Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.
Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.
Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.
The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).
Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.
The Tories seemed to be doing rather well in 1987. Mrs Thatcher had beaten the unions, the Wets and the Argentines. She now seemed set to do the same for her third Labour electoral opponent, Neil Kinnock just as she had thwarted both Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot before. The economy was enjoying a brief economic boom. Thatcher, apparently invincible but not yet obviously unstable, looked unstoppable. The NHS, crime and homelessness figures were all far worse than they had been, but no one was worrying about this then.
Labour, though much more polished than in 1983, thanks to the red rose symbol and other behind the scenes innovations by the then largely unknown Peter Mandelson, were well on the road to becoming New Labour, this would propel it to a massive victory a decade later. But in 1987, the party still looked vulnerable as did the Alliance led by the “two Davids” Owen and Steel. In Peterborough, Brian Mawhinney seemed safe against his Labour foe Andrew MacKinlay (who would later be MP for Thurrock between 1992 and 2010).
But as Lt. Col. Oliver North frequently said in the Iran-Contra hearings at about this time: “I was not aware” of all these things.
I was ten. I was in my third year (that is, Year 5) of my Junior School. I liked Whizzer and Chips, Buster and Oink! comic (none of these are still going) and books like The Demon Headmaster and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler. I used to draw and write my own stories, sometimes in cartoon form, on Peterborough Development Corporation paper which my dad would bring home from work. He is retired now and the PDC no longer exists, so I hope my revealing this, doesn’t get him into trouble..
I liked riding my BMX round the park and swimming in the Regional Pool (not the Lido so much, as that was freezing). I could very nearly swim and cycle by 1987, though not simultaneously. I was never fat but disliked sport. I loved history. I was not the film buff I have become but I was already a big Blackadder fan, even though it was often unsuitable for a ten year old. I used to play very slow Atari 800XL computer games and fight with my younger brother (six). My older brother was just finishing his time at Reading University while my sister, just two months off being old enough to vote was then finishing her A levels.
This was the first election I was aware of. I was not hugely impressed by any of the parties and had not yet developed any feelings of loyalty towards them. I found Mrs. Thatcher’s affected way of speaking rather grating, as indeed my mother did and still does. But Neil Kinnock seemed boring when he appeared on Wogan. The Alliance roused no strong feelings within me either. I understood bar charts well enough from my Scottish Maths books to see that the Tories were going to win.
My third year teacher Mrs. Field (not her actual name) organised a mock election.The Tory candidate, a bright promising girl, was something of a favourite. As in all subsequent elections, I became emotionally involved but didn’t make a speech or do anything that involved work. Speeches were made by anyone, not just the three main candidates. I think the Tories would have won the mock election anyway but Mrs. Field was hardly an impartial arbitrator. Generally everyone made meaningless speeches e.g. “The Conservatives will build lots of houses” or “Look up “liberal” in the dictionary and it means…” or “Labour will make the schools better”. If someone spoke up for Labour though Mrs. Field would sometimes interject with something like: “but how will Labour pay for all this? With higher taxes!” Taxes sounded evil to our childish ears then. Even though, in retrospect, they might have got us a proper classroom rather than the mobile one we were then sat in.
These interjections prompted a few people to defect from Labour to Tory, ultimately pushing them into third place. The Labour candidate was a decent boy and a friend. I regret to say for the first and only time I VOTED CONSERVATIVE MYSELF.
Yes, I know it wasn’t a real election and I admitted it at the time before I did it. My family weren’t impressed, but knew I was only a child. In time, I would be the only one of us to become a Labour Party member. But in 1987 I probably just wanted to back a winner.
But I’m not proud of myself.
The Tories won a 100 seat majority nationwide and the first plans for the Community Charge were announced soon afterwards. John Major won Mawhinney’s neighbouring seat of Huntington for a third time too. He won his first position in Cabinet straight after the election, became Foreign Secretary and Chancellor in 1989 and finally Prime Minister just three years later in 1990.
The Tories won in the class Mock Election comfortably too, the Tory candidate later becoming an actress. Mrs. Field died about twenty years ago and most people involved, now like me, fast approaching forty, have probably forgotten about the school election completely.
But by the next election in 1992, I would be fifteen. Still not old enough to vote but by then firmly in the Labour camp.
2017 update: I no longer regret not voting for the Labour candidate. I’d not seen him in years and he recently put a horrendously racist joke on Facebook. I de-friended him.
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.
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.
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?