When you sit down to watch the first episode of Spitting Image this evening, one aspect will stand out the most. There is no easy way to say this. It will be Donald Trump’s arsehole.
After 24 years off our screens, the country’s most influential and instantly recognisable satirical show is back, with new targets, new voices and new puppets. NME saw the first episode in advance of its broadcast on BritBox, and is happy to report that the whole thing was not a disaster. At a screening that also featured a discussion with some of the cast, the showrunner, and the original co-founder Roger Law, there were plenty of laughs audible through the obligatory masks.
Back to the arsehole. Although the team were reluctant to admit that one of their aims is to shock, the first sketch in the first episode makes clear that generating outrage is in their mission statement. Complaining to Melania in bed about all the tweets he has to send, Donald Trump outsources his tweeting to his arsehole. Lying on his side so that his rear is facing the bedside table, the already grotesque puppet reveals a still more hideous sight: an elongated arsehole, bearing a horrible resemblance to a shaved elephant trunk, which slithers over to the phone and starts poking.
The gag is more gobsmacking than funny but it’s nice to see the show immediately nail its colours to the mast. Over the rest of the episode we see about 20 other celebrities in gurning latex form. These include Greta Thunberg, Harry and Meghan, Kevin Hart, Elton John, and The Rock. Some are immediately recognisable; some – Matt Hancock, Jacinda Ardern and Dominic Raab – need to identify themselves to help the viewer out.
There are some strong sketches and, inevitably, some duds. The best material is probably in the Boris Johnson parts, one of which is a lovely imagining of the relationship between the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings, depicted here as a creepy alien with a pulsating head who drools at the prospect of eating Johnson’s baby. There is also a good routine that sees Johnson pretend to be a student (because he envies them being unable to see their families) then return to Number 10 when he learns how woke they are and that being one involves paying £9,000 a year for the privilege.
Elsewhere, a haunting sketch that involves Priti Patel as a dominatrix to a submissive Michael Gove, whose cheeks have been made to look like a scrotum, is a crowd-pleaser. The main joke here – that Patel gets less flak for her reactionary statements because she is an Asian woman – will divide audiences, but again, this is probably why it appealed to the writers.
Other bits don’t land – there’s a superfluous runner about Lewis Hamilton’s hypocrisy that feels too moralistic – and the writers probably rely so heavily on Trump being so inherently cartoonish that they don’t look all that hard for more subtle angles of attack. But its topicality is admirable: there are several sketches here about events that occurred as little as 12 hours before the recording. This is impressive on the radio but when puppets are involved, it’s almost breathtaking.
In its prime, 15 million people watched Spitting Image. The new series will not attract this many viewers. We are in a different world now, and our leaders are not only jokes but they look more like puppets than ever. But as an attempt to resuscitate a beloved institution, Spitting Image 2.0, arseholes and all, could be a lot worse.
‘Spitting Image’ releases new episodes weekly on BritBox