In pictures: Spitting Image exhibition opens at Cambridge University Library
It was quite the cultural phenomenon back in the day and now the puppets and more from Spitting Image can be enjoyed all over again as the first full-scale retrospective opens at Cambridge University Library.
A grand and grotesque selection of puppets, sketches and letters of complaint – as well as the reaction of celebrities to their depiction on the show – are going on display at the library, the official home to the Spitting Image archive, which has been donated to Cambridge University Library under HM Government’s Cultural Gifts Scheme.
Open now and running until February 17, 2024, Spitting Image: A Controversial History is a free exhibition unravelling the history and legacy of the satirical puppet show, which was first broadcast in 1984, and the impact it had on British politics, culture and celebrity, for good and ill.
Going on display are puppets including Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother, as well as dozens of never-before-seen sketches, caricatures and other memorabilia drawn from the Spitting Image archive, the first sections of which arrived at the University Library in 2018, courtesy of series creators Roger Law and Peter Fluck.
The exhibition has also borrowed one of Margaret Thatcher’s famous handbags from the Churchill Archives Centre at the University of Cambridge, while other puppets going on display include Conservative Party grandees Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit (on loan from the Hyman Collection), as well as former England footballer Gary Lineker (on loan from the National Football Museum).
Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to read for the first time letters written by the political and celebrity ‘victims’ of the show who were encouraged to share feedback on their representation in its first two series.
Those who wrote about being immortalised by Spitting Image included Jeffrey Archer, Jimmy Hill, politicians Douglas Hurd and David Steel, as well as celebrity agony aunt Claire Rayner.
Dr Chris Burgess, exhibition curator and head of exhibitions and public programmes at Cambridge University Library, said: “Spitting Image revolutionised how royalty, politicians and celebrities were depicted and held to account.
“At its peak, 15 million people sat down at 10pm on a Sunday night to watch a show that became an icon of late 20th century television. No other post-watershed show could dream of such a viewership, let alone match it. This was a genuine phenomenon.
“Our exhibition also traces the history and future of satire, from James Gillray to modern satirical computer games.
“Spitting Image’s impact was significant and long-lasting but difficult to quantify. Experts suggest it didn't change the direction of elections, but did shape our view of politicians.
“It openly mocked the monarchy in a way not seen before by politicians and it reflected, encouraged and satirised the media’s obsession with celebrity.
“Our unflinching exhibition at Cambridge University Library explores each of these aspects of the show and questions what role humour and art can really play in speaking truth to power.”
Michael Clarke CBE, chair, acceptance in lieu panel, added: “I am delighted that the archive of Spitting Image has been acquired by Cambridge University Library through the Cultural Gifts Scheme.
“This brilliantly subversive series entered the national consciousness with its memorable portrayals, in puppet form, of many of the leading figures in British public life of the 1980s and 90s.
“The archive and current University Library exhibition – which includes contracts, production files and scripts from draft to broadcast – represents an invaluable resource for the study of British television satire, a genre that developed so vigorously from the early 1960s onwards.”
Spitting Image was nominated for nine BAFTAs (winning two) and four International Emmys (winning two). It also won a Grammy with Genesis in 1987 for Best Concept Music Video and launched the career of innumerable actors, satirists and voiceover artists who went on to become household names after their work on the show.
Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan, Paul Whitehouse, Alistair McGowan, Ian Hislop, John Sessions and Debra Stephenson all worked on the programme during its long run for Central Independent Television, as did Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor.
The original series ran from 1984-1996 but was brought back by BritBox in 2020 for two series and earlier this year (2023), a stage version hit the West End of London after opening in Birmingham.
The show was also the focus of a special 200th episode of The Reunion, recorded at the University of Cambridge ahead of the library exhibition.
Running alongside the Spitting Image exhibition, in the north and south galleries of the main library building, is a complementary exhibition about Cambridge’s famous Footlights – curated by three current members of the famous comedy troupe.
[Read more: Spitting Image archive comes ‘home’ to Cambridge]
As part of a wider series of events around Spitting Image: A Controversial History, the University Library is also hosting a series of talks, including one by series co-creator Roger Law. For more information, visit lib.cam.ac.uk.
Visit https://tickets.museums.cam.ac.uk/overview/7466 to book a free ticket to the exhibition.