When, many moons ago, I first heard of 'Spitting Image', I thought it would be at best a one-season wonder. The novelty of having puppets doing satire would in my view wear off quickly, leaving the show nowhere to go. As we now know, 'Image' ran for over a decade.
It was originally produced by John Lloyd, one of the driving forces behind 'Not The Nine O'Clock News' so predictably it inherited that earlier show's healthy disrespect for authority and public figures. The voices of Chris Barrie ( magnificent as Ronald Reagan ), Harry Enfield, Jessica Martin, Kate Robbins and Steve Nallon ( more like Thatcher like she ever was ) were superbly matched to clever puppetry courtesy of Fluck & Law. Amongst the writers were Doug Naylor and Rob Grant ( later to create 'Red Dwarf' ), John O'Farrell and Mark Burton.
The first few episodes were at best patchy, marred by canned laughter and some iffy material, but by the end of the first season the bugs had been ironed out. A regular item was 'The President's Brain Is Missing!' starring President Ronald Reagan. No-one then knew that Reagan had the first symptoms of Alzheimer's. The Reagan of 'Spitting Image' was gaffe-prone, frequently seen in bed with wife Nancy, read comics and loved Warner Brothers cartoons. In one episode, he authorised the use of Phantom jet fighters to assist Wile E.Coyote in the destruction of the Roadrunner. In another, he conducted a secret nuclear test up his own arse.
British politicians also came in for a bashing; Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dressed like Al Capone, smoked cigars, and was seen taking political advice from a 90-year old Hitler. The show ridiculed Labour leader Neil Kinnock's attempts to make his party electable ( it had been in opposition only five years when the show started ). In one sketch, he said to the Shadow Cabinet; "We must get rid of all the people who will be a liability at the next General Election.". At which point, the entire Shadow Cabinet left the room. Liberal leader David Steel later blamed 'Image' for his failure to become P.M., it caricatured him as a squeaky-voiced muppet living in the top pocket of David Owen.
No review of the show can be complete without mentioning their treatment of The Royal Family. Though pro-monarchists wailed that it was insulting and unfair, I disagree. I thought the show gave them an unexpectedly human face, portraying them as ordinary people with normal fallacies. The Queen Mother, in particular, came across as a lovable Beryl Reid type fond of a flutter on the horses. When the Royals sang a parody of Queen's 'We Are The Champions' ( entitled 'We Are The Windsors' ), it sounded like a new National Anthem.
'Image' was lucky enough to be around when Thatcher was dumped by the Tories and replaced by the ultra-grey John Major. The writers and performers succeeded in making the man more interesting than he really was.
The show got into trouble on more than one occasion. For instance, a joke at the expense of gun collectors soon after the Hungerford massacre in 1987 provoked predictable self-righteous fury from the tabloids.
'Image' also spoofed '80's and '90's pop culture, such as 'Rambo', 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' ( or Turds as they became ), pop groups like 'Wham!', 'Culture Club', and 'The Pet Shop Boys' ( their hit 'Go West' was guyed as 'How The Hell Do We Keep Getting Away With It?' ). No respect was shown for anyone or anything.
It overstayed its welcome, unfortunately, ending the year before Labour's 1997 landslide victory. Despite many imitations, it remains unequalled.
Perhaps the show's unsung heroes were the people inside the puppets, such as Louise Gold and the late Alistair Fullerton. Another underrated aspect was the songs. 'The Chicken Song' sent-up 'Agadoo' by Black Lace' and became a hit in its own right. 'We've Screwed Up The World' was a bleak parody of Louis Armstrong's 'Wonderful World' with Satchmo bemoaning our increasingly polluted planet. 'Every Job You Take', performed by Sting, rounded off the first series.
'Image' provided I.T.V. with one of its last great comedy shows, and helped make the nightmare of the Thatcher/Reagan years partially bearable.