Spitting Image at the Cartoon Museum

The outside of the Cartoon Museum
The outside of the Cartoon Museum

Fans of puppets and political satire are in for a treat as the Cartoon Museum has opened a new exhibition celebrating the infamous television programme Spitting Image called Spitting Image: From Start to Finish. 

Spitting Image was notorious for its grotesque puppets as well as its (arguably) grotesque content: ‘tasteless’, ‘degrading’ and ‘twisted’ programme which ‘exceeded the bounds of decency’ were just some of the things said about it.

Naturally, it was hugely successful. It was on air from 1984-1996 and lasted an astonishing 18 series and 131 episodes.

Spitting Image: From Start to Finish
Spitting Image: From Start to Finish

Although political satire is nothing new for the Cartoon Museum, working with puppets presented an interesting challenge for a museum that is more used to dealing with pictures.

I had a chat with baker, museum educator and Cartoon Museum Volunteer, Eleanor about what it was like to put  Spitting Image: From Start to Finish together.

How long have you been with the Cartoon Museum now?
I’ve been volunteering at the Cartoon Museum for four years now and in that time I’ve done about 15 or 16 exhibition hangs, so I suppose you could say I’m a bit of a hanging day veteran now!
Hangs are usually just that, hanging pictures, how was this different? 

We’ve done a few hangs before which involved puppets and ephemera, particularly the Toy Tales exhibition a few years ago, but this exhibition certainly features a far more diverse range of objects than exhibitions I’ve helped hang in the past. Just in terms of the sheer number of things we have this time around it’s very different too.

The pictures are all huge and there are so many of them and we have almost all the puppets and a lot of other bits of Spitting Image merchandise on display too so there’s really a lot to look at this time!

I suppose the biggest challenge that presented was the logistics of displaying all of that. Of course Anita (the Curator) is a master at working these things out so she knew what she wanted, but displaying all the puppets in a way that really showed them off and made them seem as alive as they are on the show was definitely a challenge. We spent a lot of time moving them around and positioning them so they looked right.

I think it’s all paid off though, the exhibition looks great and it’s not every day you see Osama Bin Laden, the Queen Mother and Will Carling all in the same room.

It must have been an odd day, having effigies of Maggie, the Queen and Princess Di around you – what was the most surreal bit of the day?

Hanging days are always good fun and there’s always quite a few laughs, but it definitely was one of the more surreal hangs we’ve done. I think by the end of an 11 hour day surrounded by silicon effigies of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di we were all a little bit delirious!  

There was a particular moment when we were positioning the puppets that Osama Bin Laden ended up holding hands with one of the Queen’s servants.

Hanging pictures and realising that you’re just staring at Thatcher’s leather clad crotch was also quite a moment and, I did see Diana’s nipples when we were changing her shirt… sorry Di!

Thanks El.

The Cartoon Museum have been sharing pictures of the pre-set up on their facebook page which have been both amazing and unsettling in a way that only an effigy of the Queen wrapped in plastic can be.

Spitting Image puppet of Queen Elizabeth II via the Cartoon Museum
Spitting Image puppet of Queen Elizabeth II via the Cartoon Museum

See what I mean?

With all of this going on, I couldn’t not pop in and see it.

Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher (via Cartoon Museum)
Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher (via Cartoon Museum)

When I arrived at the Museum on a late Saturday afternoon -so late it was practically evening- the galleries were the most crowded I had ever seen them. Considering I volunteered at the place for just over 2 years, that’s saying something! It seems like there’s a certain draw to seeing an unflattering effigies of politicians and public figures.

The stars of the show are an unlikely triumvirate of figures; divisive former Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II and tragic-herione-cum-Queen-of-Hearts Diana, Princess of Wales. Albeit in puppet form, of course.

The notes were most enlightening. Louise Gold, a puppeteer who worked on the show revealed lots about the magnificent marrionettes, “They were designed to look great. They were heavy and the got heavier.”

The Maggie Puppet was used in every episode of the programme, and under such pressure, parts wore out. From the sounds of things, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spitting Image archives had a room that contained nothing but many, many copies of Margaret Thatcher’s head.

What an absolutely terrifying image.

Spitting Image Princess Diana, via Cartoon Museum
Spitting Image Princess Diana, via Cartoon Museum

Speaking of the archives, one would assume that all of these treasures would be kept safe forever. Alas, this isn’t always the case. In a story that could come straight out of a fairytale; the Princess was stolen.

Diana’s puppet ‘disappeared’ back in 2001. For six years her whereabouts were a mystery. It wasn’t until a chance sighting at a fair in 2007 was she restored to her rightful place. Her Knight in shining Armour was Kerry Taylor, an auctioneer.

There were a couple of things that really struck me about Spitting Image as I made my way through the exhibition.

The first being that the image of Maggie Thatcher as a dominatrix is one that I can never unsee no matter how much I try.

The second being how much the programme drew from existing satirical imagery, particularly politcal cartoons. 

Thirdly, people only put pen to paper when they’re really outraged. One particular highlight was the hate mail Spitting Image received, which ranged from the polite “This programme is in the worst possible taste” to the expletive-filled “You ignorant b******s are just p***-takers out of our country.”

Shockingly, none of it was written in green biro…

Spitting Image: From Start to Finish is on at the Cartoon Museum from 28th Feb- 8th June. 



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