TV review: Spooks Series 1 (2002)

Spooks first appeared amidst a blaze of publicity on BBC One in April 2002. Promoted with the catchy slogan, “It’s M-I5, not 9 to 5,” the show was an instant success and with it’s exciting, edgy story-lines and watchable performances, it’s not hard to see why. Eighteen years on, it’s three original stars, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo are all still a regular presence on our screens . Macfadyen, who married his co-star Keeley Hawes in 2004, was indeed, briefly seen as the favourite to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, before Daniel Craig got the part instead.

Spooks introduces us to the world of spies. In the US, where the word ‘Spooks’ is sometimes used as a racial insult, the show was simply called ‘M-I5.’ Although nobody ever actually says, “it’s M-15, not 9 to 5″ in the show, this phrase aptly sums up the central dilemma experienced by Tom Quinn (Macfadyen) as he tries to juggle his demanding but secret career with his developing relationship with single mother Ellie (Esther Hall) and her young daughter. Quinn is initially known to the family as ‘Matthew,” of course, the actor’s actual first name.

Broadcast only a few months after the 2001 September 11th attacks, these first six episodes appeared at a time of heightened tension with story-lines including a bomb attack in Britain by a Far Right US anti-abortion group, a siege at the Turkish consulate by Kurdish rebels, some shenanigans involving the late Tim Pigott-Smith as a Jonathan Aitken-like disgraced minister and Anthony Head playing a veteran M- I5 agent who goes rogue while attempting to infiltrate a group planning to disrupt a visit to Britain by unpopular US President George W. Bush.

Veteran actress Jenny Agutter (now also known for Call The Midwife) also appears as does Hugh Laurie in a role which bridges the gap between the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster comedy roles he was then best known for and the more serious parts in House MD and The Night Manager which lay ahead of him. Future celebrity chef Lisa Faulkner also makes a flash in the pan appearance as agent Helen Flynn.

Much of the technology in the early days of Spooks now seems almost laughably dated with the characters relying heavily on CD-ROM discs, old-fashioned looking mobile phones and very slow downloads in a number of scenes. Macfadyen recently starred in Quiz, a dramatisation of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal and ironically the title sequence and music to Spooks, while presumably seen as flashy and hi-tech at the time, now feel very much like that of a daytime quiz show.

That is not to say Spooks – Series One is only now entertaining for its unintentional comedy value. Far from it. With this and all nine subsequent series now available on the BBC iPlayer (the show ended in 2011, later spawning a moderately successful film version Spooks: The Greater Good in 2015), this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy or enjoy again the opening episodes of a long-running British spy series which essentially got off to an excellent start.

Begin your own surveillance campaign immediately.

TV review: Normal People

As the nation has grown accustomed to lockdown in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have naturally turned more frequently to their TVs for entertainment, with some series inevitably faring better than others during this highly unusual period.

One notable success story in the last two weeks has been the new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People. Although only half way through its 12 episode terrestrial TV run (episodes 5 and 6 will be screened tonight – that is, Monday May 11th 2020 on BBC One from 9pm), the series which is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, has been a huge success on the BBC iPlayer. It has, in fact, become the most requested ever show on the BBC streaming service, beating a record set by the first series of action-packed international drama, Killing Eve in 2018.

NORMAL PEOPLE

Normal People is essentially the tale of the on-off love story over a number of years between a young couple, Marianne Sheldon and Connell Waldron, who begin a relationship initially while as teenagers nearing the end of their schooldays in County Sligo in the Irish Republic. Both are very bright and have much in common, although these things are not necessarily immediately obvious to those around them. At school, Connell (Paul Mescal) is sporty, amiable and popular. In the US, he would be described as a ‘jock’ and keeps his more sensitive literary side fairly well-hidden. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), in contrast, is clever and sensitive too but at school is spiky, rebellious and more socially intimidating. Although, she too, is attractive, she is so unpopular, the other pupils rarely acknowledge this, perhaps not even to themselves. Her relationship with Connell is conducted in the utmost secrecy, during their time at school.

Although he has a happier home life, the Waldrons are much less well-off than the Sheldons, Connell’s mother in fact working as a cleaner in Marianne’s mother’s house. We soon learn Marianne’s domestic existence is deeply unhappy, however. The household is unloving, cold, sterile and ultimately abusive. As the couple’s relationship progresses to Trinity College, Dublin, the two see their roles effectively reversed with Marianne becoming much confident and at ease than the now more awkward Connell, having reinvented herself in her new largely middle-class environment.

Doubtless some of the series’ popularity stems from the potentially voyeuristic appeal of the show’s frequent sex scenes, though these are never pornographic or salacious in tone. Beautifully acted, particularly by its two leads who are surely now both destined for stardom, sensitive and intelligent in its portrayal of an evolving relationship, Normal People is a drama which deserves its success.

There is talk now of producing a TV version of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, or perhaps a TV sequel to Normal People (no literary sequel to the book yet exists).

But, in truth, Normal People is that rarest of things: a TV series which is actually better than the novel which inspired it.

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Miranda (2009-15)

Some might balk at the inclusion of popular mainstream favourite Miranda on this list. But while Miranda the series, like the character of Miranda herself, may be less obviously ‘cool’ than some of its contemporaries, it is extremely likeable and often very funny.

Writing a self-titled sitcom can be a risky business. The sitcom ‘Josh’ for example, has never really fully demonstrated the excellence of its creator Jpsh Widdecombe while comedian Rhona Cameron never really recovered from the failure of her own vehicle, ‘Rhona.’ But the huge success of Miranda transformed Miranda Hart from supporting roles in Hyperdrive and Not Going Out into a household name who now occasionally appears in Hollywood films.

In the sitcom, Miranda is a tall, awkward thirty-something who runs a joke shop with her business-minded, Heather Smalls-loving friend Stevie (Sarah Hadland) and who pines after her old Uni friend, Gary (Tom Ellis), a good looking local chef. Miranda is hampered in her daily life by her intrusive overbearing mother, Penny (Patricia Hodge) who is obsessed with marrying Miranda off, her dippy posh old school chum Tilly (Sally Phillips) and her own tendency to frequently fall over, lose her clothes or occasionally nervously break into song in public. Hart is a master of physical comedy, frequently delivering mischievous asides or meaningful sidelong looks to the camera, rather as Phoebe Waller-Bridge later did in the much less cosy Fleabag.

Full of catchphrases, Miranda was as mainstream as sitcoms get. But before it was fatally overtaken by an over-obsession with a distracting ‘love triangle’ story-line in the disappointing final  episodes, it was genuinely excellent, uplifting, enjoyable, well performed and ultimately… such fun.

Top Ten Tigers From History


1. Tiger King: Netflix series. I’ve not seen this yet! But I must do soon as I hear about it everywhere I go (i,e. the kitchen, lounge and bathroom).

2. Tony the Tiger: Cartoon character used to advertise Frosties breakfast cereal (basically Corn Flakes with more sugar on). As Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) on Peep Show says: “Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.”


3. Tiger Tiger: Popular nightclub. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “Tyger tyger, burning bright. Get pissed, pull and have a fight…”

4. Tygra from Thundercats. The “boring one” of the Fab Four, a bit like George Harrison or Mike from The Young Ones.


5. Rod’s Tiger: Popular comic story about a boy and his pet tiger which ran in Buster comic between 1981 and 1983. A pun on the name of the actor, Rod Steiger. Not really! I made this one up.

6. Tigger: From Winnie the Pooh. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “The wonderful thing about Tiggers…” (I think?)

7. Battle Cat: From He-Man. Transformed from a very anxious green tiger called Cringer into a gruffer (he could speak) more aggressive feline when his master became He-Man. Technically, as he was an alien he might not have actually been a tiger in the same way that the Ewoks from Star Wars are not really bears.

8. Tiger Woods. A golfer. Clemenceau, the French leader at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 nicknamed, “The Tiger.” Neither in fact shared many attributes with tigers. Tigers cannot play golf and no tiger has ever attempted to impose reparations on 1920s Germany.

9. Tiger used to sell oil in the 1980s. “Put a tiger in your tank.” I seem to remember the adverts being much duller than this slogan would suggest with some slow music, some oil running along the ground and a real tiger appearing (the only real tiger on this list). My research suggests some of the adverts were more fun, however.

10. The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Popular children’s book by the late Judith Kerr.

11 (still ten overall as 5 was a cheat!) Tiger Tim: Very old comic character. The UK tennis player Tim Henman is sometimes nicknamed ‘Tiger Tim’ too. I remember nothing about Tiger Tim other than that he wore a blazer, as indeed does Tim Henman sometimes. Was the choice of a ‘blazer’ intended as some sort of clever pun on Blake’s ‘burning bright’ poem? Answer: probably not.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced is the story of Tim and Daisy, two young people in need of somewhere to live.

Daisy is a frustrated writer, keen to escape life in a squat. Tim is a small-time cartoonist who has been forced to move out after discovering his girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.

Together they hatch a plan. Despite not being a couple or even friends really (they have met by chance in a café), having spied a reasonably priced flat to rent advertised as being only available to “professional couples only,” they decide to present themselves as a happily married couple to the apartment’s landlady.

This in essence is the premise of Spaced. Although as Tim himself would say, “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Spaced ran for two series on Channel 4 in 1999 and 2001 and proved the perfect calling card for its two writers and stars, Simon Pegg (Tim) and Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes, who plays Daisy) with the show’s unseen force, the hugely talented director, Edgar Wright also making an impact.

Straddling the millennia, technically only the second of the two series is a 21st century sitcom and thus eligible for this list. But who cares? Both series are great anyway, for a number of reasons…

Firstly, whether its Tim railing against the evils of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a film which Peter Serafinowicz who plays his hated love rival, Duane Benzie actually features in), Daisy attempting to write her masterpiece to the theme from Murder She Wrote, or Wright skilfully evoking memories of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Spaced is packed to the brim with clever popular culture references.

Secondly, many of the episodes are masterpieces in their own right. Tim and his war-obsessed friend Mike played paintball, long before the guys on Peep Show or US shows like Big Bang Theory and Community did it. Another episode skilfully turns the TV show, Robot Wars into a real life conflict while ‘Gone’ sees the stars engaged in an ingenious mimed gun battle governed by ‘masculine telepathy’ at the end of a drunken night out. And that’s not to mention the celebrated Epiphanies episode in which Tim’s odd friend Wheels (Michael Smiley) takes the gang clubbing.

Then, there’s the brilliant supporting cast. Pegg’s real life best friend and flatmate, the then unknown Nick Frost plays Tim’s war-obsessed pal, Mike, a man once expelled from the Territorial Army for “stealing a tank and attempting to invade Paris”. Or Brian (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) an eccentric artist who has an ‘arrangement’ with landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). There’s also a supporting cast which includes a whole host of rising comedy stars including David Walliams, Paul Kaye, Bill Bailey and Ricky Gervais.

But finally there’s the best reason of all: Spaced is likeable, endless quotable, highly watchable and very, very funny.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Peep Show (2003-15)

Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) is a straight-laced sort of chap. “Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants, that’s the rule,” we hear him thinking in the first episode. “Makes a man look scary, like a chicken.” Later, he eats some toast: “Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown is savoury, white’s the treat. Of course, I’m the one who’s laughing because I actually love brown toast!”

For all this sweetness, Mark can be weird and quite history-obsessed, sometimes constructing strange analogies to explain his relationships with women.”Sophie is the one. Toni is Russia: Vast, mysterious, unconquerable.,” he reasons. “Sophie is Poland: Manageable… won’t put up too much of a fight.” He is a loans manager, boring, neurotic, anal, and as the above indicates, obsessed with his work colleague, Sophie (Olivia Colman).

His flatmate, old Uni friend, Jeremy (Robert Webb) is a very different character: jobless, vain, promiscuous, irresponsible, convinced against all the evidence of his own musical genius, (he envisages a band called, “Danny Dyer’s Chocolate Homunculus). He falls ‘in love’ with any pretty girl he meets and is too much under the influence of his dubious friend, Super Hans (Matt King). “If I don’t think about it, there’s always a chance it didn’t happen,” is a typical thought.

“If it feels good, do it!” he suggests to an outraged Mark, at one point.

“If it feels good, do it?” Mark repeats incredulously. “And what is that? ‘Gaddafi’s Law?'”

Peep Show is still the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history. Two things particularly (other than Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s brilliant writing) elevate it above the usual odd couple style flat share set-up. Firstly, the unique way it is filmed, enabling us to not only see the world through Mark and Jez’s eyes but hear their (often not entirely flattering) thoughts.

The other is that as a comedy vehicle, it introduced most of the world to the world of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Or as Jez would put it: “This is good. This is exactly like watching a porno. Except I can’t see anything, I haven’t got a hard on and I want to cry.”

Netflix, All 4

Peep Show quotes:

Mark: Jeremy, there are many things I would do to help you. But digging a hole in the wintry earth with my bare hands so that you can bury the corpse of a dog you killed is not one of them.

Jez: Justice is done. Not actual justice, but what I wanted to happen, which is basically the same thing.

Jez: Crunchy Nut cornflakes are just Frosties for wankers.

Mark: Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.

Jez: No more drugs! I don’t need drugs. I mean, what great music was ever made on drugs? Bowie, obviously…The Floyd…The Prodge. Aphex, the list is endless really.

Super Hans: People? People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people, Jez.

Mark: So what if I don’t really love her. Charles didn’t really love Diana and they were alright. Sort of.

Jez: Brilliant, Mark! My mate and your woman have just gone off to fuck each other. What are we gonna do now? Go and make a tent in the living room and eat Dairylea? Is that what you want? ‘Cos that’s what’s gonna happen!

Mark: There’s the familiar gut punch of pain and confusion. Hello, old friend…

Jez (on vaginas): She’s got one. She’s got one. She’s definitely got one… she’s pretending she hasn’t got one. But really she has..

Mark: Well, listen, I’m sorry if I didn’t do it right and I’m sorry if you assume that I eat red meat and don’t necessarily think money or Tony Blair are a bad thing, but if there isn’t room here for people who stand against everything you believe in, then what sort of a hippy free-for-all is this?

Jez: Come Mr. Taliban, tally my bananas.

Mark: The perfect combination of beauty and low self esteem.

Big Suze: My friend Otto had a very bad trip one time. He put his head on a railway track thinking it was a big steel sweatband.

Jez: Why can’t I just have everything I want? All the time? Isn’t that democracy?

Mark: I guess doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.

Jez: Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?

Mark: Do a Columbo! Do a Columbo!

Super Hans: The twins! I’m always going on about me twins, am I?’ Course I have! The twins, the fucking twins. I’m always on about them! I bloody love ’em too. Hey – I’ve got them on my phone. Oh, hold on, have I…?

Mark: This was definitely a good idea. There’s no chance this wasn’t a good idea.

The Top 20 Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…This Country (2017-20)

Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in an unnamed village in the Cotswolds. Although both have finished school, they are both poorly educated and are still yet to break out of their childhood habits. There is literally almost nothing to do in the village and the suspicion is that the longer they stay there the more likely they are to turn into one of the assorted eccentric weirdos who already roam the landscape. Indeed, they are already well on the way.

The cousins are in fact played by real-life brother and sister, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper who also wrote the series which is filmed in a mockumentary format. The Mucklowe’s only real ally in the world – although a much underappreciated one – is the well-meaning local vicar (the excellent Paul Chahidi).

Kerry is almost invariably dressed in a football t-shirt and lives with her mother, who rather like Howard’s mother in early episodes of the US sitcom, Big Bang Theory, is an unseen presence (in this case, voiced by Daisy May Cooper herself) endlessly shouting inane instructions or complaints to her daughter (“KERRY!!” “WHAT??) in an agitated rasping voice.

The show is something of a family affair with the Coopers’ real life father, Paul Cooper playing Kerry’s dad and their uncle, familiar character actor, Terry Cooper playing local oddball, Len.

Kerry is, a formidable presence in her own right:

“I’ve got enemies in South Cerney,” she boasts boldly at one point. “I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick. I’ve got enemies in Bourton-on-the-Water. There’s a tea rooms there and under the counter they’ve got a panic button and if I take one step inside, they can press that.”

Both she and the hapless Kurtan often act, as the ever positive vicar notes, “somewhat younger than their years.”

“Have you ever looked up at the clouds and the sky?” Kurtan reflects thoughtfully, at one point. “It really makes you appreciate how insignificant they all are.”

Both are, at times, selfish, childish and immature. But they are essentially good-natured and there is a real sweetness to them. Kerry, in particular, completely worships her father. The fact, that he is clearly an incredibly selfish loser, keener on relating crude and unlikely anecdotes about his supposed sexual exploits than showing any affection for his daughter, makes this relationship quite poignant.

In truth, these are great comic creations. This Country is not a series that benefits from extensive hype: it is perhaps best discovered for yourself, either on DVD or on the BBC iPlayer.

But it is nevertheless, quite brilliant, a wonderful, low key, comic delight.

The Top 20 Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge

I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge (2010-2016), This Time With Alan Partridge (2019- )

Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge with Jennie played by Susannah Fielding. Photograph: BBC/Baby Cow/Colin Hutton

Like the great man himself, Norwich’s finest broadcaster makes a slightly awkward appearance on any best 21st sitcom century list, partly because many of his finest offerings occurred well before this millennium began (he first appeared on BBC Radio 4 in 1991) but also because he has switched formats so many times. Happily, whether accidentally outing his interviewer during an ‘Anglian Lives’ interview, berating his co-host ‘Sidekick Simon’ (Tim Key) on North Norfolk’s Mid Morning Matters, attempting to flirt with fellow presenter Jennie (Susannah Fielding) on The One Show-like This Time or asking the questions that matter (“just why did Herbie go bananas?”), Alan has remained as consistently a brilliant comedy creation as Alan the presenter himself is awful.

Indeed, as Alan himself says of his own (fictional) memoir, Bouncing Back “Lovely stuff,” adding carefully, “not my words,” he clarifies: “the words of Shakin’ Stevens.”

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

Blu-ray review: War & Peace

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Let me get the painful bit out of the way first: there was a mistake in this year’s acclaimed BBC adaptation of War & Peace. Hopefully, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the series. “Abandon Moscow?” exclaims a general in the penultimate episode. “Abandon Russia’s sacred capital?” Well, no. For this is supposed to be 1812 (or thereabouts). Moscow had not been Russia’s capital for a century and would not be again for over a century more. So oops.

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But ignore that, for as you’ll know if you were gripped by it throughout the winter months, this is great stuff. Andrew Davies juggles most of the characters deftly throughout these six episodes helped by a superb cast.

James Morton, Lily James & Paul Dano in War And Peace.

American actor Paul Dano excels as Pierre, a bespectacled misfit at the start, prone to getting drunk and embarrassing himself at parties by expressing his enthusiasm for the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, an unfashionable view as the French leader is waging war with Russia. Pierre nurses a secret love for Natasha (Lily James) but things get a bit complicated for him when he suddenly comes into sudden and extraordinary wealth. He is soon confronting numerous challenges including duels, conflict and Freemasons. Others, such as his friend Andrei (James Norton) are bored by the banalities of domestic existence and pledge to take on Napoleon’s forces head on.

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With a stellar cast including Jim Broadbent, Brian Cox, Gillian Anderson, Greta Scacchi, Rebecca Front and Stephen Rea, it may be too soon to call this “the greatest costume drama of the decade” (as the Daily Telegraph did, apparently forgetting they’re supposed to hate the BBC). But this is undoubtedly a landmark in TV drama.

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DVD review: The Honourable Woman

DVD review: The Honourable Woman. BBC Worldwide.
When not laying into any of our other more successful institutions such as the National Health Service or our history of successful gun control, the dimmer elements of the British right-wing often like to attack the BBC. Why can’t be as impartial and balanced as something like The Sun or The Daily Mail they ask? Sometimes they attack it for declining standards.

And guess what? Just as they are generally wrong about everything from the brilliance of Michael Gove to their dislike of the working classes, they are wrong about this too. Just when you think they might be right (perhaps during the preamble to an episode of Strictly Come Dancing), something like The Honourable Woman comes along and reminds everyone how great TV can be on the BBC.


Make no mistake: The Honourable Woman is serious high quality stuff. A gripping eight part drama which aired in July and August on BBC Two, some of Hugo Blick’s edgy subject might in fact have made it unsuitable for normal scheduled viewing had it been aired a month later. For this is a story of the Middle East, albeit one set mostly in the UK. US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a Briton and a leading figure in the pro-Israel lobby awarded a peerage for her tireless work in the Middle East. But the Steins are a family with a dark past and plenty of secrets. As children, Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) witnessed the brutal murder of their father by an assassin involved in the Palestinian cause.


But this is clearly only the beginning of the family’s problems. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Nessa and Atika, the nanny of Ephra’s children? Indeed, what exactly us Atika’s relationship with Ephra himself? What happened to Atika and Nessa on a visit to the Middle East eight years ago? Why are the secret services (notably Sir Hugh Haden-Hoyle played by the ever-brilliant Stephen Rea) so interested? What has the death of a Palestinian man got to do with anything? Is Nessa’s sister-in-law Rachel (Katherine Parkinson) right to feel the family are in danger?

This is exemplary stuff, expertly written, frequently harrowing and well-served by a superb cast which includes The It Crowd’s Parkinson in a major straight dramatic role and sees Hollywood actress Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko, The Dark Knight) delivering a flawless British accent and performance. Along with Line of Duty this is one of the best British TV dramas of 2014 so far.

Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was characterised as a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and there has been nothing like it on British TV since. It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition, which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance, had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue throughout the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (its main character, Jim Hacker MP was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise, Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact the show worked at all. Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable. To ensure topicality, Spitting Image was produced close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live). The show was often on the mark and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (in a rather sexist fashion) in a man’s suit, something which may actually have helped her image.. John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot who was being secretly controlled by Thatcher, before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never served in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere, notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence, either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the Royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He was soon being depicted as a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, John Thompson, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage, perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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How NOT to win a TV quiz show

One of the fun things about TV quiz shows (particularly those which offer a multiple choice of possible answers and which encourage the contestant to explain their reasoning at tortuous length) is seeing the same question answering technique return again and again.

Here is a typical question and answer, plus a selection of different (and mostly stupid) ways people tend to respond

Q: Which English monarch was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century?

Is it:

a)      King John.

b)      King Richard III.

c)       King Henry VIII.

The correct answer is: c) King Henry VIII.

Method 1: Ruling out the correct answer for an irrelevant reason.

e.g. Hmmm. Well, Richard III was at the Battle of Bosworth. I know Henry VIII had six wives. So I’ll go for John!

Henry VIII did, indeed, have six wives. But he also dissolved the monasteries. He did both! However, this answer is still better than inexplicably ruling out the correct answer straight away for no reason at all which is also popular.

Method 2: Getting it right but for a stupid reason.

e.g. Well, King John was a fictional character in Robin Hood. And there has never been a King Richard of anything in England. So it must be Henry VIII!

This is equally irritating.

Method 3: The inexplicable loss of nerve.

e.g.  Well, I know the monasteries were a big issue under Henry VIII and he did act against them… But my instinct is telling me to go for b) King Richard III.

Method 4: Total guesswork.

e.g. I’ll go straight down the middle. B!

In fairness, this is understandable if the contestant really has no idea. And it sometimes works. But not this time…

And bear in mind, if it’s a History round, the question may well be based on subject matter which predates your own lifespan.

Saying “it’s before my time” is not an excuse!