Spitting Image returns with Trump, Johnson in its sights

London (AFP) –

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Spitting Image, the ground-breaking British satirical television show that used grotesque puppets to skewer politicians and public figures, returned Saturday after a 24-year break -- with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in its sights.

The UK prime minister and US president are among 100 characters immortalised in foam latex for a new series for streaming service BritBox, alongside Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, Mark Zuckerberg and Kim Kardashian.

In its 1980s heyday, Spitting Image's silly and often crass sketches brought politics to a mass audience and provided an outlet for anger against the right-wing reforms of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Co-curator Roger Law said it was a "good time" to bring it back, as the social upheaval of that time "is not dissimilar with what's going on now", citing British divisions over Brexit.

But some commentators question how the show will fare in today's censorious age, where a mere whiff of controversy sets off a social media storm.

- 'Whimsical and silly' -

The new programme pulls no punches against Trump, who is shown in the first episode trying to make a deal with an actual coronavirus, and then asleep as his snake-like extended anus writes angry tweets.

The show -- which will be written and aired weekly to keep it topical -- had to be hastily updated after the president this week contracted Covid-19, and portrays him complaining about being quarantined with his wife Melania.

Closer to home, Johnson is shown as a bumbling idiot controlled by his chief advisor Dominic Cummings, an alien overlord with a throbbing head.

In other scenes, Prince Harry searches in vain for a job in Los Angeles, while Disney executives discuss whether to create a "black Yoda" in response to demands for racial justice.

The portrayal as a weather girl of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has autism, has sparked criticism online -- although she herself 'liked' her puppet on Twitter.

Lead writer Jeff Westbrook, of "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" fame, said he hoped viewers would see the new series as "satire, rather than cruelty".

"I don't set out to really offend people," he said at a preview, noting the show was "a little bit whimsical and silly".

Law admitted Spitting Image in the 1980s used "visual cliches" and said he worked hard to personalise the new puppets.

"I don't find what we do offensive. I find some of the people we're attacking much more offensive," he said.

- 'Needling the pompous' -

Spitting Image ran from 1984 to 1996 and drew in 15 million viewers a week at its peak.

Politicians took centre stage, from the besuited Conservative prime minister Thatcher constantly berating her cabinet -- the "vegetables" -- to US president Reagan, separated from his brain and his finger always close to the nuclear button.

The show made many more junior ministers household names, although often it was the puppet that viewers remembered. For many Britons, former premier John Major will always be a grey figure who liked peas.

Other celebrities also featured, notably footballer Paul Gascoigne, who was constantly weeping. Even the royals were fair game, with the Queen Mother swigging gin and Queen Elizabeth II checking the horse racing section in newspapers typically read by gamblers.

Many of the original scripts, some puppets and viewers' letters of complaints are held in Law's archive at Cambridge University Library, alongside the works of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton.

Dr Lucy Delap, reader in Modern British and Gender History at Cambridge University, has used the memorabilia in lectures, citing Spitting Image's place in a long history of British political satire.

"It gave a satirical platform to a society that was deeply divided -- by neoliberal policies, the closure of coal mines, police racism and brutality, nuclear weapons," she told AFP.

Asked if it could succeed in 2020, she said: "Spitting Image was needed to needle the pompous, the bigoted and the corrupt, and that need is just as pressing today."