It feels apt that caricaturist and Spitting Image creator Roger Law greets me over Zoom wearing a t-shirt saying, ‘If you can see what this says, you are too f***ing close.’ He’s very fond of swear words…
‘I f***ing hate puppets,’ is the 79-year-old’s opening gambit. ‘I never thought I would do it again. We worked so hard on the original show that I never wanted to see another puppet.’
The show was the scourge of the establishment for 12 years on ITV with its distinctively zany irreverence for the self-important. When Spitting Image ended, he ran away – vowing to never touch another puppet again. He moved to Australia, started drawing wildlife and then worked on a range of fine art ceramics in China. He didn’t keep up with the news and was in blissful ignorance of the latest celebrities. But, now a grandfather of eight, a few years ago he decided to come home to England to spend more time with his family. And then he switched the television on.
‘What was going on in the news was such a lot of s*** really that I felt the need to revert to type,’ he sighs. ‘It was better than shouting at the telly.’ And so he decided to see who would be interested in the return of Spitting Image.
But despite the success of the original show, which regularly attracted audiences of 15million people, he struggled to find someone willing to cough up enough funds to start a new series from scratch. ‘It took four and a half years because no one would give me the f***ing money,’ says Roger who eventually found a production partner with Avalon, behind hit comedies Catastrophe, Not Going Out, Taskmaster and the Emmy Award-winning Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The show will air on subscription channel BritBox, which presents the best of BBC, ITV, All 4 and Channel 5 programming and is its first original show. Viewers who want to see Spitting Image will get a chance to have a free trial of the service. Several countries around the world have already signed up to see it.
Roger is in charge of the puppets. ‘It’s a complex show and I’m far too old to be doing do it,’ he grumbles. ‘So far my only contribution seems to be negative. There are so many things that you can’t do with puppets. But then again, there are so many things you can do. You can’t be too negative because if someone comes up with an incredibly funny idea, you are going to make it happen.’
The show has always had an element of grotesque and this series – the first of two commissioned – sounds like it will be no different. Roger says his favourite sketch so far is of Donald Trump in bed with Melania and his supernaturally extending anus which protrudes out of the bed to start tapping out the US President’s tweets on his phone. Cheeky irreverence is the name of the game: Michael Gove’s face has been deliberately created to look like two testicles – which the politician insists he is ‘very flattered’ by (this makes Roger guffaw). While Gwyneth Paltrow, who last year released a vagina-scented candle, says ‘vagina’ a lot.
‘Censorship on the first series was negligible,’ says Roger. ‘We would try something and if the channel didn’t say anything, we would do more of it and see how far we could push it. But we did censor ourselves. If, for example, someone had gone very thin we would try and find out why – we wouldn’t make thin jokes in case something was wrong. Our researchers helped curb some of our wayward behaviour.’
While the worst the producers could expect would be a slap on the wrist, foreign versions of the show had to be a lot more careful.
‘Eastern Europe had just opened up, it was the end of the Cold War, and a lot of them wanted to do their own versions of the show which I would go and help with,’ says Roger. ‘They wanted to hold their leaders up to ridicule and humiliation, which was the point, but not everyone appreciated it. Some of them were pretty naïve.
‘In Russia they were enthusiastic but terribly young guys, all around 19 or 20 years old. They rang me one night and said, ‘Roger, you must leave now!’ I asked what they meant and they said, ‘We have been arrested, please go to the airport.’
‘The people doing it in Istanbul weren’t terribly good and I got another phone call saying I needed to leave the country because some clown had put part of the Koran on the wall of a brothel in one of the scenes.’ In the United Kingdom however, some celebrities became quite attached to their puppets and even bought them when the show was over – although it was often through third parties.’
Prince Andrew famously has one of himself, which he was accused of using his to grope two of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex slaves. Roger – who is surprised when I tell him this – doesn’t approve for several reasons. ‘That’s bad,’ he says. ‘And he should have read the contract from Sotheby’s; the puppets were not to be used to perform.’
Today is a very different world to the one Spitting Image was born into. But Roger says he isn’t taking any notice of today’s hypersensitive, easily offended, culture wars which has already seen the Meghan Markle puppet labelled racist for having big lips and hoop earrings and the Mark Zuckerberg one deemed antisemitic because he has a hooked nose.
‘We just want to do good caricatures,’ he says. ‘What I am concerned about it doing good satire and really nailing things. We want to be completely up to date and dealing with things like Boris breaking international law. With Zuckerberg we are only interested in satirising the huge, huge influence Facebook has. People like that need to be cut down to size – especially when they spend so much money promoting themselves. When you think of all the influence these people have, all we are doing is p***ing in the ocean.’
Each puppet takes more than a week to make. They tend to be life-size – the smallest so far is Dilyn, Boris Johnson’s dog. The biggest ones include boxer Tyson Fury and former wrestler turned actor The Rock.
‘We start with the caricatures which I supervise and then we send a selection to the producers and they either take them or they don’t,’ says Roger. ‘They then go to the workshop which is in north London and a sculptor starts work on a head – we’ve got quite a few people who used to work at Madame Tussauds working with us. A mould is then made up and it goes to the foam room. You end up with a rubbery face which is almost flesh-like. That is then painted, holes are put in for the eye and mouth and all that nonsense.’ A foam body is attached, as are individual hands, there are costume makers, wig experts. Altogether it takes around 150 people to make each show – with 40 working on the puppets alone.
Along with the puppets, the sets are made on site. Hundreds of sets have already been created for the show – from the White House to a boxing ring – which will have a ‘bank’ of material that can be used at any time and some more up to date scenes which will be filmed up until the day before each show goes out.
Each of the sets are on crates which are three- or four-foot high, allowing the puppeteers to work with their hands in the air while a ‘reverse scan’ monitor under the stage allows the puppeteers to see exactly what is going on above.
‘They are a strange bunch, puppeteers,’ mutters Roger. ‘I suspect they are mainly masochists.’
It is certainly far from an easy job. Each puppet takes three people to control; one has the mouth and one arm, a second the other arm while a third operates eye direction, blinking and special effects such as Dominic Raab’s karate-kicking leg. Their close proximity means that many of them have been put into Covid ‘bubbles’ and everyone in the production regularly has their temperatures checked.
A top team of writers and voice artists have been gathered, led by former The Simpsons writer Jeff Westbrook along with a new generation of political writers and impressionists.
Is the world ready for a new version of Spitting Image? Roger has no doubt that it needs one. ‘I live in an area of Norfolk which is either fishermen or people from the City who arrive on the f***ing helicopter pad in the grounds of the house they bought. It is not Corbynista land – these are people who went out and voted for Boris but they all can’t wait to see it. There is something afoot, I think. And this is a means to an end for me, to do something about what I feel angry about.’
Photo credit: BritBox