“Oh, hairy Moses!”
In “Lost Cels,” we take an in-depth look at the animated films and TV shows that failed or have been somewhat forgotten by time in order to see if they deserve their less-than-stellar reputation.
Original Air Date: 14th October 2001 – 23rd December 2004
Original Network: ITV1
No. of Series: 5
No. of Episodes: 29
In the realm of satirical British television programmes, Spitting Image casts an inescapable shadow over the whole genre. Even today, the ghost of Spitting Image still hangs around in various ways and not just because “The Chicken Dance” is still a begrudgingly-popular staple at soul-sapping school discos the nation over. For those of you who don’t happen to be from the UK, or are too young to have experienced it first-hand and never bothered to try watching clips online because grumble grumble Millennials, Spitting Image was a puppet-based sketch show that ran on ITV from 1984 until 1996 that is primarily remembered for its incredibly biting political satire. Satire that it could get away with because the show was performed almost entirely by highly caricatured puppets. In that respect, its comedic sensibilities were somewhat akin to newspaper comic strips in their timeliness and just what they could depict, only their sketches could be longer than one panel and they went a lot further than most newspaper satirists could.
And did they ever need to. For the vast majority of Spitting Image’s run, Britain was under the rule of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. In the most diplomatic of descriptors possible, it was not a particularly popular government for a lot of people living in the union, and Thatcher imposed a lot of very controversial and very divisive policies during her time in office that the country is not only still recovering from but also appears to have heavily influenced the current Tory government, who are also not particularly popular with a lot of people. The Miners’ Strike, privatization, reducing spending on education and housing, increasing taxes in the middle of the 80s recession, The Falklands War, her treatment of Northern Ireland… There was a lot to work with for any satirist worth her salt, and that’s not even getting into Thatcher’s tight-fisted control over her own party (one of the many things that would eventually lead to her downfall in 1990). Spitting Image didn’t just run with this, it slam-dunked from the 3-point line whilst on fire and punctuated at every turn by a nice loud “BOOMSHAKALAKA!” Here are just some examples:
The show was not solely devoted to British political satire, many sketches also made fun of American President at the time Ronald Reagan, but the British political satire is what is very understandably remembered. Spitting Image would also devote time to lampooning celebrities which is an aspect that people don’t often bring up nowadays when referencing the show, but was an integral part nonetheless and, most importantly, these sections were no less vicious than the political satire. At its peak, Spitting Image was a beacon of hilarious satire that married the high-brow with the low-brow with ease. Much of the show’s run from the mid-to-late 80s still holds up today, even if many of the specific references can go sailing over the heads of viewers who weren’t alive at the time.
When Spitting Image declined in quality is a matter of constant debate: was it when Rob Grant and Doug Naylor left to make Red Dwarf? Was it after Thatcher was ousted from power and replaced by John Major? Before that, when the show started to lean more towards the excessively exaggerated for its comedy rather than genuine satire? Whenever you think Spitting Image declined, if you think it did at all, the show was eventually cancelled due to low ratings, but it left an indelible mark on the medium of British satire. At its peak, 15 million people were tuning in, it had a number 1 hit single, and its influence is still felt today. Indirectly, in that the show ended up as an incubator for all kinds of comic talent – Steve Coogan, Chris Barrie, Harry Enfield, Jan Ravens, and Jon Culshaw all got their start as voice artists on the show – and directly, in that there have been numerous attempts throughout the years to revive the ghost of Spitting Image.
Case in point: producer Giles Pilbrow. A producer on its eighteenth and final series, Pilbrow had approached many of the people working on Spitting Image as that show was winding down wondering about the feasibility of continuing the Spitting Image conceit in an animated form. Spitting Image had featured animated segments in the past, mostly in its final three years on the air, but these took a lot longer to produce than the puppet sketches and Pilbrow wanted to keep the topicality of Spitting Image in this new animated show. The technology simply wasn’t there yet and the project was abandoned for a few years. Eventually, however, technology caught up. Advancements in the realm of digital animation, most noticeably taken advantage of by South Park which could at the time produce whole episodes in just three weeks, made Pilbrow’s vision a possible reality. He recruited Georgia Pritchett – at the time a writer on the first series of Smack The Pony – to be the programme’s Head Writer and Associate Producer, brought back Jon Culshaw and Jan Evans from Spitting Image to provide voices alongside newcomers Mark Perry and Dave Lamb, and then successfully pitched the series to ITV1 in 2001.
Thus was born 2DTV.
And what a world that 2DTV was born into. Over the 4 years that the show ran for there was a widely (and deservedly) derided Blair-led Labour government, George W. Bush was President of the United States of America, Al-Qaeda rose to infamy, both Great Britain and the US plunged headfirst into a pointless war in Iraq where all of those prior years of selling arms to the people they were pointlessly fighting backfired spectacularly, celebrity culture began to truly start taking over, accusations that mainstream media was dumbing down were at an all-time high, there was a national strike by the Fire Brigades Union that was embarrassing for all parties involved, South Korea & Japan held a World Cup that we for some reason deluded ourselves into believing we had a shot at winning, the opposition presented by any non-Labour party was practically non-existent, and Labour themselves, the party that had sold themselves as a New Labour that were a new kind of politics, were rocked by a series of sleaze and scandals that cast a dawning realisation that a Blair-led Labour was a lot less Left-leaning than had been advertised.
Sure, Early-2000s Labour was not exactly Mid-1980s Conservative in terms of a well of biting and vicious satire – Blair, for one, was nowhere near as much of a walking caricature as Margaret Thatcher, although dammit if he really didn’t try – but you hopefully get the idea. 2DTV had a goldmine of fantastic possible material to draw from, and the comparatively bite-sized runtime, with each episode of the first 2 series lasting just 10 minutes, should save viewers from any B-grade filler. These would be short, sharp, insightful blasts of satire that, thanks to the medium of animation, would allow the writers to take their jokes as far as they felt were necessary.
Here is the first sketch featured on the Best Of Series 1 & 2 compilation DVD for 2DTV.
Such is the kind of humour that one can expect to find on 2DTV which has not so much “aged poorly” as it has “never been particularly funny or insightful to begin with.” It would be understandable if 2DTV had aged poorly because its jokes were so tied to their date of origin. After all, topical humour can often focus on events and circumstances that at the time were major concerns but can be almost entirely forgotten by history years down the line, so utilising these as subject matter for cutting commentary can lead to the context being lost on those who revisit it years later. The thing about 2DTV, however, is that it very, very rarely attempts to tackle current events through the lens of the event itself, preferring instead to make a load of very broad and simplistic one-note jokes about the people involved that don’t ever change.
So, let’s go back to that George W. Bush sketch. What you may have noticed in that sketch is that the joke is simply “George Bush is dumb.” There are no references to his domestic policies, nothing about his foreign policies, and there isn’t a reference to any specific instance of Bush idiocy (of which there was no shortage to cull from). The General isn’t even based on a real person, he’s a completely fictional Straight Man creation. The joke is just “George Bush is dumb.” Now, one could attempt to excuse this by noting that 2DTV premiered in October of 2001, 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that making jokes against Bush at all at the time could have been considered “edgy” and “controversial.” Except that 1] no it wasn’t, these jokes were pathetic softballs even by October of 2001 standards, and 2] that one joke set up the show’s treatment of Bush and it proceeded to almost never deviate from that one joke for 3 whole years, even when the world’s opinion of Bush was at an all-time low.
Sometimes Bush would be a war-obsessed stupid child, mostly he would just be a stupid child, but the joke would almost never progress beyond “George Bush is dumb.” In one sketch, Bush turns the White House into a bouncy castle – reasoning that “all of the terrorists’ bombs will just bounce right off of it” – pulls some shapes, and then bursts the White House when he tries to play darts, crying as it deflates. That’s the sketch, one that seems to exist solely so that a reason can be contrived for Bush to say, “Blow up the White House!” It’s lazy, it’s toothless, and it’s sadly endemic of 2DTV’s political satire as a whole, alternately uninterested or terrified of having anything to say outside of the cheapest shots possible. A Series 3 sketch deals with the National Firefighters strike I mentioned earlier where, thinking that the government doesn’t have to acquiesce to their demands, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott decides to take on the work of a fireman himself. What potential that set-up may have had, however, is quickly drained when Prescott gets stuck in an endless bouncing loop on the fireman’s pole because he’s fat. Ha. Ha. My sides.
What’s most frustrating is that, when the show actually tries, it can provide some decent satire. One sketch involves Tony Blair being prepped for an interview by John Sergeant where he constantly shifts through his various public personas at each new cue – “Ah, it’s the weekend, and I’m relaxed! Down-time, cup-of-tea, jeans with a crease, because I’m an ordinary guy” and so forth. Sure, the punchline is super obvious (Blair fails to understand what “be yourself” means) which is a recurring problem with the show, but the premise is good, the execution is strong, and it’s still got some relevance today since that kind of political posturing hasn’t gone away. Another sketch references the similarities between the Blair Labour government and the Major Conservative government by having impressions of Major’s cabinet come out of the mouths of Blair’s cabinet. A Monsters, Inc. parody referenced the scaremongering tactics of Labour in the run-up to various elections, whilst a different sketch depicted the Conservatives as completely invisible due to their total lack of any kind of influence as the Opposition, although both sketches fall down in their punchlines.
Unfortunately, for every sketch that demonstrates some genuine inspiration or contains proper satire or is actually funny from start to finish, there are at least eight that display none of those things. Sketch comedy is always going to be hit-or-miss, topical sketch comedy doubly so, but a ratio this lopsided is still cause for alarm. Labour of the Early 2000s may not have been the Conservatives of the mid-to-late 80s, but that’s still no excuse for 95% of John Prescott gags to be based around his weight. The Bush material, meanwhile, is by turns uninspired and recycled from various President Reagan gags featured on Spitting Image, just with all of the specific political references removed in order to create a stunted man-child character who is often (rather justifiably) derided as merely a Homer Simpson clone.
But political satire is not the only thing that 2DTV does. In fact, the political satire only really takes up roughly 40% of the show – at least as estimated by TV Tropes and, based on my viewing of the show, that’s an estimate I’m willing to agree with. The rest is dominated by jokes against celebrities and this has aged about as well as you could expect. There are several elongated sketches devoted to taking the piss out of Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, the host of late-era Changing Rooms and just about any British reader born before the year 1995 is now suddenly being flooded with those repressed memories. Uri Gellar is featured in multiple sketches because he reignited his 15 minutes of fame in 2002 by appearing on the first series of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! One of the show’s best sketches, meanwhile, involves contestants of The Weakest Link voting off Anne Robinson rather than themselves for very justifiable reasons.
Again, many of these sketches have aged poorly, a result of dedicating jokes to culturally-specific blips on the pop culture radar that failed to have any lasting impact outside of the short period where they were famous. But that said, these are the sketches I appreciate most. Not so much for the jokes themselves since many of them suffer from the rather poor writing quality of most of the rest of the show – a runner through one episode of Series 3 involves David Dickinson saying that he’s “not made of wood” and then something wood-like happens to him, and, no, I have no idea what the joke is meant to be beyond a scarily-good David Dickinson impression – but more for the time capsule of the years the show ran for. Like when you watch a re-run of an old list show and are equally as amazed by the then-contemporary talking heads as you are by the content of the show itself.
However, the vast majority of the celeb sketches are dedicated to the most obvious targets in order to tell the easiest joke possible, often with a rather sexist slant at that. Almost every single Beckham Family sketch without fail will have its punchline or joke be “Victoria cannot/should not sing” or “Victoria is thin but thinks she’s fat.” There are a lot of jokes against anorexia, for the record, the target never being society for creating this insecurity in these women, it’s always on the women themselves for being so vain and self-involved. What’s weirder is that the show does actually take jabs at the double-standards of our treatment of male and female celebrities in almost any sketch where the paparazzi is involved – like one where Will Smith gets photographed walking down a red carpet, but Kylie Minogue only gets photographed when she bends over to reveal her arse – only to shift straight back to complicit victim blaming every other time.
Anyways, outside of the mild sexism thing, the celebrity sketches are just one very easy joke repeated over and over again in ever so slightly different ways. Bill Gates heads up Microsoft so is technology-obsessed and doesn’t understand non-computer things. The Osbournes swear constantly because they swore constantly on their show and that’s shocking and/or hilarious. The England Football Team are injury-prone and/or are terrible, although the recurring qualifier of England’s decent performances as only “adequately well” by their manager at-the-time, Sven-Göran Errikson, is pretty clever. George Michael is gay, Geri Halliwell can’t sing, and Elton John is both fat AND gay AND wears a wig, and the three keep getting paired up for sketches because… (*throws arms up in air in a defeated fashion*) And this is all without getting into The Royal Family, which are just the Labour Government sketches with different names and far less contempt, for some reason.
Again, sometimes 2DTV could make a genuinely great sketch – one touching on the merchandising madness for Harry Potter around the time of the first film utilises the power of animation to pull a genuinely unexpected “arm and a leg” punchline out of nowhere, whilst a Wacky Races sketch depicting David Coulthard as the Dick Dastardly of Formula 1 to Michael Schumacher’s Pigeon (I know they’re two separate shows shut up) covers the time-capsule, silliness, and original-delivery-of-an-overplayed-joke boxes – but for the most part, the show just isn’t funny. It’s often too lazy, too toothless, too unimaginative, content to play out the same gags over and over again until either its cancellation or the heat death of the universe. For a show that started out as being only 10 minutes long every week, where both of those Series are only represented for viewers today by supposed-“Best Of” compilations that are still mostly bad, such laziness is inexcusable.
But, for a time, 2DTV was a hit. Why? Well, in show terms, 2DTV manages to tread the faux-edgy line without giving away its true nature. The show is actually super-safe and only occasionally, and that is very occasionally, aims to be truly offensive and incisive, but it is also just raunchy enough and just provocative enough to appear like such a thing is its bread-and-butter. It’s edgy in a mainstream way, the kind of audience that Giles Pilbrow openly admits aiming the show towards in interviews featured on the DVD extras. Those first two Series, as previously mentioned, were also only 10 minutes long per episode, which probably made it easier to get away with the constant recycling of jokes due to the shortness of each episode and the week’s break between each. Then, in July of 2002, the 2DTV crew produced the music video for George Michael’s anti-Bush song “Shoot The Dog.” It was a minor hit, and a pretty decent song, and likely raised the show’s profile considerably. The video also has more biting satire in its 5 minutes than almost all of the show itself combined, which is pretty sad.
Oh, yeah, and there was the fact that an advert promoting the DVD and VHS release of that Best of Series 1 & 2 compilation was initially banned by the Broadcast Advertising & Marketing Centre. In it, George Bush tries to watch his 2DTV video by putting it in the toaster. That’s it. Not particularly funny, arguably not particularly edgy, but it violated the advertising rule of celebrities featured in adverts promoting products needing to give their permission before being featured. 2DTV didn’t get that permission, believing they were protected from that by the ad being satire, and the ad was resultantly rejected. Pilbrow and his team then submitted the idea to replace Bush with Osama Bin Laden, only for that ad to be rejected too for the exact same reason. Whilst that was going on, Pilbrow, the crafty producer he is, ran to the papers with his story and it immediately became national news. The “ban,” such as it was, was eventually overturned and the original ad aired unchanged, but that was ultimately unnecessary. The “banning” controversy, by Pilbrow’s own admission, inarguably did more to raise attention for the show than the ad itself would have, since every comedian loves a good “my free speech is being CENSORED!” ruckus – that’s basically Ricky Gervais’ whole irritating schtick by this point.
But the success was not to last. Series 3 saw the show extended to 20 minutes including adverts, whilst Series 4 upped the runtime to 30 minutes per episode, in examples of ITV not getting the appeal of the show. The nature of fast-paced sketch comedy, where each sketch is a minute or less, means that prolonged exposure can lead to the viewer feeling tired, that rapid pace instead causing proceedings to start to drag, and it can also expose running gags to be one-note and incredibly and noticeably lazy in their unchanging nature. This is why, barring certain specials, Robot Chicken has remained at 11 minutes per episode for the past 11 years. Even The Kevin Bishop Show recognised that it barely had enough unique gags to fill just 2 Series and got out whilst it still could.
More cripplingly than that, though, the end of Series 3 also saw the departure of Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, and Mark Perry, otherwise known as three-quarters of the voice cast. They were all summarily replaced – by Enn Reitel, Kate O’Sullivan, and Lewis MacLeod – but the quality of the impressions took a severe hit, and several of them weren’t that great to begin with, not to mention the fact that viewers had grown accustomed to the old voices by this point. There was also a full year’s break between the conclusion of Series 3 and the beginning of Series 4, especially momentum-killing given that Series 1 through 3 aired within the space of just 14 months. Plus, by the time that the show returned for Series 4, the quality of the sketches (which were wildly hit-and-miss already) had taken a massive nose-dive. Matrix parodies that are actually just a vehicle for another “Windows Operating Systems are constantly being made obsolete and take forever to install” gag? Why don’t you tackle the topic of airline food while you’re at it, 2DTV? Oh, yeah, cos you already did that earlier in your run during an otherwise-funny sketch involving TV chefs stuck on a desert island.
Ultimately, what I think did 2DTV in, besides it not being very good, was ITV’s attempt to milk the cow dry, vastly overestimating the show’s demand and influence in the process. That sounds ridiculous considering that I just mentioned how the show took a full year off between Series 3 and 4, but remember that this show produced and aired 3 full Series worth of television within 14 months. And to further sate demand, ITV foolishly extended the show’s runtime, ultimately exposing just how idea-deprived, formulaic and hacky the show was. When viewers dropped like flies during Series 4, ITV moved the fifth Series out of prime-time and to a graveyard slot before finally putting it out of its misery. 2DTV was arguably a victim of its own success, ultimately becoming the kind of “Popular for 15 Minutes then Never Heard From Again” celebrity that the show would occasionally lampoon.
That said, don’t weep for those who threw their hats into the show. Culshaw, Ravens, and Perry all plied their trade into the far better Dead Ringers TV show, Dave Lamb landed the gig of “Announcer for Come Dine With Me” and ultimately became responsible for causing that show to be the monolith it is today, Georgia Pritchett would go on to create Life of Riley – which is a really bad show, but did at least connect with audiences – and is now involved with the HBO series Veep, and Giles Pilbrow eventually got involved with the Horrible Histories crew. The ghost of Spitting Image continues to haunt the British satirical sketch show, however, and the constant search for “the next Spitting Image,” as utterly futile as that is, continues to claim lesser shows like 2DTV to the winds of time. In fact, in 2008, Henry Naylor of Spitting Image tried to channel his prior show into a new topical CGI satirical sketch series…
But that’s another story for a different day.
Next time: Histeria! for real, this time, finally.
Callum Petch is still amazed he made it out alive after what he did. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!