Jacob Rees-Mogg reimagined as a praying mantis, Priti Patel transformed into a bat and four Vladimir Putins – not many live shows can boast such a cast.
But Spitting Image Live: Idiots Assemble has a unique advantage – the lead cast are all puppets.
Comedians Al Murray and Matt Forde, the show’s co-writers, tell Sky News: “Suella Braverman is the surprise hit of the show… That puppet is disturbing in a very entertaining way.”
But showbiz is a fickle game, and while Vladimir Putin‘s current role in world politics means he has four puppets “to make what we’re doing with him work”, Kwasi Kwarteng (short-lived chancellor) and Nadhim Zahawi (ex-Conservative Party chairman) didn’t make the cut. Good calls, it turns out in political hindsight.
Murray explains: “You’ve got to be really sure who’s, for instance, the prime minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer before you can commit to having them in the show because it costs thousands of pounds to have them caricatured and cast in latex.”
Described as “a show simultaneously inspired and appalled by real events”, Murray says they are currently on “version 3.5” of the script.
So, how do you create a topical rolling review, but avoid rewriting it every time there’s a cabinet reshuffle? And let’s face it, with three PMs and four chancellors last year alone, UK politics has been something of a revolving door of late.
Calling the production “an oil tanker” – as well as numerous puppets the show has 12 puppeteers (all of whom appear on stage during the show) and 12 voice artists, and tech-wise there are lighting and video AV setups as well as song and voice tracks – Murray acknowledges, “what you can’t be doing is rewriting a sketch about the budget”.
He goes on: “We’ve ended up developing a show that is essentially shockproof… We’ve got a role for the prime minister in the story. So, we’d swap him out rather than have to rewrite the entire thing [if he changed]. Had England won the World Cup, that would have affected what we’d written as well.”
Fellow comedian and co-writer Matt Forde chips in: “Yeah, there would have been one extra joke.”
The show can basically be switched around and updated as current affairs dictate, but without completely upending the storyline, or cast of key characters.
And there’s not just politics and football to worry about, there’s also the ever-changing fads of the world of showbiz. Celebrities who have the honour of making the cut include Taylor Swift, Stormzy and Tom Cruise. As for royalty, King Charles, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle also make it in.
Not just lumps of plastic, it’s like the stars are really there Forde explains: “The puppets are so good, even though they are grotesque recreations of these people, they look and feel alive. And there is a part of your brain that genuinely believes King Charles, Stormzy and Greta Thunberg are all on stage together and chatting to each other. It does some sort of weird trick to your brain where you actually think you’ve seen those people together, it’s brilliant.”
First filmed for TV at Central Independent Television (now ITV Central) in Birmingham 40 years ago, Spitting Image held politicians, the Royal Family and celebrities to account with its biting cultural and political satire over 18 series from 1984 to 1996.
Watched by more than 15 million viewers at its height, the multi award-winning show had no shortage of inspiration for colourful content, with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and The Queen among those recreated in puppet form and lampooned for our viewing pleasure.
Comedy veterans including Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan, Paul Whitehouse and Alistair McGowan all worked on the programme, as did Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor.
The show’s creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law (both now part of the live show creative team) were originally political cartoonists, adapting their trade for TV.
Now, Murray says taking the show to the stage is just another level of the adaptation: “It’s not a comic doing an impression. It’s not an actor who doesn’t look like the King. You know, it’s a puppet. That’s a direct caricature of him.”
He says Forde’s Trump impression is “like having him there in front of you”.
So, what’s the trick to nailing the voice of a character?
Forde explains: “You need to hit upon a theme first, like some form of audio hook – like a sort of noise they would make, almost like a non-word noise. And then I think it’s about saying things that they could conceivably say. So, you sort of understand their vocal mannerisms… Keir Starmer has that slight blockage noise… With Trump you can just do these mad, rambling speeches.
“There’s a way of effectively capturing their essence through noise and the sorts of words they would say, and then it’s like a magic trick.”
Do they think any of the world leaders, celebrities or royalty lampooned in the show will object? Murray thinks not: “It would be daft to complain about this – it’s a Punch and Judy show.”
To prove the point, they’ve invited everyone featured in the show to come and see it, at least all those who are alive.
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With a tongue-in-cheek trigger warning on the show due to its “really naughty jokes”, Murray knows they are able to get away with more on stage with puppets than they would via conventional comedy.
“We have gone through a slightly sort of censorious vibe in the last few years,” he explains. “But now we’re not on television and we’ve not got to get this past BBC compliance or be worried about what the Daily Mail might say and all those factors that impinge on the kind of satire and comedy we get at the moment.”
With the evident success of the Spitting Image TV show, and more antics to dissect in politics and current affairs than ever before, why isn’t it still on our screens? Murray (who wrote for the two-series reboot in 2000) says it’s simply a case of cost, coming back again to the expense of the puppets at its heart.
“Spitting Image is an expensive show to write, shoot, produce, put on, and that is, to be honest, the beginning of the end of it.”
But he says TV’s loss is theatre’s gain: “When it came to TV in the first place in the 80s, it moved caricature on television and sort of rebadged caricature. And I think we’re doing that again by bringing it on stage. So, in a weird way, it feels like a better refresh than just doing it on the telly again.”
Idiots Assemble – Spitting Image Saves The World: Live on Stage is at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday 11 March.