Back almost two years to the day, when I was in Berlin on a business trip, I posted this video from the brilliant British TV show, Spitting Image, a wildly inventive and biting political satire done with puppets. At the time, I posted it because this particular video was so incredibly scathing that I couldn't even imagine anything close to it getting on American television. It came at the very end of an election night special that Spitting Image had done, operating on the assumption that the Margaret Thatcher government would sweep the results...which it did.
I bring it back today because not only does it remain brilliant and breathtakingly scathing, but it now has ties to the current presidential race in the United States and in particular the Republican Party's Trump campaign. (Remarkably, there's also a completely unintended and unrlelated resonance at the time, seconds in, when there is a British reference to "Newtown.")
Here's what I wrote at the time, followed by the video.
It's the Very Spitting Image
This is one of the most remarkable pieces of political satire I've ever seen, and one of the most brutal. And it comes from...puppets.
The puppets in question are the brilliant Spitting Image, a British TV series that ran from 1984 to 1996. Created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law with Martin Lambie-Nairn, the show used phenomenally accurate yet overdone caricatured puppets to took a scathing look at politics and society, with a special place in its heart for the Royal Family, and didn't spare Americans any either.
(An episode I once saw had Ronald Reagan at a dinner party. As he was talking blather, a guest came by, lifted up the top part of he head on a hinge, dug a fork in and spun it around like trying to get spaghetti. He then popped the top of the head back in place and wandered off.)
How does this relate to Berlin? I'll get to that. But first, a bit more about Spitting Image.
The show won 10 BAFTA Awards, and even won two Emmys in the U.S. (in 1985 and 1986) when they did a few specials, in hopes of building interest for a series. I suspect the show was far too biting for American tastes, and perhaps still skewed a little too British.
But scathing is the word. As much as Americans might think they're tolerant of political satire, I don't think I've seen much that compares to Spitting Image. And this particular clip is easily the most scathing of all. I can't even begin to imagine it making it on the air in the U.S., nor what the reaction would have been if it had.
I saw this at what I believe was a Museum of Broadcasting event that was a tribute to Spitting Image. The whole evening was wonderful, but when they showed this clip, the room was stunned.
It aired on June 11, 1987, as the last scene of an Election Special. The show aired right after the polls closed, with the presumption that the Margaret Thatcher Government would win in a landslide.
You won't recognize most of the British politicians, no doubt, but the point of the sketch is as clear as could be. There is no subtlety here. Subtlety is thrown far out the window. The song they sing is from Kander & Ebb's musical Cabaret -- which was based on the play, I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which in turns was based on two short novels by Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories.
See! I told you I'd get around to the Berlin connection!
Again, remember two things as you watch the video -- the first is that this was the end of the Election Special as the Thatcher Government won in a landslide...and second I can't even begin to imagine this on American television.
You can get away with more things when it's puppets, but...still. This is remarkable. And that's no hyperbole.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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