Appropriately for a show called Spitting Image, the big question is how much the remake resembles the original satirical latex puppet show.
The series, which aired on ITV from 1984 to 1996, was at the center of moral opposition to the longest recent period of Conservative rule before the current one.
Fans of the franchise will be relieved that the revival – launched on Saturday on streaming service BritBox – has lost none of its savagery or willingness to shock.
One of the first images is Donald Trump’s “asshole”, in fact a separate character, represented by a stretched sphincter resembling a penis soaked in feces. Prince Harry, unemployed in Los Angeles, is trying to make money by dressing as a Nazi. Dominic Cummings is an alien who wants to eat baby Wilfred Johnson as a snack, but even then Boris Johnson, a talkative jerk, doesn’t dare send him away.
BritBox is a joint venture between ITV and the BBC, so new chief executive Tim Davie, looking to reduce Downing Street’s hostility to the company, will have to hope that Cummings and Johnson primarily take offense at the commercial network.
There have been two huge context changes since the puppets first came out. The first is that, with considerable historical improbability, the current political situation in the UK and US resembles an extreme caricature of the Thatcher-Reagan era in which Spitting Image first flourished.
The current news cycle is so furious that the first episode was reissued at dawn on Friday to incorporate the Trump coronavirus findings. It looks like the show will put to good use tweets from Trump and Johnson – which can be overlaid onscreen at the last minute – to stay as relevant as possible.
The other change from the first time is that society, controlled by social media, is much more susceptible to crime. The show’s tactic of focusing on one important characteristic of a person – physical, vocal, reputation – and viciously exaggerating it now risks being accused of bigotry or shame.
ITV has admitted to censoring the addition of carrot leaves to singer Ed Sheeran’s roux (now, oddly enough, it’s turnip greens) in the event of an upset; but, in the earlier version, Sheeran’s puppet would likely have been completely carrot, with a side dish of sonic deafness.
The cultural stop-it cops will be particularly attentive to representations of race and class.
And here the series shows some caution. Interestingly, the puppet Priti Patel is not given any words ending in G, thus avoiding her distinctive way of speaking. Patel is portrayed as a dominatrix, bringing to orgasm with his right-wing views a Michael Gove, whose rubber cheeks are as swollen and rough as diaper erupted buttocks.
This sketch is at least as offensive as the sketches of the Thatcher era. The range of goals is also incredibly wide, with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern poking fun at being too perfect a politician in a formidable parody of Mary Poppins. Teeth, it seems, are the part of the body that is always considered a safe target, with Ardern’s choppers especially whoppers.
The first show lets HRH Prince Andrew walk away with a bit of silly silliness, but there are, thankfully, nine more weeks to come.