‘And what about the vegetables?’
This was the classic punchline in the memorable Spitting Image sketch regarding PM Margaret Thatcher’s attitude towards her cringing Cabinet.
Observing Boris Johnson’s current merry band of brothers and sisters, one would be tempted to wheel out the phrase plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the curious decision by ITV to resurrect Spitting Image for their new SVoD service BritBox.
Reading between the lines, I get the impression that the revived show was originally intended for the flagship ITV channel, but director of TV Kevin Lygo may have got cold feet (no pun intended) about its chances of finding an audience.
Whilst I wish the service the best of luck (and maybe I’ll be proved wrong), BritBox's first commission is something of a non-starter to my eyes.
The original series of Spitting Image (1984-96) was very much 'water cooler TV' before the term was in common use here, with audiences of 15 million at its height.
With only an estimated few hundred thousand subscribers*, there's no way it can perform this feat for BritBox.
Spitting Image was eventually canned when audiences declined and the 'talked about' factor ceased - although millions were still tuning in, far more than are likely to sample the SVoD service’s revival.
Lygo may have also considered the fact when looking for a home for the show that Spitting Image wannabes such as Newzoids, Headcases, 2DTV (ITV) and last year’s appalling Tonight With Vladimir Putin (BBC2) all failed to take off.
A resurrection of the brand leader can possibly cut through, but it could be absent at least some of the iconic vocal talent of Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, Chris Barrie, Kate Robbins, Jon Glover and John Sessions, who all graced the original incarnation of Spitting Image and contributed greatly to its popularity.
I can't see BritBox's 'comfort TV' audience of Midsummer Murders, Vera and Grantchester fans really clamouring for ‘the sharpest satirical wit’ promised by Reemah Sakaan, group director ITV SVOD and BB’s chief creative & brand officer.
Naturally the show will need to be filmed very close to release date to be topical, which I assume BritBox factor in as a way of selling it as ‘must-see’, although budget and promotion may be eye-watering for such a relatively low budget/audience service.
And if industry speculation is correct, ITV may wish to repeat Spitting Image close to the weekly SVoD drop, which will lessen any exclusivity and presumably put the kibosh on new episodes driving subscription to the service.
Still, ‘faint heart never won fair lady’ and all that.
Presumably, ITV hope clips of the new Spitting Image will go viral in the way of Saturday Night Live in the US, but many sketches geared to current events could very quickly become dated and overtaken by events, especially in today’s volatile 24/7 news and social media cycle, which the first iteration didn’t really have to contend with.
Whatever happens, the writing team will need to be razor sharp to deliver a genuinely funny topical comedy.
I suspect a war chest of sketches that are not directly related to the news of the week may have already been stocked up.
And finally; ITV will apparently be announcing ‘big and noisy’ originals to join Spitting Image on BritBox.
Let’s hope this isn’t ITV attempting to sell the sizzle, not the steak, the now defunct ITV Encore channel (2014-18) a relatively recent example of this approach by the broadcaster.
Stephen Arnell is a broadcast consultant
*no official figures have yet been released by ITV