Roger Law, co-creator of the cult British satirical puppet show Spitting Image, was in town last week to meet his “bastard children” – the puppets of the homegrown ZA News. REBECCA DAVIS spoke to Law and ZA News creator Thierry Cassuto about the state of the nation when it comes to satire and pushing establishment boundaries through humour.
Roger Law has a bushy white beard, broad shoulders, flashes of gold in his dental region, and swears with great fluency and verve. For all these reasons, there’s something piratical about him. One can just as well imagine him swinging a cutlass as delicately sculpting ceramics (his project for the last few years). When they started making Spitting Image for the BBC, he says, both he and co-creator Peter Fluck were viewed with suspicion “because we looked like the bloody Taliban!”
But that’s surely an anachronism of memory: this was, after all, 1984 in England, where the menace was closer to home than Afghanistan. Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was in power, and 1984 was the year when unemployment peaked at 3.3 million. It was also the year of the famous miners’ strike which was sparked by the closure of 20 state-owned coal mines. Under the leadership of controversial unionist Arthur Scargill, two-thirds of miners downed tools. Thatcher won – after a year the National Union of Mineworkers had to concede without a deal – and by 1992, 97 coal mines had been closed. The consequences were devastating, both for still-blighted communities in the North of England and the country’s industrial sector. It also crushed the power of the UK unions for almost a decade.
Law still can’t talk about Thatcher without almost visibly bristling, but then again he doesn’t like any politicians. “Thatcher was the revolution we promised ourselves. After that I was ready to vote Labour, and then we got Blair.” He practically spits the name out. “We had five f***ing wars with that man. Someone rang me up and said, ‘In your view, what’s Thatcher’s legacy?’ I said, ‘Tony f***ing Blair!’”
Watch: Spitting image – I did it my way
There are, obviously, weird echoes in the timing of Law’s visit to South Africa now, against the backdrop of the disputes in the mining industry and the Western Cape labour protests. No doubt these resonances will find their way into the product which is the purpose of his trip: Law was in town to record a documentary for BBC Radio 4 about ZA News, South Africa’s own satirical puppet show, whose existence Law discovered via the Internet.
“I was quite gobsmacked when I received an email from Roger, because we had never communicated before,” said ZA News creator Thierry Cassuto. “The makers of Spitting Image were like demigods to us. They inspired so many generations of producers and writers to dare to do similar shows.”
Spitting Image ran from 1984 to 1996, and at its peak attracted up to 16 million viewers. The Telegraph once suggested that the show “destroyed a whole generation’s respect for politicians”. Regardless of their status, public figures were mercilessly lampooned by Spitting Image. The British royal family also came in for a pasting, with the Queen Mother shown as secretly having a broad Northern accent and carrying out an affair with jockey Lester Piggott. Even Nelson Mandela was the butt of an ongoing joke parodying his saintly reputation, where he would offer to assist an old lady and then steal her watch, or try to sell her drugs.
The show was broadcast on a Sunday night weekly. “When Spitting Image was hot as mustard, they used to have video tapes biked over to the House of Commons that night,” Law remembers. “When you have more viewers per week than voted in the last general election, ghastly things start happening. Politicians started sending in their photos, asking when we’d make puppets of them. They’d rather be on it than not on it.”
Both Law and co-founder Fluck had a background in political cartooning for newspapers before the puppet show took off. “We knew what the rules were in print, but suddenly on TV we could do stuff we could never do in print.” He cites the example of a notorious skit they carried out with the puppets of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which spoofed a UK TV show called One Man and his Dog, featuring footage of a shepherd making his dog round up sheep. It was at the time in 1986 when Thatcher supported the US bombing of Libya.
“We had Reagan as the shepherd and Thatcher as the dog, eventually licking his arse,” Law said. “That was allowed on TV, but then when we wanted to have a still shot of that on the front of a publication, we couldn’t.”
Cassuto said he found this interesting, because in South Africa the situation was reversed. “In South Africa the print press is freer than either radio or TV broadcasters,” he said. “Zapiro and other cartoonists have actually been given quite a lot of freedom. But TV and radio are still dominated by a handful of main players. People complain that there’s no diversity in the press, but they should look at the broadcasters.” He says that this limited control of the sphere leads to conservatism in the products they put out. “Here everything is very controlled from the inside. They will check your scripts, your edits.”
In the 40-odd shows ZA News has delivered to broadcaster TopTV, however, Cassuto says they have never been asked to remove anything to do with editorial content. “And we have felt nervous at times,” he adds. “Maybe we haven’t pushed things far enough.”
Law says there were a few occasions when he felt the Spitting Image team might have crossed the line. “Puppets are very crude. If you’re going to do gags about someone getting thin, you’d better find out if they’re terminally ill first. We had a running joke about a guy being obsessed with his mother, and then we found out the mother had died. When it comes to things like that, I’ve had a few regrets. But not in political terms, never.”
In South Africa, satire can sometimes seem like a risky business. The president wanted to take our best-known political cartoonist to court. A painting which satirised the president’s sexual proclivities was defaced twice on the same day. If it was up to the head of the Communist Party, we’d have a law which made it illegal to insult the president. And that’s all in the space of a few months.
Law can’t say how far he would be willing to go to protect his right to freedom of expression when it comes to sature. “I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never been in prison.” Would he have been willing to go to prison for a Spitting Image sketch? He pauses. “I’m not sure. I met Zapiro the other day, I’ve met many other brave cartoonists, and I don’t know if any of them could answer that question. Then there’s also the fact that I’m merely on nodding terms with integrity.”
“Zapiro is incredibly strong,” confirms Cassuto. “Not only in the face of what’s been thrown at him from Jacob Zuma’s lawyers, but also from religious people after his Muhammad cartoon. When he feels that he’s doing his job, he’s incredibly stubborn and brave. And it’s not necessarily the threat of prison, but also bankruptcy, and dishonour. We have never been in that situation.”
That’s not to say, though, that the ZA News team hasn’t experienced some difficult decisions to make with regards to the satirical handling of recent events in South Africa. How do you make humour out of tragedy? “When Marikana happened, we spent many hours wondering how we could deal with this. Thirty-four workers mowed down by machine guns,” Cassuto says. Then they realised that they had an advantage the rest of the country lacked: they could summon the president – who was at that time almost totally silent – even if only in puppet form.
“Everybody wanted answers,” Cassuto said. So they ran a sketch which featured their TV presenter puppets – Tim Modise and Debora Patta – grilling Zuma about Marikana, but Zuma insisting only on “more mourning”, with his head bowed and hands folded, rather than responding to their queries. “In moments of crisis there needs to be a release, a pressure valve,” says Cassuto.
Watch: ZANews – Thelma & Louise (a.k.a. Helen & Lindiwe)
Law says that he finds the satirical scene in South Africa heartening. “What’s become clear is that how you deal with race is quite interesting. You don’t pussy-foot around it. Every country’s racist, and in England there’s a lot of mealy-mouthed political correctness these days.” He says he thinks that ZA News should be broadcast on a mainstream terrestrial TV programme to broaden its audience. “It’s not going to change anything,” he warns. “It won’t get rid of Zuma. We didn’t get of Thatcher.” But he sees it as a vital mechanism for exposing the frequent absurdities of the ruling class.
Of his time spent at the ZA News studio in Cape Town, Law says: “It was a bit of a shock to go back into a puppet workshop after all this time. I was high on those same chemicals for 13 years.” He says that conditions at the Spitting Image studio were, by today’s standards, quite brutal. “It was a sweat shop. People with mortgages and children left in droves. You didn’t even have time for a girlfriend. We’d get them to sleep under the benches after they finished work.”
By 1996 Law was sick of it. “Nobody was spared,” he said. “They made a puppet of me, and when I was away they used to use it for Eugene Terre’blanche.”
That brings me to the one question Law must know he’s coming to South Africa to face. In 1986, the Spitting Image team made a famous puppet music video for a song they wrote, titled I’ve Never Met a Nice South African. Among the lyrics: “I’ve met the King of China and a working Yorkshire miner/But I’ve never met a nice South African/And that’s not bloody surprising man/’Cause we’re a bunch of arrogant bastards/Who hate black people”. At the song’s end, the sole “nice South African” (for which they were clearly only considering white South Africans) is revealed to be Breyten Breytenbach: “Yes he’s quite a nice South African/And he’s hardly ever killed anyone/And he’s not smelly at all./That’s why they put him prison.”
The song was a critique of Apartheid (at a time when Thatcher was opposed to sanctions against the Apartheid regime). But the question remains to be asked: has Law changed his mind?
Law smiles and brings out a piece of paper. “I’m giving a lecture this afternoon, and I’m going to start it like this,” he says, and starts to read the first line. “Thank you for coming, I’ve never met so many nice South Africans!” And the satire-pirate roars with laughter. DM
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.