As a year, 2020 managed to be a dumpster fire on top of a flaming pile of crap. However, a few things worth looking at did come out of it. Some were even remakes. One of the remakes, Spitting Image may have been needed, a shot in the arm to handle current affairs.
Spitting Image first aired in 1984, debuting on the British network ITV. The series was a satire of current affairs featuring puppets in the image of the movers and shakers of the day, hence the name. Creators Peter Fluck, Roger Law, and Martin Lambie-Nairn pulled no punches during the run of the show, which, at its height, was one of Britain’s highest rated series. However, the high numbers couldn’t last as politics changed and Spitting Image was cancelled in 1996 due to low viewership.
The politics of the 80s took a shift to the right. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK; Ronald Reagan was President of the US. Terrorism was a threat, with the Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization being notable for the era. Dark times, but there were distractions. The Royal Family was always good for a scandal, and Princess Diana provided a human side of the family. In entertainment, Michael Jackson was carrying the fame from 1982’s Thriller and was only beginning to show signs of eccentricity. Andrew Lloyd Webber had a smash hit with Cats, opening 1981 and still on Broadway during the run of Spitting Image, and would have another smash with The Phantom of the Opera in 1986. In the 80s, if you had a niche musical taste, there was a band filling it.
And Spitting Image satired all of it. The Royal Family, with Her Majesty being the only sane woman while the Queen Mother gets into the gin and the Princes getting into all sorts of trouble. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, ruling Britain and her own cabinet with an iron fist, not caring about who gets hurt. Neil Kinnock, head of the Labour Party and the Opposition, who is not quite there. Ronald Reagan, who was portrayed as being senile. Spitting Image didn’t take sides; all was fair game. Even international politics were skewered, with Prime Minister PW Botha of Apartheid-era South Africa making appearances. Leaders of the USSR got puppets, from Chernenko, who may or may not be dead, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who pioneered Glasnost and Perestroika, opening up the Soviet Union.
Satire holds up the elevated for examination, flaws and all. Satire can be funny, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, the hardest impact is to slip a satirical, serious moment in between the moments of ridicule. Music can drive the point home faster and harder. In the series’ popularity, Spitting Image had Sting and Genesis perform for the show.
Not all songs were hard hitting. Sometimes, the song parodied the music industry. Take “The Chicken Song”.
Originally written to skewer pop novelty songs that hit top ten in the summer, “The Chicken Song” became a pop novelty song that hit number one for three weeks. Sometimes, satire becomes what it satirizes, and there’s no predicting how that will happen.
Politics, though, changes. It’s the one constant of the field. Thatcher stepped down, Reagan finished his second term, leading to George W. Bush’s single term, Apartheid ended, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union disbanded, sort of. The 90s brought a softer touch and a leftward swing in global politics, and the quality of politician changed. There was no cruelty for the sake of cruelty, no senility, just normal scandals like sexual favours in the Oval Office. Nothing earthshaking.
As mentioned, 2020 may be one of the worst years on record, up there with 1348 when the Black Death[https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/black-death] killed a third of the population of Europe alone, and similar numbers in Asia and the Middle East. Fascists marched in American cities. Britain left the European Union without a plan. In a bleak year, something was needed to give hope, or at least laughs. Spitting Image returned.
This time, Britbox became the series’ home, with a parallel YouTube channel. While a new cast of characters were needed, there are some returning characters. Her Majesty will be celebrating the 69th year of her reign on February 6, 2021; her children have gotten older and have had their own kids. For the new characters, Boris Johnson is no Margaret Thatcher, and Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan.
The new series, much like the original, doesn’t pull punches. Even Greta Thunberg appears, though the new series is exaggerating her more than anything else. Boris Johnson is portrayed as a mindless lout, not able to make a decision, with his cabinet more out of control and looking to replace him, ideally with themselves. Trump is venal, stupid, and incapable of learning. His marriage to Melania is loveless. Ivanka is vapid, and Jared Kushner is a mannequin.
Both series require a good knowledge of current affairs from a British point of view. There’s no getting around that. With the new series, the case in point is Jürgen Klopp, who manages the Liverpool football club and has a generally cheery outlook on life that the series exaggerates. The series can take a light look at things as well.
Political satire requires politicians who aren’t staid and competent. Unfortunately, 2020 didn’t have staid and competent politicians. The Spitting Image remake returned when it was needed. The 80s hid the darkness of the Thatcher regime and the Reagan White House with glitzy entertainment, something that 2020 did not have. The remake keeps the irreverence of the original and provides a beam of, if not hope, laughter, in a hell of a year.