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General Elections 2015: Spitting Image to the Rescue

Just when you thought the general election campaign needed a spark, an unseen hand to shake the main players out of their lethargy, up comes some very entertaining ghosts from the past. Those latex puppets that got 15m viewers glued to the television sets in the 80s and 90s are back again for a cameo role in a lacklustre election campaign devoid of characters, candour and colour.

Spitting Image was a British satirical show featuring puppet caricatures of prominent celebrities of the time, including international politicians and the British Royal Family, among others. The series was jettisoned in 1996, but remains a seminal piece of British television history. It has recently been announced that a brand new six-part series, entitled Newzoids and featuring modern-day personalities such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Russell Brand, will air in 2015.
After the demise of the original series, gallerist James Hyman began to acquire some of the most important puppets used in the show for his private art collection. A life-long fan of Spittng Image, Hyman believes that the life-size puppets should continue to be seen and enjoyed, and is delighted to be collaborating with photographers Anna Fox and Andrew Bruce to bring these politicians back into the public eye in an important election year.

Echoing the garish photographs made by Spitting Image creators Peter Fluck and Roger Law before Martin Lambie-Nairn approached them to suggest adapting their creations for television, Fox and Bruce spent weeks in the studio working with a selection of the original puppets, crafting these ominous images. Photographed either against brightly coloured neon backdrops or shrouded by darkness; each image depicts a former Tory party member. Rendered in extraordinary detail on large format film, at times stripped of their clothing, every mark on the latex or foam is made visible and accentuated, including signs of wear, fragility and decay.

Powerful line-up: Spitting Image had a knack of caricaturing politicians as no other show could

Powerful line-up: Spitting Image had a knack for caricaturing politicians as no other show could

The puppets thus become evocative emblems of a past era and a faded power. There is an awkward tension in these photographs between the puppets as depiction of people, as cultural icons and also as crumbling modern artifacts. Key works in the exhibition include Margaret Thatcher, her predecessor Edward Heath and successor John Major, and cabinet ministers Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit, Michael Heseltine, Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd.

Fox said of the photographic experiment: “Once we had them out of their packing cases, lying on the studio floor, the puppets looked broken, aged, decrepit and lacking any glimmer of life. The orange latex protruded pathetically from underneath their clothing as we re-arranged them on the stand. At one point, Norman Tebbit’s head came off as if he was being decapitated by some unknown force. The glamour faded, the sheen gone. Failed characters abandoned in storage… Spitting Image was a great show that was made, in the wake of Python, at a time when humour really could be outrageous. These puppets, imbued with satire, represented our most significant politicians at their worst… Now, like all political fortunes, we are left with the remnants of a different age.”

Larger than life: Late film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner reunited with his puppet

Larger than life: Late film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner reunited with his puppet

Andrew Bruce commented on the collaboration: “Several years ago I visited 10 Downing Street to help on a shoot creating a portrait of David Cameron for a Sunday supplement. Throughout the shoot we were constantly watched over, told what we could and couldn’t do; where David could stand, how we could light him, it seemed like we were puppets. And so years later, when myself and Anna posed Maggie, an upside-down tripod running up her back for support, we rearranged her hair, depressed the plunger controlling the angle of her eyes and I unbuttoned her blouse to take in the crumbling foam body that lay beneath – then I thought about that shoot at Number Ten.

“I was born in the final years of Thatcher’s government; born into a generation of politics that seems quite unrecognisable from that of the politicians whose puppets we photographed. Now in an era where satire has become dangerous and appearances are guarded and cultivated with a clinical level of precision, it seems more important than ever that we remember to probe the imagery of politics we are presented with every day.”

When Tarzan met Hezza: Former Tory Minister Michael Heseltine (left) was reunited with his alter ego at a celebrity farewell party

When Tarzan met Hezza: Former Tory Minister Michael Heseltine (left) was reunited with his alter ego at a celebrity farewell party

Hyman added: “One of my favourite pictures shows the puppets dumped in a pile on the floor as though ready to be swept away as garbage. But whilst it may be true that these puppets have lost some of their shine, through Spitting Image and now these remarkable photographs, these politicians have achieved a form of immortality.”

James Hyman Gallery, 16 Savile Row, W1

Monday – Friday 10.00-18.00, 22 April – 8 May 2015 

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