The thing about Spitting Image is that it has always been visually splendid but verbally frustrating. In other words the puppets are great but the jokes are weak. That was actually true of the original run in the 1980s and 1990s, despite its (righty) pioneering reputation and some rose-tinted memories. On the evidence of the new series so far, and the latest brace of Election Specials, it’s running true to its old form.
If you wanted to make a Spitting Image-style sketch about the revival of Spitting Image, it would be as a version of the famous Hovis ad, with the kid (Roger Law presumably) pushing his bike up the steep cobbled hill. The tag line: ”Spitting Image – it’s as moderately amusing today as it’s always been”.
Satire is tough. Satire under an intense deadline is harder – and satire produced as puppetry still more demanding. Yet surely they could do better. Having Trump’s literal “a**hole”, complete with wispy orange hair, anthropomorphised as the author of his misspelt hate tweets, was stunningly unoriginal for example: Scatology without purpose. And giving Trump’s unnatural hair a life of its own, like a pet cat, was actually what they did many years ago with Paul Daniels and (I think) Terry Wogan, who also owned unruly hair pieces with a mind and will of their own. It might have been funnier, sharper and, crucially, more edgy to have some obviously KGB man under the bed with the smartphone doing the tweets or something. Or just Trump himself, because we already know he’s a talking sphincter.
They did better with Joe Biden, casting him as a short order cook in a midwestern diner, or stuffed down a very deep well by his campaign team to keep him out of trouble. They could have usefully hit a bit harder on the senior moments, however, just like they used to do with Ronald Reagan (“The President’s Brain is Missing” being one of the best running gags in the old show).
Biden’s bald patch, which is a kind of half-combover is caught well - but the Trump marionette is less successful simply because the appearance of the real tangerine Trump is, as they say, beyond satire. Having Melania as a cash-sucking vampire was fair enough, but not when they’ve already got Priti Patel all fanged-up.
Or take Starmer. They’ve got him about right as a bit of a goody-goody bore, and it was a smart idea to have him inventing an exciting superhero persona for himself to go crime fighting in - but Foxman? A bit too random, that, and with no Labour relevance at all (in fact he looks just like the Leicester City mascot Filbert Fox, which isn’t much use). Not that I’m angling for a job as a scriptwriter or anything but why didn’t they make him “Captain Labour” with a picture of Kinnock or Mandelson on his shield, and have him leaping into hospital wards, war zones and classrooms ready to shower them with cash? Or something?
There were some sublime moments, even so, which are worth the wait. Jacinda Ardern as Mary Poppins is brilliant and the songs are good. Prince Harry holding a squalling Archie and declaring “he already hates his dad. That’s a Windsor for you” hit home with some historic force. Meghan’s ridiculous new cosmetics business selling “exfoliating butt chutney” was another laugh. Rishi Sunak’s Christmas song, ending with him giving a kid an “something expensive that will last for years” - a vast tax bill was a simple and effective fiscal truth. And it has to be said the puppets and sets are invariably luscious and exquisitely detailed, like the steam punk hot air balloon they put Richard Branson in in his way to Mars (chasing Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos). You can happily enjoy all that creativity while you wait for the next joke to pull in. The show just needs some more lively, politically astute writing. ‘Twas ever thus.