Spitting Image - BFI Event


Friday 9 December 2005, The National Film Theatre, NFT2


Review by Emma Shane © December 2005,

Revised © August 2006  (in the light of the BFI’s transcript)


The event was initially advertised as producer John Lloyd And a Panel of Movers And Shakers Behind The Show. Later listings (including on the web, actually named the other three members of the panel). What we actually got was: One of Britain’s major TV comedy producers, A highly innovative British Puppet-builder, one of the 1980’s premier voice-artistes, and, Doyenne of British TV Puppeteers - for once taking her proper place in puppetry history.


It was a fantastic evening, but so packed that the following account is bound to have left some bits out, and I’m not entirely sure if I’ve remembered everything in the right order.


Originally the event was scheduled to be in the big NFT1 auditorium. However, that was required for some King Kong event, evidently deemed more important, so Spitting Image was shunted into NFT2, which, incidentally, it pretty well filled. The evening started with someone from the BFI coming on stage and introducing the host for the event, Jeremy Dyson. This was followed by some introduction clips, which seemed to consist of a compote for ITV’s 50th Anniversary, plus some Spitting Image spoof advertisements. It was the least interesting collection of clips in the evening, because it was so general.


On comes Jeremy Dyson. He starts to introduce the panel, starting with “producer John Lloyd”, the audience seem about to applaud each name, but he quickly indicates that he wants to announce them all first, and proceeds to introduce “puppet-builder Peter Fluck, voice-artiste Steve Nallon, and, puppeteer Louise Gold”. They did not come on in exactly that order. Louise, dressed in a knee-length skirt, jacket, and brown heeled boots, is dragging a luggage-bag on wheels behind her, causing Jeremy to remark “Louise has something very interesting with her”, some of us already have a pretty good idea that’s going to be.”

Once they are seated, Jeremy gets them to talk about how the show started. This begins largely with Peter Fluck, describing his work with Roger Law as a model maker, and describes some of their original puppet ideas, with a lot of servos and things, which elicits an amount of laughter, mostly from Louise Gold. Peter goes on to explain how Martin Lambie-Nairn supposedly came up with the idea over a lunch, well that’s what it said in the original credits. John Lloyd explains that this was actually his revenge on Martin Lambie-Nairn, because he himself had had the idea of doing a satirical TV puppet show some five years early, while producing Not The Nine O’Clock News, they had had a go, but very little seems to have come of it. Jeremy then asks Louise, who so far has remained, extremely quiet (apart from laughing), when she got involved. That’s an easy question to start her off. She replies that she was asked to come and be Spitting Image’s answer to Jim Henson. (or as she actually put it she was asked to come and be Jim Henson” for them. She goes on to say she didn’t think she’d be able to do it “not in a billion, trillion years”, but somehow, despite being terrified of the job, she did start advising them, and (as she now admits) “trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about”.


Having had a fair amount of talk about the show, it’s time to see some clips, mostly taken from the early days.

Some of these clips feature the Royals, including a particularly funny one of them looking at a photograph album. This prompts John Lloyd, with Peter Fluck, to talk about the initial objections, and how they were given a bottle of whisky by their commissioning editor, and told, that although he himself didn’t agree with it, they had been ordered to remove all mention of the Royal Family from the first episode. It turned out the reason for this, being that Prince Phillip was opening Central Television’s new studios, and Central couldn’t risk offence. So if they wanted a job next week they had better obey. After two hours arguing with each other, they did. John also comments that if the antics they had the Windsors doing had been done by an ordinary family, say “The Smiths” no one would have objected.

This leads on to an interesting discussion about how in the very early days they tried recording the voices and puppetry at the same time. Steve Nallon, to his credit, does explain that the original idea was to train the two voice-artistes, him and Chris Barrie as puppeteers, and mentions that Chris carried on assisting as a puppeteer for several series after that, Steve himself want on assisting much longer. It is explained, mostly by Peter, that in TV one borrows techniques from what has gone before. So in this case, they tried doing the voices with the puppets, because that was the way Jim Henson did it. Steve Nallon (who is being quite talkative) takes up the story, (and John Lloyd joins in too) that on Spitting Image it wasn’t possible because of the set building. So it was found to be easier to pre-record the voices; and that in turn meant they could bring in all sorts of voice-artistes. John Lloyd who remarked that you could never get people who were good at both voices and puppetry, the good voice-artistes aren’t good puppeteers, and the good puppeteers weren’t good at voices. Although he has a very valid point, which is by and large more or less true. It should be remembered that there are a few performers who are an exception to that rule, as proven by at least three of The Muppet Show’s main eight puppeteers, and his statement sounded a bit insulting given that one such puppeteer was actually sitting up there on the stage with him. Meanwhile, undisturbed Steve explains about the Pope’s voice and how that developed.


Jeremy asks, Louise especially if after the voices were separated from the puppetry whether the puppeteers had particular characters that they usually did. At last Louise Gold, who had been, for her, unusually quiet, ventures to speak saying that she usually seemed to puppeteer female characters (even when she wasn’t voicing them). She mentions that in the early days she often puppeteered Mrs Thatcher, and that after she left Anthony Asbury took that one over. She also remarks that after he took it over the puppet started dressing in mans clothing. Her fellow panel members confirm that this was Anthony’s idea.


 On with the clips, mostly government ones, including the classic one of Mrs Thatcher and two other politicians in the Mens’ Room.  All of which prompts Jeremy to raise the issue of whether Spitting Image may have actually prolonged the Thatcher government. The totally different responses from the two performers on the panel speaks volumes. Steve looks rather pleased. While Louise by contrast as a look of (possibly) feigned surprise (perhaps as if to imply, at least as far as she was concerned, that it wasn’t meant to do that even if it did). John Lloyd decided to mention how divided opinion were about the show, he starts off with a kind comment to a colleague “I know you didn’t come into the office that much Louise...” He goes on to describe some of the letters they received. On the one hand some quite nasty ones calling them “Communist bastards” and on the other hand, people who said they were about to commit suicide, but decided to have one last laugh by watching the next episode of Spitting Image, and then decided to leave off killing themselves for another week, to see the next episode. The general conclusion, mainly from John Lloyd, is that Spitting Image seemed to act as a safety-value for people objecting to the government, at least they could laugh at it. Steve is asked to explain about his three different voices for Mrs Thatcher, which he does with great delight. Naturally at this point Steve Nallon gets to tell his story, about sending a post-card saying he did a great Mrs Thatcher imitation, being asked to come for an audition, in John Lloyd’s office, while John was busy with the paperwork, and how he got John to ask him a question, which he then answered in character, at which John Lloyd takes up the story, saying how it was like Mrs Thatcher was there in the room with him. So of course Steve got the job.


This leads on to why Spitting Image was so good. The scripts? the voices? or the puppets? While the puppets themselves grabbed people’s attention, it seems the scripts also had a lot going for them; John Lloyd recounts a letter he had from a blind couple who enjoyed listening to the show.

At this point Louise Gold comments that watching these clips, she can now see how poor quality the puppetry is compared to nowadays, and qualifies the statement by saying that she is one of the puppeteers in those clips. Her natural modestly is very well placed. She comes across as a very frank and honest performer. Unfortunately her comments were rather shouted down largely by Jeremy Dyson accusing her of being unfair. When in fact if he had actually bothered to listen to how carefully she had chosen what she was saying, he should have realised that she was taking great care to be totally fair. In this he was quietly backed up by

John Lloyd and Steve Nallon saying that they seemed to think the puppetry was actually quite good. While all three do have a point (taking into account what it was technically possible for the show to achieve at that time), and Mr Lloyd and Mr Nallon were quite pleasant in their disagreeing, it should be remembered that Louise Gold is a very experienced puppeteer, I’m sure some of the audience at least, would have felt more respect for her professional judgement on this specific matter.


Steve Nallon brings up the subject of Mrs T in that Men’s Room clip. Louise is asked specifically whether she was puppeteering Mrs T in that clip which she was not, she and Steve confirm that it was one of Anthony Asbury’s pieces. This brings the panel, especially Steve, on to mentioning that there were just two puppeteers on Spitting Image who had a real talent for being able to make a puppet look like it was using its lower body (even when it didn’t have a lower body) to do something, such as kicking someone, or indeed relieve itself in a Mens Room, and those two puppeteers are Anthony Asbury and Nigel Plaskitt. At which, several of the audience glance at Nigel who is in the audience.


Another set of clips leads on to it being pointed out there was an in joke of having background puppets that were caricatures of actual Spitting Image personnel. Someone, reckons they spotted one of Nigel Plaskitt in the clips just now. This prompts John to recount one occasion when the managed to get caricatures of him and his co-producer in the same sketch without the producers realising until afterwards, when they both spotted each other, but not themselves.

As the conversation shifts to the puppets themselves, and Jeremy, decides this is a good moment to ask Louise to show us what she has brought with her. She unzips her trundle-bag, to reveal (as I’m sure several of us in the audience, already guessed she would, though I think quite a few were surprised) the actual Spitting Image puppet of The Queen. Louise lifts the puppet out, and then says “I’ll just get her eyes out” and delves into the puppet to retrieve the eye mechanism (which she doesn’t usually use in her adventures with it these days). There follows a quick explanation here about how proficient Steve Nallon is at operating the eye mechanisms, so much so, he got nicknamed “Head Of Eyes”. Unrolling the mechanism, and handing it to her assistant, the leading puppeteer remarks that there should be a rubber bulb on the end, but it’s missing. She turns to Peter Fluck and (momentarily sounding cheekily confident) asks him “Could you send me one?” As the bulb is missing Steve, taking his place crouching bottom stage left next to Louise, is told he’ll have “to do suck and blow” to operate the eyes. “Well I’ve done it before” he says nonchalantly, and goes on to explain that sometimes in the middle of shooting a scene the bulb part of the mechanism would break, and in that situation he would have to operate the eyes by sucking and blowing. Having heard so much about the puppets this evening, its the icing on the cake to have a live demonstration, and, whereas these days, whenever Louise performs The Queen, she does it on her own, this occasion was made that extra bit special by having Steve Nallon there doing duty as an assistant puppeteer, thereby demonstrating something approaching how it would really have been done on Spitting Image itself when they often had several puppeteers working one puppet, a principal puppeteer plus assistants. However, sticking her right arm in the puppet’s sleeve (for this is a ‘Live Hands’ puppet), Louise remembers to explain, that when they did it on the show the puppet would have had their secondary hand in a latex glove sculpted as the puppet’s hand and arm. Naturally we didn’t just have a demonstration of the puppetry here. Louise dropped swiftly into the voice, and had The Queen puppet welcome us to the NFT. A nice reminder that Louise Gold may be one of our foremost television puppeteers, but (as an accomplished actress in her own right) she’s also pretty capable when it comes to voicing them too. The subject comes up that besides the arms, sometimes the puppeteers also had to provide the puppets with legs. So hiking up her skirt a little, to expose her knees clearly, Louise (still with her hands up the puppet), places the puppet in front of her, covering her face and upper body, to demonstrate this, crossing and uncrossing her legs. This was a pretty good demonstration, although quite a few of us could still see Louise’s chestnut curls waving around a little behind the puppet. Overall, it was a jolly good demonstration, which added immensely to the evening. It was also the one moment in the evening where Louise really seemed to relax with total confidence into her role of Leading Puppeteer. At the end of the demonstration, Louise took the puppet off, and propped it up on the floor beside her.


On with the clips, this time of the opposition parties, Labour and the Liberals. Which causes John Lloyd to explain the problems they had in attempting to appear politically balanced, the trouble was Labour never seemed to say anything very much.  This leads on to the question of whether any of the people caricatured had their careers damaged as a result. The consensus seemed to be that generally it didn’t (as in the case of the two Davids - Owen and Steel), but there were a few it did, such as Kenneth Baker, the unfortunate politician they turned into slug. This was an ongoing joke, week by week, as he gradually metamorphosed. Around this time, Peter Fluck also gets to explain why some of the puppets were smaller, they thought it would be cheaper to make, though actually they turned out to cost twice as much, because the clothes for the smaller puppets had to be specially made. Louise Gold seems surprised to learn that the smaller ones cost twice as much. Meanwhile, Steve Nallon somehow finds an opportunity to mention that when he was doing background puppets, he often managed to upstage the leading characters in a scene. He mentions that this is something that has happened before on big puppet shows, including The Muppet Show. (Which reminded me, of the fact that Louise Gold regularly used to steal moments on The Muppet Show with her bit-part characters, when she first started as a puppeteer too).


After some more clips Jeremy Dyson throws open the questions to the floor. One question about what had actually become of the puppets, got a response from pretty much all the panel. With Peter Fluck explaining about the big Sotherby’s online auction, Steve Nallon joining in to remind him of some of the results of that, and Louise Gold pitching in (in a cockney accent) that she had a friend who had bought her the puppet of The Queen. The lions share of these questions were about the work of the voice-artistes, so talkative Steve Nallon was in his element answering all of those. These included: At pre-record sessions did the voice-artistes just sit there and speak? - Some of them, such as Harry Enfield were actually very physical about it; At pre-record sessions did they find themselves talking in funny voices even when not actually recording - Sometimes they did; Whether the voice-artistes asked each other for advice - They did and still do (Steve himself had to call up Kate Robbins recently to ask her how to do Ann Widdicome); How it was decided at pre-record sessions who would do what voice - they all had to sit round microphones and audition in front of their peers; and what were his favourite voices to do - to which Steve replied that most of his favourites were ones he never actually got asked to do? This prompts much laughter (especially from Louise). On being pressed, by Jeremy to do one of these, Steve plumps for Joan Hickson as Miss Marple “Well you see Vicar, it was the sherry.....” However, there was one question about the puppetry “How much experience did the original puppeteers have in television puppetry, and how did that affect what you were able to do with them compared to later in the show, or on other TV shows?” After all of the panel had collectively mentioned two of the original puppeteering team, Richard Robinson who had some experience (but suffered from having short arms), and Anthony Asbury who had been working on Little Shop Of Horrors (and as a result developed the most amazing muscles); Steve comments that he was lucky he had long arms, compared to Richard Robinson who had short arms and was always getting his head in shot. By and large, it is Louise’s job to handle the second part of the question; which she does, with more of her usual confidence, by saying that she personally found the weight of the puppets a problem. They were so big and they got bigger. She goes on to describe some later puppets which were so big and heavy they had to be supported by sticks on the floor. Peter Fluck defends this by saying that initially they had to make them big because it was cheaper to dress the puppets that way. “But they got bigger” protests Louise, this time getting the last word in, it was a question on her speciality after all, and it was so good to see her making the most of it as best she could.


Jeremy Dyson concludes by asking the panel whether they would like to see the show revived. John Lloyd comments that the time might be right for that kind of satire again. Steve Nallon says that he definitely would like to. John Lloyd continues, however, that he himself wouldn’t want to; it took him years to stop feeling sick at the smell of molten latex bringing back bad memories. And anyway it would be too expensive. Peter Fluck concurs with that last point. It would be too expensive, one would have to start again from scratch and anyway they were all so much younger at the time. Meanwhile successful West End actress Louise Gold remains politely silent.


The panel exits, Louise last, as she had to pack the Queen away, which her nimble fingers did very quickly, and it’s onto the finale set of clips, which include Spitting Image’s tribute Mrs Thatcher’s 1987 election victory, Tomorrow Belongs To Me. What a thrill to see that legendary clip.


All in all a very special evening. Although they had their differences, by and large the panel came across pleasantly, and spoke well of their work and each other. Some of them were clearly much more used to this than others. Steve Nallon seemed totally at ease with himself. John Lloyd by and large came across pretty well, and seemed pleasant, though he did get a little carried away with his own rhetoric at one or two points (which I thought was rather unfair on certain puppeteers). Peter Fluck, who doesn’t speak publicly all that often came over exceedingly well; and was the one everyone else seemed to be the most easy around. He was the only one, whom Louise Gold ventured to speak to with her usual jaunty manner. It was wonderful to see Louise Gold, for once attempting to take her proper place in the history of television puppetry. British television at least, owes a debt to its great women puppeteers such as: Ann Hogarth, Christine Glanville, Mary Turner, Sue Dacre, and, Louise Gold. So it was particularly wonderful to see one of them (and a major player on two internationally recognised comedy shows at that) given the recognition she deserves. Louise Gold came across as a nice person, and a true professional. But to anyone familiar with her stage work, particularly her performances at post show discussion events, and, her Cabaret Act, she appears surprisingly lacking in confidence, with little of her usual wit. I couldn’t help feeling that this was not helped by Mr Dyson accusing her of being unfair, when she very carefully wasn’t. Not that his opinion was not valid (and some panel members appeared to back his view). But it seemed a bit inappropriate to say it in that manner and situation; what does he know about puppetry? It came across as if he was belittling Ms Gold’s expertise, although I’m sure that was not his intention. As a responsible interviewer he really should have paid more attention before slapping her down in that way. That said, Ms Gold should have defended herself, but she clearly seemed to be lacking the courage to do so.


All in all though, a very enjoyable evening. Some splendid clips, interesting comments from a unique panel of key contributors to Spitting Image, including their (sometimes rather overlooked) original Leading Puppeteer. It was a wonderful way to acknowledge the work of them and their colleagues on such a notable television show, that characterised the 1980s. I think it was of its time, and so reviving it probably would not work very well. However, let’s celebrate the programme, acknowledge its achievements, and maybe that has or will inspire another generation of satirists to come up with their own groundbreaking satire. It was mentioned that in technique they built on what had gone before in television puppetry, but maybe that was also true of the writing too. Perhaps part of what made Spitting Image great was that it stood on the shoulders of the giants that had gone before, such as: Unity Theatre, That Was The Week That Was, Not The Nine O’Clock News, and, The Muppet Show. But Spitting Image was it’s own show, put together by its own unique group of extremely talented people, and whatever else this enjoyable, hilarious, thought-provoking evening did, it saluted them in great style.



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