moves on, as promised, to the subject of how it portrayed The Royal Family. It is pointed out that until Spitting Image did it, no one had satirised the Royal Family on television. The segment is illustrated with several pieces of footage, including The Queen and Prince Philip in bed with The Queen asking Philip to sing. We also get a long clip of The Queen singing I Will Survive. Several voice-artistes who voiced The Royals put in appearances at this point. Among them Jon Glover (who is credited as ‘Voice of Prince Philip’), Jessica Martin (who is credited simply as ‘Spitting Image Voice-Artiste, 1985-1988’), and, Louise Gold, who is now credited as ‘Louise Gold, voice of The Queen’. Louise, who did The Queen in those early days, says “When I was doing The Queen I felt very affectionate towards her. I mean her family are all screwed up, and messed up, but she’s worked very hard to try and keep The Firm going.” The documentary then turns to the subject of the one Royal who wasn’t parodied in the early days (not until the second series), namely The Queen Mother. As Louise Gold puts it “I think there was a feeling with the Queen Mum, was it going too far? Nobody quite knew initially.” Steve Nallon then talks about how he voiced The Queen Mother, and it is pointed out that the character was one of the hits of the show. The final part of this segment deals with the portrayal of sports people, such as Chris Eubank (who doesn’t seem too keen on how he was portrayed), and Steve Davis, who’s public persona seems to have benefited from Spitting Image, he says that being caricatured as boring relieved a lot of pressure on him to have a persona (besides just being a good snooker player), as a result he gained confidence and gradually became more “interesting”.
The final quarter of the
documentary starts off with the subject of John Major, and how he was
portrayed, eating peas. Bill Dare (the Spitting Image
producer at that time) recalls that it was writer John O’Farrell who
first came up with the idea of making the puppet grey. At which point John
O’Farrell appears on screen to confirm this. The documentary then gets on
to the now legendary occasion when the programme decided to liven things up by
having a scenario (which they thought was completely unlikely) of having Major
getting keen on one of his junior cabinet ministers. As Bill Dare
explains it was pure chance they picked on
The documentary is heading towards a close, so what better subject, then one which was frequently the way episodes of Spitting Image ended, with a song. They start off with a Spitting Image version of Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, which Neil Kinnock seems to be complimentary about. Then it’s onto Bob Geldof’s puzzlement at why one of his charity songs was parodied. Next John Lloyd describes the one occasion they actually got a pop star to do a special recording of Spitting Image’s parody version, as he recounts asking Sting to record a peace-promoting parody version of Every Breath You Take, to end the first series of Spitting Image, and Sting liked the idea. Of course this segment would not be complete without mentioning The Chicken Song. At which point it’s writers Doug Naylor and Rob Grant explain that what they were actually trying to do was send up a certain kind of pop song. They did not envisage their parody actually becoming one of the kind of songs it was supposed to be sending up. However, Steve Nallon says that The Chicken Song being Number One in the charts was one of the highlights of Spitting Image. While Roger Law claims that one of the reasons he lives in Australia is to get away from that song.
The documentary concludes with the narrator telling us that Spitting Image ended in 1996. Then, as a kind of homage, the Ant and Dec puppets, who have been co-narrating the links. So their own variation of something The Muppets did at least one or two times, a sort of version of the “don’t look down, there’s a man underneath me” line. ie when a puppet realises its a puppet.
This documentary certainly lives up to it’s name, for it actually is the best documentary about Spitting Image that I have ever seen. Partly this is because of the shear range of people contributing, including a number of the politicians, who really stand out. Then to get not just one but both of the show’s Leading Puppeteers, those two legends of British television puppetry Louise Gold and Nigel Plaskitt taking part is quite something. However, what makes, just absolutely makes this documentary is the two brilliantly scripted pieces with The Queen Puppet, and her puppeteer Louise Gold. It is a wonderful way to introduce Louise, and so very appropriate. Then her adlib when the eye mechanism didn’t work also fitted in so well, and a little later her rather delightful little piece of calling herself a moaning old git. It’s surely the best every appearance Louise Gold has made in a television documentary about Spitting Image, and I thought her appearance on Spitting Image Must See TV was good, well it was, but this is something else. It is indeed the Best Ever Spitting Image.