Spitting Image’s puppet master Roger Law on the show’s reboot

PUBLISHED: 17:11 02 October 2020 | UPDATED: 17:26 02 October 2020

Royals Prince Charles and Camilla are two of Roger Law's favourite puppets from the new show. Photo: Mark Harrison for Avalon/Britbox

Royals Prince Charles and Camilla are two of Roger Law's favourite puppets from the new show. Photo: Mark Harrison for Avalon/Britbox

Mark Harrison for Avalon/Britbox

Spitting Image TV show creator Roger Law talks about the show’s return on Britbox

Teenage environmentalist GretaThunberg is the Spitting Image weather girl. Photo: Mark Harrison for Avalon/BritboxTeenage environmentalist GretaThunberg is the Spitting Image weather girl. Photo: Mark Harrison for Avalon/Britbox

It has been four years in the making, and 24 years in the waiting, but legendary 80s puppet satire show Spitting Image is finally back on the screen.

And, as in the previous iteration, it is Wells-based mischief-maker Roger Law who is the driving creative brain for this 21st century reboot. It has been something of a challenge for the artist and satirist, now in his 80th year, not least because of the corona chaos.

“I’m a bit frayed at the edges because we made 100 puppets, which I have had to do on Zoom,” he tells me (on Zoom, of course). “I’ve got used to the new technology. It’s actually not bad, but I was really looking forward to being back in the workshop. I really miss that bit.”

He also had to recruit a team to create his vision in the studio, which was not without its challenges. “I rounded up the talent, which wasn’t easy. Caricaturists are hard to find. They are as rare as rocking horse s**t because the newspapers simply don’t train them up like they used to. And the ones that are established don’t want to mess around working half the night for Spitting Image.”

Roger Law made his name with the Spitting Image satire series on TV back in the 80's. Picture: Ian BurtRoger Law made his name with the Spitting Image satire series on TV back in the 80's. Picture: Ian Burt

The original show was very much a British phenomenon, but the new one has opened itself up to the world, reflected in the make-up of the team. “Because it’s global, this time I’ve used American and French caricaturists,” he says, adding that he also recruited people who had worked at the world-famous Tussauds waxworks. “I was surprised at how skilled quite a lot of young people are now, really, really good. The first Spitting Image was pretty rough and ready to say the least.”

The world-wide reach of the anarchic show has also brought other challenges, including a new generation of people Roger is unfamiliar with. “We’re making people like Chrissy Teigen and Elon Musk and I don’t even know who they are. I don’t think they know who I am, either, though.”

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Roger Law made his name with the Spitting Image satire series on TV back in the 80's. Picture: Ian BurtRoger Law made his name with the Spitting Image satire series on TV back in the 80's. Picture: Ian Burt

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Which are his favourite puppets? He likes the way a certain teenage environmental campaigner has turned out.

“The best puppet for my money is Greta Thunberg. She’s the weather girl, very angry. It makes me laugh every time I see her; ‘The weather is too hot!’”

Roger in one of his rare outings to the Spitting Image workshop, where the puppets are created. Photo: Philip SayerRoger in one of his rare outings to the Spitting Image workshop, where the puppets are created. Photo: Philip Sayer

He likes Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall as well, and the Queen, though he says of Her Majesty: “The Queen is a bit cruel simply because, like me, she’s knocking on a bit.”

There’s a perspiration-free Prince Andrew and, of course, US President Donald J Trump, whose name elicits a vigorous and largely unrepeatable denunciation from Roger.

Going global means the satire has to travel, so the show recruited Jeff Westbrook, a TV writer best known for his work on The Simpsons and Futurama, to lead the team. It will strive for the fresh topicality of the original, delivering programs close to on-air time. A little closer to home it also recruited Norfolk comedy writer and actor Karl Minns, one third of the Nimmo Twins. “I grew up watching Spitting Image, so it’s a real thrill to be on the writing team for the new series,” says Karl.

The last-minute delivery can make for blade-sharp TV, though with the risks that occasionally things will sail wide of the mark. There is also the question of taste – when is cruel too cruel? - and of external pressure, something Roger recalls from the original series.

Roger Law with the Donald Trump Spitting Image, photographed at Roger's 2018 show at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYRoger Law with the Donald Trump Spitting Image, photographed at Roger's 2018 show at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“I think we were asked not to do something twice in 12 years. Most of the censorship was self-censorship. So for instance if somebody was incredibly emaciated, you’d get one of the bright boys to look into it to make sure it was OK,” he says, adding that blood is the only no-no in 2020, chiefly because of the US audience.

I ask if he has had any communication with his partner in the 80s, Peter Fluck, over the reboot. “He’s a fine artist these days,” says Roger with a smile. “He doesn’t want to go down market from there. He had quite enough of Spitting Image the first-time round.”

Roger is still enjoying his north Norfolk coast life and he and his wife Deirdre Amsden, one of the country’s top quilters, have found positives in the neighbourliness of Wells in lockdown. “I get lots of stuff off the allotment; people drop me tomatoes. If they go to Fakenham market they come around and say ‘look, do you need anything?’”

The busy staycation summer and the bigger than usual tourist influx brought out a little roguishness in Roger over the matter of social distancing. “I got a t-shirt made which says ‘if you’re close enough to read this, you’re too ******* close’. I don’t exactly flaunt it in front of 30-year-olds that look a bit angry, but I certainly use it on the oldies.”

Spitting Image puppet Douglas Hurd, from the original series, at Roger Law's 2018 exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYSpitting Image puppet Douglas Hurd, from the original series, at Roger Law's 2018 exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

For someone in the autumn of the years Roger seems to have bags of energy to pour into the project. “I’m always awake by six, so I just get up early in the morning and get on with it,” he says. “I work seven days a week, really. Maybe I get half a day off at the weekend, but it’s very full on.”

Spitting Image is produced by Avalon. It is available on the subscription streaming service Britbox.

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